Skydiving Blindfolded

Or Five Things I Learned From Sebastian Nübling

von Simon Stephens

Berlin, 8th May 2011. I have to confess something rather embarrassing. The title of this lecture is SKYDIVING BLINDFOLDED. I'm sure there are some people who are speculating as to why I've decided to call this lecture by that name. In what way is it to be an exploration of the suicidal or the daredevil? The unsighted and the insane? I have to confess that I don't really exactly know why myself. All I can say is that it was suggested to me that I deliver a lecture with the title "Infinite Diversity in New European Writing". The idea filled me with an odd mix of boredom and horror. So I invented a new title quickly without really knowing what it meant. So it doesn't mean anything. So don't expect me to explain why this lecture is called SKYDIVING BLINDFOLDED. Because I won't. Because I don't know why myself.

I gave it a sub-title yesterday which is more thematically relevant and which will form the body of the talk. The sub-title is FIVE THINGS I LEARNED FROM SEBASTIAN NÜBLING. For those of you who don't know, Sebastian is a German theatre director based in Basel in Switzerland. He directed the first German language production of any of my plays in 2003, has directed three other productions since and opens a fifth this Autumn in Tallinn and Munich. He's taught me a lot of things over the seven years of our collaboration. I'm going to share five of them with you. In a bit.

I was asked by Yvonne Büdenhölzer and Iris Laufenberg to talk about my experiences of having my plays produced in a country outside the UK. In particular to consider the experience of watching one of my plays in a language I don't understand. Which is pretty much any language because apart from a sketchy understanding of French and a peculiar affection for the word "genau" I'm ashamed to confess that I only speak English, that international language of power, manipulation, money and vice. And air traffic control. Stock exchange traders and human traffickers alike tend to speak in English. And so do I. I apologise to all of you for that, enjoy how convenient it makes life for me and frankly blame the Americans.

I met Iris Laufenberg at the Royal Court Theatre in London last month. She wanted to talk to me about the work she's embarking on over the next couple of years as she attempts to support and encourage the production of plays outside their country of origin. She has noticed over recent years that German theatres only tend to produce new plays written by German writers. Or plays by a handful of British playwrights operating in the shadow of the tradition that may be loosely defined as swimming in a surprising amount of both blood and sperm. But its rare she suggested for a German theatre to produce Polish playwrights for example, Norwegian playwrights, Spanish playwrights or Czech playwrights.

She wanted to meet at the Royal Court because she considered that theatre to have had a more ambitious recent tradition of producing work from a wider geographical area. Over the past ten years writers from Sweden, Norway, Spain, Quebec, Russia, Brazil, India and Mexico have been produced at the Royal Court. I think she was slightly disappointed when I pointed out to her that she had exaggerated the health of the Court's internationalism. Those plays far more often than not have been produced within the limited confines of a five week International Season running every two years in the studio theatre. Often the plays chosen are those that most readily squeeze into the assumed British model of dirty realism. Rather than opening the theatre's doors to an exciting array of aesthetics and assumptions carved from five continents the Royal Court, it could be argued has spent the past ten years on a kind of mission of theatrical colonialism, tantalising playwrights everywhere with the possibility of an international career, as long as they write plays like British playwrights do. On the main stage there over the past decade one Lars Norén play, one Jon Fosse play and one Roland Schimmelpfennig play are the only new plays not written by writers from the UK, Ireland or the USA. All three of those productions baffled critics and divided the very sparse audiences they attracted.

And the Court is amongst the most internationalist of British theatres. We're an island nation that looks largely inward, if not entirely geographically then culturally and linguistically when we programme our theatres.

I know too little of the repertories of new writing theatres in countries other than Germany or the UK to talk about them but Iris suggested to me that the situation is similar throughout the continent and she seemed like a charming, intelligent and learned person so I decided to believe her.

I think the most interesting question to ask in interrogating the curiously isolationist programming of European new writing theatres in an increasingly globalised world is why does it matter? Should it really bother audiences in Brussels or Kiev or Manchester or Bergen that the palate of new plays that their theatres produce should be so limited by geographical identity? As one theatre critic had it in response to Jon Fosse's NIGHTSONGS, and I'm paraphrasing here, – "we have plenty of bad plays written by British writers, why would we need to import some more?"

Now I'm not a theatre programmer. I'm not a theatre academic. I'm not a theatre critic. I'm a much more selfish creature than that. I'm a playwright. My interest in the programming culture of theatres throughout Europe is tiny and driven by two very specific agendas: are they producing MY plays? Are they producing plays that might inspire or provoke me, or that I might learn from?

In many ways perhaps we four are precisely the wrong people to speak on this platform.

We neither know enough nor, as playwrights with our selfish little worlds, care enough about these questions. But what we do know is what its like to have a play produced. We know what it’s like to have a play rehearsed. We know what it’s like to have a play programmed and to watch it in an audience.

