How will creative opportunities and what people want from the theatre be changed by the pandemic and its consequences? We ask artists from Schauspielhaus Bochum

What are the spaces that theatre needs now, Johannes Schütz?

We are not in a transitional phase. The last 500 years demonstrate that the history of diseases has always changed social behaviour and cultural practices. Post-virus is pre-virus: so wherever people gather different public health measures will be required than before. Theatre cannot be delegated to a virtual presence: it requires the real presence of a group of people that watches another group of people performing something. In the modern age theatre has become an indoor activity. However, it will be difficult to preserve the focussed view of the spectators through a hole in a wall called a proscenium. If airborne diseases are spread by breathing, theatrical architecture that is based on a single axis directed at the stage while the largest possible number of people are skilfully accommodated within the smallest possible space in the auditorium will become a problem. We cannot wait for the theatres to be rebuilt – instead we need to explore formal alternatives now while we continue to operate. The aim here must be to give the audience the impression that it is being addressed – and not sitting in some sparsely-attended hall. One idea would be to create an artificial exterior in this indoor space which would justify having a small group in a large space. I’m also thinking here of promenade performances, where small groups are taken to a series of locations: theatre as a kind of sculpture park. An approach that is similar to that of Sandra Hüller in Hamlet staying on stage during the interval while Hamlet travels to England, as an almost sculptural performance. Or one could consider changing the visual axes of the architecture: arranging the audience to face in four directions, with the stage in the middle. In our everyday lives we are accustomed to sitting at a table and looking at a presentation from four sides: the same form could be interesting in the theatre as a platform or podium. Then there would no longer be any backstage because the audience would be sitting on all sides. Generally we ought to think about allowing the audience to sit on these large stages. We need to involve people more strongly by dividing the space differently: making new circumstances a plus, not a compromise or an accommodation with maladministration.

Will theatre become more impersonal, Lies Pauwels?

In discussing coronavirus we have mainly talked about practical and financial solutions and restrictions. These rules also influence and shape art. Let us hope that the theatre will always remain in charge of its own rules. We must not become estranged from ourselves as human beings. For me theatre is a framework – not only for what is rational, but also for everything that we don’t know: encompassing anxieties, irrational behaviour, loss of consciousness and consolation. The question is: will these new circumstances prevent us from taking risks in the theatre? How can we, for example, pluck up the courage to break boundaries if we are not allowed to get close to each other? If we cannot console each other after these boundaries have been broken? Nothing inspires trust as much as knowing that colleagues are close by when you leap into the void. I often work together with non-professional performers, people whose souls have been wounded. One cannot assume that they will gain trust simply by telling them they ought to do something (and certainly not from the distance of one metre). Trust cannot be forced. Finding trust is a complex business! But, as I see it, it is also one of the theatre’s most attractive qualities – if you have the opportunity to experience it. I cannot imagine being able to work with performers like this without being able to hug them, dry their tears, hold their hands and stroke their faces. It would feel like a human failing not to do so. It is impossible to save anyone from drowning by giving instructions from the sidelines; sometimes you have got to jump into the water. Trust also depends on different kinds of communication. In human contact, physical touch is as important as spoken or visual contact. There is a reason why actors hug and kiss a lot. It is a way of passing on a great deal of information: because words fail. Or because once we have finished talking, we still have a lot to say. Or because we prefer not to say out loud what we want to say. Or because what we want to express cannot be put into words... I think a theatre with strictly formal, preconceived ideas will find it easier in the current situation than a theatre where things are devised more intuitively and personally.

How can contactless acting work, Martina Eitner-Acheampong?

Acting is never contactless: one person watches, another acts. Or several people watch several others acting. Or, hopefully again sometime: a lot of people watch quite a few people! Watching and acting for somebody is a way of making contact. Even in a monologue though the actor may seem to be alone, in truth they are constantly in contact, both with themselves and with the audience. For me this is what contact is: a form of “touch” that extends between at least two creatures. That touch does not necessarily need to be physical! Have you ever felt your back tense because you think someone is watching you? That too is a form of contact. Tension often increases over greater distances. There is more energy, more transmission. That is why groupings and distances on stage often reveal a great deal about those involved. – So much for the theory. How do we deal with the ban on contact in practical terms? Rehearsals still have yet to begin. For me, encountering a play and its text is a collective exploration. I hope that this new lack of bodily contact will work its way into this process – in evaluating the options that are now limited, in trying to find the force of the language and the images, in including what we are not accustomed to and in the joy of acting come what may. (It’s always like this or something like this when rehearsals start.) And every limitation or restriction can spark the imagination. A desire to try things out. To think outside the box. To be brave enough to hope. Which is something we could all do with in the situation we’re in. Not just on stage.

