In Germany, in 2002, the hitherto largely unknown group, Rimini Protokoll, gained instant national attention with a project that almost did not take place at all. Two men who played a significant role in this were Matthias Lilienthal — who would become director of the Berlin theatre, Hebbel am Ufer, in the following year and make this venue the most important theatre for performing arts in the country — and Wolfgang Thierse, president of the German Bundestag. At that time Lilienthal was artistic director of the international
theatre festival Theater der Welt. In this capacity he invited a loosely associated group of four young artists who had studied together and went by the name Rimini Protokoll to develop a project for the festival. As with all of their work, the artists let themselves be inspired by the place where the project should be shown. In this case, it was Bonn.
At that time, the post-war capital of the Federal Republic of Germany was going through a massive identity problem. For decades the city had been defined by the seat of government, but after the reunification, Berlin was chosen as the new / old German capital. After various ministries, the millennium saw the German Bundestag also making the move to Berlin; this despite the fact that a new plenary hall had recently been completed in Bonn at a cost of €120 million. The magnificent, translucent building by the architectural firm Behnisch and Partners, located directly on the Rhine, was now empty.
This void, this absence of politics, was the starting point for the project Deutschland 2 (Germany 2). The concept was as simple as it was surprising: On 27th June, 2002, a meeting of the German Bundestag in its new home, the Reichstag in Berlin, would be broadcast live to the recently vacated plenary hall in Bonn. Not via video screen and loudspeakers, but through individual earpieces, which would transmit the speech of each Berliner politician directly to the ears of the same number of volunteer citizens in Bonn. In turn, these
volunteers were given the task of relaying the words, much like a simultaneous translator, into the microphone at thelectern in Bonn. In the run - up to this kind of live reenactment of Realpolitik, Rimini Protokoll sought, by means of newspaper advertisement, 666 citizens who were willing to represent the 666 German members of parliament on the 27th June, from 9am in the morning (Topic: Labour Market) until 2am at night (Topic: Wind Turbines).
The original German word for “politician” is “Volksvertreter” which literally translates as “the person who stands in for the people.“ Rimini Protokoll wanted to explore what happens if the people stand in for the person who stands in for the people. If the people’s representative is represented by the people. The performance in the plenary hall never happened. The aforementioned Bundestag President, Wolfgang Thierse, stepped in personally and prohibited the use of the historical space, saying he felt “that the proposed procedure“ would “impair the dignity and prestige of the German Bundestag.” By doing this, the President basically misjudged his own people, because the video - casting for the participants alone had shown that most applicants had wanted to take part out of a genuine sense of identification, with the hope of speaking the words of one of their esteemed politicians. Unlike his citizens, the President apparently feared that politics may, in this context, be seen as that which it evidentially so often is: theatre. This prohibition by the President ultimately fuelled the entertainment value of the story, ensuring that Deutschland 2 and the relationship between art and politics were discussed in all major national newspapers, including the news magazine Der Spiegel. In the end, the project took place in the auditorium of the Schauspielhalle Bonn Beuel, which Rimini Protokoll simply declared as a "Parliament in Exile".
Deutschland 2 was just the second project that Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel — who today are still the core of Rimini Protokoll — worked on together, yet the piece demonstrates many traits which have determined the collective to date: involving performers who are not trained actors; an interest in the structures of the world beyond theatre and in the framing of found, non-fictional situations; an explicit disinterest in the illusionary "as-if"; a readiness to tackle questions of presentation and representation; the oscillation of the boundaries between "real" and "unreal", between authentic and manipulated. Nevertheless, in the tremendous body of work which Rimini Protokoll have realised since 2000 (almost 80 productions, all in a wide variation of formats and configurations), two major strands have become identifiable. On one hand there is their conceptual work, which looks outside the theatre space for theatrical situations where they magnify reality and how it is perceived. Such projects include Deutschland 2, Lokaltermin (On-Site Inspection, 2003), for which Rimini Protokoll visited court trials in Berlin Moabit with a group of spectators, and Hauptversamml ung (AGM, 2009), for which the group acquired shares of Daimler, in order to attend, with a group of theatre-goers, a twelve-hour meeting of the car corporation’s shareholders.
On the other hand, Rimini Protokoll also often work inside the classical theatre space, but usually without a
basic dramatic text and mostly with people who have never stood on a stage before. It is mainly with this latter approach that Rimini Protokoll have re-invented documentary theatre in the twenty-first century. Germany has a strong tradition of documentary theatre, such as the work of Erwin Piscator, who was already integrating authentic speeches, pamphlets and newspaper clippings in his work, and Peter Weiss and Rolf Hochhuth, who, in their plays of the sixties, made explicit use of court transcripts as a means of dealing with National Socialism. However, Rimini Protokoll are not interested in the re-enactment of historical events: neither in the re-enactment, nor the historical event itself. Their interest in reality is purely aimed at the everyday and the people who master it, people Rimini Protokoll refer to as "everyday experts".
The characteristic feature of Rimini Protokoll is that these people are always on stage in person. Their experience is not embodied by actors, instead they tell their own stories themselves. By these means a large body of work has accumulated over the years, with long - haul truck drivers, doctors, newscasters or market women, with Brazilian police, Turkish bin men, or Indian call-centre agents as protagonists. In Torero Porter (2001) three Argentinean porters share their observations and daily tasks in their apartment building with the audience. In Deadline (2003) a funeral director, a stone mason, a nurse and an embalmer talk about their work with the dying, the dead and the bereaved. Sabenation, Go Home and Follow the News (2004) presents six former employees of the Belgian national airline, two years after its bankruptcy.
With Rimini Protokoll, “real people”, as they are often misleadingly called, speak directly to the audience and by means of their genuine, unprofessional, physical presence they vouch for the selected fragments of their biographies. It is exactly this non-perfect presentation, the awkward gestures and uncertain speech, which gives the public its proof of authenticity and thereby creates a unique perspective of the stage. And it is this unique perspective, which necessarily creates a changed relationship between stage and audience, which is crucial to the directors:
"That is not the king who is standing up there, it’s a person. The person standing there is not someone who has enjoyed four years of training so that he can earn money by being someone else. He is not standing there because he can do something particularly well, which means that one is not distracted by thinking, “Look, how well he can dance!”, while you yourself sit there, as a small audience member in the dark. The person standing there is standing there because he is an interesting person. Therefore, you do not ask, “What is the writer trying to tell me?” You ask yourself, “Who is this person?” And you can draw your own conclusions." [Stefan Kaegi]
It is in this opening up, this permeability, of the stage, both for the audience as well as for the everyday life beyond the theatre, where the political work of Rimini Protokoll takes place. If the old documentary theatre operated as a kind of transmission of a mission, here, the opposite applies, namely in the activity of listening. More than half of the work of the directing / writing trio takes place in the pre-production phase: to begin with there is the lengthy process of the selection of participants, followed by the not-so-simple process of confidence-building between the artists and protagonists, who are new each time and often not familiar with the processes of theatre (or, indeed, the arts in general), followed by a period of interviews. From this material, monologues are written for the individuals, who do not improvise on stage, and then cleverly assembled to create the piece. Stefan Kaegi describes this work as “closer to that of an editor than to that of an author. The stories are already all there. They just need to be selected, framed and given focus.” This, however, is somewhat of an understatement, considering the complexity and precision involved in the staging of these stories.
Christiane Kühl is a Berlin based journalist and theatre maker. She worked as arts editor for the daily
newspaper Taz, Die Tageszeitung (Berlin), the monthly magazine KulturSpiegel (Hamburg) and as news editor for public radio Radio Eins (Berlin).