In conversation with Sanja Mitrović
– Cảm ơn nước Đức
The interests of Sanja Mitrović, theatre director and performer whose recent play Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức has premiered at Berlin’s Schaubühne, are anchored in translating theatre as decentralised space and putting an emphasis on lived experience. Dissecting the urgent socio-economic realities, such as immigration, political and cultural integration, she approaches theatre as a tool for re-engaging and deepening the affective potential of collective experience, involving actors and non-actors in a vibrant, expressive and non-hierarchical fusion of dance, music and performance where no discipline is left to dominate. We talked about self-representation, the ideological divide between East and West, breaking the Vietnamese culture of silence, and understanding of the world through theatre.
THIS IS BADLAND: The characters in your play enact and embody a fluid constellation of topics (community, diaspora, memory). It struck me that by employing a casual and dissociative tone in the play you avoid the fetishistic representation of its subjects. How do you transfer this understanding in your role as director?
Sanja Mitrović: In my work, there’s consistently an impulse towards engaging the lived experience directly, head-on. This might stem from an urge to inject a dose of "reality" — showing things simply as they are — and make the theatrical experience more involved and, perhaps, more responsible. In this sense, the subjects in my plays are not typical dramatic characters. They do assume certain "roles" and follow narrative arcs, which are necessary for dramaturgy, but on the whole, they are more or less function as the portraits of themselves. As a director what I expect from you, the viewer, is to engage with their stories more acutely, and more actively, than you would with fictional characters who, as you’re inevitably aware of, have been written to represent certain ideas or attitudes. It’s a complicated proposition in which things are never as straightforward as they might appear. How we see ourselves is one thing, but how others see us is quite another. This gap in perception can be similar to the ‘classical’ reading of a character – how the actor interprets the role, how the artistic team translates it for stage, and, consequently, how the audience relates to it. To avoid that kind of characterisation, I try to stay in a "low-key" register, stick with the vernacular, and keep, as you say, a casual and dissociative tone.
The trouble is, in our media-saturated culture any "authentic" experience falls as easy prey to a number of preconceived clichés — from gender, age and class, to nationality and political persuasion. Just look at the reality TV; what could have been a radical act of bringing the unmediated, everyday experience to the widest audiences, has quickly turned into a form of fiction more scripted than any outrageous soap opera storyline. It’s problematic when this kind of simplification, an uncaring reduction of people and their lives to a registry of stereotypes, occurs in theatre, especially in the so-called documentary theatre. My responsibility as a director is to complicate such easily consumable — thus disengaged and, ultimately, irresponsible — understanding of problems which are important to think about; a duty to represent and honour, but also contradict and question, individual experience in order to arrive at something which we might share as a community.
TIB: In “Danke, Deutschland” you disregard the idea of linear plot and present instead, a collage of dancing, spoken text and singing. I am interested to learn more specifically about your interest in engaging your cast in performing their biographies?
SM: For me, it’s important that “the body of the witness” is present on stage. I apply this premise literally and use the body not only as a storytelling machine but also in terms of its physical and expressive potential. I’m interested in staging the collective experience through actions in which bodies of the present become bodies of the past. Sometimes it’s not enough to recall history only through re-telling. Memories are also visual and musical. It might be obvious but it’s true — how often do you hear a song which immediately transports you to where you were when you first heard it. The same goes for images, those sly snippets of the imaginary which fester unnoticed until they come to haunt you when you least expect it. I try to pull these disparate elements together in a musical sense, to listen to their rhythms which lead to a kind of “documentary choreography”. One of my first stage experiences as a child was being part of a ballet group at a cultural centre in my hometown, so maybe this sensitivity to movement and melody as vehicles for communication harks back to those early years.
TIB: We could say that the focus on theatre as collaborative practice is central to the ethos of your production company Stand Up Tall. I would like to know your thoughts on the way urgent issues of our times such as immigration, political and cultural integration, nationalism can be re-approached through the genre of theatre you are interested in?
SM: I don’t create work with what might be considered a specialised, narrowly defined “theatrical” audience in mind. Instead, I like to think of it more as a open proposition, an offer to enter dialogue without having to have a PhD in critical theory or theatre studies. A situation which pretty much anyone stumbling in from the street could understand and relate to. It’s this inclusive aspect of theatre which makes me believe in what I do, a potential to lay bare, question, challenge, and hopefully even change how we think about the world in which we live.
Like every art, theatre should be a reflection of society. Without connection to its immediate surroundings, it becomes mere decoration. Theatre lies, no question about it, but I believe that it can still affect our understanding of life and how we live it. For me, its power lies in the raw energy of exchange, in sharing physical space at a specific moment in time, and all the unpredictable consequences which might come out of it.
TIB: Both German and Vietnamese societies you portray, share the ideological divide between East and West, or North and South. Based on what you learned from doing this play, to what extent would you say such identity splits involve unexpected points of connection?
SM: The play relates to the Vietnamese community’s sense of gratitude for the country which gave them an opportunity to build a new life. In fact, it’s about Germany’s two distinct Vietnamese communities. One are the North Vietnamese who arrived under the umbrella of the GDR’s guest worker programmes, another the so-called “boat people” who fled from South Vietnam to West Germany. These two groups have gone through different experiences of integration, but what they share is a sense of obligation and gratitude to their host country. This often led to silencing, an inability to voice any criticism or dissatisfaction, and to a kind of self-imposed “invisibility" as pre-condition of being considered a "good" citizen. In that sense, the title of the production is ambivalent. It underlines the notion of gratitude but also questions it as something which wasn’t necessarily a choice. Many of the Vietnamese immigrants have gone through difficult, sometimes traumatic, integration but they didn’t speak about it out of fear that they would be sent back or that their position in Germany might be jeopardized. Even in the idealised version of socialist countries as a kind of harmonious "brotherhood" of nations, the North Vietnamese immigration to East Germany was much more complex. Aside from the state-propagated politics of friendship, there was a strong element of animosity and xenophobia, and often the experience of guest workers from the socialist brotherhood was equally as bad as those of immigrants in West Germany. The culture of silence is deeply ingrained in the Vietnamese community. The first generation doesn’t really talk about their experiences, neither among themselves nor with their children. There is a generational silence which is difficult to bridge over, as well as the silence between two main groups which still find it hard to engage in a dialogue. This is something which Danke Deutschland – Cảm ơn nước Đức aims to bring to light.
Interview: Nina Vukelić
Photos: Thomas Aurin