Other People Live: Rimini Protokoll and their ‘Theatre of Experts’

By Peter M. Boenisch

01.02.2008 / Contempory Theatre Review

ABSTRACT This interview with the German collective Rimini Protokoll and their core members Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel, and Stefan Kaegi, discusses their innovative ‘Reality Theatre’ pieces in which they work exclusively with amateur performers they refer to as ‘experts’. The talk explores both their site-specific-type work such as Cargo Sofia, devised around two (real) Bulgarian truck drivers, as well as their recent work on textbased material, as in their productions of Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein and Karl Marx’s Capital. They discuss their working methods, inspirations, and dramaturgic approaches, and give insights into how they avoid exhibitionism and dilettantism in working with their ‘experts’, as well as addressing the political undertones of their works. Finally, Rimini Protokoll reflect on their own status as a nomadic collective without a designated homebase, and the latest embracing of their work by institutionalized theatres who have begun to coproduce and commission their unique projects.

Performances by Rimini Protokoll are as unusual as the name of this three-person collective which has inspired contemporary theatre with genuinely innovative performance formats. Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel, and Stefan Kaegi have already created nearly fifty of their unique ‘Reality Theatre’ pieces, mainly in the German-speaking countries, but also internationally in Brussels, Brazil, India and elsewhere. Collaborating as nomads with no designated theatre as a base, no office, even living themselves in separate countries (Germany, Greece, Switzerland), they use their suggestive but elusive label ‘Rimini Protokoll’ to brand work in various constellations – working alone, as a duo, or all together, and then again with other artists. Equally fluid are their performances: having met while studying theatre in the early 1990s at Gießen university, they began bending concepts of sitespecific, audio-based performances and verbatim theatre to challenge fundamental conventions of performance and representation. They have, for instance, used guinea pigs (sic: the animals!) rather than actors for a show in Vienna. In 2002, they made nationwide headlines with Deutschland 2, created in the country’s former capital of Bonn: volunteers from the public lip-synched their elected political representatives as they (re)played a debate that was taking place simultaneously in the new Bundestag in Berlin. Notoriously, Wolfgang Thierse, then President of the German parliament, prevented the performance at short notice from being staged at the actual abandoned parliament building at Bonn.
In Cargo Sofia (2006), Rimini Protokoll sent their audiences on journeys in a converted truck steered by two (real) Bulgarian truck drivers who, for about two hours, shared their world and life on the road. Lately, Germany’s subsidized theatre sector has started to commission and co-produce projects with this inventive trio from the theatre’s fringe. Consequently, they also began working with text-based material as well: in 2005, they ‘directed’ Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein in their own way. While the performance mirrored exactly the dramaturgical line of the original play, following its plot, entrances and exits, not a single line of it was
spoken. The characters were not performed by actors, but by ‘real people’ who instead told their own, real life stories – such as a former politician who had been stabbed in the back by his own party; a former policeman from East Germany who, back in the GDR, had become the victim of a ruthless political intrigue exploiting a private relationship; an old gentleman remembering reading Wallenstein sixty-five years ago in school, on his way into war as the Nazi-Wehrmacht recruited in the nation’s classrooms; and a soldier sharing his horrific memories of the 1990s Balkan atrocities. Their genuine biographies echoed the fictional biographies and plot-lines of Schiller’s bloodsoaked war drama in often stunning ways.
In 2007, Rimini Protokoll were then (very likely) the first company ever to stage Karl Marx’s Capital – creating a (kind of) drama awarded with the Mu¨lheimer Theaterpreis for the year’s best piece of new writing in German. Again, on stage there were – according to the group’s key principle – no actors, but exclusively ‘experts’, as they refer to them: in this case, for example, the editor of the lavish GDR-edition of Marx’s collected works; a former radical turned highly-paid business consultant; a youthful activist of the German Marxist Party; and, for sure, a proper proletarian of the early twenty-first century. During the performance, a chorus of voices unfolded as the performers read the occasional paragraph from Marx’s original, but most of the time told stories from their own biographies. As an effect, the audience began actually to sense what used to be no more than abstract Marxist terminology: the performers truly embodied these ideas and breathed some astonishing sense and some frightening life into notions such as exchange value, alienation, class struggle, surplus value, and accumulation of capital with their ‘real’ narratives.
