Review: Terror

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Terror, by Ferdinand von Schirach, is a piece about the limits of political power in civil society, the implications of terrorism on our way of life, and the lengths to which we will go to keep ourselves safe. The world premiere production took place on the 3rd of October 2015 and was shared by Schauspiel Frankfurt and the Deutsches Theater Berlin, where I saw the piece in November.

The premise of the play is as follows: an airplane is hijacked by terrorists over German airspace and changes its course to fly towards the Allianz Arena in Munich, where a sold-out soccer match is taking place, and 70,000 people are in attendance. There are 164 civilians on board the aircraft. The German air force is mobilized and two Eurofighter jets are accompanying the hijacked plane; they fire warning shots and attempt to steer it off course to no avail. The ranking pilot, Lars Koch, asks the General Command if he has permission to shoot the plane down. The Generals give him the order to stand down, not to shoot. As the plane gets within a few minutes of the arena, Koch asks again for permission to shoot the plane down. Again, the General Command denies permission, orders him to stay his course. Koch then disobeys this order, firing a sidewinder at the plane, destroying it and killing all 164 passengers aboard.

Should Lars Koch be seen as a murderer? Or a hero?

The play itself is Koch’s trial, where he is being accused of 164 counts of murder. The audience is the jury, and there is a judge, a prosecutor, the defense attorney, Koch himself, and a number of witnesses. The judge begins by asking Koch if he is aware of the charges, and if he disputes them. He replies that he is aware of the charges and does not dispute them. He says clearly that he intentionally shot the plane down, in order to save the 70,000 civilians in the Arena, despite the fact that his superior officer ordered him not to. He explains that given the chance, he would do the same thing again, because according to his logic the 164 passengers would have died anyway.

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Over the next two hours all manner of different scenarios are discussed: Why weren’t other options explored? Koch says that he was flying close enough to the plane to see into the cabin and cockpit. Can he be sure that the passengers would not have broken into the cockpit and overpowered the terrorist? The commanding general testifies that he ordered Koch not to shoot . . . but implies that if he were in Koch’s position he would have done the same thing. The general is also asked why the Stadium was not evacuated. He replies that the evacuation was not his responsibility, but that of the Bavarian police. The pregnant wife of one of the victims also arrives for an emotional appeal to have let the plane take its course, and to reinforce the personal tragedy inflicted on innocents. Each new argument serves to sew seeds of doubt in the minds of the audience, who will later decide Koch’s fate.

The final cross-examination is an extremely intense exchange between the prosecutor and Koch, in which she puts a fine point on the philosophical argument: that one life can never be weighed against another. The first article of the German Basic Law (constitution) reads: “Human dignity is inviolable.” This is the basic human right that comes before all others. According to this thinking, it should never be legal to weigh the life of one individual against that of another.

And this is a truly radical idea. Although this argument was made multiple times throughout the piece, I found myself reeling back and forth from one minute to the next: is Koch guilty? He did not seem like a murderer to me. I of course thought of 9/11 and of the possibility of having been able to shoot down those planes, or of the passengers that overcame the terrorists on flight 93. They sure seem like heroes to me.

On the other hand, the fact that one life is not more valuable than another is an important one. If it is possible to chose one life over another, that is a slippery slope: if 164 lives can be traded against 70,000, where does it stop? Can one life be traded for one hundred? Or one for three? It also begs other questions, such as who do these laws apply to? Do they apply to our enemies as well as to our citizens? If not, does that allow torture of our enemies? Assassination of our enemies? We do not have to look far, whether to the operation against Bin Laden in 2011 or the massive drone strikes happening daily around the world to see how blurry these lines have become.

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The real strength of the piece is that each standpoint is so well portrayed that the audience finds itself constantly switching sides throughout the piece. The production at the Deutsches Theater was also brilliantly performed by their ensemble, and by the time it was over I was not sure what to think.

