Tonight’s show: Capitalism performing Democracy

Von Johan Varning Bendtsen

18.12.2012 /

At the annual shareholders meeting of the Daimler concern things were not like they used to be. The artistic label Rimini Protokoll used the event as a setting for exploring the space between reality and fiction and to uncover the orchestrated ‘democracy’ that big companies stage.

I talked to Stefan Kaegi, one of the three leading figures in the Berlin-based Rimini Protokoll, who describes the purpose of the, to say the least, different evening this way: ”The annual shareholders meeting is a chance to see capitalism perform live. The board makes it look like there is a certain democratic process going on and it seems shareholders are actually asked to participate in the discussion about the future of the company, but in the end who has the most shares will anyway decide.”
By inviting theatregoers and handing out information about the ‘starring roles’ of the shareholders meeting, Rimini Protokoll tried to point out the theatrical character of reality and expose how ’real’ life is sometimes much more of a staged theatre than the theatre world itself.
The annual shareholders meeting of the Daimler concern was not the first time that Rimini Protokoll highlighted some, in their opinion, overlooked issues of the society. And neither the first time they did it through audience participation and in a way that includes the ’issues’ within the theatre itself. But how is a ’play’ like the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’ prepared and carried out? How does Rimini Protokoll explore the sphere between reality and fiction?

A staged reality

Oscar Wilde once said: “Paradoxically though it may seem, it is nonetheless true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
The quote seems to encapsulate the creative and philosophic baseline for Rimini Protokoll and their work with the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’. Through the planning of the event they worked their way further into this interesting and partially provoking paradox.
Months before the event, Rimini Protokoll began buying Daimler shares. Not to become shareholders, but to be able to let theatregoers get an insight in the undemocratic processes at Daimler and shareholders meetings in general. Remarkably, without letting the company in on their plan. As the time of the event came closer, Rimini Protokoll stepped up the work and went public with their cause. Stefan Kaegi explains: “We announced the event in a theatre’s programme. Audience needed to book tickets two weeks in advance so we had time to buy shares and find shareholders that were willing to donate their invitations to the annual meeting to our audience. So we could grant access for about 200 theatre-goers to see the show.”

"The annual shareholders meeting is a chance to see capitalism perform live. The board makes it look like there is a certain democratic process going on and it seems shareholders are actually asked to participate in the discussion about the future of the company, but in the end who has the most shares will anyway decide."

After the announcement of the play, the Daimler concern became suspicious. The approach to theatre that Rimini Protokoll uses implicates quite an intervention in reality – and in this case the very heart of the business world. This kind of intervention can cause seriously impact on, for example, the media-coverage of a certain company. And Rimini Protokoll is willing to take far-going steps in search of challenging existing world-views – the most noble role of art some would say. But according to Stefan Kaegi, the Daimler concern had nothing to fear: “We told them we only come and watch. What you (the Daimler concern, red.) do is theatre enough. Through this ‘lens’, the shareholders’ meeting is revealed as what it is – comparatively undisguised: a production. The self-presentation ritual of a corporation, with the ineluctable insight that ‘Life’ is bigger than ‘Theatre’.”
The shareholders meeting – and the play – was accomplished and became a success to Rimini Protokoll. At least judged on the amount of media coverage: “Because of us a lot of theatre critics came to see the Daimler Show and reported about it in the cultural segment of their newspapers. That went along with a general feeling that we live in a society where our elected politicians have less power than CEOs like Mr. Zetsche.”
Rimini Protokoll had achieved their goal – to cause attention to yet another, in their opinion, overlooked issue of society. And once again they had challenged the conventions of theatre through their use of the sphere between reality and fiction.

Rimini Protokoll – a different approach to the ’theatre of life’

The Swiss/German artistic label consists of the instructors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel. It was formed around 2000 in Giessen, Germany. They are often mentioned as the inventors and leaders of a new wave of documentary theatre known as ’Reality Trend’ – a theatre movement that has exerted a powerful influence on the alternative theatre scene all over Europe. Particularly, due to the wily use of audience participation.
Their dramatic works often take place in the sphere between reality and fiction and they have performed on some of the biggest stages around the world. Their focus is though not on the scenes of acknowledged theaters, but the scenes of reality. Just like the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’.
The original approach to the theatre genre – and their way of exploring and analyzing the reality – has cost lots of national as well as international attention and approval. Rimini Protokoll has received awards and prizes like the Jury Prize at the Politik im Freien Theater Festival, Mülheimer Dramatiker Prize, and in 2011 they were awarded the Silver Lion of the 41th biennale of Venice, a prize established to honour new theatrical realities.
Based on the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’ there seems to be a strong political dimension in the work of Rimini Protokoll. But that is not necessarily true. They refuse to characterize their work as directly political theatre, but on the other hand they stress the focus on the ’silenced’ parts of the society.
In the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’ the focus was on the lack of democracy in the so-called ‘democratic´ processes of big companies. Other projects focus upon the issues of out-sourced jobs in the East. Their upcoming project is about the weapon industry, which according to Stefan Kaegi, involves a swiss air-defence-manager, a german police-trainer, a pakistani weaponsmith, an african refugee, a french safety-vest-seller, a european soldier in Afghanistan and a columbian gunman. ”They (swiss air-defence-manager, the german police-trainer etc.) will be protagonists that allow you to understand economy from a very subjective point of view without losing the bigger picture.”