Must theatre become virtual, Wanja van Suntum?

Theatre can and theatre should become virtual. Perhaps then it will no longer be the bourgeois theatre we know. But theatre is an art form that is thousands of years old and it can become anything. It can also happen in a virtual reality chat – or perhaps it’s already taking place more there than on theatre stages. But we don’t know this because we still know far too little about forms of theatricality on the internet. Communication on the web often goes hand in hand with loneliness. Combined with theatre, a space can be created that goes beyond this and makes other forms of digitality possible: being together online. My suggestion is: theatres should define themselves more strongly in local terms as a location and address for society in their city. And at the same time offer windows on to alternative worlds like virtual reality as a new performance form. This is how we want to work in our production in Bochum: from the local into the digital! Are city theatres equipped for virtuality? Of course. There are so many talented people working there in the different departments – such as actors, technicians, costume makers, make-up artists, dramaturgs – who are often interested in digitality. But they are crushed between their old canonical mission and the need to be a laboratory for new ideas. This conflict of interest becomes evident when there is too little time and too little money available for individual projects. Something established has to be relinquished in order to try out something new. Theatres find it hard to take this step, primarily because new things cannot be expected to deliver perfect results straight away.   

In future how will you be able to create a sense of community amongst the audience, Selen Kara?

Once people are finally allowed to go to the theatre again after this enforced pause, even in small numbers, a sense of community will set in automatically. I am absolutely convinced of this. Because that is what makes theatre so special: the live experience, the present moment where the performers and the audience come together. We are still in the withdrawal phase. But when we meet in the theatre again, despite distancing and barriers, an energy will be created. Especially knowing the people of Bochum. I have been living in this city for ten years and the people here love their theatre, they will be happy to go back there again. Perhaps their energy will be a more intimate one, their awareness of each other a different one. In any event, music will be able to strengthen their sense of community – because music opens new spaces for people and overcomes distances.

Will theatre lose political or artistic freedom, Dušan David Pařízek?

Must theatre’s right to exist be challenged on a fundamental level if it is briefly excluded from the life of society? The function of theatres cannot be reduced to numbers. Their political and socio-cultural importance for the states of middle Europe that claim to have a cultural mission is reflected in their mere existence – and independence (!). Theatre occurs only in the moment. What a luxury. Ideally it condenses the present into the HERE and NOW (including a sense of its finite nature) – in a live life experience shared by the ensemble and the audience. At the moment we find ourselves in a state of exception once again. The reactions of political decision makers perpetuate a transnational lack of vision and – in some places – of the most basic decency: militant language is used to declare war on a virus and statistics are used as evidence for which countries have been more severely affected than one’s own. Where there is so little, we must resort to what is tried and trusted. Rulers distorted until they can be recognised – faces that are worth portraying! Culture can and culture must resist. Theatre that asks questions is a theatre of its time. It makes demands of itself and its audience. It can be opposition – in the best sense of the word.

What new political mission will theatre have, Manuela Infante?

In order to answer that question I would need to work out: which theatre are we talking about? Whose theatre? And where: in Germany? In Chile? I believe theater is not something that declaims, but something that thinks. The theater thinks, not with what it has to say, but with its body. It articulates singular notions of time, place, body, sound, me, you, it, etc. as it unfolds. Right now, I want theater to get back to thinking. I want it to ponder WE. This notion of a WE that, in the shock of this crisis and its war rethoric, has become dangerously invigorated. We-Humans against the virus. We-Humans as something separated from other non-humans. WE-humans as a homogeneous mass, disregarding all internal power differentials. Yes, “WE are in this together, but WE are not the same!” philosopher Rosi Braidotti would say. The preexisting conditions that lead to mass death have always been the result of a tradition of WEs exiling other ITs, in order to make them “killable”. Today, I feel compelled to put the theater to think, to fracture and unload WE. 

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