An Indian’s Berlin diary

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An Indian theatre enthusiast spends a month in Berlin interacting and learning about the ritual of theatre. Nikhil Katara, who embarked on this month long journey, narrates his experience.

Berlin is that part of Europe where art finds the artist. A global village where artists and thinkers from all over the globe come together to make meaningful work. It is in Berlin’s Pankow that a small space exists. It is called Eden studios. In it is a garden, a cafeteria and many studios that harbour an emptiness. The studio has its set of rules and is home to many performers. In its studios lives a school by the name of London International School of Performance Arts (LISPA). The school of physical theatre and performance art attracts an audience from many countries.

While from the outside this theatrical experience seems performative in nature, but the processes that the school takes one through are oriented to philosophies that delve into the subconscious, thus making it a therapeutic experience. The summer school of LISPA in Berlin is a four-week period of non-linear time, which is too long and too short at the same time, and takes one through a journey, one which ends too soon, but not before taking you through a full life cycle.

The pedagogy
The pedagogical approach of LISPA finds its roots in the teachings of the late Jacques Lecoq. The artist is the creator of his or her universe and their playfulness is the impulse through which this universe unfolds. Thomas Prattki who is the founder of LISPA continues this legacy of the teachings of Lecoq, while at the same time adding his dimension of pedagogical discovery along with a brilliant set of facilitators. These facilitators include Valentina Bordenave, Cat Gerrard, Ariel Gutierrez, Kelley Soul, and Philip Schaefer. The four week summer school is just a taster into the artistic world of LISPA which is a more comprehensive journey when one takes the longer courses. But the taster is quite a full meal in itself for those who have not experienced it yet.

The journey begins with the art of embodiment and ensemble story telling. These two markedly physical experiences are conducted by Thomas Prattki, Ariel Gutierrez, Valentina Bordenave and Cat Gerrard. Embodiment is not mimicking, but is an ‘as if’ where a person embodies a certain physical trait of an object or an element and finds a human experience which is ‘as if’ it were that object or element. The embodiment could be of fire, wind, water, earth, clay spring, or any other thing. The human experience not only embodies the movement of the object, but also adds the human feelings associated to that physical movement. While embodiment delves into experiences, ensemble storytelling goes into the dimension of devising where no one person is actually the owner or the writer of a piece of artistic work, but everyone brings their own artistic journeys forward and tell a story together. The process gets extremely chaotic, but its organic nature provides a dimension which perhaps the written stories can never achieve. The week eventually culminates with a presentation of devised pieces on a small platform.

Every mask reveals a different energy and story (All photos credit: Heather Ward)

The second week of LISPA initiates with masks and the idea of human comedy. The masks are of various kinds, namely expressive masks, neutral masks, half masks, larval masks and Krampus masks. The dynamic of mask play is interesting because it reveals many things instead of concealing them. Each mask is very different, for example, the Larval masks embody very limited movement, whereas the half masked state is highly excited. Every mask reveals a different energy and reveals a different story. The sessions on human comedy keep the masked state of the human body, but the performances themselves do not involve masks. These sessions bring forth many characters which stem from the masked state of the human body.

The first two weeks of LISPA play a markedly different part in the entire experience as compared to the other two weeks. Week three is called moving into the shadow. It delves into the Jungian concept of shadows, which is discussed through masks, rituals, essays and movement. This workshop of LISPA is an introduction to the newly formed ‘Integrated movement performance praxis’, which is interested in the ability of drama to engage with the Self. The Jungian concept of shadows initiates with the idea that personally and culturally, a human being has an ‘Unlived self’ which he or she has never experienced because society and culture have disallowed it. Through the Krampus mask and through images, rituals and human contact, one tries to live this experience. This week in the four week workshop, though does not claim to be therapeutic, but still has a deep rooted physical experience involved which dives into the realms of the subconscious and can be actually therapeutic and emotional.

The concluding week of LISPA’s summer school workshop takes the process of the shadows and goes into the world of the Trickster, who is also the trouble maker, bringer of madness, and wisdom. The trickster mocks all that deeply affects the human being and the trickster also heals. The week culminates with discovery of parental relationships, rituals, gestures and sacrifice. As people leave the space for the last time, each one looks back once into the eyes of the ones they shared the space with for four weeks, and leaves. The time of four weeks ends, but the experience of decades is embodied.

The four weeks extend beyond the timing of the workshop and traverse into various activities. They involve discussions with facilitators like Ariel Gutierrez, where artistic journeys are discussed. It also involves the discovery of present time through activities like ‘Drifting’. The concept of drifting is well researched and it involves a walking journey in the city where participants assemble at a start point (which they aren’t very conversant with). The participants make a set of rules for themselves. For example, the rule could be to walk straight for an hour or to take a right turn every time you see a yellow car. The drift eventually takes one through a non-linear time experience. The drift could be devised using a map of another country and juxtaposed, following the routes that thus emerge. The drifting experience is extremely liberating, and one can discover a lot about the city just by making ridiculous rules.

The fourth week also has sessions with Philip Schaefer who brings his experience as a percussionist. He brings a myriad number of instruments and makes music with non-musicians.The idea works with finding music in chaos. The performers are asked to play instruments chaotically until they themselves arrive to a musicality. This is done with little or no intervention by the facilitator. It stems from body of the artist, like most of the experiences in LISPA.

The Indian point of view
As an Indian theatre practitioner when I found myself in the middle of so many cultures, I naturally felt a little lost. There were Greek, Indian, American, Spanish, British, Swiss, Brazilian, French, Italian and Australian artists in the same space. The languages, the accents, the cultures were so different that one couldn’t help but start making comparisons on how does one see the world so differently from the other. But as the four weeks unfolded, a rich blend of cultural exchange took place which brewed rich stories. As the founder of LISPA, Thomas Prattki said, “Theatre is one of the few spaces where ritual still exists.” It was ritual, gesture and a deep sense of the other cultural shadows that made the journey even more enriching. I started reflecting on my own culture more.

As I made my way back to India, I realised that our culture is already rich in ritual and gesture. The power of ritual, and to harness the same is within the artist. Every ritual and every gesture is a performance. This performance is authentic if the artist is aware of his ‘self’ and his ‘shadow’ and once this performance is witnessed, a deep sense of self and shadow is transferred to the audiences as well, through the ritual of theatre.

The setting of the entire experience with Berlin in the landscape adds an additional quality to the non-linear narrative, for Berlin’s own history and geography deeply influence the artistic journey. The U-bahns, the S-bahns, the bike lanes and the Alexanderplatz Tower add a dimension to the LISPA experience.

The tools that this unique school provides go beyond just the performance, and affect the life of the performer and opens up dimensions in their unlived experience that they were not aware of. When one walks out of Eden studios into its garden for the last time, one walks back a changed person, having experienced time in a very different way.


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Nikhil Katarai

Nikhil Katara initiated his journey as a writer with his own production titled The Unveiling, a science fiction drama in the year 2011. To strengthen critical learning he initiated an MA programme in ‘Philosophy’ at the Mumbai university with optionals in Kant, Greek Hellinistic Philosophy, Feminism, Logic and Existentialism. His play Yatagarasu opened at Prithvi Theatre in 2016. He is a consultant facilitator at J’s paradigm (a novel performance arts institute) and writes book reviews for the Free Press Journal. 

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