In the following, the three members of the Rimini collective talk about and reflect on their means and relations of production. It is an abridged, edited and translated version of an interview conducted in May 2007, during rehearsals for their piece about Friedrich Du¨rrenmatt’s play The Visit staged at Schauspielhaus Zu¨rich.2

Peter M. Boenisch: Let’s start with Das Kapital – one of those books everyone has probably heard of at some point. In your production, you don’t adapt the book, you don’t stage it, it’s not a play about Marx, and it isn’t an introduction to Marxist theory either, so what did you do? Could you explain your way of making theatre with this example?
Helgard Haug: Das Kapital is indeed quite good in this regard, insofar as the gap is so wide: it’s a theoretical text that doesn’t lend itself to the stage at all. Therefore, it must be over-written with biographies or with other points of entry to, in this case, a book, and in our other pieces often to a topic or an event. It is still somewhat untypical of our work, since it is only our second text-based project. Daniel and I previously staged Schiller’s Wallenstein and decided to go a step further: to an even larger text that really put us out of our depth.
Daniel Wetzel: Very often in our work, the result mirrors the trajectory of our research in a certain way. With Wallenstein, the question was: can you deal with dramatic texts in a different way from embodying them on stage? Can’t you seize the drama by the scruff of its neck? – the fact that you identify with a character in the play and therefore want to follow its story; that it tells you something because something has happened in your own life that makes you connect to it. We experimented with this very connection and said, let’s get rid of this whole process of actors performing a text so that people in the audience can relate to it – let’s put the people from the audience on stage and work with them on this connection: what do you have to do with this Wallenstein? Are you the one who wields the dagger or are you the victim?
HH: So, in the beginning there are always a lot of conversations. We meet as many people as possible who have a relationship to the given topic, and then we try to gather as diverse a group as possible and it’s with them that we start to work.
PB: But how do you shape this research into a piece of theatre; what kind of dramaturgical ‘rules’ do you use?
DW: In earlier projects that dealt with social processes – for example, with the role of death in our society, or criminal trials – we used the inherent dramaturgy of the spaces where they take place: a trial follows a given pattern, or in the piece Deadline there is a dramaturgy that everyone knows, that of a funeral; it became the frame that helped us to communicate that tangle of material. When we start with texts and claim to stage them, we are stimulated by the dramaturgy they suggest: a sequence of events, a schedule according to which we can try to assemble the material. For Das Kapital, we soon found out that it didn’t make sense to follow it chapter by chapter, but now working on Du¨rrenmatt’s play The Visit, things find their place quickly as they connect to individual acts.
PB: You mention spaces play a central role, but then there are also memories, experiences and biographies. How did they figure in Cargo Sofia, which Stefan created with two Bulgarian truck drivers?
Stefan Kaegi: The odd thing about these spaces is that they are the opposite of ‘site specific’. We have driven through fifteen European cities so far, most recently Dublin and Madrid, and we find spaces which are outwardly different but look uncannily the same: they have all been designed in such a way that allows you to easily reverse your forty-ton lorry, to load or unload, or to heat up the tinned food you’ve brought along from Eastern Europe because you can’t afford the food in the West. The question the piece poses is how these places affect the performers; what it means not to be home for three, often four weeks. They have thus become specialists on Europe – but not the Europe you find in a tourist guide: they rave about particular service stations in the South of France they think are great. When I think of the South of France, the last thing
that comes to mind are service stations! So you realize that for them Europe is a purely functional space – not a historical one, nor a space to see the sights. It’s a space that is user-friendly in its own way – and now the powers that be are widening the roads in Eastern Europe so they’re just as ‘user friendly’, because a certain lobby’s pushing for it.
PB: But how did you create a piece with foreign truck drivers who have never acted before – how did you cast’ these guys, for a start?
Stefan Kaegi: It was totally straightforward: I put an ad in a magazine where freight companies look for drivers. I was simply after people who were licensed to drive a truck as well as passengers. I then started to explain – we always try that, but people never understand: not because they are truck drivers, but because everyone’s taken aback when you ask them to talk about their lives in a performance. I guess it only ever works through personal chats: they find it interesting, or find us likeable people, so they start to trust us and say they’ll turn up, even without being that clear about what we want from them.
PB: This aspect is very interesting: it seems to tie in with the popularity of ‘Reality TV’, but then again you work with people who precisely don’t want to be in the spotlight at all. How do you treat these people so that the theatre that’s made avoids exhibitionism and dilettantism?
HH: First of all, they don’t really believe that they’ll truly end up in a performance, and are thoroughly amazed when they get their contracts. But the more you engage with them and their stories, or aspects of their biography, the more they are genuinely interested as well, and somewhere along the line, they’re fascinated by the apparent impossibility of making a piece of theatre out of something like that. Sure, as the premiere approaches, there are a lot of questions and a lot of crises. But we don’t have the same magic wand to wave from project to project; in the first place, different people have different needs. How do you have to talk to them, how do you have to work with them so that they feel at ease, and what rules of the game are we able to devise to address this in the performance?
