The Art of Encounter

Let me begin with a reference to the European borders: Whenever we watch television or read the papers these days, we come across images showing men, women and children arriving on European shores, walking on roads, sitting in railway stations or in front of tents and containers, queuing in front of office buildings – waiting, exhausted. Most of them have left their home countries due to war and the resulting threats to their lives and livelihoods.

We are by now well aware that some European countries don’t want ‘them’; that the German chancellor Angela Merkel is convinced that ‘we’ will make it; that the EU in Brussels is trying to find ‘solutions’; that some politicians are advocating an ‘upper limit’; that many social problems prevalent in almost all European countries are suddenly being blamed on ‘them’.

So who are these people whom we are welcoming or rejecting? Who are we talking about when we refer to ‘them’? Who are ‘they’? What do we know about ‘them’?
Meanwhile, ‘they’ live in containers, ‘they’ become our neighbours, ‘they’ had a life somewhere else, with families, friends, sources of income, and now they are here heading for a future which is unknown to all of us – which, however, will also be shared by all of us – be it here or there. It will be the Europe to come – to use Nikita Dhawan’s phrase.

Without doubt, theater as a public institution should not be overstrained by unrealistic demands that it can change the world at large, though in Germany we are used to its relentless interventions in public debates and affairs. This also holds true regarding everything to do with questions about refugees. We may rightly ask, then: what would the role of theater be in what is often referred to as the refugee ‘crisis’ or the ‘problem’ of the refugees? What is it that might be generated through theatrical means? What kinds of insights might actors, directors and dramaturges make possible?

Let me just refer to some examples to show how the theater in Germany engages with all sorts of activities and thus helps shape current affairs. There are indeed a number of initiatives. A report forthcoming in the January 2016 edition of Nachtkritik, a well-known online theater journal, reveals that across Germany over 80 ‘Stadttheater’ (municipal theatres) are getting involved in collecting money for refugees and trying to enlighten their audiences about the historical and cultural backgrounds of their new neighbours with lectures and conversations, while also placing a special focus on refugee children through educational programs or by inviting refugee parents to tell their stories and thus enable encounters, etc..

It seems that there is a kind of general consensus that ‘the other’ should not be talked about and further defined, while of course it would make much more sense to offer support and facilitate encounters, and thus intervene in the public sphere.

In this way the institution of ‘theater’ is taking responsibility for social welfare and thus morphs into a space where aesthetic concerns, at least occasionally, take a back seat. Of course it could be said that this also happens in the interest of the aesthetic, that it makes sense to pause our daily routines for a moment, accept the demands of the day and welcome the refugees as future citizens. Once they will have settled they will never forget how actors, directors and dramaturges came to their assistance and helped to meet their existential needs. Maybe one day they will sing their songs for a new audience. The Thalia Theater in Hamburg already offers Arabic subtitles for some of their productions.

Of course these initiatives show only one side of how theater people are trying to engage. Artists such as Milo Rau, Hans-Werner Kroesinger, Yael Ronen – to name only a few – have done a lot of historical and field research, met people in different places and tried to tell an alternative history. Based on documents, interviews and facts they aim to create an image on stage that differs from what is printed in daily newspapers, thus adding knowledge that might otherwise be lost or overlooked1.

The eminent Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek aims to effect a change in perspective on a more artistic level. In her play Die Schutzbefohlenen / The Wards she attempts to give a voice to those who seek shelter. The critic Esther Boldt writes in an essay that in Jelinek’s furious play those who seek shelter fight for a place in this world and thus for their right to raise their voice and be respected and acknowledged as human beings, rather than being labelled as a ‘problem’ to be solved or deported. With their call for humanism, human rights and democracy they invoke the ‘good spirits’ of the West, which, however, seem to be valid only for Western citizens2.

I could go on listing initiatives and plays being staged, and they all would have their pros and cons. They are all widely discussed and referenced in blogs and articles, essays and books. A discourse is evolving alongside these actions, which hypercritically analyses what is going on. This is a common process. From a more nuanced perspective, however, I am inclined to say that theatre is currently filling an exemplary role, highlighting how cultures are interwoven, how they meet and how we meet the ‘other’ every day anew during times of crisis. The institution of theater is playing its proper part in an ongoing process of social change and transformation.

