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Addressing politics and stereotypes through theatre (during a pandemic)

A review of POSTWEST // guess where. An online cultural festival organised by the Volksbühne theatre. Berlin, Germany, 2020.

September 3, 2020 - Kamil Jarończyk Nataliya Parshchyk - Books and ReviewsIssue 5 2020Magazine

The Volksbühne theatre in Berlin has recently gathered 12 theatres from ten, mostly eastern, European countries to perform their plays which they had created specifically for this event. As with many artistic events, the COVID-19 pandemic not only changed the date of the POSTWEST festival but also moved it online.

It was a tough decision, as we learnt from the organisers and participants in a video performance called Something Digital, which was prepared by Teatrul Tineretului from the north-eastern Romanian city Piatra Neamț. As the viewers of all performances, we would nonetheless like to express our appreciation to the organisers’ efforts that the festival still took place this summer, which is proof of their recognition that art in general and theatre in particular is the first to reflect and react to social processes. Clearly, in one year’s time the festival would have been a totally different experience.

The spirit remained

During three days in June, from the 24th to 26th, the artists gathered at the POSTWEST festival which presented to the worldwide audience live online performances, videos, audio recordings and discussions. It was thanks to these that “the spirit of the festival remained, despite the hybrid version of performances,” as Adam Reichardt, editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and one of the official commentators of the event, said in a discussion with the artists and viewers.

The online format was also not that much of a weakness as indeed the artists managed to express as many emotions in their online performances as they would on a traditional stage. In addition, as a virtual event the festival became available to an even larger audience who could watch it free of charge at the time of the actual performance and after. As Alina Aleshchenko, the curator of this cultural event, assured, all performances, which altogether lasted for more than 72 hours, will be available for free in an archive.

Launching the festival was ZoomTime [SMUTA], by the Kyiv DAKH Center of Contemporary Art. From the first performance, POSTWEST showed how spectacular and gripping live online performances can be. Each theatre had its own way of depicting their productions. Smuta, for example, was created through more traditional approaches, where the accent was put on dramaturgy aligned with bright heroes’ characters. This play depicts such figures from Russian history as Boris Godunov, Ivan the Terrible, False Dmitry, Marina Mniszech and others, as they were implemented into current times. Namely, the actors wore modern clothes and – because of the COVID-19 reality – were performing separately, each from their own homes. “The state never helps our theatre, therefore we do not wait and always try to find solutions, we have to be flexible,” said Vlad Troitsky, DAKH’s director. Troitsky said he chose the time of Smuta as the main theme for his play because it shows some semblance to today’s situation, namely a change from what was known before and a reconsideration of previous values.

Theatre and film

Regardless of the year they were established, every theatre that took part in POSTWEST excels with innovative methods and contemporary production. For example, the Volksbühne Berlin theatre, the oldest at the festival, used a mutual platform for their performance. With well-suited background music, post production and switching locations of scenes, Hammer&Spiegel (Mirror) adopted mixed features of both theatre and film. The play Cannon Fodder by KatlZ from Riga had a playground for actresses with scenography elements and unusual visual looks on the audience’s screens. Other performances like The Return of Karl May (Entertaining play for the German people) by Qendra Multimedia & National Theatre of Kosovo, Date an Eastern European by STEREO AKT, and A Different Kind of White by Vaba Lava ironically displayed the relations between West and East Europeans. This subtle and latent combination of theatre and cinematography is only possible in a digital format. The Romanian production POSTWEST – something digital has the attributes of a documentary, with a video collage and so-called “Google translator voice” (which gives the information a more global form), and reveals the poignant facts about the ongoing European crisis.

POSTWEST also had plays without visualisation. They focused exclusively on sound effects that bring complementary sensual perception. Man from Fish: Voices by Jaunimo Teatras in Vilnius represented a plexus of Lithuanian and German languages which embody the curious game of women’s voices creating a clamour and chaos full of anxiety, loneliness, but meanwhile love and freedom. The quality of recording amazes with its clarity and reality. Overall, the use of language occupied an important role at this festival as it has a political and cultural connotation. Another play, Looks Like You’re Going To Die, by the New Theatre Institute of Latvia is an audio walk. It consists of various natural sounds, such as the wind or relaxing sea which are accompanied with actors’ whispers, steps and interesting reflections. Fantasising, the listeners wander among memories and diverse European cities.

We are here for you. Discussion on The Heroes of Capitalist Labor by Saša Uhlová strikes with its transparency in the way of receiving information. The Czech play is represented as an interview of three people – a theatre director, a political scientist and a writer on whose book the whole discussion is based. The POSTWEST festival also had in the programme a collective of live performances like Maria Klassenberg. Home choreographies by TR Warszawa. Together with the creators through the neat instructions and corresponding cyclic monotone tune, the audience could experience their boundaries and get a fresh perspective on their bodies, which have been staying in isolation already for a while.

The idea of Tanya’s Birthday. Berlin, a production by Ģertrūdes ielas teātris, consists of the unpredictable plot direction since not only did the audience observe the performance but also actively participated in it sharing their thoughts on certain issues related to identity of the region and memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each performance of Tanya’s Birthday was different, depending on the people who took part in it.

