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The magnificent seven: The Exile Ensemble

The Gorki Theater’s new power players don’t need your pity. The group’s first mainstage premiere is this month: "Winterreise", an ensemble-driven piece from Yael Ronen. Check it out Apr 8 and with English surtitles) 13 and 26.

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Photo by Esra Rotthoff

The Gorki Theater’s new power players don’t need your pity. Meet the Exile Ensemble.

ISIS jokes are hard to land. So when Ayham Majid Agha as Hamoudi deadpans to his WG roommate about his contacts in the terrorist organisation, the moment hangs there, heavy, for a minute. And then a broad smile spreads across his face. Kidding! He’s just a run-of-the-mill smuggler. The Gorki’s 2015 hit The Situation, directed by Yael Ronen, semi-fictionalises the experiences of seven newcomers from the Middle East. But Syrian actor and theatre maker Agha is particularly great in this “kidding-not kidding” mode. Talking with him in person is like skiing slalom between pointed political critiques. He pivots fast from schtick banter about our phones spying on us to the ignorant assumptions he’s heard about Syrians. Especially now that he’s a public figure here in Berlin as the leader of the Gorki’s new two-year programme, the Exile Ensemble. “A lot of people think that having a refugee is like having a dog. Some rich woman is telling you how she has three refugees in her house now, and she’s teaching them piano.”

So let’s get one thing straight. This is not about pity – it’s about artistic autonomy. “I’ve had famous directors ask if I came by boat or not, if I was in jail,” says the 37-year-old, who came to Hannover for a theatre festival in 2013 and stayed once the war broke out. “I say, ‘I came by plane.’ Ah, but it’s not sexy. ‘Do you know someone with a sadder story?’ I’m not joking.” By handing the decision-making over to an ensemble of seven writer-performers from Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan, the Gorki fights back against representations of refugees on German stages which can be called, most generously, problematic – documentary theatre that uses white actors to perform asylum-seekers’ testimonies; big-name directors paying refugee non-actors €20 per show while collecting their own salary and accolades.

And that’s not the half of it. “Some theatres just invited people without thinking: can they deal with telling their story over and over? These directors never did any research about trauma and war and the memory after violence. Someone should take these guys to court. The people’s stories are so much more interesting than what the director has to say, but they don’t listen to you. ‘You’re a doctor? No, don’t say you’re a doctor. Let’s do it as a comedy, say it’s your first time doing a surgery and you don’t know what you’re doing.’ I actually saw this in rehearsal. I’m really thankful for Shermin Langhoff because she never treated us this way.”

Instead, the Gorki has gotten major funding to hire these seven actors-in-exile, “because we believe that the best way to encounter each other is on equal footing,” says their mission statement. They’ll stage their own work in the studio and attend and produce workshops.

The group’s first mainstage premiere is this month: Winterreise, an ensemble-driven piece from Yael Ronen. As with much of her work, it bodes to be another darkly humorous look at intercultural life. The Exile Ensemble and the whole creative team piled into a tour bus and drove around Germany and Switzerland for two weeks. They came up with the itinerary as a group: a BMW factory, Buchenwald. One actor wanted to see a museum dedicated to beekeeping. It snowed every single day. The stories that emerge are – hopefully – not tired rehearsals of trauma, but genuinely new stories of a life in exile. I asked Agha if he had a different relationship to the tour, as the group member who has been in Germany the longest, and someone raising a family here. “Especially when visiting sites from the Nazi period, I kept thinking – what will I tell my daughter about this? I never thought I would have to deal with these topics in my life, but if Germany is my homeland now, I have to take responsibility for its history.”

Winterreise, Apr 8, 13, 20, 19:30 (with English surtitles) | Gorki Theater, Mitte