DW: Another important aspect is that they bring these rules with them, or they generate them themselves, perhaps not consciously. We call them ‘experts’ – there is all that writing about ‘amateurs’ in our work, but for us they are experts: on the one hand because they know something we’re interested in, or because they embody a certain part of society, a certain profession, or a certain competence, which has moulded them, which
informs their thinking and even the way they look. On the other hand, they all have their individual quirks: can they remember a text, can they walk on a stage, and so on. This continually creates new tasks for us – but we never teach them how to make theatre. We never make them do theatre exercises, none of the breathing or relaxation stuff. Actually, we’re very interested in the resistance they bring to the conventions of performance, often quite unconsciously. I found it hilarious to watch these two in Cargo Sofia: the performers sit on their seats in the front and drive you round, and only a window separates you. And you realize
they have gone through a certain training process, simply because for once they’re not driving toilet paper or sides of beef around; their freight looks at them – and they have to tell these sides something about themselves! They have found a wonderful way to make you sense that it’s actually a bit of a pain for them, and that dead cows have great advantages over spectators. It’s become part of the game: okay, I have to do
what the Art demands, but then Art allows me to drive around and have other people watch me at work – which, I believe, most people find very enjoyable.
PB: But as you perform projects over months in various places, don’t the people at some point become characters, in a way?
SK: At some point they get a good idea of the performance, and the more they perform, the more they realize the effects of what they say, and what they’re representing – we don’t tell the whole life of our performers, but focus with each project on a very specific aspect, and perhaps another couple of facets enter but not many more. Occasionally it happens that they begin to exaggerate their role a little; or they start to see it as a platform they can put to use for their own ends – like a woman who was taking part in our last piece here in Zurich, clearly because she runs an internet agency for women from Russia who want to marry in Switzerland . . .
DW: . . . but her entrepreneurial shrewdness was part of the performance. You could tell from the start that she wasn’t taking part out of some interest or other in theatre. We trained her to avoid giving in to this impulse, so that she was not just a salesperson looking for clients, but made this accessible for people who watched her from the perspective which the production offered.
PB: So how do you write the texts for your experts? Are they all original scripts? Do you transcribe your initial conversations, or the rehearsals? And to what degree do you edit the documents?
DW: We do the lot: there’s a really broad range of techniques we use. With some people, it’s just fabulous: you explain what interests you, you perhaps tell them a meaningful and reasonably quick way to plough through what they might speak about – and they just do it. Others say, let’s write down exactly what I’ll say, then I’ll learn it off by heart – and then find themselves in the hell of self-representation as they realise ‘my own words which I’ve once spoken now fall from my mouth like literature and I’m supposed to recite them’. Between these extremes, we try to find techniques which scrape off as little as possible of the liveliness of their telling. Actually, it’s quite a paradoxical structure.
SK: We treat them as co-authors at the point where we agree what they are prepared to tell from their lives. You always have to find out what’s possible together, and you have to work on the choices you make together. Otherwise, after three or four performances, they’ll just start finding their own way of doing it after all, and become weaker performers. They absolutely have to want to do what they do up there, regardless of the fact that we pay them money.
PB: I find there’s another fascinating aspect to your work, that an unconscious description of the political situation accompanies many of your projects: with the Eastern European truckers, who tell the spectators that they earn about 200 pounds a month; in Call Cutta (2004), a performance through Berlin, people were guided via their mobile phones by call centre agents in India; in Sabenation you worked with people made redundant as the Belgian airline Sabena went bust, but also in Das Kapital. In all of these pieces, issues of neo-colonialism, outsourcing, globalization or unemployment are the elephants in the room.
HH: When exploring topics such as globalization, one can quickly create victims. I don’t think I’d go to a theatre performance about globalization because I’d be too worried about sweeping simplifications. I do find it, however, quite important to use the means of globalization to create a project. But it’s about people who speak about themselves, not victims. Along the way you learn and experience a lot, but first and foremost, people are talking to each other, you make contact: they can talk about themselves, they are not just a number, or a news item. I think it’s essential to think small, to bring it back to the individual. That’s how it can become political.
