I prefer to call it 'migrant foreground'
Naima El Moussaoui - 24/07/2008
"Flüchtlinge im Ruhestand" is a very unusual play. How did the idea come about?
Miriam Strunk: Since Anselm Weber took over as its director, the Schauspiel Essen has been carrying out urban exploration projects. These are projects in which you move into the city in order to address particular topics with the people who live there. That means there is no prepared script, but rather that authors are invited to conduct research, to locate these people, to carry out interviews and finally to present them onstage.
This season's topic was "swarms," i.e. specific groups in the city that are pursuing a common subject, a common system. In this context I was asked if I could imagine doing a project on refugees. Then, together with the dramaturgy department, we developed the concept behind "Flüchtlinge im Ruhestand."
You say that the play is about "Ruhestand,"or retirement, but that's not something one usually associates with refugees.
Strunk: When most people hear the term "refugee," they envision someone who leaps over a wall, climbs over a barbed-wired fence, or boards a tiny refugee boat …. I was not concerned with such ubiquitous medial moments. More important to me was to address, onstage, the condition of being in transit, which makes up a considerable part of refugees' lives. In other words, the focus isn't on the movement from point A to point B, but to expand upon the many transitory moments and spaces that leave their mark on the refugees' biographies.
No one enjoys telling a refugee biography onstage in front of an audience. How did you find your actors, or your "transit experts," as you call them?
Strunk: It would have been nice to hold a casting as I do with many of my other projects. But of course, that wasn't an option in the case of "Flüchtlinge im Ruhestand." We faced a great number of difficulties. First of all, you can't simply locate and address refugees on the street, as is possible in the case of other projects. In addition, there was a great deal of skepticism regarding my biographical work, truly bringing my own life to the stage in the form of a documentary, because especially in the case of refugees, you have to be much more sensitive in creating a biography. There were language barriers and we also had to determine at an early stage whether these people could or should be allowed to go onstage at all.
I spent six weeks in the city looking for these actors. I visited mosques and the local authorities, contacted many state institutions and spoke to about 30 or 40 individuals before I chose the eight people who appear in the play.
You could have avoided all the difficulties by working with professional actors, who could have recited the refugees' texts.
Strunk: Naturally it would have been possible to hire professional actors. But this would not have been my way of working, because I felt it to be an extraordinary challenge to bring these texts to the stage in a truly authentic manner, to the effect that the people who experienced these events stand in front of an audience. Also, they don't have the professional tools: How can I portray this or how can I evoke emotions? I believe that the pure presence makes the stories more accessible to the viewer.
What was the process of developing the script, the rehearsals and working with the actors like?
Strunk : These kinds of theater projects are created in a different manner than traditional theater productions: In those cases, the script is complete when you meet on the first day, you do a reading and then there are six weeks of rehearsals … The first time we met, the main focus was to conduct individual interviews so that I could get to know each one of them and vice versa. I also wanted to find out which topic areas I could focus on, where parallels existed. We improvised, discussed various subjects, held long conversations, and there were also writing workshops in which I gave them writing assignments. With this work, it was extremely important to find out who would be able to access his own resources and biographical stories and how. That takes time. It took five or six months to finalize a script and then rehearsals started. The script was modified right up until the final day of rehearsals.
More and more, subjects such as migration, integration and asylum are finding their way into the world of theater. Young directors in particular are addressing current issues.
Strunk: Facing these current issues is an important task of theater – just as with any other form of art. Perhaps the term "migrant background" is a nice way of describing it. One day, actor Clément Matweta from asked: "Why background? Foreground." Ever since, I prefer to call it "migrant foreground" because it is time for our society to stop talking about the background and instead to really speak about the spaces and places that stand directly between us, and to bring them into the foreground.
Naima El Moussaoui
Translated from the German by Mark Rossman