Two years ago, theatre collective Wunderbaum started the project ‘The New Forest’, a four-year long search for a future society. Sereh Mandias spoke with Wunderbaum’s dramaturge Tobias Kokkelmans about this ambitious project. “What started out as a storyline became reality”.
An empty house, the roof of the Hofbogen (an old railroad station in Rotterdam), a garage of carmaker Citroën, the Dutch city of Venlo, Club Vibes: it seems there are no odd places where theatre collective Wunderbaum hasn’t played yet. The troupe has been playing in Rotterdam for over ten years, engaging plays about soccer hooligans, philosophers or a family on social security. If you want to see a classic piece: don’t go see them.
They have a lot upcoming in the near future. At the end of the month, for example, there is the Dutch premiere of their play ‘Unser Dorf soll schöner werden’ [Our village shall be prettier], a cooperation of Wunderbaum with theatre director Johan Simons. In January their film ‘Transition is the Mission’ will start off. And they will be guests at the Urban Places – Public Spaces videodebate in Rotterdam, München and Johannesburg about the ideal city, on April 26.
Crisis as starting point
Wunderbaum is a so-called collective of actors. This means that the company is run by actors that do the writing, directing and playing themselves. For the past two years, Tobias Kokkelmans has helped them with their work. “My function is called ‘dramaturge’, it’s a term from the theatre. When Wunderbaum started working on ‘The New Forest’, actors found that they needed help with the research. Wunderbaum always starts from a topical problem or question. I give feedback on the topics, and help to connect the plans to a more substantial context.”
Wunderbaum was established around the time of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Initially, many of their performances were about the confusing world after 9/11. Kokkelmans: “The performances of the first ten years were mainly about globalisation. We live in a world without ideology, so where are we heading? It was a period of fear and regression, of a big bad outside world that started to fall apart”. But slowly, things started to change. “The last couple of years we were confronted by initiatives that aimed to oppose the image of regression. We wanted to do a project about the crisis as a starting point, not as the result of events. Our underlying question: how can we get past the crisis? ‘The New Forest’ was the result of that impulse”.
So what is it, ‘The New Forest’?
“We wanted to focus on the future. So what is that new society? What is societal change? Our idea about ‘The New Forest’ is that if you want to know how society works, you better organise one yourself. So we made performances about big societal topics, such as forms of government, the care system, and legislation.”
Two years ago, we made ‘De komst van Xia’ [The arrival of Xia]. It took place on the roof of the Hofbogen, the old train station in Rotterdam, and was about the question how to govern an area like that. What are the possibilities of such a place? Do people that live in the neighbourhood have anything to say about it? In the play we compared many models, from Plato to metamodernism. Our main aim was to raise a lot of questions. How do people relate to such a place, and to each other?
Societal change, forms of government, changes in the care system: these are all topics that are already discussed in many domains. What does theatre have to add to that?
“Theatre can address problems in a different way. It can transform the problem into a story; give it face by introducing theatrical characters. You can explain very abstract things in a three-dimensional way in one scene. It’s a beautiful thing to catch a problem in just one image. And Wunderbaum performances often go with a good laugh too, for instance when viewers come to recognize a certain event, or the absurdity of it. A theatre company should not try to make a living on trying to improve society, but it can hold up a mirror to the world. Theatre is a way to understand the world, just not by way of a PDF file.
The New Forest is a four-year project; you’re halfway there. Any discoveries yet?
“To be sure, we are not working toward a clear goal. The project may develop itself in an organic way. We did find out that ready-made solutions do not work. You’ll get paternalistic going-ons that the audience does not care for at all. So we try to keep openness in our performances. Let people think for themselves.”
“We also stopped doing performances about single large themes, it’s too abstract. We turned it around: we always talk about societal change, but perhaps we as a group change as well? Shouldn’t we start from there, with ourselves? How do we do that, as a collective? So we stopped using abstract terms and made it a much more personal quest”.
Can you elaborate on that?
Perhaps ‘Transition is the Mission’ is the best example. In this movie the actors stop acting in order to do something in real life. Every actor has one project. Matijs for example starts building an app for city gardening, called ‘Tuinder’ [Market Gardener]. It’s an app like Tinder, the datingapp, but with carrots and other vegetables, instead of people. Matijs starts out as an idealist, but then a large supermarket makes him an interesting offer. Matijs turns the project into a very commercial project, and then gets disconnected from the group.