I think that THIS experience is the lifeblood of writers. I've spoken before about how I tend to reject the Germanic job title for my job, which is "author", in favour of the British title "playwright" because the word "playwright" is charged with connotations of life as a theatre worker. Authors can work in their rooms, their offices, their garrets or their pubs. Playwrights, theatre workers need to work in theatres. I think it makes our plays better.

The experience for a playwright of working in any theatre is energising. I have learned in the past ten years that the experience of working in theatres in different theatre cultures is also provocative and unsettling and found this to be fundamentally creative. It made my plays better.

There is something thematically resonant for me about this. All of the plays I've written have in some way been about travel. As a writer I'm fascinated by an interrogation of the idea of home. What it is to be at home. What it is to live at home or to leave home or to damage a home or reinvent a home or leave a home and return back to it. It is fitting then that the experience of having my plays produced in Germany and returning home to England to work has been so central to my thinking. When we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before. This has happened to me in my work as much as in the lives of the characters I've created.

I have several nourishing relationships with directors. But one of the most constantly provocative and stimulating is that relationship I touched on with Sebastian. He's a friend. But he's also a constant inspiration. The British theatre director Ramin Gray suggested recently that there is something exceptional in the recent history of European theatre about my relationship with Sebastian. Never before has a British playwright worked so often with or written so often for for a German auteur director. I want draw from this relationship to illustrate how working in Germany has informed my writing. I want to tell you about five things that I've learned from Sebastian Nübling.

1.) Theatre is a physical medium. That, to this audience, this is something that may be surprisingly self evident, so self-evident in fact it might be seen as ridiculous, is, I think, indicative of the limited and limiting parameters of British theatre. Over there it would be seen by some as controversial. In 2003 I went to see Sebastian's production of my second professional play HERONS at the Stuttgart Schauspielhaus in co-production with the Junge Schauspielhaus in Basel. Before I went I'd been warned by my agent, by at least two other writers and by one literary manager that I would hate it. They'll wrap all the actors in cling film and swing them from the ceiling on meat hooks, take out all your text and add in new text by Michel Houellebecq they suggested to me. They were wrong.

Sebastian's production blew my mind. In London the play was perceived as being felt and tender, naturalistic and detailed and rather slow. This was at the base of my assumptions about what to expect. What I saw was entirely different. His production was ferocious and fast, sexy and angry. He'd re-centred two peripheral characters to the heart of the play. They spat, swore, played American football with another character's arse, ran like lunatics and yelled the language with an energy that was as focused as it was furious. I loved it. I had never realised that there was a life, latent within my plays that I'd not prescribed.

When a play is produced in English theatre, a theatre culture with the playwright at its heart the process of rehearsal tends to involve standing the original conception of the writer as described in the text, on its feet. Sebastian read my play with clarity and intelligence and entirely re-imagined the thing.

The British director's commitment to the writers imagination is at one and the same time its greatest strength and its greatest flaw. Too often in British theatre sets are detailed and naturalistic and actors truthful and still. This can be moving and forceful but Sebastian's production illustrated to me that it could also be slightly two dimensional. I returned home to Britain and started to become restless by the mimetic naturalism that defined our stages. It was a restlessness that I couldn't have experienced if it hadn't been for that night in Stuttgart.

2.) Theatre is multi-authored. The extent to which the playwright is at that heart of the creative process in British theatre is flattering, lucrative, creative and deadening. Nobody enjoys the theatre world as much as the British playwright and I think this is one of the reasons why there are so many of us and why we are often successful. We sign contracts that give us veto over directors. We attend auditions and work with designers. We are paid to go to rehearsals and sometimes also paid not to go to rehearsals. It trains us and equips us far more than any university course in playwriting might. It empowers us.

When I worked with Sebastian on PORNOGRAPHY in Hamburg and Hanover in 2006 I also started to realise the limitations of this working practise. There were elements to that production that realised ideas in the play that I couldn't have imagined. I couldn't have imagined the extraordinary design of Muriel Gerstner. I couldn't have seen that the brother and sister incestuous relationship at the heart of that play would be better as a relationship between two brothers. I couldn't have seen that the cast could interweave with one another, doubling and trebling their roles without excavating the emotional interior of their characters. They did with him and it was thrilling. And this excavation, this imagination wasn't imposed onto my play but dug out from its heart. Sebastian and his actors and creative team read my play with ferocious clarity and then, in a way I've never experienced in the UK re-imagined it.

I went home realising that theatre practise is not simply about staging the imagination of a playwright but a multi-authored process of collaboration, conflict, intervention and exploration. It led me to re-imagine how I write.