A theatre without actors

One of the main characteristics of the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’, and the work of Rimini Protokoll in general, is the innovative use of audience participation. As previous stated, the genre is often referred to as a new form of documentary theatre – Reality Trend – distinguished by so-called ’theatre of experts’. ’Theatre of experts’ is a theatre of performers who are not professional actors, but experts or specialists out of their particular spheres of life. A kind of ’professionals of a theatre of the real world’. Sometimes paid, sometimes volunteering, sometimes unaware.
As mentioned earlier, Rimini Protokoll handed out information about the script as well as the different ’characters’ of the ’play’ at the Daimler shareholders meeting. For example “Dr. Dieter Zetsche as Chairman of the Board of Management” among the starring roles as well as the ”8 to 10,000 participants as attending shareholders.” In other projects Rimini Protokoll have let the audience follow Bulgarian truck drivers from Copenhagen to Sofia, used a callcenter in Calcutta, India, to guide audience through Kreuzberg in Berlin and in general explored the possibilities of theatre on stage as well as off stage.
The main idea is to challenge and turn around the usual spectacles through which theatre is often seen and present the imperfect reality instead of the perfect fake. Stefan Kaegi elaborates: ”We believe that theatre can be a tool to analyze reality. We often work with experts who are not actors on stage to talk about complex topics like weapon trafficking or outsourced call centre industries.”

"Because of us a lot of theatre critics came to see the Daimler Show and reported about it in the cultural segment of their newspapers. That went along with a general feeling that we live in a society where our elected politicians have less power than CEOs like Mr. Zetsche."

Audience participation in theatre is of course nothing new. Long time ago, the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti came up with adventurous proposals for turning theatregoers into cast members. Nevertheless, the use of audience participation has taken Rimini to a new level in the world of theatre and simultaneous brought about quite some creative opportunities. Not least according to the interest of fiction versus reality, which is a general theme in most of Rimini’s work.
Through the use of everyday-experts instead of ’real’ actors the approach to exploring of reality quite follows the tradition of philosophic phenomenology. Classic figures like Edmund Husserl stated that the path towards a cognition of reality goes through the subjective experiences of the individuals. The informants are here perceived as ’experts on their field’ – just like in the work of Rimini Protokoll.
But Rimini takes it one step further. Actually you could say that they adopted one of the main aims of the Frankfurt School and the related Critical Theory. Critical Theorists work towards enlightening and emancipation. When Rimini Protocoll tries to expose and highlight some of the overlooked issues of modern society, it kind of looks like an emancipatorical aim as well. They are not trying to fight the lack of democratic legitimacy in the businessworld themselves – instead they are pointing out the issue for the sake of people to take their own positions towards the issue.

Defenders of the overlooked or negligible mayfly

When Rimini Protokoll consider themselves as agenda-setters of the overlooked issues of society it often implies some more or less delicate actions towards, for example, big companies. Does the fact that Rimini Protokoll intervenes in different parts of the society – and different spheres of the reality might as well – leave them with a responsibility towards, for example, the Daimler-concern? Or is it actually fully ’legal’ actions if the exposing of lacking democracy in the business-world causes (or forces) the ’targets’ to consider some kind of improvement towards the issue. A service towards democracy?
If the work of Rimini actually transforms the ’staged’ democracy in annual shareholders meetings to a more transparent and genuine democratic process, which lives up to the democratic legitimacy it actually pretends, then you could probably say that justifies it. But is it realistic to expect a notable effect or change of Rimini’s work?
A play like ’The Annual Shareholders Meeting’ probably would not change anything isolated. But it can potentially create a snowball effect, which can cause more serious impact on the business world if the media and public in general pick up the agenda. And according to Stefan Kaegi there were signs of that in the aftermath of the play: “… a lot of economics-journalists took the chance to take a step backwards and look at the highly artificial and secluded world in which they move about from a broader perspective.”
Whether there will be a significant change in the structure of the business world, caused by the work of Rimini Protokoll, is doubtful. Whether their innovative approach to theatre, as a tool to analyze reality, contains a massive potential of exposing issues of society is absolutely clear. And finally it is certain that a play like the ’Annual Shareholders Meeting’ represents a new and refreshing way of grasping the surrounding society – in a way which fully lives up to the ideal of Francois Sagan, who once quoted that: ”Art must take reality by surprise.”

Johan Varning Bendtsen is stud. cand. comm. at Roskilde University.