Marleen is another example. She starts a Tranenbar, a Bar of Tears. This is an idea from Japan against the current positivistic cult in our to society to always have to like everything. Instead, the Bar of Tears is a place for negativity and melancholic stories. But after a while the bar becomes too much fun, there is more and more laughter.
“So the film is about what happens when you have a fundamentally good idea and you want to put it into practice. All four characters are overpowered by their own hypocrisy and emotions. So this is a much more personal, humanistic approach of the idea of societal change.
So the boundaries you run up against are not external, but are in people themselves?
“Absolutely. That is essential, otherwise you’ll keep talking in abstractions. The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes.
Reality becomes fiction, and fiction reality, in your movie?
“Yes, the movie plays with that idea. It fits Wunderbaum. In the film the collective stops acting in order to do something in real life, but that is yet again on film. Are the actors capable not to act? Stop acting, start acting really is a paradox. But a couple of storylines that we came up with for the movie did become reality. The Market Gardener app turns out to be such a good idea that there are even investors interested in it. It began as a storyline and is now real. Sometimes we really don’t even know ourselves what is real or not.”
Typical of Wunderbaum is not only the thin line they walk between fact and fiction, but also their cooperation with contemporary thinkers and scientists. The idea of their next showing ‘Unser Dorf soll schöner werden’ [Our village shall be prettier] is the result of discussions the collective had with transition theorist Jan Rotmans and sociologist Willem Schinkel. Rotmans speaks about bottom-up entrepreneurship, whereas Schinkel disqualifies the idea of man as entrepreneur as neoliberal twaddle that only increases inequalities between people.”
“We found that interesting. These are people that talk about how the world should be improved, but at the same time they fundamentally disagree with each other. That’s what the play is about: theorists that are on a proverbial boat without oars, there is storm at sea, and they have only their words to stay on course.”
The performance is in cooperation with Johan Simons, who now works as artistic leader at the Münchner Kammerspiele. As of 2017 he will work as artistic leader at Theater Rotterdam, of which Wunderbaum is also part. Simons and Wunderbaum will perform together before that time, at the Urban Places – Public Spaces debate, organised by the Goethe Institute in Rotterdam. This will be a videodebate with live connections between Rotterdam, München and Johannesburg, and will centre on the question ‘What is a good city’. In Johannesburg, there is still segregation, even after apartheid. To address this issue, the invisible boundaries that divide München and Rotterdam are also part of the discussion.
Together with the designers of ZUS, Wunderbaum will represent the city of Rotterdam; Simons will participate from München. Kokkelmans: “Rotterdam is our homebase. It’s a city that is very much oriented towards the future, sometimes just not enough towards the past. We play a lot abroad, but we always refer to the city of Rotterdam.
You said before that theatre should not try to give answers. How do you enter such a debate then?
We explain what an artist might do with these kinds of topics. So it is not about formulating final answers, but about prying up problems. Art is the metaphorical Shuffle button of culture, culture being everything we do, from traditions we pass on to our children, to the latest fashion. Art joins things that do not necessarily belong to each other, which makes you think differently about culture. We want our performances to be this Shuffle button. So we will not answer the question what a good city is, but we will use ‘De komst van Xia’ [The arrival of Xia] as an example. We use that play to show how people think about the topic and what barriers they encounter.
Finally, then, still: what is a good city?
That is really a difficult question. I think Rotterdam is a good city, after all. It’s a tough city as well. For example, I find it difficult that I am disconnected from the life in the Southern part of the city, the social divide between North and South is that big. On the positive side, it is really easy to start something new here. There is plenty of space for new ideas. Rotterdam is a city that is open to new directions.
See Wunderbaum live Urban Places/ Public Spaces will take place on April 26, 11:00, in the Goethe Institute in Rotterdam. You can reserve tickets via firstname.lastname@example.org.‘Unser Dorf soll schöner werden’ will play on April 28 and 29 in the Rotterdam Schouwburg. There are still tickets for the performance on April 29.