Theatre as assembly | Florian Malzacher

“Close all theatres for one year, and then let’s see what we really need them for”: no wonder Heiner Müller’s provocation was trending during the time of Covid-19 lockdowns when venues and festivals were shut down – not for a full year, but at least for some weeks and months. But instead of fundamentally rethinking the own medium and its routines, there was a constant activity. Streamings and discussions, readings, lectures, Zoom-performances… Theatres were closed almost worldwide and there was more theatre available every day than anyone could possibly watch. The horror vacui was too strong. It prevented almost any silence, almost any taking time to re-evaluate our arts and our lives. As if we were afraid, the moment we’d stop, all would fall apart forever.

But within this never-ending talking and doing there was actually a hidden answer to Heiner Müller. While the phantom pain was growing, it became more and more apparent that all the screening and Zooming was not even close to the real thing. It was a permanent referring to something absent. To something that used to be there and hopefully would be there again soon. It only existed in this relationship.

If we stripped away everything that isn’t essential to theatre, what would be left? More than any other art form, theatre is a medium of assembly. A place to come together, to invent, try out, discuss. A medium of physical presence, an agonistic arena in which society can negotiate their conflicts and foster radical imagination.

Like activists’ assemblies, it marks a zone of gathering, of building community, of making decisions – and thus a zone of experimenting with the way democracy can function. A physical space, a space of bodies, like Judith Butler points out in her speech at Occupy Wall Street:
“It matters that as bodies we arrive together in public. As bodies we suf- fer, we require food and shelter, and as bodies we require one another in dependency and desire. So this is a politics of the public body, the require- ments of the body, its movement and its voice. […] We sit and stand and move as the popular will, the one that electoral politics has forgotten and abandoned. But we are here, time and again, persisting, imagining the phrase, ‘we the people’.”

But still there is a crucial difference: the activist/anarchist assembly is generally considered a space of authentic negotiation, a space for trying to abolish established hierarchies, for not only trying out but living a dif- ferent way of decision-making, usually based on the concept of consensus. While theatre as assembly might sympathise strongly with these ideas, I would argue that at the end it has an essentially different take. Theatre is not only a social but also always a self-reflexive practice, despite the fact that conventional approaches have been neglecting this. Theatre is a paradoxical machine that marks a sphere where things are real and not real at the same time and proposes situations and practices that are symbolic and actual at once. It does not enable an artificial outside of pure criticality, nor is it able to lure its audience into mere immersive identification. The social spheres, the assemblies it can create offer the possibility of partaking and at the same time watching oneself from the outside. Brecht’s alienation effect is not an invention; it is a discovery of what constitutes all theatre. It’s just that not all theatre admits it – or even tries to make consistent use of it.

As much as theatre can be a space of collective or collaborative imagi- nation, it has also always been a medium for showing conflicts and oppo- sitions between ideas, powers, nations, generations, couples, or even within the psyche of a single character. Different forms of realism have sharpened this aspect of theatre by focusing on the internal contradictions of society. Brecht’s dialectical theatre looked at the different aspects of concrete struggles to enable the audience to understand how they were created by the system they lived in, instead of simply identifying with one position. Following Marx, this kind of theatre was driven by the belief that when the class struggle would finally be won, a harmonious communist society would be created. But we are not only rational beings; emotion will always play a role, as Chantal Mouffe stresses: “While we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where dif- ferences can be confronted.” Mouffe’s concept of ‘agonistic pluralism’ therefore aims for democracy to be an arena in which we can act out our differences as adversaries without having to reconcile them. At a time in which the once frowned upon dictum ‘You’re either with us or against us’ is having a renaissance on all sides of the political spectrum, we need playful (but serious) agonism where contradictions can not only be kept alive, but above all be freely articulated. Only through this can we prevent an antagonism that ends all negotiation. It is not by chance that Mouffe’s concept draws its name from theatre, from ‘agon’, the game, the competition of arguments in Greek tragedy.

The ways theatre is conceived as a public space that gives room for radical imagination as well as pragmatic utopias are manifold and not seldom contradictory in their aesthetic as well as their political positions. But what unites them is the aim to expand the field of theatre, to push its very means and possibilities, to find ways of engaging with the social and political issues of our time and by doing this also giving inspiration to activism and political thinking beyond the artistic realm.

Florian Malzacher is an independent performing arts curator, dramaturge and writer. He was the artistic director of the Impulse Festival (2013-2017) and co-programmer of Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz (2006-2012). He edited and wrote several books on contemporary theatre, arts & politics as well as on curating performing arts.