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“We’re pulling him out of obscurity by his pants”

INTERVIEW. Theatre collective Shakespeare im Park put the spotlight on a little-known rail tycoon, via Kant and the blues, in their historically-inspired Görli trilogy King Bethel. Get on board before it reaches the end of the line on Sunday Aug 25.

Image for “We're pulling him out of obscurity by his pants”
Photo by Lisa Merk and Mark von Wardenburg

After forays into a more traditional theater space over the winter, the team behind Shakespeare im Park (together with musician Leigh Jonathan Thomas) are back outside in Kreuzberg for another round of site-specific open air theater.

This time the ensemble opted out of working with existing literary texts and devised three short plays around the life of Bethel Henry Strousberg, the nineteenth century industrialist and entrepreneur behind the first Görlitzer Bahnhof. As this original station eventually became what we all know as Görlitzer Park, Shakespeare im Park came in contact with Strousberg’s legacy when creating their previous works in Görli, Henry IV and Utopia™. The collective members welcomed Exberliner into their adopted home on Görlitzer Ufer after one of the performances of resulting three-part play King Bethel, which finishes this weekend.

Why did you decide on King Bethel for the title?

Brandon Woolf: It was a debate between King Bethel or just Bethel. Would Bethel and these propagandistic images with just his face be better?

Adding King does make it sound more like Shakespeare…

BW: A bunch of people have said this to me: “I’ve never read that, I’m going to go see it. It must be one of these history plays, it’s in three parts.”

Maxwell Flaum: It was discovered in a parking lot on the body of Richard III.

Would you say you’re telling Bethel’s story through this play?

MF: I think Bethel would be proud to know that we’re pulling him out of obscurity by his pants. Nobody knows the guy, so we can do anything we want. Even the Taggesspiegel reporter doesn’t know who Bethel is.

BW: What came up were a series of thematics and a series of genres that were in interplay with those thematics. And we wanted to make three shorter pieces. The sort of material that got developed along the way congealed the thematics and then those brought along with them certain types of genre play that we wanted to do. The hope was that if you came to see all three, you would get a sense of what it would be like to refract this guy’s life through our apparatus.

MF: That sounds dirty.

How are these thematics divided up over the three evenings?

BW: Part one has material around the workers and the Gastarbeiter communities that he developed – there was both this sort of nostalgia of the American railroad of the 1920s, hobo encampments and the blues, and then workers’ theater and agitprop references. So to take on some of the aesthetic conceits that come along with a Lehrstuck without actually doing one. For part two we had new modes of speculative capitalism that Bethel developed, and an aside which turned into something bigger: his grandpa comes from Königsberg which is where Kant is from…

MF: His grandpa immigrated to Königsberg and he opened up a little general store. Kant shopped there for his OJ.

BW: And trains of thought and children’s trains came up as well, and imagining doing the most philosophically complex episode in the format of a children’s television program – Mr. Rogers as well as Fuchs and Elster. In the third episode we wanted to talk about downfall, the anti-Semitic elements that were in the air, and the moments that lead up to succumbing to forces that lie outside one’s control. We also wanted to engage with the sandbox and archeological excavations here: the central conceit was about digging up and digging through and stumbling upon.

Leigh Jonathan Thomas: Theater is not about thinking in linear terms. You can Google or Wikipedia this guy and you’ve got all the facts. And facts are good but it’s a false knowledge, because life is beyond facts: it’s beyond reason most of the time.

MF: I think 2Pac said that.

LJT: The idea is that imagination is a way to formulate structure. And theatre is, I suppose, formulating some kind of structure on an idea. Where the imagination gets free reign over what is generally perceived to be fact.

And the process of writing history is often not as simple as just piecing the facts together….

MF: Isaiah Berlin wrote this essay The Hedgehog and the Fox about Tolstoy’s epilogue to War and Peace, which is about how one can’t grasp history and how historians are essentially liars of the expedient. That was actually the motivation for having the two puppets that play Fuchs and Elster be a fox and hedgehog. The hedgehog is the one who knows a lot about one thing and the fox is the guy who knows a little about everything, including sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Have you received any response to the train whistle invitations you sent to the heads of the HAU, Volksbühne, and Sophiensaele?

Katrin Beushausen: We haven’t heard anything.

MF: I would like to say that we do this ironically rather than sycophantically.

Well, I think that was clear from the jockstrap invitations for Strength & Health this March.

MF: The whole idea is that now they have the train whistle, which is the phallic insertion into the jockstrap.

BW (overlapping): into the jockstrap … I just can’t imagine who doesn’t respond? Who doesn’t send a note back in response to getting a jockstrap followed up by a whistle?

KB: I hope they’re afraid of what comes next, that would be nice. If they’re like: “What are they going to do next? What’s going to come in the mail then?”

You’re putting this play on without funding, except for the donations in the pickle barrel at the end of each performance. Is lack of money an issue for your future projects?

LJT: It’s been an issue for me for so many years … (all laugh)

BW: It’s a huge issue. This show came together the way it did because of the unsustainability of putting together a huge spectacle with no funding at all. The original project was one that circulated around the entire park and had 8 or 9 architectural stations. …It seems that without a major institutional partner… it is less clear just what Freie Szene means.

LJT: I can really relate to the second episode [of King Bethel]. Because this guy’s trying to build something with something he hasn’t got, all he’s got is a vision. I’ve got all these amazing grand ideas and it’s like brass tacks and the reality of life are such that it doesn’t matter even how much talent or imagination…

MF: You’ve got to become a criminal, like Bethel.

LJT: Well, in a way, you do burn people because you can’t follow through. There’s also a part that believes that it has the potential to be great. I think it’s the hope of potential that will see you through.  

King Bethel | Görlitzer Park, U-Bhf Görlitzer Park. See map for directions. 

Part 3: Fri Aug 23 19:00, Part 2: Sat Aug 24 19:00, Part 1: Sun Aug 25 16:00