»Dealing with Fear«
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Since When and Why Are We Afraid
of the Future?
Bertrand Bacqué, Ingrid Wildi Merino
Beetween Fear as a Spectacle
and Interiorized Fear
Genetic Roots of Instinctive
and Learned Fear
David N. Bresch
Von irrationalen Ängsten
zu versicherbaren Risiken
Dealing with Fear
The Mise en Scène of the SS
in National Socialist Propaganda
Violent Machines for Troubled Times
Teresa Hubbard, Beate Söntgen
Home and Fear
after the Symposium’s Talk
Iassen Markov, Stephan Trüby
Temple of Janus 2.0
The 5 Codes_Space of Conflict
Jürgen Mayer H., Henry Urbach
Mind the Gap
A Transcript of the Symposium’s Talk
Matthias Aron Megyeri
Sweet Dreams Security® Est. 2003
Notes from an Orwellian City
Jasmeen Patheja, Hemangini Gupta
Fear as Experienced
by Women in Their Cities
Ortwin Renn, Andreas Klinke
Von Prometheus zur Nanotechnologie
Der gesellschaftliche Umgang
mit Risiken und Bedrohungen
The Politics of Lines.
and the Production of Space
Gerald Siegmund, Maren Rieger
Die Another Day: Dealing with Fear
Jens Martin Skibsted, Adam Thorpe
Liberty versus Security:
Bikes versus Bombs
High over the Borders
Stories of Hummingbirds, Crying Wolves,
and the Bird’s Eye View
Yi Shin Tang
Dealing with the Fear of Abuse
of Intellectual Property Rights
in a Globalized Economy
Keine Angst im Labor
Nikolaj Ladovskijs psychotechnische
Architektur im postrevolutionären Moskau
Susanne M. Winterling
Dealing with Fear: an Inside
and an Outside Perspective
|Gerald Siegmund, Maren Rieger
Die Another Day: Dealing with Fear
Lowdon talks about the do’s and don’ts of a performance. He is one of five actors who next to director Tim Etchells make up the core of the British theatre group Forced Entertainment from Sheffield. The piece is called Showtime. It premiered in 1996. The performance we watch has already started, while we get the feeling that he has been sent on stage to kill time because some catastrophe has happened backstage that prevents the actual show to begin. It is a self-referential performance about the right way of doing a performance. Of course, he does it all wrong. It is a performance before the performance, which creates an in-between situation combining rehearsal and improvisation on the one side and the scripted show on the other. The show we see hovers on the fringes of a proper show. This limbo situation, found in almost every Forced Entertainment piece, is a crisis situation. Although nothing actually happens in the traditional sense of the word, as no plot evolves, anything could happen any time. It is a time for anticipation where indeed the actor’s fear of losing the plot makes itself felt.
Looking for help, he turns around looking for his colleagues every time he has run out of things to say or do. But nobody is forthcoming to step in and help him out. The performance is about the failure of a performance. Nervously the actor fiddles with his hands, looking shyly into the audience as if to say, “I don’t know either.” The tone of his voice is almost private as if he was talking to us personally, and not as a character in a play. “Within every performance,” he tells us, “there is always a kind of tension. The private person might not want to go on. They may have things on their mind. Troubles perhaps. When the lights go down you have to go on and get things done. You have to be professional.” We pity him because he clearly did not want to go on. But surely we are in the theatre and he is on stage. His performer persona is carefully constructed to keep the balance between privacy and stage persona. It, too, hovers on the fringes of a proper stage character.
The failure we witness and that he is so afraid of is condensed in the dream which, according to Lowdon, every performer has had at some point: “The performer is on stage alone, generally naked, while the writer or director or perhaps one of your colleagues (meaning a member of the audience) is in the wings busily writing the script. Of course, they are whispering it to you. But you cannot hear them.” Being up there, exposed, he is at the mercy of the audience which is described as a voyeuristic crowd coming to the theatre to sit in the dark and watching “other people do it.” On the other side of the telescope he is at the mercy of authors and directors who make him do degrading and silly things and without whom he is reduced to a deaf and mute puppet. The performer Lowdon performs is like a gladiator in a Roman arena. One false move and the lions will rip him to shreds.
