- Precarious Presence in Contemporary Theater
Example 1: The Atriden Incarcerated
Prison Theatre aufBruch,
JVA Tegel-Berlin (DE), November 2007
Visitors make a long queue in front of the first metal-bar door, extending to the outside, beyond the narrow passageway that separates the vast terrain of the Tegel prison from (or, indeed, connects it to) the city. They must undergo a meticulous registration process in order to be allowed access to the premises. It is already dark, and the big floodlights shed their glaring, cold light over the chaotic prison’s terrain. The performance starts with this queue.
I am part of this lucky audience that was able to get tickets for the Atriden, performed by aufBruch, a famous ensemble made up of prisoners in the Berlin Tegel prison, in spaces of that very prison which are otherwise impossible to access. This first queue was not meant to be the last.
The entire admission process is strongly reminiscent of an initiation ritual. All members of the audience are variously segregated, arranged into larger or smaller groups and assigned to specific officers to be controlled and redistributed. Following a carefully planned obligatory route, visitors are then led through a series of doors, corridors screened with barbed wire, rooms reinforced with steel-bar fences, closed cold spaces, and a court, before entering a dark building through a small iron door that leads them to a narrow two-story staircase opening into the theater hall itself through an even narrower door. [End Page 93]
This prescribed, almost ritualistic perambulation that, whether intentionally or not, formed part of the whole performance, led to a place that for the majority of the audience, until then, had remained out of sight and concealed. In a sense, the performance was now the means through which a socially vanished place was rendered visible. Interestingly, it is exactly this act of appearance that makes possible the perception of disappearance: only when something appears can it be considered as having vanished.
With theater being in our case the means of such an appearance, a space until then invisible was now visible because it had become a performative one. The place itself made an appearance primarily as a performative space, one in which a theatrical event could be accommodated. In this context, I wish to argue that the prison appeared as theater and in this process forfeited part of its identity as a prison. The actual identity of the place gave way in part to another, which nevertheless did not let the original one completely vanish. This novel identity or, better, the presence of place, I wish to describe and understand as a precarious presence, as an “unsecured” state involving a constant oscillation between ascriptions and identities that are too difficult to come to terms with.1 What interests me primarily here is this moment-in-between—a moment of great insecurity and instability, the art of its manifestation in theater, and its political and ethical implications.2
Example 2: Jenin Onstage
Attis Theatre, Athens (GR), March 2006
My first example dealt with what may be described as an occupation of prison by theater. In this second example, it is the theater, rather, that functions as an in-between space, as a manifestation of a precarious presence that unexpectedly opens up for a particular public.
The performance begins at Adonis, a Middle Eastern coffee shop next to the theater. Spectators are first asked to enter the dimly lit but colorful coffee shop with the air saturated by smoke from shisha pipes, where they are free to do what they want. Most of them stand briefly at the door or stroll around to have a look. Others take a seat at a table and place an order. Customers of the coffee shop chatting in languages other than Greek do not seem to be distracted by us—the spectators of Jenin—and carry on with their activities at their tables. [End Page 94]
After a short while I leave the loud coffee shop and make my way to the queue in order to enter the theater, where the performance continues. Each time about twenty spectators are allowed in and at...