MUNICH — As theaters here tentatively start to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown, now seems a good time to take stock of the artistic responses in the German-speaking world after two and a half months of drawn curtains and empty stages.
When theaters began to shut down in mid-March, many companies worldwide rushed to put their archives online, inundating cyberspace with video recordings that could scarcely do justice to live performance. Several theaters, however, jumped at the opportunity to innovate with fresh online productions.
In the German-speaking world, where contemporary theater is constantly deconstructing itself and redrawing aesthetic boundaries, some directors, not content merely to work at a distance, have taken up new lines of inquiry. What possibilities exist for theater at this moment? Created and consumed by people who never meet face to face, mediated by devices that both engage and distract, how does digital theater resemble analog theater? How can it? Perhaps it makes more sense to think of it as cinema. Or what if it’s a different beast altogether?
Since the pandemic struck, many have turned to Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, “The Plague,” as a literary manual and moral guide to making sense of our new reality.
The novel, therefore, was not an unexpected choice for Bert Zander, a video artist who directed a five-part adaptation for Theater Oberhausen in northwest Germany.
Made in various locations around the depopulated city of Oberhausen, the production features specterlike projections of actors who were filmed remotely, then beamed onto surfaces indoors and out, including window shutters, armchairs, blank walls and even weeping willows and reeds, bringing Camus’s pestilence narrative to life. The episodes, each less than half an hour, are available to stream from the German provider 3Sat until November. (The fifth and final episode premieres on Saturday.) Zander effectively crowdsourced the lengthy narration by recruiting dozens of (mostly older) locals who filmed and uploaded their own contributions. Like the theater’s ensemble actors, who inhabit the main roles, the amateurs appear holographically.
The production therefore became something of a communal project for the culturally curious who were trapped at home. The result is a faithful and narratively straightforward adaptation that often seems dutiful.
No doubt, Zander has found a clever and unusual solution to working within the constraints of social distancing, but how does the mini-series relate to theater? With the low-fi projections, tight editing, use of title cards and arpeggio-heavy soundtrack, “The Plague” has a far greater affinity with film or TV than with the stage. In both aesthetic and tone, it often resembled a police procedural.
In Zurich, another mini-series showed a vastly different approach. Christopher Rüping, an in-house director at the Schauspielhaus Zürich, has called his coronavirus-era production of “Dekalog” a “theatrical production for the digital space.”
Rüping’s chosen subject, a 10-part 1988 series of television films by the great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, might not appear to have the same level of immediacy as Camus’s classic text. This isn’t the first time Rüping has sifted through “Dekalog,” in which the themes of the Ten Commandments are explored through stories of ordinary people and their ethical quandaries. He directed a version in Frankfurt in 2013.
The episodes, each roughly half an hour, were streamed over four weeks starting in mid-April. In each, a member of the Schauspielhaus ensemble performed a semi-improvised monologue, trailed by a roving, often hand-held camera on one of the theater’s smaller stages. The actors crawled though eccentric sets designed by Natascha Leonie Simons and Ann-Kathrin Bernstetter, which featured balloons, plants, swings and kitchen appliances. Sparse or cluttered, these installation-like environments framed the performers effectively.
In contrast to the polish of “The Plague,” “Dekalog” was insistently rough around the edges, with room for experimentation and error. Live, unscripted and unedited, it was digital theater without a safety net, and often left the actors exposed. In the eighth episode, “Thou Shalt Not Lie,” Josh Johnson, an American dancer, spent half an hour fielding viewers’ questions in English. “Yeah, I’m extremely nervous,” he answered to the camera at one point. If Johnson was lying, he’s a very good actor.
The interactive element was the most unusual aspect of “Dekalog.” Rüping incorporated tools like a chat sidebar and voting, and the episodes could be seen only as they were being made, so that they would be “live theater and not like Netflix’s ugly brother,” Rüping said in an interview. For the time being, a short recap trailer can be seen on Vimeo. The director has floated the possibility of encore screenings, possibly as a binge-watching marathon.
If the connection between “Dekalog” and our virus-hit world was less than apparent, Rüping’s insistence on telling these stories nevertheless seemed a way of focusing viewers on their individual responsibilities as moral actors.
“Corona put us in a place where we are constantly tested in making decisions for the greater good or our self-gratification,” the director explained. During the livestreams, viewers could vote on what courses of action the characters should take, ranging from seemingly minor choices to full-blown ethical decisions. The interactivity became a way of putting moral responsibility in the audience’s hands.
With this “choose your own adventure” approach to Kieslowski, I suspect that Rüping trusted his audience — the streams attracted an average of 1,000 viewers per episode — to make choices that would propel the plot forward. (Yes, she should listen to her dead mother’s message!)
Before each episode, the director explained how to vote and gave his suggestions for maximal enjoyment (close all tabs, turn off cellphones).
“‘Dekalog’ is a format for the curious, the treasure hunters and for fans of the incomplete,” he said at the beginning of Episode 2, which bore the modified title “Thou Shalt Not Play God” and starred the excellent Karin Pfammatter as a doctor forced to make a prediction with life-or-death consequences. “Anyone who’s in a less adventurous mood,” Rüping continued, “and wants something more complete and less provisional should turn this off now and watch ‘Stand by Me’ from 1986 — which is a really great film.”
For all their differences, “The Plague” and “Dekalog” shared an insistence on the social aspect of art in performance. At a time when we have been robbed of much of our fundamental human contact, it seems appropriate that directors are finding ways to satisfy our craving for connection. The professional and nonprofessional cast members of “The Plague” have never met, but they were brought together in the artistic world of the project.
Somewhat ironically, working in isolation recalled to Rüping how theater is, on a core level, a communal act: “It’s easy to get caught up in a discourse of aesthetics, of politics, acting methods. You sometimes lose track of the basics,” he said. “With ‘Dekalog,’ I felt the desire to connect with other human beings and understood how a group of strangers can become a community, even a fleeting one. That’s what it’s all about.”