And then, of course, the audience was asked to decide. The doors to the theater lobby were opened, and the audience was invited to take five minutes outside the theater to discuss the case with one another, and then re-enter the theater through doorways marked either “guilty” or “innocent”. The ushers would tally the votes and then communicate the verdict to the actors, who would then play one of two endings, guilty or innocent.

Its an old trick in the theater, but one that was put to monstrously effective use.

I must admit I entered the lobby convinced I would vote for Koch’s innocence. I felt like the tough decision he made, was exactly the kind of decision that had to be made, to do the right thing, and preserve the most life. However my friend and colleague Diana Schumman with whom I was watching the play, was adamantly for a guilty verdict. And she managed to convince me to join her in that guilty verdict inside of five minutes. Her argument was that it was not a question at all of his innocence, he was guilty. He even admitted it. The only question is how he should be punished. And she reinforced her point by quoting the Basic Law and saying that it is too dangerous to allow the government to kill its citizens without a trial, that such behavior endangers the free and open society in which we live. I was also convinced by the fact that the pilot was ordered twice not to shoot, and yet he still did. There were too many factors outside of his control that he could not account for, and it would set a dangerous precedent to let him walk free after doing so.

We re-entered the theater and the votes were tallied: Koch was declared guilty by a margin of about twenty votes (there were over 500 people in attendance) . . . a skinny margin indeed. Interestingly enough, a number of audience members never left the theater, effectively abstaining, so that they would not have to vote.

In the talkback afterward, one of the moderators was a lawyer and raised the point that from a legal perspective there is nothing exciting about the case at all. Koch is definitely guilty. Again, the question of how he should be punished, is a different one. But what is so interesting about this piece, at this point in time, in a Europe that has been shaken by recent terrorist attacks and activity, is that almost every performance of the play votes for Koch’s innocence. The moderator implied that if the German people were more aware of what their own laws said, or perhaps were less scared, they might vote differently. Which of course speaks to how important and timely this piece is.

There are sixteen different productions of this piece happening this season in German-speaking Europe. In an exciting digital tie-in, the publisher of the play has created a website where you can see the tallies of guilty/innocent verdicts from each individual production and performance. A way of getting a feel for how audiences are reacting to the piece all over Europe. Interestingly enough, the ‘innocent’ verdicts are winning out by a significant margin. Check it out here:

http://terror.kiepenheuer-medien.de/

The first article of the basic law goes back to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and his idea that every thinking individual should be regarded as a person, as a Subject, and not an Object. And anything that reduces a human being to the Object of state authority, rather than a Subject of that authority, is unconstitutional and violates human rights.

In closing then, the two quotes from each perspective of the play:

“Is it just, to set the principle of human dignity above the saving of human life?”

-Defense Attorney

“The state can never weigh one life against another. Nor one against one hundred, or a thousand. Every single human being possesses this dignity.”

-Prosecutor

Project Update: KING Premiere & Tour

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“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings – words shrink things that seem timeless when they are in your head to no more than living size when they are brought out.”

-Stephen King

Ever have the impression that the rehearsals are killing you? Like, actually taking days off of your life?  Chris Rock’s description of love: “If you haven’t contemplated murder, you ain’t been in love” . . . could probably also apply to the rehearsal process. Then the show opens despite everything in a daze of revelry and champagne and backslapping, and before you know it you’re whisked off to another city hundreds of miles away and someone asks you over breakfast the next day:

  “How’d the show go?”

The quote from King above could also be a stand-in for how we talk about artistic processes. Somehow the scope of emotions, the cataclysm of words, egos, and tensions occurring in the rehearsal hall seem so overwhelming in real time, and attempting to describe that experience to someone on t388012_315161618614189_1387251843_nhe outside always falls short.

And yet the magnitude of what transpires in those rooms, the electric charge that you get when you come out of a successful rehearsal, and the spiritual dismay you suffer when the play seems to go nowhere for days (or weeks) on end continues to defy compartmentalization.

