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Germany: Untraditional theater production in Berlin plays with anti-migrant prejudice

21.6.2016 20:47
A photo from the
A photo from the "exchange office" underway as part of the Wechselstube (Exchange Office) production by the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. (PHOTO: www.deutschestheater.de, Arno Declair)

The Deutsches Theater in Berlin has prepared an interesting artistic performance that could be a big source of inspiration to us all. In response to last year's "special summer and fall", as the company calls the wave of immigrants and refugees who arrived in Germany last year, they have created a production called "Wechselstube" (Exchange Office).

The production is based on direct contact between "actors" and "audience" in one-to-one situations. The audience member plays a short communication game with the actors and is confronted, among other things, with his or her own prejudices.

How did this unusual performace come about? Deutsches Theater and its employees first joined the aid efforts for refugees last fall by offering to accommodate people at the theater and also took advantage of their marketing and communications channels to find many volunteer language teachers.

Regular language courses for the new arrivals have been underway at the theater for several months now. Another basic thing that these people needed and wanted most was contact with "ordinary" Berliners.

The theater management decided to address this challenge through art and announced an open call, putting together a team of approximately 40 people who began to prepare the "Wechselstube" production together. The group of "actors" (the word is in quotation marks here because a) those participating are not professionals and b) this is definitely not acting as it is classically conceived) is comprised of one-third native Germans, one-third foreign nationals or immigrants living in Berlin for some time, and one-third people who arrived during this most recent wave of refugees.

Who is who?

The entire magic of the performance lies in the fact that at first glance the audience member cannot tell at all which group the "actor" seated across the table belongs to! Ethnic features or skin color in today's cosmopolitan Berlin tell us nothing about where somebody was born, what citizenship he or she has, what his or her life story is, or how much money he or she has in the bank.

That means the beautiful young woman with Hispanic features sitting across from you could be an "economic migrant" who came to Germany to find a better job, or an Erasmus student, or a German who was born in Berlin and has lived there her whole life in a wealthy neighborhood. The same goes for the guy in the suit - is he a businessman from England, where he manages a branch of a German firm, or is he a refugee from Syria who spent seven months in a refugee camp in Turkey and then traveled on a rubber raft across the Mediterranean, a journey in which more than half of his fellow passengers drowned and he was one of the few to reach shore?

During your five-minute conversation with this person, you must decide which of those options you find most probable and then conduct the dialogue. The choice is frequently not easy at all and leads you to reflect on how you create your opinions about other people.

What would you like to trade?

This "performance", moreover, is framed by an actual "exchange office" - everybody participating writes down on small cards what they are offering to exchange and what they are looking for in return. This can be something material, such as clothing or furniture, or it can be a service (a cooking course, language course, music course, sewing or knitting course - instruction in practically anything ), or it can be something uncategorizable, like a place to sleep when visiting a particular city, an invitation for a drink or a meal, or... anything that comes to mind.

At the end of the performance the offered items are matched to people seeking them, and the people can then agree on whether, how, when and where the "exchange" will take place. As an "audience member" you spend two hours in the square in front of the Deutsches Theater on a specially created outdoor wooden stage, where you will probably meet and speak with a German Protestant pastor, a girl from Syria, a student from Hungary, a model from Venezuela, a light technician from the theater itself, and a Spanish woman who confounds your stereotypes by looking Swedish.

Then you can agree with one of the "actors" that once he comes to Prague next month, you will go to a restaurant for lunch, and in exchange he will invite you to his home the next day for a homemade Indian meal. This theater company in Berlin has very successfully created a quite original space for the condensed exchange of contacts, experiences, services - and stuff.

My visit to the "Wechselstube" performance was part of the international "NGO Network against Inhumane Ideologies/ For a Democratic Culture" program organized in Berlin by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Representatives of Czech, Hungarian and Slovak nonprofit organizations met with several German insitutions involved in migration over the course of four days and learned about how they approach their work and the specific projects they run; the program included attending the international conference "Crossing Borders - Refugee and Asylum Policy in Europe", part of the "EU, quo vadis?" series.

Veronika Jírů, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Migrace, Berlin, Civil society, Culture, Germany



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