But the failure of the performance highlights the fear of the performer. The limbo the show creates out of the self-referential doubling of the performance situation unearths some of the energies that drive the performance on. It thrives on the fear of the performer. That is why Lowdon and Forced Entertainment win almost every time they perform. Of course, he has brought us on his side form the very first moment. Like Forced Entertainment, other groups or artists such as choreographers and dancers Pina Bausch and William Forsythe, or theatre director Jürgen Gosch aim at including the excluded, that is fear, into their performances by drawing attention to the framing and doubling of the performance situation. I will refer to some of their work in the course of my paper. They create a performance situation that thrives on the fear of the performer and the audience’s scopic desire to see him fail doing his tightrope walk so that some kind of reality appears behind the fictional world of the show. Fear in the theatre creates a social situation that keeps fear at bay by sharing it.
A whole range of symbolic codes and conventions regulates the exchange between audience and stage. “I think it’s good to remember,” Lowdon says in his monologue. “There are more of you than there are of us. So if it comes to a fight, you will undoubtedly win. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.” The theatrical situation, at least since the bourgeois theatre of late eighteenth century, has been devised for “that” not to be necessary. It requires a code of behavior to channel fear. Actors and performers have to be in the theatre at a certain time. They both go through a little rite of passage on their way to their respective places the code has assigned them. In the theatre you know your place. Which is reassuring and, for once, not fearful. But in order to occupy it, you will have to undergo transformation. Past the doorman, a Cerberus who guards the entrance to another world, into the long and winding aisles of the theatre building, the bowls of a leviathan, the labyrinths that will eventually lead you like Theseus in Greek mythology to the Minotaur waiting to eat you alive, a labyrinth where in the end you can easily get swallowed up and lost if you don’t know your way out into the dressing rooms. The gradual transition from the outside world into the theatrical world makes audiences and actors alike shed some of their everyday behavior.
Although they are a constituent element of the event we call theatre, audience members must not climb onto the stage. They must not touch or get in the way of the acting or dancing. They are supposed to sit in their very often, very confined und uncomfortable seats and be attentive. Getting up is not part of the deal. Talking to your neighbor while the performance is running, neither. Shut up, listen, and watch. Theatre restricts my freedom to act in order to make me see and hear better. We accept that they behave “as if” what they are doing is real. That is one of the main paradoxes of the theatre as we know it: although it is only play, it nevertheless is a real physical act. Although the meaning that is produced is “as if,” the performance is for real. Here is where fear sets in. Those codes or conventions which transform the theatre event into a symbolic form are there to channel fear and to safeguard an atmosphere of mutual respect and acknowledgement. Where you can drop your guard without being swallowed up either by the leviathan or by the Minotaur.
Every time these codes of behavior are broken, the theatre draws attention to itself and its rules. That which is supposed to be kept at bay, in the wings, in the aisles that lead up to the stage, in the dressing rooms, slowly creeps in to take possession of the stage. Fear sets in. Fear of failure. Fear of not being accepted. Fear of not being recognized by the audience. Fear that the proposition the actor and dancers make is rejected. Fear on the part of the audience of being called onto the stage. To be used and abused and exposed in the spotlight. To be interpellated by someone you do not know, someone who ascribes a visible identity to you by calling on you. What are you supposed to do? Accept it for the time being? Will you be the same after you have sat down again? The symbolic order of the performance guided by contractual rules and regulations threatens to collapse and the underlying energies, the nervous costume of the performance takes over. Nerves are exposed. The theatre comes alive.
It is after all, a live situation. The imaginary “as if” the performers have offered to us and asked us to accept, vanishes to make way for the Real, for that which has to be kept out in order for the representation to close and to function. The abject returns threatening the limits of the stage world we accept as real. Fear has to do with risk. What do we risk during a performance? Performers risk themselves. Like Lowdon in Forced Entertainment’s Showtime, they are suicide bombers waiting for the bomb to go off. They sacrifice themselves for us.