So we muddle through and say “Oh it was terribly stressful” or “An unbelievably difficult process” and inevitably: “But it all turned out fine.” All said while nibbling croissants and slurping coffee and somehow in the act of speaking about it, the entire process sounds small. Whereas three weeks before nothing could have seemed more monumental.

There were times during March and April that I was quite sure KING was going to kill me. And at no point during the process was I sure what the final product would look like. With so many talented folks involved, I never doubted the potential of the piece, but I certainly doubted the result.

Having opened the show on April 18th to mixed reviews (the young people loved it, the critics did not) I learned a couple of things:

1. A younger public’s idea of what theatre can be is wonderfully accepting and elastic. They are looking for a great experience and have almost no expectations as to what theatre ‘should’ be. The vast majority of folks who came to the performances in Bern were in their twenties, and had not been to the theater in years. This is a big win by itself, and the fact that they enjoyed themselves even more so.

2. Making a horror piece is a game of averages. You aren’t gonna scare everybody every time, so you have to mix it up and try every different type of horror there is: psychological horror, physical unease, irritation, disgust, fright, terror, surprise, etc. There’s a way to get under everybody’s skin, but its never the same way.

3. Stephen King gets no respect. At least not from the Europeans. Or rather, from the literary elite. Most of the dramaturgs and artistic directors we talked to about the piece had no familiarity with his work at all, or did not consider him ‘serious literature’. I challenge anyone to read ‘IT’ or ‘The Shining’ and not see it as serious literature. Not to mention he’s the best-selling living author in the world. Gotta be some fire under all that smoke.

After all is said and done, I’m proud of the work and the result. And excited that the show will be touring every few months for the rest of the year, into February 2014. Here’s a glimpse of what its like:

 . . . and if you find yourself in central Europe this year, come check it out for yourself!

KING
Tour: June 20-23rd Lofft Leipzig

www.pengpalast.ch

Project Update: KING First Rehearsals

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Horror has arrived: in Bern! We are in the middle of our third week of rehearsals for KING, a new devised piece investigating horror in the 21st century through the lens of Stephen King’s work. The biggest challenge so far has been finding our way through the incredible amount of primary source material from King, as well as the enormous amount of film material we shot while filming in Maine last December. Our directing team has been hard at work, creating endless amounts of notecards for all the different film segments, text fragments, horror scenes, and improvs that we’ve been trying out on stage:

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And then explaining all of that to the actors, and working as an ensemble to make it all make sense.

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And as if that wasn’t complicated enough we added five tents, 50 pillows, 15 curtains to the space, microphones, three projectors and every disgustingly horrific sound our brilliant designer can come up with. We throw all of that in the rehearsal hall each morning and try our best to scare the hell out of each other.

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So that’s where we’re at. Tune in for more soon . . .

Review: Sommergäste

Friday night I was at the Schaubühne in Berlin to see Maxim Gorky’s “Summer-folk” under the direction of Alvis Hermanis. I had never seen anything from this most famous of foreign directors in the German speaking world (he’s from Latvia) and was interested to see what he came up with. Excited also because one of my favorite actors, Ingo Hülsmann had recently joined the Schaubühne ensemble and was playing a lead role. And of course because the piece, like many Russian plays at the turn of the 20th century, is about bored aristocrats wasting away on a country estate. Playing ‘bored’ is a really tricky thing for actors and the director, and I was interested to see if they could pull it off.

The first impression I had was of the set, which was incredibly realistic for German standards:

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The idea was to transfer the inner rot of the characters to the house itself, which was dilapidated beyond all repair, overgrown with moss, half the windows broken and books and trash scattered everywhere. While the show started off with lots of tableaux and actors entering and exiting in rapid succession, I was surprised by how many of them stayed on stage even when their characters were supposedly ‘off’. This became a theme throughout the production and as the show drew onward there was an accumulation of people on stage as well, adding to the rest of the detritus.

