Changing the Direction of Vision

Chief dramaturge Angela Obst in conversation with artistic director Johan Simons.

Angela Obst: Johan, let us talk about the next season and our artistic plans.

Johan Simons: Then we should start with the production Der Würgeengel. Psalmen und Pop Songs. It already had its premiere at the beginning of March 2023, but the rehearsal period opened up a space of thought that also became important for us in preparation for the next season, in which we settled for the longer term.

Angela: I remember last summer we were wondering what would come next. The Covid 19 pandemic had become semi-manageable at that time, but was still present. Moreover, there was now a war in our immediate neighbourhood, Russia had invaded Ukraine ...

Johan: ... and not to forget the unavoidable signs of climate catastrophe.

Angela: Exactly. "The impacts are coming closer", that's what they say. At that time, I remembered that film by Luis Bunuel, The Exterminating Angel, that is about 50 years old, in which an evening party suddenly cannot leave the salon, although the doors are wide open, and increasingly desperate and exhausted awaits rescue. This paradoxical situation - not being able to get out of an open room - immediately electrified us. Because in a way, that's us: equipped with so many instruments, so much knowledge to get it right on this planet - and then to really fuck it up.

Johan: I wanted to surrender to this paradox, absurdity of existence. I was no longer interested in telling a whole chronologic storyline, with a beginning, middle and end, but in drawing broken lines, lines that emerge and then break off. In these lines there is an attitude to life that I have been investigating: that of panic. That is also my panic. Panic in the face of a crisis that one knows nothing about. Until a child breaks into the panic in the stranglehold.

Angela: The future. Another dimension of time. And another psychic structure. This child interrupts the panic room.

Johan: Everyone, except this child, is running out of time. All of us, me too. In a way, this production has therefore also become a self-portrait. I notice that I read everything I read with this tinge of panic. I don't mean that melodramatically at all, it also has a great appeal.

Angela: When I read Dostoyevsky's novel Die Brüder Karamasow, which you will stage in autumn 2023, I also notice this overheating, the permanent movement of the characters. They are all more or less breathless over 1,200 pages.

Johan: Yes, they seem as if they had to hurry, as if there was not much time left for the last things, the last words. What is the name of this prominent word in Dostoevsky that is untranslatable?

Angela: надрыв. It roughly means over-tension, for example when tense skin tears. Or also psychological over-tension. The whole cosmos of Dostoyevsky can be grasped with this word.

Johan: It also contains panic. Let's take Buchner's Danton, which the director Robert Borgmann will be dealing with here: In the case of the failed revolutionary Danton, panic leads to paralysis, he doesn't know what to do next, he realises: Oh my God, in panic I make decisions that are simply no longer right.

Angela: In a conversation between the two of us, this image came up once of us as a society: We are running towards a wall, and there are only a few metres left until we hit it. And now we stop this image: What to do with these last metres, these last seconds? We are not interested in the exhaustion or the apocalyptic in this remaining space, but in the opportunities. That this span of time is also full of possibilities.

Johan: Full of radical possibilities! We have to be fast, creative and brave. Every second I live; I feel like I'm polluting the world. One always feels guilty now. Of course, I am for a better world, but how do you do that? There are so many problems out in the open, where to start?

Angela: My ten-year-old daughter sometimes says, when we are at the kitchen table talking about the trouble spots of the present: "I can't go on talking now, it's just too much and too big."

Johan: I understand that. But she is a child. We adults have a responsibility we must not shirk.

Angela: You know, in 2020, when everything was stopped once during the first lockdown, everywhere was saying, "We're taking advantage of this breathing space. We have to think about how to make our society more just, more sustainable, more responsible. We're not going along with this neoliberal, alienated, high-speed bullshit anymore." As soon as everything started again, the wheel turned even faster than before.

Johan: But the point is to realise that we humans are not the crown of creation.

Angela: Yes, this view of the world, also called anthropocentric, according to which humans form the centre of all being and the rest of nature is only to be considered in relation to us, has long been outdated. In general, this wretched hierarchical thinking - someone always must be at the top and someone at the bottom! - as well as the artificial separation of nature and man have proved to be aberrations. The pandemic has also given notice of this. It is much more a matter of recognising the interdependencies and looking for the connections, the crossings, the interweaving - in thinking and in life. And to create alliances. Just as we in the theatre do not want to preach from the stage or presume to know it right, but want to facilitate a common place of thought and experimentation. For the production of Die Brüder Karamasow, we plan to play both stages on the same evening, so that the theatre play roars through the whole house, connecting actors and audience in a great sea full of thoughts, full of ideas, full of emotions, full of doubts and always a pinch of hope. Or comfort. What comforts you when you panic?

Johan: The first thing, do you know the Große Fuge by Beethoven? It is music that looks into eternity. He composed it stone-deaf, shortly before his death. Suddenly you can hear the 20th century in it. Simply revolutionary. But when I think about it now: what comforts me the most, what makes me happy, is a good thought.

Angela: Oh yes, I like that. A thought that widens your view, that is surprising, that comes from a different, unexpected direction, that shakes the comfort of your own world view. That also has something to do with our rehearsals. We always sit at the table for a long time and read and talk before you rehearse. Quite often we are silent too. And sometimes we come across a good thought. And then we take it to the stage. So that it blows a little air under the wings of the players and the audience, gives them new impetus. So that it continues. Then, at best, a vital pulsating space is created between the players and the audience.

Johan: The French philosopher Bruno Latour formulated this simple but fantastic thought that you must raise your eyes to the sky when you talk about science, but lower them to the earth when you talk about religion. Religious services have chosen the wrong line of sight! I think that is a tremendously good thought. Or do you know the thesis - I think it is by Slavoj Žižek - that we can imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism? Not a happy thought, but also a wise one. I am afraid he's right.

Angela: That means there is still too little fantasy in the world. So, the task of theatre is actually clear.

Johan: More imagination! Change the way we look at things!

Angela: We have not talked about all the other material and plays we are planning for the next season.

Johan: We do not have to. Show, don't tell, as they always say. So, time for a cigarette. What comes to my mind is music.