Pina Bausch’s whole work of the 1970s and 1980s seems to be based on fear and her dancers’ individual ways of dealing with it. They deal with fear by talking about it and dancing together in front of the audience. In Nelken from 1982 in a scene before the intermission, every dancer of the production steps forward to the microphone to speak publicly about his or her reasons for having become a dancer. Why did you become a dancer? “I was schoolteacher,” a dancer begins to tell her story. And every day was a struggle for her although she could not tell why. Until somebody told her that it was because she was afraid of her kids. “It was true,” she says. “That’s why I became a dancer.” Standing in a field of pink carnations, arms over their heads in a classical ballet port de bras, their dresses loosely hung over their bodies, the dancers then pose for a group photograph.
Fear is moving. It makes them move! Because they move, we are being moved. Perhaps we move because we want to overcome fear and to recreate retrospectively a utopian child-like state where there was no fear, a state that has always been lost. “Bewegung als Wiederherstellunsgversuch,” as I have called it elsewhere. Du kommst auf mich zu. Du hebst mich. Du lässt mich nicht fallen. You come towards me. You lift me up. You won’t drop me. In William Forsythe’s first major production Gänge in 1983 at the Frankfurt Opera House, a ballerina talks about the fear she has every time she and her partner have to perform a big lift in a classical pas de deux. What if he really just dropped her? That would surely be the end of the performance. But it may easily also be the end of her career.
These two examples share with Forced Entertainment’s Showtime a process of filtering real life experiences, fears, hopes, and dreams through the rehearsal process of a dance company and its members and repeating them on stage during the actual performance thus opening up its frames. The social roles one has to play as a woman or a man in real life are rehearsed in the pieces. They are clearly marked as theatrical situations. Because they are theatrical situations they may, however, reflect back to the performative inscription of gender roles in societies.
Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies deals with world catastrophes like the Tsunami in Thailand, George Bush’s Iraq war, and the violence in the Middle East. These topics all deal with fear. And yet, the first part is a pure and abstract dance piece. What is striking in the context of a Forsythe piece is that the six female and six male dancers fall into poses forming smaller groups. Full of fear they direct their gazes upwards or to their partners before they start to move again, pushing, pulling, sliding, twisting and turning, arms and legs jarred out of centre. “Composition One,” Jone San Martin claims at the very beginning if the piece. “My son was arrested.” She points towards another dancer whose body is bent over backwards with an expression on his face as if invisible hands are strangling him. After this short introduction she leaves the stage and the dancing begins. After about half an hour the audience has to turn around. This turn does not only mean that it now faces the other side of the hall. It also implies a change of perspective at the same time linking and separating the first two parts of the piece. What happens now retroactively gives meaning to the abstract dance of the first section without explaining everything. San Martin, now in a pink dress, sits on a chair and starts telling the story of her son, who was arrested because he wanted to help her daughter and her two friends, whose life was in danger after a bomb attack on a house. Slowly she spells out the story, word by word, sentence by sentence, as if she herself wants to come to terms with the unspeakable that has happened. She thus underlines the fact that she is engaged in an exercise of understanding what cannot be understood and integrated into the normal way of things. Another dancer sits in front of a full clothes rack taken from the storerooms of the theatre. Matter-of-factly, Amancio Gonzales translates her words into Arabic, always changing her words slightly, subtly correcting her, so that what she says is not what he makes of it. What we hear are versions of what has happened, versions that make what has really happened impenetrable. With his hands a third dancer describes small details from five compositions. Although he regularly announces their numbers, we never get to see them, having to deduce the content from the pantomime he uses. He moves in what looks like a spider’s web of small ropes, which might just as well be the lines of perspective from the paintings made visible on stage.
The resolution comes towards the end of act two when the audience leaves the auditorium for the intermission. Two pictures are hung on a black wall. One is a reproduction of Lucas Cranach’s painting. The other is an enlarged press photo. Four men can be seen dragging a man away from a house that is ablaze with fire. His body is bent backwards, his face distorted in pain. In the upper right hand corner of Cranach’s painting an ominous dark formation of clouds can be seen. In the same spot on the press photo smoke curls up into the air. Five centuries after the clouds of Cranach, they have become signs of destruction caused by bomb explosions.