The first big surprise of the evening was the golden retriever that entered stage right about five minutes in. The general rule in the theatre is no dogs, no children, because they both draw so much focus that they can completely take over. Indeed this was one of the most beautiful animals I had ever seen, and seemed to be really sweet as well. And incredibly well behaved! She basically just wandered around stage, sniffing everything, and occasionally interacting with her human colleagues, but for the most part keeping to herself. Because there was so much else going on, small scenes playing out in alternation all over the stage, and because the dog was really good about laying down for three-five minutes at a time, I often forgot it was there. A dog disappearing should be an impossibility on stage, and yet there it was.

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Although the performances were very strong, I almost left at intermission. Nothing. Happened. The characters complained about their entitled lives and laid about, unsuccessfully falling in and out of love with one another. Three and a half hours is an awful long time to watch other people be bored, and so I was ready to make my way out through the gift shop. I’m not sure what made me stay. Probably the dog.

But man was I glad I did. The second half was the big pay off for all of the relational build up in the first act. Seeing a group of people who basically have everything, and are still dreadfully unhappy for reasons they cannot explain, has a hauntingly powerful resonance for modern Europeans. Without banging the audience on the head with this idea, Hermanis decided to take his time in showing the audience exactly how dreadful it can be to live in abundance without being able to enjoy it.

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At the end of the play most of the characters had made it back on stage, the miasma of their own idleness seeming to swallow them. Ingo and another actor lit a fire in the bathtub stage right and started roasting bratwursts, which they then fed to the delighted retriever. And at the center of all of this was Vaya, the female protagonist who spent most of the play laying on a setee center stage, staring at the audience. She rises to go, and when asked where she’s going responds: “I want to live.” In effect, attempting to rebuke the entire lifestyle that all of the characters had spent three hours creating for us. The whole thing was summed up in the last line:

“But who wants to die? No one wants to die.”

Blackout.

And that’s it, isn’t it? No one wants to die, and yet we all do a pretty stellar job of mucking up the living part. First world problems on display and hard to watch. A poignant end to a very challenging evening of theatre. And well worth waiting for.

A New Start

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Taking a break from the film shoot in Monmouth, Maine with the KING team, Dec. 2012

Welcome to BBell’s blog 2.0! I had originally intended my blogging as a way to stay in contact while I was traveling with theatre projects, but since I’m living full time in Berlin now (in other words: always traveling) I’m establishing this new blog as the official home for all of my writing. Be on the lookout for performance reviews, project updates, and travelogues as well as my thoughts on the state of theatre at home and abroad. For your reading convenience and my own sanity, I’ve also migrated all of my writing from the last six years to this new site for quick and easy reference.

I arrived last night in Bern, Switzerland where we are beginning tomorrow with rehearsals for KING, a new devised piece based on the themes and ideas in Stephen King’s novels, exploring the idea of horror in the 21st century. We began with a film shoot in Maine last December, and will be intercutting the film sequences with the stage action. Look forward to more updates, sneak peaks of the film segments, and more between now and April.

Till then, Happy Reading!

Viel Spaß beim Lesen!

BBell

AND! I arrived ten minutes ahead of the Bern version of the Harlem Shake:

Harlem Shake Bern

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There’s nothing that a priest with a Stephen King mask can’t handle.

Hinter den Kulissen

“Projekt G – Marburg” – eine Recherche über die Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Gebrüder Grimm und über das Glück.
Glücksmomente sind auf jeden Fall die Momente, in denen Ehito, Brian und Nao in Marburg ankommen und das Projekt G-Team nach der gemeinsamen Zeit in Japan wieder fast vollständig ist. 

Knapp zwei Wochen haben wir Zeit, um eine Performance zu entwickeln. Eine Performance, bei der wir vier auf der Bühne stehen werden und in der es um unsere Erlebnisse und Glücksmomente während des vergangenen Jahres und in unserer gemeinsamen Zeit in Japan gehen wird.

