»The Dramaturgy of Transnational Assemblies« – A Critical Manual Based on the 'General Assembly' by IIPM/Milo Rau

10 Minutes
Democratic Utopias, Institutional Revolutions, Arts, Media & Internet Activism
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1. Stage 

There is no such thing as a neutral stage. That's why we should think in advance about the stage we choose for our assembly and how we set it up. Will the audience sit in the parquet and look up at the speakers, or will they sit in a parliamentary semi-circle around a speaker's desk? Or do the speakers sit in the audience and stand up for their contribution? How we decide on these issues basically depends on whether we fundamentally reject political hierarchies and role distributions, or whether we seek political equality that makes the speaker’s desk accessible to representatives of more diverse social groups, the boundaries of social groups in power more permeable, and prevents that roles are fixed in perpetuity.  

2. Scenography 

The basic props in political gatherings are usually flags, banners, posters, leaflets or newspapers. If we decide to design the stage in order to give the assembly a political identity, we should study the aesthetics of historical models and to consciously refer to them. We can also ask the speakers to bring their own clothes and political props and add some uniforming elements (badges and fabric bags are very popular nowadays, but maybe we can imagine others). Whether we go for identity or diversity, uniformity or heterogeneity, to what extent we establish a political aesthetic that unites or give space to the colorful assembly of the invited groups and their aesthetics will frame the way we negotiate the political issues on stage.

3. Antagonisms

According to the scenography, we therefore decide to what extent we stage antagonistic positions to compete against each other, we set the goal to work out common positions or we install a protected space that makes minority positions particularly strong. Do we create a democratic space of dispute that represents the conditions of a divided society? Do we leave the stage open for possible hate speech and how do we protect vulnerable groups? We thus penetrate to the core of our democratic understanding. From a dramaturgical point of view, it is certainly more interesting to set antagonistic positions, because this always creates suspense. In doing so, we have to make sure that the speakers do not feel used. From a political point of view, however, it may be more relevant to work out a common proposal that has an impact beyond the event. 

4. Speakers

And then we have to confront a problem for which there is probably no adequate solution: who is allowed to speak and who decides about it? As we probably have neither the money nor the time to install sophisticated electoral procedures we should at least consult relevant organizations, institutions or communities before we set the list of speakers. It's a lot of work, but it multiplies the scope of the discussions, which then don't just fade into the haze of a few experts who we already know and make the gathering scene more permeable. Nevertheless, as long as we do not invent an unprecedented method of participation, we will ultimately decide who goes on stage and, in this case, we should not pretend that it is more democratic than that. We should also consider an imagined audience, its interests and capacity of attention, for as long as we do not plan to hold the assembly behind closed doors. We will pay attention to how interesting the possible speeches seem, what topics the speakers cover, what rhetorical skills and entertainment value they bring, whether they are charismatic and sufficiently diverse, whether they are internationally known or central figures for a particular community. But who do we exactly address? As we are expanding the audience by diversifying the speakers, we should at the same time let us guide by the recommendations of the people we consult in order to overcome our own biases.

5. Agenda

However, if we want to maintain some credibility with regard to the democratic process, we have to ensure that the agenda of the assembly doesn’t appear ultimately curated by the selected group of organizers, but rather elaborated by the participants of the assembly. The main problem is that the speakers usually do not have time to deal with all the other positions and issues beforehand and are mainly concerned about their own contribution. So we have to allocate time for exchange – in individual or group discussions – in order to incorporate their interests and ideas in the agenda and make it transparent for everyone how the agenda is elaborated. At the same time we have to acknowledge the fact that speakers do not have an overview and their individual interests do not always coincide with what we want to present to the audience. 

6. Procedure

Then there is the question of how the presidium or the moderators are elected and what competences they have during the meeting. Who invites the speakers to the stage? Who determines the speaking time? Who can interrupt the meeting if it gets out of hand? How are elections and votes conducted? We can work out the procedures ourselves or delegate them to a group of the participants, the only important thing is that they are written down so that we can submit them to the participants for consultation. Which also means that they are as simple as possible to follow. But how much scope should the procedures give people on stage to inhabit their roles? If we allow little improvisation, the meeting becomes a purely administrative affair. If we give the speakers too much room for interpretation, the inexperienced among them run the risk of getting lost and the experienced ones will have the opportunity to repeat the same speech they have already given at all the other assemblies and conferences they have been invited to. In any case, we should always set a clear framework that encourages the people on stage to perform and reinvent their political role in that particular situation, and enables them to always perceive themselves as self-determined political actors. 

7. Speaking time

It would be naïve to think that we create equality between speakers, if we provide the same speaking time for everyone since different contents, concerns and assignments require different lengths of speeches. Nevertheless, it is maybe the best way to solve the problem. We also can install a procedure whereby the speakers themselves request their speaking time, which is then granted or rejected by a previously determined committee. In any case, we should consider that the length of the speech of course has a direct effect on the attention of the audience, but the speakers also need a certain length in order to develop their arguments and to create tension in the first place. What speaking time we decide on and through what procedures it is set, the most important thing is that we do it and that someone has the competence to enforce it. How the speakers handle the speaking time ultimately depends on their experience and probably also on some talent, on their arrogance, shyness or humility, but almost all speakers always tend to exceed their speaking time and thus either offend their colleagues or make them fall asleep. 

8. Outcomes

And at the end of each of these meetings, we ask ourselves: What is the point of all this? For a long time, we have agreed that if a conference doesn't have much outcome, it is at least useful as a networking event, that new collaborations can come out of it. But how sustainable are these structures of collaboration? And will the political decisions made at the meetings have real effects outside the theater? Here, too, the question is: To what extent do we as organizers give the participants, whether the speakers or the audience, enough space to carry the results developed into their networks and communities? Supporting this process is central, but usually difficult to manage because there are usually no more resources left for this. In any case, a procedure must be worked out before the event, defining who will be in charge of giving the output a form and of communicating it to a wider public.

About the contributors

Eva-Maria Bertschy
Freelance Dramaturg at Studio Rizoma

Eva-Maria Bertschy (Switzerland / Germany / Belgium) works as a freelance dramaturg at the intersection of theatre and political activism in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, D.R. Congo and France. With the Swiss director Milo Rau / International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM) she has conceived and realised numerous productions, international theatre and documentary film projects, political interventions, congresses and other discursive formats. She also works regularly with the Berlin director Ersan Mondtag, the Congolese choreographer Dorine Mokha and the Swiss musician Elia Rediger. Her projects have won numerous awards, been invited to the most important international theatre festivals such as the Berlin Theatertreffen, the Festival d’Avignon and the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, and have been shown in more than 20 countries.

Kasia Wojcik
Freelance Dramaturg, International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM/Milo Rau), former Project Coordinator, European Alternatives

Kasia Wojcik is project coordinator at European Alternatives since october 2021 as well as a dramaturg, curator and poet, working at the intersection of art and activism. She is part of the artists* collective "Staub zu Glitzer" and has worked with director Gesine Danckwart as well as for the Performing Arts Program of LAFT Berlin. She has been a progressive activist for transnational solidarity since 2016. Since 2017 she is part of International Institute of Political Murder (IIPM) by Milo Rau. As a dramaturg and curator she took part in "General Assembly", "The New Gospel" as well as "School of Resistance".