Last night saw the performance of the first-ever collective to be selected for the Theatertreffen’s Stückemarkt. Alongside the straight-up scripts the jury trawled through in order to select five to stage in readings at the festival, the jury also received project outlines from many applying theatre collectives. In the name of fair play, the judges weren’t told the names of the playwrights until the selection had been made – but choosing between outlines is not so easy without some knowledge of the creators’ background, past work, and suchlike, so in the case of the collectives this rule didn’t apply; the jury was free to google to their hearts’ content.
Their chosen collective, Markus&Markus (Markus Schäfer claims to be the first Markus in the name, Markus Wenzel begs to differ), admitted at the post-show discussion that they have a similar work process. When asked how they found the material for their project Polis3000: respondemus, they answered together with spontaneous comic timing any comedy duo would envy:
Markus S. A lot of it is –
Markus W. googled –
Markus S. collected.
So what is it that the collective was collecting?
In response to the (rarely-mentioned) theme of this year’s Stückemarkt, “Asking questions of the world’s answers,” Markus&Markus rummaged through the archives for information about the time capsules that we humans have sent rocketing into space in the hope that they will reach alien life forms. The Markuses were not pleased with what they found.
In Polis3000: respondemus, the project makers and performers took on the role of these capsules’ recipients: aliens. Glowing in white under UV-light they announced at the start that we, the audience, conceived of this event in order to come into contact with them, the aliens, and that they would like to think of it as a “cultural exchange.” What followed was over an hour of original time capsule content including videos, music (“Bach, Bach, Bach, Bach, Beethoven, Beethoven, Stravinsky”), photos, and speeches. These were interspersed with film footage of the Markus aliens out and about in Berlin, experiencing the May Day protests, and interviewing Theatertreffen guests.
As well as a lot of video, there was also a lot of shouting. Some of the text that was shouted had striking moments (at the start, “We have examined your photos and have come to the conclusion that you are all the same,” and later “Your culture, your theatres, your universities, your schools are cemeteries.”) and some of it I couldn’t tell you because it was too shouty to understand.
At first I was a bit disappointed, because shouting and the use of video are perhaps two of the most common features of German performances I’ve seen this year, not least at the Theatertreffen itself, and I suppose I was hoping for something different. But the idea is so strong, and the passion of its young creators so clear, that I found myself defending the piece to some of the harsher critics I bumped into outside the Seitenbühne and at the post-show discussion.
For example, I agree with the general complaint that many of the scenes could have been half the length they were. Particularly one scene in which Markus&Markus laid out glow-in-the-dark shapes on the ground to accompany a long radio recording of sounds from Earth wasn’t quite worth the punchline (especially as the punchline was the same as the show’s main question, i.e. whose idea was it to send these stupid things into space to represent the human species). But the fact that shorter scenes would have made a better performance is a good thing – it means that the content is there, it just needs some more work on getting the form right.
Markus&Markus ripped apart mankind’s presentation of itself to outer space, and then reminded us that we are responsible for everything they’ve shown us. But when the director of the Stückemarkt, Christina Zintl, asked if we should fear their wrath, Markus Wenzel replied, “You don’t have to be scared of us. We make mistakes too, some knowingly and some unknowingly.”
Which brings me to my main Rebuttal To The Harsh Critics: The performance last night was of a project still in its earliest stages of development. The collective arrived in Berlin at the end of April, and started working full-time on the project two weeks ago. Now, the festival did allow them to choose a mentor, any mentor, to guide them in the development process, and the duo was blessed with the attentions of the Volksbühne’s René Pollesch (no stranger to shouty plays himself). But, with only three scheduled meetings, this should hardly be seen as anything more than helpful consultation during the early stages. Whilst the staged readings only had three days to rehearse, the playwrights have worked on their plays for months or years, and in some cases already had their work performed. See in that light, after only two weeks’ work it would have been perfectly acceptable to present a lot less than 80 minutes of well-rehearsed, technology-heavy material pulled off without a hitch.
Wenzel and Schäfer at the post-show discussion, Photo: Nadine Loës
It can’t be a bad thing that the Theatertreffen has broadened its horizons and added collectives to the type of artists they are able to give support and publicity to, especially when it means more audiences get to see a politically engaged and ultimately pretty courageous pair like Markus&Markus, full of potential and an instinctive drive to perform (they reminded me that the post-show discussion takes place on stage too – their performance there was just as committed and entertaining as their presentation beforehand). Maybe the problem last night was the presentation of the presentation, as it were. It might have been a more supportive audience had they not spent 9€ on a ticket – although of course by TT standards that’s a bargain – or at least if the “work in progress” status of the project had been made more clear. What’s more, it’s questionable whether such a project can be assessed in the same category as finished dramatic texts; did the collective ever really stand a chance of winning one of the coveted three Stückemarkt prizes?
The best thing about Polis3000: respondemus is that it divided opinion, raised questions, and sparked debate. In the context of “project development,” constructive feedback from the audience is both important and interesting. And I hope that the same way I looked for the best in their production, Markus&Markus will move away from pure societal criticism in their next project and look for the best in their audience too.