Dance, theatre and visual arts, movement, spoken word, gesture, and image, Forsythe works with various genres of art and their specific means. He separates them in time, giving each its own space to communicate. And yet the three sections meet in the space that separates them from each other, in the absence opening up between them. In this absence violence, pain, loss, and suffering are not represented but atmospherically suggested to us, because ultimately they are un-representable. They are that monstrous thing that we cannot accommodate. The insistence during the performance that everything we see or hear is a translation and thus not the thing itself, which is forever lost in the process of translation, prevents the piece from taking on a cynical or patronizing attitude towards the victims of bombings, floods, or earthquakes to whom the third act of Three Atmospheric Studies alludes. Once again, catastrophes are not enacted on stage. They are not mimetically reproduced by character and plot, pretending that it were possible to understand them by acting as if the pain was real. Rather than depicting people who are afraid on stage like Sasha Waltz at the Schaubühne in Berlin did in her horrible piece Gezeiten, Forsythe, however, makes the topics undergo a complicated process of translation. This translation process between photographs of violence, abstract dance movement, and spoken word always threatens to lose the actual violent act in the process. Between images, movement, and language the actual events are mediated in the double sense of the word: We in the West only hear from them via media and, they are covered up in various media formats thus becoming inaccessible, maybe even to those who have actually undergone the traumatic experiences. Forsythe stages a process of not knowing, of denial and of not being able to understand, rather than pretending to feel sorry for the word’s misery. Three Atmospheric Studies is a self-referential piece of dance and yet, because it reflects on its own point of view and its own materials of expression, it opens up to a world of fear.
While Forced Entertainment created a play out of foreplay, Jürgen Gosch’s production of Berlin playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, Das Reich der Tiere, puts the dressing room on stage. The play deals with fear. Schimmelpfennig uses the old device of the animal fable to comment on human behavior in globalized consumer societies and markets where employment situations become precarious, careers contingent and life in general a bumpy ride. The characters of the animals represent specific traits of human behavior. A cast of three actors and two actresses perform in a play called Das Reich der Tiere, Animal Kingdom. For six years, six or seven times a week they undergo a transformation into animals in order to perform a zebra, which is the current leader of the kingdom of animals, a lion, which wants to become king, a cat with a lot of nervous energy, a clever antelope, and a Marabou Stork whose stoic character makes him the laughing stock of others. The play marks the transition of leadership from a benevolent leader like the zebra which is king because it does not kill other animals but only eats grass, to a leader like the lion which becomes king by cunning, manipulation, sexual exploitation of the antelope, and sheer force. A fire breaks out and destroys most of the land. The animals have to cross the river to save their lives. The zebra offers to take the lion across. Once on their way, they get attacked by a crocodile which is killed by the lion. Once on the other side of the river a fight ensues. The lion insists that he becomes king because he killed the crocodile. The zebra insists it remains king because it was the zebra who carried the lion across. The lion is elected leader. A fight ensues and the lion kills the zebra.
This play is framed by the actors of the animals, Frankie, Peter, Isabel, Sandra, and Dirk discussing their current situation. The production company wants to close the show and the actors, who like Frankie, the zebra, where part of the company from the very beginning, are threatened with unemployment. “They will negotiate,” is one of the recurrent phrases on this level of the play. What is apparently being negotiated is not only wages but the continuation of the current show. For the theatre wants to replace it with a play called The Garden of Things (Der Garten der Dinge), which ironically looks like a McDonald’s fast food restaurant. Performing as a slice of toast, a ketch-up bottle, an egg, or a pepper mill for sure is no good prospect for any actor who takes him- or herself seriously. Only the zebra is clever enough to trick the agent Chris into casting him for commercials in New York, whereas the other four have to accept their new contracts in the new production. The benevolent zebra broke up solidarity with the others, stabbed them in the back, took the money and ran. The play is also a comment on the commercial theatre world of musicals like Cats or The Lion King and of economical changes that make commercial or television work for actors financially more attractive than work in serious theatre productions.
