Bringing Müller to the Mainstream

By Dan Friedman, Castillo Theatre
Unpublished talk delivered at Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference, July 2005

[+download]

   The Castillo Theatre, of which I am a founder and where I have served as dramaturg since 1989, has done 13 productions of Heiner Müller texts over the last 18 years.

   Castillo is a community-based theatre. We don’t take government funding and we don’t rely on corporate or foundation money.  Our two decades of production history and our recently acquired $11.7 million performing arts and education complex on 42nd Street in New York City are made possible primarily by small and medium-sized donations from literally tens of thousands of individuals.

   Castillo was founded by political activists and community organizers. Some like me, had theatre backgrounds, other didn’t, but we all decided, in the early 1980s, to focus our energies on creating cultural projects that could nurture grassroots, non-traditional audiences and artists. Castillo is one of those projects. The All Stars Talent Show Network and Youth Onstage! with which we share the complex on 42nd Street are two others. We started with extensive connections to advocacy organizations in poor neighborhoods throughout New York City and our early audience was drawn primarily from the African American and Latino working class communities.

   That base has expanded considerably over the last 15 years to become one of the most diverse in the country.  Those who contribute to our theatre, make up its audience and create its productions now range from Wall Street executives to Black church ladies, from same sex couples from Chelsea to suburban families from Connecticut, from unreconstructed communists to blue blooded Republicans.

   I have gone into some detail about Castillo’s community because at first glance this audience and Heiner Müller may strike you as an unlikely match—and I think it is.

   For all its diversity, our audience remains relatively theatrically unsophisticated; it doesn’t, for the most part, attend a lot of other theatre. Nor has it studied theatre at the college level. The Castillo audience, for the most part, approaches its theatre going more as a civic and social activity and less as an aesthetic experience. Müller, as you know, is dense and challenging both artistically and intellectually. His texts are packed with references to European and communist history and literature, and his later plays are often bereft of plot or even individualized character.

   Thus, our 18-year history with Müller has been, among other things, an ongoing and constantly developing dramaturgical project. The challenge for us has always been: How do we build a bridge between our audience of ordinary New Yorkers and Heiner Müller, the German communist avant-gardist? How can we make Müller accessible without dumbing him down?  How do we interest an American audience that has no apparent affinity for either his politics or his aesthetics?

   Before we get to the “how,” however, it seems necessary to address the “why.” Why do we do Müller for our American audience?  His difficulty is, in fact, one reason. As a community-based theatre with political and ethical concerns we consider it our mission to challenge—not cater to—our audience. We do Müller because we feel he has something important to say. Therefore our job is to a find a way to make what he’s saying accessible. His investigations of German and European history and of the failure of the revolutions of the 20th Century are important, we feel, for all of us to grapple with.

   More to the point, however, what Müller has to say is not simply a matter of content; it is, how he says what he says.  We find the essential radicalness of Muller in his challenge to our ways of seeing. Müller once said, “Only when a text cannot be done in theatre as it now can it be productive for the theatre, or interesting.” As incurable malcontents with “theatre as it is now,” those words—and the attitude they express—reverberate with us at Castillo, and he hasn’t let us down. Each Müller production has demanded that we grow artistically, intellectually and politically. Müller allows our audiences (and our artists) a way out of realism, a way out of narrative, a way of out of causality, a way out of psychology, a way out of all the old ways of seeing that shape and support the world-as-it-is. But he can only provide a way out if we, as theatre artists, can help our audiences to find a way in to Müller’s texts.

*

   Castillo was introduced to Müller’s work by Eva Brenner, one of our founders. Brenner is an Austrian director and designer now back in Vienna, where she artistic director of a group called Projekt Theater Studio.  Back in the mid-1980s she was working on her doctorate at New York University. Her thesis was a comparative study of five productions of Müller’s Hamletmachine; one of her thesis advisors was Carl Weber, Müller’s major English translator.

   When Brenner first brought Müller’s work to our attention many of us at first found it rather off-putting. Some of us came out of the street theatres of the late 1960s and ’70s, others out of the politically oriented stand-up comedy scene. Still other Castillo founders, not originally theatre people at all, but figurative painters, modern dancers, and musicians, looked for new political art to emerge from the street, from the then coming-into-being hip-hop culture (graffiti, rap, break-dancing and so on). We were interested in creating theatre that could speak to New York’s poor and working people. We didn’t think Müller could.

