VOLKSBÜHNE
Berlin

The Space as Protagonist
An Interview with Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff
about the Grüner Salon in the 2017/18 season

After being leased to an external operator for many years, the Grüner Salon is now again a Volksbühne venue. In the 2017/18 season, it is being run by the artists Calla Henkel (born in Minneapolis in 1988) and Max Pitegoff (born in Buffalo in 1987). Working mainly with non-professional actors, they have transformed the Grüner Salon into a protagonist in a series of plays that loosely trace the rise and fall of a city. They also regularly host performances and concerts by invited artists, writers and musicians.

Henkel and Pitegoff work across a variety of media including theatre, performance, photography and writing. Together they produce collaborative scenarios in which they investigate the rules and systems that structure shared space, as well as their own role within the artistic and political context of Berlin today. From 2013 to 2015 they ran New Theater in a storefront space in Kreuzberg, working together with friends to present original plays and guest performances.

What is the Grüner Salon?
The Grüner Salon is and has been many things. Originally designed as a “refreshment room” for theatre audiences, it has been used more recently as a venue for concerts, live political talk shows, and tango nights. The bar at the mouth of the space implies a constant invitation to socializing, which in some ways poses a challenge to staging theatre, but has become the backbone from which we are building and staging our work and collaborations with others. For this season, we have doubled and costumed the bar as a piece of the set, creating a “fake” bar which mirrors the real one and is used in different ways.

You’ve been programming the Grüner Salon since November of last year, writing and directing two plays as well as launching a new series with the “Grüne Abende”. What is the thread that connects all these activities?
Over the course of the season we are bringing together a wide group of artists, musicians and performers to put on a series of plays and performances that tend to bleed into one another. Our initial idea was to develop a soundtrack for the space that could be experienced over the course of the season. This continues to inform the concerts and performances known as Grüne Abende, which often take place in and around the sets of the plays we are rehearsing or performing. The Grüner Salon usually stays open for a couple of hours after each performance, and often ensemble member Sir Henry plays the organ (the same one he played at the Schmalzwald in Volksbühne’s Prater in the late 90s), which lends to an overarching Grüner Salon sound.

And what about the plays?
The plays themselves form an arc through the season that is a distorted version of the rise and fall of a city. The first of them, News Crime Sports, was set on a cruise ship lost at sea: the cosmopolitan remains of a past life. It existed within its own timeframe, alluding to fantasies about what a city is or can be. The nameless characters functioned as ghosts of their former identities. In the script they had names like the reporter, the husband, the daughter or the entertainer, with each of these characters removed from the representation of their labor. We were working on it during B61-12’s occupation of the Volksbühne, and their language about who owns the city spilled into our writing process. The second play, Health & Safety, takes a different tack, looking at contemporary Berlin as a city haunted by its architectural history.

Is “the rise and fall of a city” a reference to Berlin?
It is very much derived from the way Berlin is talked about, whether in terms of rising rents, the loss of DIY spaces, or the Volksbühne itself. We are drawn to the clash between that kind of epic historical statement, with its Brechtian operatic (and phallic) overtones, with the more mundane lived truths which it contains.

How responsive can theatre be to current events, to what’s happening in the city?
For us, theatre is a place to be extremely responsive. We sometimes think of our way of writing as a sort of lint roller for language, picking up what is floating around. Health & Safety follows an architecture school dropout living in his car with the ghost of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who is plotting to burn down the Stadtschloss. The Stadtschloss embodies certain Berlin-specific questions around its identity and how it is played out through its institutions, its architecture and, most relevant to theatre, its facades.

How did you end up working in theatre?
After studying in Berlin then moving here for good in 2011, we ran a bar in Neukölln for a little over a year, where we showed artworks by artists who were friends and customers. This became a performative process as the work was installed while the bar was open. We began a practice of documenting these evenings in our tab book, which soon began to read theatrically, like a script for a sitcom with the artworks functioning like props within a very specific economy. We opened New Theater soon after in a Kreuzberg storefront, which expanded those ideas and pushed them explicitly into theatre, as a place where one can watch the geometry of relationships. When we started out, we didn’t have set ideas about how to work, but an ensemble of friends and a shared theatrical language soon emerged that mixed the skilled, de-skilled and non-skilled.

How do you write your plays—can you describe the process a little?
Our practice is based in language. Because we are two people everything ends up a discussion, which makes some things more difficult but also makes it easier to open up the process and bring in other people. We write the plays quite quickly, but we allow rehearsals to be a slower ground for collective editing and discussing language and meaning and how it is in turn to be performed. The characters grow out of collective knowledge and conversation rather than formal acting training. The usual: lots of therapy and shit-talking.

Who is the audience for the Grüner Salon, and how is that different to at New Theater?
We write in both German and English, which allows our plays to be read in different ways depending on levels of understanding in both directions, and echoes the way we hear and use language in Berlin. Playing with this slippage of understanding (and not being able to understand everything) feels intrinsic to this period in Berlin. A confrontation with the limits of working with a shared language, a shared vocabulary, and shared concerns has become a primary source for the plays we are writing.

What’s changes about your working method when you’re dealing with an existing institution rather than a space you have set up yourself?
In the past the structures that guided our spaces emerged organically through lots of trial and error and long nights of working with our friends solving things with whatever materials were around. While we’ve retained some of this in the Grüner Salon, we’ve also entered into the very set rhythm of the Volksbühne’s structure, where all the various departments carry their own formats for working, and bring ideas that lead to a shared idea of what a piece can be. Within this structure—and expertise—we have found really interesting sites of collaboration, allowing for a hybrid way of working, also by letting the rulebook of Stadttheater (fire safety, contracting, etc.) be another theatrical element. Theatre is an excellent prison for magic.

Berlin, February 2018
Conducted by Elodie Evers and Alex Scrimgeour

Current production
> Health & Safety

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