From human being to actor to animal to thing—on the scale of degradation, it seems, humanity in our current social and economical climate can sink no lower. Human beings reduced to ridiculous objects like a slice of toast become commodified objects themselves. What is then left of the human being when both the limits to animal behavior—dog eat dog, the survival of the fittest—and thingness have become permeable? What distinguishes man from animal, a cultural divide that was fought over ever since the Middle Ages and perhaps even more so since the eighteenth century science freed the notion of the hybrid monster from its religious and moral context? The erectness of human beings that enables them to see the face of God, reason, the ability to control their instincts and to use them for higher social and cultural aims, consciousness or the use of language as a system of signs—the reasons vary according to your profession. But is the difference really so great when over 99 percent of the human genes are the same as that of a mouse?
The play is not only a play within the play. It is also a play within a play within a theatre situation. Director Gosch filters the meta-theatrical structure through the actual theatre situation the two plays are performed in. At the beginning, the six actors enter the auditorium and take their seats in the first row. One by one they climb the four steps onto the stage, where they take off their clothes and start to paint their naked bodies with paint. In a mixture of childlike lust and professional attitude, they transform themselves into animals in front of our eyes that watch the whole thing with an increasing mixture of disgust and lust. The whole ritual takes almost half an hour. In the end, the four remaining actors bring showers on stage and wash the animals off their skins. Because they are not using animal costumes—after all, we are not watching The Lion King—but inscribe the animal nature onto their naked skins, our attention shifts. Gosch brings the dressing room, the area of retreat and security on stage to make us witnesses of the transformation. The effect is twofold. Firstly, we watch them putting on their masks as in certain Indian theatre forms, which exposes the theatrical situation. Look, we are only playing. It underlines the contract of the “as if.” Secondly, the nakedness, the time the transformation takes, as well as their stepping in and out of the stage picture from the first row actually breaks the “as if” and turns in into a real process. While on the one level we participate in the actors’ degradation by even laughing at them—after all, they are not a pretty sight with their sagging bums and beer gut bellies and they look ridiculous—, on another level, we share this uneasy situation with them. They are not only an image in front of our eyes. Thus, what the staging does is to draw attention to the social situation, which is the theatre. We are asked to share the fear both Schimmelpfennig’s play talks about and the fear the actors Ernst Stötzner, Falk Rockstroh, Wolfgang Michael, and Kathrin Wehlisch may have to expose and ridicule themselves in such a way. It costs them.
There is one conclusion I would draw from my discussion of Gosch’s production. Perhaps the theatre is also the place where we can rehearse dealing with fear and, ultimately, dying. Again and again and again. Die another day. Death is evoked and postponed with every performance. Fear is channeled, for however real the situation is, by sharing it. The actors and dancers return every night to the scene of crime to speak of the dead. There is no solution to either the play or the theatre situation. We are not told how to deal with fear. Yet, the fear that becomes exposed with the Return of the Real that makes the symbolic order collapse is at the same time transformed, because we are asked to repeat it like a child playing a game, asked to repeat it in order to acknowledge it in all its disruptive and ambivalent force. We testify of it.
But—and this is my last example—what if human beings were indeed only needed to testify? In Heiner Goebbel’s most recent stage production Stifters Dinge (Stifter’s Things), which premiered at the Théâre Vidy in Lausanne in September there are no actors at all. For 70 minutes, the composer and director explores a world almost entirely devoid of human beings. Where Gosch makes us participate in the transformation of actors into animals that literally risk their skins, Goebbel’s world has no need either for animals or for human beings anymore. Nature, as in earth and water, as in rocks and mountains, ice and tropical forests, has completely taken over. We gaze into a world where man is absent, where only things move. The atmosphere is uncanny and spooky. There are no images we can narcissistically mirror ourselves in. This is a world without men. Post human. And it looks great.