   Fortunately, our resistance didn’t prevail. In 1987 Brenner invited Joseph Szeiler, artistic director of the Angelus Novus theatre in Vienna, to direct Explosion of a Memory/Description of a Picture —which is a seven-page single sentence—at Castillo. Szeiler directed the piece in a style that I have now come to identify (if you will excuse the apparent contradiction in terms) as “traditional avant-garde.” The walls of the theatre space were lined on all four sides by backless benches for the audience. The space was dimly lit, an actor sat at a table with a lamp, reading the text into a microphone over and over in a monotone while other performers posed and grimaced in semi-slow motion.

   As might be expected, many of Castillo’s artists and supporters were puzzled (and some were outraged). What did this crazy, elitist German and his impenetrable poem have to say to us and to our audience? Castillo was on the verge of civil war over this production when Fred Newman, who would emerge a few years later as our artistic director, made a dramaturgical intervention. He talked with Szeiler and Brenner (who was acting in the production) and got them to agree, albeit with some trepidation, to allow us to transform the Castillo Cultural Center (rather than the theatre per se) into an environment in which our audience members could articulate their reactions to the production.

   The main entrance to the theatre was kept open and audience members were told when they arrived that they were free to come and go when they wanted. In the lobby we hung long scrolls of paper from the ceiling and set up tables stocked with paint and brushes. Our painters encouraged audience members when they took a break from the performance to paint their reactions, which were then cut from the scroll and hung on the walls.

   A trio of singers roamed throughout the center, singing left-leaning folk songs and reciting poems by Otto René Castillo, the Guatemalan poet and revolutionary after whom we had named our theatre. Occasionally the trio would stand in the door of the theatre space (the agreement with Szeiler was that they wouldn’t enter) and sing to the actors and audience members.

   In another room (accessible directly from the theatre) Barbara Taylor, then the principal of the Barbara Taylor School, an experimental elementary school in Harlem, set up a classroom. She encouraged audience members leaving the performance space to write poems and essays about the production. “Most people were a little confused and weren’t sure about what they were seeing,” recalled Taylor 15 years later. “Others thought it had a beauty to it. They picked up on certain phrases or images and wrote poems based on them.” 

   So began Castillo’s dialogue with Müller. It has continued in various ways ever since. While time does not allow for a complete unpacking of Castillo’s history with Müller, allow me to describe a few more dramaturgical turning points in this relationship.

*

   We produced Explosion of a Memory again in 1992, this time directed by Newman, and once again used it to create a dialogic environment with the text. This production started with Amy Pivar Dances, a modern dance troupe, dancing to a video Müller sent us of him reading the script in English on Berlin rooftop. At the same time, painters painted on a plastic transparency that separated the stage from the audience.

   Then everyone—audience, dancers, painters, actors from Castillo (including its improv comedy troupe, the Gayggles) social therapists from the East Side Center for Social Therapy, and Barbara Taylor (the school principal who participated in the first production) equipped with a blackboard—gathered in Castillo’s lobby for hours of playing with the text. The dancers taught the audience dance moves and together they improvised dances inspired by the script, singers made songs out of its lines, the Gayggles improvised comedy skits based on the text (or at least some of its lines, images and implied characters), social therapists made themselves available to anyone who wanted to talk about their emotional reactions to the play, and Taylor presided over an endless (and wall-less) classroom. After five or six hours of play and improvisation (including dinner together in various local restaurants), the gathering returned to the theatre and separated into audience and dancers once again. The dancers created a new version of the production based on all the collective work that had been done in the course of the day.

   Those five or so hours between the two versions of the dance performance were in a very real sense a vast class in and experiment with dramaturgy.  Performers and audience were both challenged to make something with a script that was initially impenetrable to most of them. It taught us a lot not only about Müller, but also about our audience and about ourselves as artist-organizers.

