Sam in the Box An American in Berlin

How could we design international co-operation in times where CO2-emissions are monitored? One solution might be to actually work closely together for some time, so that different cultures can meet, enrich and learn from each other. Perhaps it could look like this: Someone from a different culture comes to Berlin and works with us for a while. Maybe even as a first-time director in the much-lauded German theatre system?

Although guest artists from other nations are nothing new at our theatres, the endeavour remains a bit of an adventure – because despite the immediate sense of closeness that theatre makers from around the world feel with each other, the actual methods and notions of how to “produce” things on stage often turn out to be thousands of miles apart from each other in the reality of the daily work. Developing a common language that spans the cultures, and a shared understanding of theatre require a great deal of preparation, patience, curiosity as well as efforts to adapt and translate from all participants.

Our first encounter took place in the beautiful, light-filled premises of Suhrkamp Verlag on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: Sam Max had come to Berlin for a visit. In their home of New York, Sam Max is an author, performer, musician, and film maker. Sam’s list of previous works is so extensive that it is hard to believe that such a young person has already achieved so much. Two plays by this multi-talent have already been translated into German and Sam will create a third one as both author and director, commissioned by DT.

A first draft is finished and very compelling to read – but too long: Translations from English to German add as much as a third of volume. And it’s not advisable for a piece to be too long in the Box-venue. In fact, there is something special about the Box: Located behind the bar and just in front of the emergency exit, it is by no means a third-rate venue. It is an intimate space where experiments in the performing arts can be more radical than elsewhere. Here, the often-quoted slogan of being “up close and personal” to the artists and the art truly fits. After all, Ionesco’s “Bald Singer” was premiered in a basement theatre in Paris, holding no more than 50 seats and often not selling more than 12 tickets per night. Today, it is a much-performed international classic.

But let’s return to Sam Max. Body images, gender relations: Sam locates themselves in an American realism that they interpret in a very specific way and consider from the viewpoint of contemporary issues. The piece that is currently being developed plays on typical set pieces from American culture: a desert, a motel, a film set. Its original English title, The Holes, refers to the name of a motel in the desert of Arizona, located near a film set. Shooting a film involves a lot of empty time, of waiting. The holes are also a metaphor for the disappearance of a young girl who works for the film as a background actor. The play is set in a room of “The Holes”. Four actors congregate here: the film’s male protagonist, his wife – a little older and much less successful than he is –, their assistant, who is a younger version of the wife, and the vanished girl. But this a congregation with a difference! The text is a surreal nightmare that plays on the characters’ internal emptiness, reflected by the external emptiness of the desert. The four characters fill the emptiness by playing roles and altering their own physical reality. A quote from the play says: “We were all bored and the world was over, and we wanted a way to entertain ourselves, so I did whatever you told me to do.” Sam will be in the Box from April.

Karla Mäder