DW: I also find that the political element in these projects is a kind of disorientation. We agree when working together that there’ll be no statement, no message, no stance with respect to the topic in hand. In our piece with the unemployed, in Call Cutta, but also in the Marx project, which are three projects that really advertise this suspicion of being political, the exciting thing is that while seeing the project, and thinking about it afterwards, once people have seen it, it’s simply not possible to make a statement. People who may be far off your political radar, or have surprising political views, come very close and you can’t maintain your usual clear distance.
PB: You could do many things with the material and the people you unearth – a documentary, a book. Yet you always go for live performance in front of an audience, whether this audience consists of only one person at a time as in Call Cutta, or of a whole audience in a traditional theatre. Why is this the medium you find most suitable for your aims?
HH: A key aspect, I think, is that it brings so many conventions with it. I do find those projects of ours which are different every night most exciting – at the moment, we’re planning a piece where the news of the day become the basis for the evening’s performance, and we create a performance structure which organizes this. Talking about our work, I find the word ‘organization’ seems to be very important, whereas the actual content may be new every time – some stays, other bits disappear again. The most fascinating thing theatre can achieve, where it makes sense, is when there’s a shared experience in a space, like in this project, that it’s not about the news of the day that I could watch on TV, but that I can see how it affects people, that I realize the different meaning it has when the person on stage talks about it, as opposed to the person sitting behind the desk. Or how it’s received in the auditorium – where does it strike a chord, where does it set something off? Maybe a gallery could achieve the same, or we could invade a museum. It comes down to knowing the conventions of a space: then it’s fun to attack them, reformulate them, manipulate them, or even to respect them. We have a red curtain here in Zurich and we will make use of it with great pleasure.
DW: Even in the one-to-one encounters of Cameriga, which we made in an abandoned office block in Riga and two people came in for appointments in six-minute slots with someone who would stand in the office he had left two years ago and told them where the desk stood, when the things were packed away in boxes, what the work was like, and the rest – these people somehow became performers of themselves. You realized a structuring moment that contains an aspect of representation that arises in personal encounters, and that doesn’t need the whole machinery of theatre to resonate. There were funny moments when the egg timer rang after six minutes – and people began to applaud! There was one person in front of the other clapping [laughs]! You realize that theatre is in both their minds: I’m the spectator and am not allowed to speak, but you
have to, we look each other in the eyes, but afterwards the applause helps to close or clap away the artificial distance of this encounter.
PB: It’s hard to categorize your work – there are many elements in there: site-specific theatre, verbatim theatre, it’s also often been described as ‘new documentary theatre’. What inspired you and what was driving you when you got together and formed Rimini Protokoll?
HH: I think that we originally shared a huge distance to ‘theatre’, a critical perspective towards it. For the three of us, it was never part of the plan to do productions in a Schauspielhaus, on a large stage.
DW: Well, it still feels awkward. We recently met Claus Peymann who talked to us as if we were properly younger colleagues – but I found there were very few things we had in common that we could actually share. I didn’t feel like a colleague at all. I thought that if he’s a theatre director, then I can’t possibly be one!
SK: Our slight amazement at the machinery, and even at the very idea of theatre, is perhaps the one thread that runs through our projects. We don’t sit there like Peymann, we pop ourselves down next to the spectators and say, ‘look what we’ve found – isn’t that strange?’ Rather than a big thesis or an opinion, we prefer this sense of astonishment.
PB: But recently, more and more traditional theatre institutions have embraced you, have commissioned and co-produced your projects.
SK: I think we’re at a moment where even the subsidized Schauspielha¨user realize that they have to connect more directly with the city, with the people they are supposed to work for, and they somehow use us to this end.
HH: . . . and, of course, we use them, too, because we have decided against institutionalizing ourselves.
DW: If we were an English company, we would perhaps have institutionalized ourselves, just like Gob Squad or Forced Entertainment, because there, such alternative institutions are needed. The strict separation of theatre institutions and the experimental fringe there reminds me of Germany in the 1970s – but since then, it’s all happened here already. And nowadays, some of these alternative institutions have become the most conservative forces in German theatre!
PB: So how do you function as a nomadic collective – after all, you live in different countries! How do you decide what to do next, which project to embark on, and who of you will get involved?
HH: The only response I can come up is that it’s quite diffuse.
DW: But positively, you could describe it as productive chaos. At every turn, we try to avoid setting up and making use of organizational structures. We don’t function like a magazine that has to bang out a new issue every month, which is new but also recognizably the same. So far, it’s been totally different with every project, especially around the question of why it should be happening now. Also, the way we work and rehearse is
constantly evolving. It may even be that two years down the line we’ll review our work with ‘experts’ and they’ll never be mentioned again.