*

   Not all of Castillo’s productions of Müller have been so participatory (or so long). As our audience became more familiar with Müller and matured as theatre-goers, we began to stage events that looked more like plays. At the same time, we have continued to seek ways of building bridges between Müller’s texts and our audience. Starting with The Mission (1998), and following with Germania 3 Ghosts at Dead Man (2001) and Hamletmachine (2002), Newman has written songs that we added to the productions.  They are mostly Brechtian in that they explained or commented on the action or content of a scene. Given America’s rich heritage of popular music and musical theatre, they also functioned as a cultural point of contact with what was otherwise a rather alien text.

   Castillo’s dramaturgical exploration of Müller cannot be understood by simply examining what we did with a particular text or even a series of productions; it has really been a long-term relationship that goes beyond particular encounters, however exciting they be.

   In fact, we have gotten to know Muller not only by producing his texts, but also by playing with him as a character in plays of our own making. A half year after the first production of Explosion of a Memory, Castillo produced a play by William Pleasant, an African American writer then associated with Castillo, called Müllerschmerz/Müller’s Pain, which took the German writer to task for, among other things, his perceived Eurocentrism. Müller reportedly found the script amusing. In 1996, shortly after his death, we put together a tribute, Heiner Muller: A Man Without a Behind, which consisted of scenes from various of his plays juxtaposed with Muller poems and excerpts from published interviews in which an actor (Roger Grunwald) performed Müller.  Two years later, in 1998, as part of the Brecht centennial, Fred Newman wrote a play, Revising Germany, in which Grunwald again played Müller.  In Revising Germany, which, among other things, is an examination of Brecht’s legacy, Müller and Brecht have fictional conversations in history. Thus Müller’s life and texts inspired new theatre and, in the process, Müller has metamorphosed into a character on the Castillo stage.

   At the same time, we have also continued to develop more participatory ways of involving our audiences in a conversation with Müller. For example, in preparation for Castillo’s American premier of Heiner Muller’s Germania 3 in 2001, I met for some four months with a group of about 20 interested Castillo audience members and volunteers. Each person chose a scene from the script and directed it.  Mind you, these are poetic and non-realistic scenes dense with historical and literary references, and these were people who had never directed before. Of course they asked me, as the dramaturg, all sorts of questions about the content of the script and the historical context of the scenes. But their scenes-as-directed seldom had much to do with those facts. What they did was, essentially, play with the scenes and, through the lens of their life experience, politics and emotionality, made all sorts of discoveries. Many of the discoveries never made it to public performance, but they were, for that, no less a part of the creative process from which the play emerged. Beyond that, the process provided an opportunity for a group of people with a wide network of connections throughout New York City to directly engage with Müller and share that experience with others.

   An even more radical example is the 34 play readings Castillo organized of Müller’s Hamletmachine as part of the process of preparing for our second production of the play in 2002.  These were readings in which Castillo audience members invited friends and family into their living rooms and kitchens to have a beer, a glass of wine or cup of coffee and read this difficult contemporary masterpiece and discuss it.  After their discussions, or during them, they often e-mailed me questions to which I responded.

   But my answers were only a part of, and a relatively insignificant part, of the conversations that were going on.  It was not primarily a knowledge-based learning project. It was deeper than that; it was people, ordinary, non-theatre people, playing, performing, grappling with one of the theatre’s hardest texts. It obviously helped build an audience, indeed a curious audience, for our production of Hamletmachine.  But that is the least of it. I am convinced that whatever development came through these living room performances and discussions will be of far more significance than simply seeing the play performed could have.

   As a dramaturg, and as a cultural organizer, I am as proud of those 34 living room readings of Hamletmachine as I am of anything we at Castillo have ever put on stage.  It is the clearest, and most radical, example of our success in getting a conversation going between Müller, one of the most politically and artistically radical playwrights our time, and ordinary Americans.

   Obviously, there is a limit to what one theatre can do and the mainstream audience we have introduced to Müller is, after all, a very specific one.  What this history illustrates, perhaps, is what can be accomplished in terms of bringing the most sophisticated theatre to an unsophisticated audience if a theatre is not afraid to build intimate ties with its audience and use dramaturgy in radical new ways.

 

 i Müller, Heiner. Gesammelte Irrtümer. Interviews und Gespräche. Trans. Cordula Quint (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 1986) 16. 

 ii Interview with Barbara Taylor conducted by Dan Friedman, 2002.