In her practices, Van den Berg never forces the participants in a certain direction. Her subtle but inescapable dramaturgy is purely aimed at teaching us to empathize with the people and objects that, through the catastrophe, have become entwined with the case study.
It’s astonishing how rapidly familiarity with a work or a maker can lead to a blasé ‘been there, done that’ kind of attitude. This happened to me a while back during Odisseia by Companhia Hiato, a Brazilian ensemble that I have been following for years—I reported on it in Theatermaker. Would I experience the same thing during the second and last part of DYING TOGETHER by Lotte van den Berg? Before the premiere in Bochum, Germany, on Friday 4 October, this worried me a little.
At this same venue almost a year ago, I reviewed part one, which was later christened Humans. Neither parts are productions in the classical sense. Like all of Van den Berg’s work—such as Building Conversation for instance, from 2013, with which she is still touring—DYING TOGETHER is a practice, a carefully conceived and executed group ritual, performed by Van den Berg herself together with her team of twenty men and women from every conceivable country, and an audience of a maximum of eighty people. Part two is called Earth, and receives its Dutch premiere at Theater Rotterdam on Tuesday 5 November.
Wherever the production is staged, English is the working language. The documentation that accompanies Humans describes the project concept as follows: ‘Can looking at the way we die together give us new perspectives on the way we live together?’ Humans centres around three real-life cases of collective death: the suicidal Germanwings pilot who in 2015, crashed his Airbus into a mountain killing himself and all 149 people on board, the incident in 2013 when 360 refugees in an overfull boat drowned in the Mediterranean when the vessel capsized, and the 2015 attacks in Paris when 130 people died.
Van den Berg asks her audience to ‘represent’ various players in these dramas by empathizing with their mental and emotional state at the time of the disaster. In most instances, we represent people, but sometimes other things, too, like the cockpit door of the Airbus, a tree on the mountain that was crushed by the crashing plane. Apart from moving through the theatre space however we like, we don’t have to say or do anything else. In her practices, Van den Berg never forces the participants in a certain direction. Her subtle but inescapable dramaturgy is purely aimed at teaching us to empathize with the people and objects that, through the catastrophe, have become entwined with the case study.
The dramaturgy is hidden in the order in which she presents us her case studies. The three in Humans have a cumulative effect. The repercussions of the air crash are confined to the crew, the passengers and their relatives and the rocks and living organisms on the mountainside the Airbus crashed into. The refugee boat disaster also affected the African villages the migrants had left behind. As well as we Europeans, so proud of our ‘norms and values’ yet too callous to take in a few hundred thousand African refugees. The attacks on the Bataclan and other locations in Paris even took the lives of people in a remote land who had nothing to do with it. And led to Western countries, led by the US, conducting a string of retaliatory bombings of targets in Syria, killing many totally innocent Syrian civilians.
In Earth, the escalation of the three case studies is different. Part two—the name says it all—is about the death of Mother Earth, even though it was set in motion by humans. In the first case study—the outbreak of mad cow disease in the UK some 30 years ago—the emphasis is still on human beings. It was our children who died after eating contaminated beef, and the cows themselves were also our creatures: products of industrial agriculture with all its unforeseen consequences.
In the second case, the extinction of the rainforest in the Amazon, the murdered nature is much more emphatically present. The human victims in the story, the native peoples of the area, also live in greater harmony with, and with greater respect for, nature. In the third case, the roles are completely reversed. It is about a man who committed suicide in the Japanese Aokigahara forest, at the foot of Mount Fuji, and whose body was found months later, almost completely decomposed apart from a few teeth and a sneaker. This man is one of many. The forest in question is one of the most popular suicide sites in Japan. Did the victims kill themselves, or were they prompted to do so by the surrounding trees and that magical mountain?
The first thing that strikes me about Earth in Bochum is the totally different attitude of the participants. During Humans in Rotterdam, a year ago, we moved through the space almost timidly. We mostly carried out the representations to which Van den Berg and her team invited us. As individuals, constantly aware of the grey area between the personal baggage we brought with us to the theatre, and the new role that was asked of us there.
Germans are far more fanatical theatre-goers than we Dutch, largely because theatre is more prominent in their lives. They are more familiar with the canon, having studied it at school and attended theatre growing up, and have stage experience. The audience at Bochum threw themselves into Earth. They Acted, with a capital A, from the first moment. Timidity? They’d never heard of it. They played the dying forest giants, the indigenous Amazon communities fighting to protect their habitat and the paramilitary ‘security guards’ who attempted to fend them off with industrial soybean-planting machinery, with fatal consequences if necessary. With full dedication.
The contrast became all the greater due to the fundamentally different dramaturgy that Van den Berg uses in Earth. In part two of DYING TOGETHER she places much more emphasis on the insignificance of man versus nature. Or, perhaps conversely, on the overwhelming nature of man’s destruction of that nature. During the Amazon case study, in just a few minutes, her team asks the participants to personify dozens of trees. The cascade of requests and participants moving through the space overwhelms us. As individuals, we become confused. We no longer know who represents what, huddle in small groups at a few points scattered throughout the space. Gazing about in confusion while at the same time—we’re in Germany—still Acting our hearts out.
It had a fundamentally different effect on me than Humans. At one point I represented glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the pesticide that has been used for decades by multinational Monsanto to poison the earth, the long-term damage of which is still not precisely known—except for the fact that Roundup’s active life is only slightly shorter than the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power stations. I kept sneaking up behind other people, like the assassin that Roundup probably is.
At the same time I continued to feel like an insignificant atom. An anonymous pawn in a mega carousel of death and destruction, in which no player has any individual responsibility anymore, in which nothing or no one can make the difference between good and bad. I underwent Humans as a healing, even when I represented a ‘bad guy’—in my case a soldier from the Syrian Air Force. The empathy with another individual had something restorative. Earth immersed me yet again, albeit far more violently, in the sensation of total powerlessness that today’s world headlines routinely incite.
If all the coral reefs on earth are already dying, and at the same time a new coal-fired power plant goes into operation in India and China almost every day; if Donald Trump betrays the Kurds to a country that is also our NATO partner, and we lack both the will and the soldiers to act as a buffer between Turks and Kurds—what kind of action should or can you take as a lone individual?
My concern—that my response would be a blasé ‘been there, done that’—turned out to be totally unfounded. Earth was a disconcerting experience, only slightly alleviated by the follow-up conversation that Van den Berg always has with her participants, and in which I could regain a bit of my individual self-worth, by sharing my experiences with others, and sometimes having a laugh at each other’s stories—for me a much-needed relief.
Only then, during that follow-up discussion, did the Germans show a sense of timidity about their role in Earth. Full surrender, followed by more intimate self-reflection: perhaps that is the only right way to participate in DYING TOGETHER / Earth. It makes me curious about how Rotterdammers will react during the Dutch premiere on November 5.