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Art Beyond Borders: Gefängnistheater aufBruch


When we think about borders, the first thing that probably comes to mind is political borders. In Berlin, that might be even more true. Sometimes we can cross these borders, sometimes not. And if we can't cross these borders, we just tend to forget that there is life beyond them; we get used to this separation, unless it touches our personal sphere.

Obviously, political borders are not the only ones we are surrounded by - and not the only ones we can't cross.

Let's think about prisons: people are stuck in there and can't leave, and people on the outside rarely visit. Therefore, prisons become just another part of the landscape if we don't have to deal with them directly or through our loved ones. Did you know that right here in Berlin we have one of the biggest male prisons in Europe?

I have never been there, and I'm quite sure most of you haven't either.
Everything that goes beyond our “normality” is out of sight and out of mind, whether we're talking about people who have committed a crime or people with mental illnesses. They live in parallel worlds right beside us; they become invisible to us, and we to them.

Separate worlds, yet so close. Humans exist in a delicate balance, which can suddenly creak and crack, taking us unexpectedly to the other side of the barricade, among the invisible ones.

I'm not going to go on about this concept of separation and its meaning here, but I would like to introduce an amazing way of lowering the wall and making us think about it. I'm talking about aufBruch Gefängnistheater, a prison theatre project, running since 1997 thanks to founders Holger Syrbe and Roland Brus. The current artistic directors are Holger Syrbe (one of the original members), Sibylle Arndt (producer), and Peter Atanassow (director of the majority of the shows).  I was able to write this article thanks to Anna Galt, one of the dramaturgs, who kindly agreed to provide me with some information about it.


The first remarkable point about borders in this project, is that you can go to watch the show in the prison (although there is a show outside of prison which is composed by an equal mix of ex-prisoners, prisoners on day leave, and professional and non-professional actors). So, you can experience going there, feeling the gates closing right behind you, the atmosphere, and last but not least, have the chance to talk to the prisoners for about an hour at the end of the show.

The thing is, as Anna points out, that this project is artistically ambitious and its aim is not pedagogical. It does not focus at all on the prisoners' status or criminal background, as they are not asked anything about their past. They are just actors who get the opportunity to leave behind their current situation and cross the barricade for a while.

And, probably because of that, the consequences are quite surprising, pedagogically speaking. First of all, the prisoners have to turn away from their usual groups and cooperate with people they would probably never talk to otherwise. There is a social ladder in prisons too, and people from different criminal backgrounds rarely approach each other; they simply stick to their safe group. With theatre, they have to build a new heterogeneous group, and find a balance with the other people, because without a good atmosphere, theatre loses its power. A theatre group is a little like a family, and requires support and solidarity within it.

Moreover, theatre is hard work and it doesn't give anything back initially. You have to wait months to get the public's applause, and this is not easy for, say, people with addiction backgrounds, who are used to getting everything they want now.

The actors are not told that much about how to interpret the roles, so that they can find their own way into the character. They get their lines and are provided with technical skills. Most of the time, the pieces recall their situation, so that the prisoners can empathize, thus exploring different nuances of human nature.

I'll use the last play as an example: Klassenfeind, performed last March, is a classic piece of British social realism from the 1970s about students who have been abandoned by their teachers, because they were thought hopeless and people just stopped caring. They basically keep waiting for a teacher who never shows up, until they start teaching themselves what they know, from sex to how to build flower boxes, in reaction to their loneliness and isolation; and there's no need to underline how much this situation can mirror prisoners' feelings and issues.


But, as I said above, the project is quite ambitious, and its focus is not on being something pedagogically useful for the prisoners (even if it turns out to be that way), but on delivering a good piece at the end, on preparing good actors. And they are good, showing an authenticity that professional actors are not always able to achieve, precisely because they had probably never read Shakespeare or Brecht and have no preconceptions about what theatre should be.

This is not the only project trying to cross the prison's borders: there is also Der Lichtblick, the prison's newspaper since 1968, and even a web portal, Planet Tegel.

But the specific merit of this project, in my opinion, is the ability to connect the two worlds, not through directly talking about what's inside the prison, or not only that, but through an experience, as theatre, which has an artistic value and can be enjoyed by anyone. These people are, in those moments, actors more than prisoners, freed through art, and the borders are therefore crossed for a moment.

Here are the details for the next show:

Christoph Ransmayr: Odysseus, Verbrecher, which will take place in the outdoor swimming pool on the grounds of the BVG Stadium in Berlin Lichtenberg (BVG Stadion, Siegfriedstraße 71, 10365 Berlin) at 19:30

Performances:
24th, 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th June 2015
1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th June 2015
8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th July 2015

By Diana Calvino

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