Consequently, in spite of all fears and disappointments which theatre makers were expecting, they have nonetheless come out with beneficial collaborations that generally is the main reason for conducting international festivals in the first place. POSTWEST definitely did its best given the current situation and created opportunities for future trans-border projects. “I would really love to visit the other theatres and see what they are doing,” concludes Florian Hein, a director of Hammer&Spiegel (Mirror).

East in focus

Why is POSTWEST primarily about the East? We see this through their choice of groups, 10 eastern theatrical teams and only one German. The inclusion of a German group may seem strange at first but arguably, since the incorporation of East Germany, it’s a mixture of East and West. There really was no theme that was imposed on the creators and the performances varied widely in presentation and topic. But one could see a certain pattern that was visible throughout many of the plays exposing the nature of Eastern Europe. For example there was the topic of privatisation and its consequences in Romania and how even during the pandemic Bucharest was enveloped by unbearable fumes and no one was certain where it came from. It turned out it was the smell of burning trash near the capital that people were smelling. They touched upon the issue of illegal exports of trash to Romania to be burned there since the environmental regulations are less strict. All the facts and the presentation of it implied that the East, because of its poverty and less developed system, is forced to suffocate on the fumes coming from western trash. The West has the illusion that it is clean while in reality their actions lead to the poisoning of the East.

A play titled Date an Eastern European produced by the Hungarian STEREO AKT theatre puts the viewer in the seat of one half of a date. There is a Hungarian narrator who tells us our thoughts but also about the date. One question the narrator asks is if the woman in front of you has ever killed an animal, or what would she be capable of doing for money. In another blind date we have an older German woman telling us about how musical the East is and how clean Eastern Europeans keep their home. This applies to the positive stereotype but shows how the romanticisation of the East by the West still is prevalent throughout society. And when we are on a blind date with a man with dense black hair, our date asks if he looks Hungarian. This question sparks the inner monologue in our head about how Hungary was once a melting pot of cultures but after the First World War and the Treaty of Trianon Hungary was carved up and reduced to the status of a small country. It turned out the man was of Jewish ancestry and told us how part of his family died in Auschwitz. He then asked what our grandparents did during the war, which can be an uncomfortable question for Hungarians.

The most blatantly political play was the interactive one done by the Riga-based Ģertrūdes ielas teātris in which the topic of Baltic independence, a common Europe and migration is discussed by the actors. The play also involves the active participation of the audience, which is also unsure as to what opinion is real and where the act stops and personal political statements begin. One of the most flagrant confrontations in the act was between a “Wessy” (a western German) and a (supposed) Latvian nationalist. The German asked about the problems of racism and the excesses of capitalism in the East after the end of the Soviet Union and the Latvian nationalist exploded with indignation for these accusations that the East is racist and then went on a tirade about the migrants coming into Europe, a typical hypocritical position that one can find in Eastern Europe. But there were also Latvians who lived in Germany and were much more progressive that argued against the nationalist showing the schism between the more nationalistic elements in Eastern Europe and the more “Europeanised” Eastern Europeans.

Shared feeling of inferiority

Even the abstract play A different kind of White brings into question white privilege of Eastern Europeans, but also a sort of identity crisis. The East is by vast majority white – but they also “returned to the West”. However in this return they can only try to imitate the West, which can be interpreted as a sort of “bastardisation of Europe”. The play is performed with this imitation of western whiteness in Eastern Europe even touching on the hard bass playing, tracksuit wearing stereotype in one part of the act. The message was abstract but through its shocking and exaggerated imagery of aspects of post-communist “Eastern European culture” you can see the predicament that the East finds itself in, as never creating anything new, but just being a cheaper knock off of the West.

Something which was not a play but an interview with an undercover Czech reporter revealed the extent of the problem with the capitalist mode of production in the East. Eastern Europeans are heavily exploited by these companies for very little pay but due to the abhorrence with the word socialism rather endure this exploitation than unionise or fight for workers’ rights, even such basic ones as the eight hour work day which is routinely violated in Eastern Europe. The interview ends with a very provocative discussion on how the EU single market is built to perpetuate this exploitation, liberalising the markets but not unifying workers’ rights and protections which leaves Eastern European labourers at a huge disadvantage.

It is quite impressive that even without any truly central theme all these groups seemed to have performances that resonate with one another in their political and cultural dimensions. Artists through their sensitivity to culture are able to hint and see problems that others might not be so aware of and through their work make them evident to the layman’s eyes. Throughout the plays one can see that there is a shared feeling of inferiority when compared to the West, as most clearly can be seen with the West always being the standard to which one compares him or herself. And there is also a kind of orientalist attitude felt from Western Europeans towards the East which is most prominently put on display in How to date an Eastern European with the German woman telling us about how she loves easterners for being clean. As we see in Something digital there is also political scepticism of the West in the East as even though “European values” and “unity” sounds nice, when there is crisis, borders are closed, leaving migrants stranded like “human garbage”, while Western Europeans continue to export their rubbish so that Romanians can burn it for them and suffocate on the pollution.

That is the main take away from most of these performances, a wish to be western but also highly sceptical of the West, with very good reason. The EU’s “East” is not really eastern anymore but in fact has not fully become western, either. It truly is post-West. And the ambiguity of the term matches the equivocality felt in the East about every aspect of their lives.

Kamil Jarończyk is a student of the joint Master’s degree programme in European Governance of Masaryk University in Brno and Utrecht University.

Nataliya Parshchyk is a Master’s degree programme student of decorative and applied arts at the Lviv National Academy of Arts.

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