3.) Theatre is art. It's appropriate talking about the endgame of theatrical cultures at the Theatertreffen. In the German speaking world, I know from talking to Sebastian and others, to have a production invited to this festival as a representation of one of the ten highest manifestations of excellence is a goal to which many aspire. In Britain it's different. In Britain the endgame is the possibility of a commercial transfer. We might deny it. We might concern ourselves with our own authenticity. But if any of us are offered the opportunity of staging a play in the commercial world of the West End Theatres or higher still taking the thing to the zenith of commercial glory Broadway, Manhattan then, well, I know very few theatre makers in the UK who wouldn't be, however secretly tickled by that idea. There is a world of difference in the assumptions that underlie our different endgames. To realise that there was a theatre culture which, in its metabolism, so deeply valued the challenging, the difficult, the expressive, the heightened over the successful in terms of audience, or that there were audiences who relished those things too, was, when I first came here in 2007, astonishing to me. I re-appraised the assumptions about my own theatre culture.

4.) Language is noise. Theatre critics in the UK are obsessed with words. Their interpretation of a play seems to concern itself almost wholly with a consideration of the things that characters say to one another. They ignore physical imagery, they ignore structure, they ignore genre or style of either language or physicality. They write reviews which could as easily be reviews of a written text as a piece of physical performance. Working with Sebastian reveals the opposite of that. All of his productions of my plays have involved multiple languages. From the Swiss Deutsch of HERONS to the Anglo-Germanic Pornography, culminating in he babble of UBU and the trilingual explorations in the new play THREE KINGDOMS his process has revealed something fascinating to me. People receive languages in ways far more complicated than just the literal. He stages language in a way that releases the subliminal and the chaotic, the playful and the visceral. In his productions language is unapologetically gestural in a way that is simply not the case in England. Its not that he ignores the meaning of words but that he fuses that consideration of meaning with a consideration of gesture which few English directors dare. They are too concerned with what the writer is trying to say, a question Sebastian has never asked me. For me as a playwright this is a massive provocation. It makes me ask: why am I writing these words down for the characters to speak? They have to be more than simply a literal gesture. It is as liberating as it is thrilling and has redefined my work.

5.) The English are polite and arrogant. Sebastian came over to London at the start of this year to hear a reading of THREE KINGDOMS. He was struck by how nice everybody was to him. The people in the cafés we went to or the people he brought his chewing gum from or the people who sold him his Oyster Card. "You English are really polite," he said. "Polite and arrogant." It's an arrogance particular to London perhaps. And a residue of being a post-colonial power with the coincidental sharing of language with the USA. It's an arrogance that will almost certainly dissipate in the decades to come as centres of cultural and economic power shift away from Washington, New York and London and towards Beijing or Delhi. But it defines us now. And nowhere more so than in our theatre.

There is an assumption that I continue to confront when I talk about my work in Germany to other English theatre makers. It is the same assumption they have always had. They talk about it in the way people used to talk about food in England in the seventies and football in the eighties. It wasn't proper food. It wasn't proper football. It's not proper theatre.
It sits under that artistic process of assimilation that happens on the rare occasions that British theatres programme work from abroad. We anglicise its presentation. We make actors act naturalistically and sets evoke the same naturalism. We chose the plays that most accord to our assumptions of what a play should be.

It infuriates me. Because the experience of seeing my plays produced in other countries has been such a constant provocation. Travel, in particular but not exclusively in my working relationship with Sebastian has allowed me to see the assumptions sitting under our methods of working in the UK, our deference to the author, our hunger for success, our need to interpret meaning through language and our distrust of the non-naturalistic as being culturally specific, not innate and also, at worst as being limited or small-minded. The polite arrogant assumptions of a small-minded nation.

I couldn't have known that if I hadn't have travelled. The closest I came to knowing that was in those experiences of reading plays written outside my theatre culture or better, seeing them produced. My assumptions were interrogated, my techniques exposed. This allowed me to take control of them. It empowered me. It exhilarated me. And it frightened me too. Sometimes when watching a play in a foreign culture you don't know what to expect. Sometimes when planning a theatrical initiative or a conversation you don't know expect. It's like you're eyes are closed. It's like you're blindfolded. Sometimes you step out into the rehearsal room or the theatre, the auditorium or the lecture hall and it's terrifying and you fall. And not knowing that possibility exaggerates the fear. And sometimes, perhaps occasionally, you fly a bit. And when you do, I think it can be extraordinary.


Keynote Speech at the opening of Stückemarkt 2011 on 8th May 2011 at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.
Simon Stephens
, 1971 in Stockport bei Manchester geboren, studierte Geschichte, arbeitete als Musiker in Edinburgh und als Lehrer in London, bevor er mit dem Schreiben begann und fünf Jahre am Royal Court Theatre am Young Writers Program mitarbeitete. Sebastian Nübling hat bisher vier seiner Stücke inszeniert. Stephens "Three Kingdoms" wird im Oktober 2011 Premiere haben.




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