Also haben wir probiert, collagiert, diskutiert, geprobt, umgestellt, verworfen, neue Szenen entwickelt und wieder geprobt. Die Märchen der Gebrüder Grimm, die uns während des letzten Jahres, und in unserer Zeit in Japan im Workshop in Minamisoma und bei unserem Symposium über die internationale Grimm-Rezeption beschäftigt haben, werden in unserer Performance zu einem roten Faden, der die Szenen miteinander verbindet.
Und dann ist es soweit: Der Tag der Perfomance
 
Der 11. März 2011 – der Tag des Tsunamis, Erdbebens und der Atomkatastrophe, Tagebucheinträge über das Glück, Theater in verschiedenen Kulturen – There´s no buisness like showbuisness, Der Froschkönig, Bilder aus der Fukushimaregion ein Jahr und anderthalb Jahre nach dem Unglück, Texas, Tokio, Windhoek, Marburg, interkulturelle Kommunikation, die manchmal wie »Stille Post« funktioniert, Hans im Glück, Natasha, die nicht in Marburg sein kann, die aber immer in unseren Gedanken ist, Die ungleichen Kinder Evas, Ehitos und Naos Gefühl der Hoffnungslosigkeit nach der Katastrophe und die Frage, ob es ein Recht auf Glück gibt, wenn nicht alle Menschen zur gleichen Zeit glücklich sein können.
Das und Vieles mehr ist “Projekt G – Marburg”. Es ist ein sehr persönlicher Theaterabend geworden. Ein Abend, der sehr unterschiedliche Erfahrungen, Erlebnisse und Weltsichten vereint.
Ehitos Premierengeschenk.
Nach der Vorstellung mit einer Kollegin aus Heidelberg
Das Projekt G-Team mit Gästen
Die Premierenfeier – auch ein Glücksmoment.

 Am nächsten Tag fahren wir zur Dokumenta:
 
…und besuchen das Grimm Museum
Es waren zwei sehr intensive und tolle Wochen. Domo Arrigato und bis bald
 

We’re Almost There!

  “Little town, its a quiet village . . .
Every day, like the one before,
 Little town, full of little people,

Waking up to saaaaaaaaay:”
GUTEN MORGEN!

Whoah! This time in Marburg has gone incredibly quickly. What a pleasure it is to be working in such a beautiful part of the world. The city itself is situated in a valley, with half the buildings clinging to the hillside, stairways wrapping up and around, narrow streets darting throughout. The picturesque views of the hills and trees, gorgeous architecture framing everything and the castle perched atop the highest hill. It seems like almost every building is at least a five hundred years old, and there are an abundance of cafes hidden in the nooks, crannies and winding staircases.

We are performing our piece in an historic lecture hall in the physics department of the Phillip’s University. The room itself is not a theater, but is still extremely theatrical. There are two giant blackboards that span at least fifteen feet each. The best part is that they can be mechanically controlled to slide up or down the wall! We’re doing our best to incorporate them into the piece.

The work itself has been intense: we’ve re-conceptualized the piece almost every day this week, and it seems like nothing is sacred: scenes are created and destroyed faster than the students guzzle beer at night. But what we’ve ended up with is an incredible collage of our experiences in Japan and with each other over the last eighteen months. I’m really proud of the work we are doing and so excited to share it with an audience tomorrow night!

We will be recording the performance (have been recording the rehearsals for the last few days), so if you cannot make it all the way to Marburg, no worries; there will be documentation! And I’m glad of it, because the piece is so personal, such a rich exploration of the incredible highs and lows we’ve gone through together, that I’m desperate to share it with a wider (non-German speaking) audience in the weeks to come.

Until then, we are waiting with baited breath for tomorrow. And by waiting of course, I mean frantically rehearsing all day, night and tomorrow morning.

SO EXCITING the audience will stomp and cheer,
SO DELIGHTING it will  run for fifty years!

Woohoo!

Brian