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Machine destroyers behind bars

INTERVIEW. It's not exactly "Orange Is the New Black", but there's drama in Berlin's prisons too. The inmates of JVA Tegel, under the guidance of Peter Atanassow, are staging their own production of "Die Maschinenstürmer" starting June 18.

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Photo by Thomas Aurin

Theatre organisation aufBruch opens prison doors and initiates an encounter with the audience that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Their yearly open-air piece, staged by Peter Atanassow, starts in June at Tegel Penitentiary.

Since 1997, aufBruch has operated according to the same principle: an intensive rehearsal period with the prisoners is followed by a show in prison that is open to the public. For this year’s summer project, Atanassow chose to work on Ernst Toller’s 1922 play Die Maschinenstürmer (The Machine Wreckers), the story of weavers who lose their work due to the introduction of mechanised looms in the 19th century.

How do you transpose this story to the specific context of today’s prisons?

I see a parallel in a sense that the piece deals with the idea of not being useful to the society. In our context it is the criminal – stealing a TV and re-selling it, for instance, is lots of work, but it is not useful. Also interesting is that the piece is about a revolution that doesn’t work out because people can’t get along. Of course this parallel has to be understood between the lines. First of all I need to build a theatre piece with a clear story: what does the pacifist want, what does the capitalist want, and why are they fighting?

Do you add texts to relate to the prisoners’ experiences?

That can happen, but it’s not the heart of the work. The heart is as simple as it is difficult: it is about staging this piece in this very specific space. Just the fact that you stage the work in prison creates links or statements. The prisoners are so obvious in their behaviour, in their gesture, in their expressivity; that alone is a commentary to the text. It is a lot about acknowledging a particular energy in this space, about allowing a subtle encounter between the actor and the character. In this piece, for example, we have a lot of Roma: they bring their own way to play, their physicality, their songs. And then the prison could as well be a refugee camp, or a ghetto. It awakens associations, images.

Can you describe your working process?

First I let the men read the text I chose and I see what happens: how they speak the text, how they react to it, with which gestures. Then I try things out and decide slowly on a cast. After 12 years of experience I obviously re-use things that worked well in the past. For example, there is this scene with two chief workers who argue: instead of having them just speak, I ask them to box while saying the text. At some point one wins the boxing fight and all the workers follow him. And if the pacifist wins, it’s interesting – how can a pacifist fight? Well, but it’s a pacifist in prison, he needs to be able to fight.

What motivated you to work with prisoners?

As an actor, I participated in a theatre project with prisoners. And I was immediately fascinated by this place, by the behaviour of those men. This typical machismo that you can find among the militaries as well. How they deal with each other, very hierarchically but also friendly, with clear rules that you’d better follow to avoid problems. I had the feeling that this is a situation you can talk about using theatrical texts that deal with crime or masculinity or heroism.

Do you see your work as a political engagement?

What is political is that this work happens. That we go in the prison, a closed place, and do something to give it a meaning. And that we open it to an audience, and allow the audience and the prisoners to talk with each other, which doesn’t normally happen. I don’t think we are revolutionizing the society, but we create a form of openness. The prisoners become normal and are not monsters anymore; that alone is political. But we are not political activists, we are theatre makers. And we are interested in the prison as a place where we can interpret theatre differently.

DIE MASCHINENSTÜRMER Jun 18, 20, 25, 27; 18:00 | JVA Tegel