Interweaving – as we see it – is a reciprocal, mutual practice and process. Among other features it encompasses negotiations and self-reflexions, it requires a kind of openness, which allows for interactions to occur unexpectedly and uncontrollably. It requires the acceptance of failure and a certain persistence that comes with this attitude. The above mentioned examples / initiatives, however, all have a clear aim – to distribute money to those in need, to educate their children and to enlighten audiences, to make the refugees tell their stories, etc.. Of course these are commendable efforts. What would nevertheless be necessary from an interweaving point of view is that theater – or any other institution – opens, widens or even builds from scratch a rehearsal space to experiment with encounters and thus contribute to moulding and refining our abilities to meet the other.

For now I am aware of only one example (which does not mean that there aren’t any others), which – from my perspective – truly succeeded in facilitating encounters, allowing for dialogue and the reflection of widespread prejudices, to name only a few of its distinguished qualities. And what is most surprising: this happens without a refugee on stage or behind it. In fact, Earthport3 does not allude to the current ‘refugee crisis’ at all but goes straight to the heart of what it means to meet the ‘other’. It invites the audience to participate in and co-create an encounter, and thus experience one’s true ability to establish ties with one another.

The performance is the result of a collaboration between the Cairo-based director Nora Amin and Eva Balzer, a Berlin-based dancer/performer and director. Together with three performers from Egypt and three from Berlin they created an event that enabled the spectator/partner to engage in six dialogues with six different people who had each created six different situations involving a variety of ways in which the spectators would participate.

As far as genre is concerned, Earthport consists of a series of one to one performances, which are shared by performers and visitors in equal measure. The duration of a single encounter did not exceed ten minutes before the next round began. The number of spectators was limited to six, so that there would be no overlap. There were no program notes, no predefinitions or descriptions of what would occur or be expected. No name was given to the meeting situations, just a symbol at the entrance that served to identify the location. For the sake of precision, let me briefly relate these encounters in more detail.

After entering the performance space, everybody received instructions for what was to follow. To avoid overlaps, each of the six visitors were given a kind of map informing him/her when to go where. My first encounter would probably be the last for the friend who had accompanied me, etc..

All encounters took place in small rooms with paper walls. In this way the cubicles were all somehow interconnected. In one of them I met a young woman with a suitcase. On the ground a circle was drawn in chalk. The woman asked me whether pain could be shared. I tried to give an answer to a question I had never asked myself. She showed me an album with family photos and spoke of the unexpected death of her grandmother. She tumbled, as if she would fall down. She did not, but I nevertheless tried to help her by lifting her up.

In another room I met a man who immediately struck me as intimidating. I remember thinking to myself that if I were to encounter him in a different setting, I would definitely avoid him. He confessed to have once come face to face with his own brutality. This did not add to my confidence. Yet I felt safe—I was at the theater, after all. What an ambivalence of thoughts. We were looking each other in the eye throughout our interaction. What made me be afraid of him? His dark eyes, his beard, his stereotypically ‘Arabic’ look?

The other performers – men and women alike – granted me similarly subtle experiences: they touched me, sang a song for me, asked me startling questions, made me answer accordingly, offered me a cup of tea, made me behave in surprising ways and caused a lot of irritation. In the end, I no longer knew what to do at all!

All this may sound banal. But the experience resonated and stayed with me as it did with others who went through this particular process. These encounters resisted being consumed and this is what made them so remarkable. They bore the potential for becoming the basis for further encounters, for interweaving cultures beyond the theater space. They left traces and inaugurated a different kind of politics: against representation and for meeting the other becoming a work of art. This demands the acceptance of failure, of not knowing, of exposing one’s prejudices, of letting go of fixed belief systems and thus surprising oneself. This is how interweaving should take place at the moment – as this would also open up a different European perspective.

  1. See: []
  2. ibid. []
  3. Nora Amin, director of this performance and former IRC-Fellow shares her thoughts on the performance in this essay here on Textures: []