Optik at Tacheles



This article first appeared in Total Theatre

Tacheles is no ordinary theatre. The outside of the building looks as though it is falling to bits. It is huge, made up of at least three blocks in one of Berlin’s main streets, with rusting ghost-like reminders of its origins as a department store and cinema.  In real estate terms I imagine it is worth millions.  But although it is surrounded by the cranes and concrete of Berlin’s current building frenzy it appears to be safe.  It is famous.  Tacheles is now on the tourist itinerary : a shrine to a past that could leave  ruined buildings untouched for decades, and to a new contemporary spirit embodied in the artists now inhabiting the shell and breathing their own vision of life and art into the place.

It is about as far removed from an eighties model of  up market arts centre as it is possible to get.  It is dirty, dusty, bare.    At the back of Tacheles is a large sculpture park.  But with a difference.  This park is constructed from half a bus,  the top part of a rocket and various other fragments of industrial machinery.  It appears to be in a constant state of flux, fed by the noisy metal and sculpture workshops that are part of the Tacheles complex.   Smartly dressed young Berliners, some  with toddlers and babies in pushchairs, sit on the seats drinking, talking, eating.

You can look down on the park and its people from the window of the dressing room on the second floor.  The skyline is dominated by the massive silver globe that towers over Alexanderplatz a few blocks away.

The theatre  itself is on the first floor, the site of the original cinema.   It is an amazing space.  Not by virtue of its architecture particularly.  More because of what has not been done to it.  The signs of its past are imprinted all over the space.  Its current existence as a performance space is maintained with a sophisticated fragility.  This is no heavy handed conversion  from ruin to theatre. More a  proposition for the building itself to mull over.

The floor of the performance space is a mixture of concrete,  remnants of flooring, and above all, dust.  It is so dusty that it has to be sprayed with water before each performance, a kind of ritual lovingly performed by the technician.  Its status as ritual is confirmed by the fact that this watering makes little or no impact.  It does, however, create small patches of dampness turning to mud, as well as giving some of the seats a good soaking only minutes before spectators arrive.  Two metal skylight windows allow shafts of sunlight to pierce the atmosphere.  The walls are a patchwork of crumbling plasterwork, patched up pillars and various degrees of decoration.  There is a random motley of colour and pattern.  The back wall looks like a map of the world.

Two large metal doors guard the entrance to the space.  At the beginning of each performance, as the last spectator enters, these doors are shut.  The noise of metal on metal is harsh but  there is no sense of the theatre walls keeping a hostile outside at bay.   The public ‘outside’  seems to flow in and out of the building without let or hindrance. Tourists wander in  from the street and find their way into the theatre.  Guides give talks to camera clicking groups as we are setting up.   It is unnerving.  In the open,  turbulent and above all public atmosphere of this street, this building, this place called Tacheles Optik was going to find a unique arena for its work.  But then, as they say,  that was why we were there.

Over the course of the week’s five performances  spectator and performer responses  varied wildly, each performance very different.  As expected there was a volatility in the air that often spilled over into direct physical response.  Sometimes people responded spontaneously, running, laughing, smiling.  At the end of the first night’s performance, for example, this resulted in about fifteen people   moving around the space in  chaotic contact, dyonisiac and daft at one and same time.

Other responses were more deliberate, clown-like.  A woman, after vainly trying to stop two performers from running on the spot,  a few moments later  tied one of the performer’s shoelaces together.  Another spectator, finding this presumably too controlling a move, rushed in and picked the woman up and walked around the space with her screaming and yelling to be let down.  In the mayhem that followed someone else came out to untie the laces after the performer had tripped and fallen several times in an attempt to run down the space.

On one occasion the relationship between spectator and performer took a particularly provocative and it has to be said, tense turn.  A man suddenly jumped up and started to demolish the row of seats in which he was sitting.  He picked two seats up and headed  towards the performers who had been standing still and in silence for what had seemed like a self immolating eternity.  Luckily he did not hurl them at the performers but placed a seat directly in front of each one and then stormed out of the building.  Evidently encouraged by this another spectator folded his programme into a little tent shape,  placed it in the middle of the space and set light to it.  As I was sitting by the lighting board at the time I felt I had no choice but to dim the lights.  We all sat there in the semi-darkness watching the programme go up in flames.  This seemed to calm people down.

By the end of each performance the performers and several of the spectators would be covered in the Tacheles dust, or a kind of mud,  where the dust had mixed with sweat, water or drink (from the spectators).  The space did not feel like an interior at all, it was like performing outdoors. At each hard turn of the feet, or fall,  a cloud of fine dust would be created, covering everyone and everything in range.  Once the performance was ‘over’  (never a precise moment) people from outside the theatre would start to wander in again, curious as ever to look at the space and what was going on there.  This also took on a kind of ritual dimension, with people returning to see just how the performance had ended that particular night.

At the weekend we gave  a short sequence of performance work in the street outside the space.  During this performance Alison stopped still, not quite on the tram track but near enough for the tram driver to take no chances.  The tram slowed to a halt a foot or so away from her and waited, rather like the elephant in front of the mouse. Eventually Alison moved a fraction forward and the tram edged gingerly on its way.  Oranieburgerstrasse got back to its business.  But in a way this is its business,  Tacheles  its headquarters.

About a month later Optik performed in The Roxy in Prague as part of the Next Wave Festival. Both spaces have striking similarities both in background and current feel.  Both are conversions from former cinemas.  Both are raw unpretentious places without any trace of prettification.  This may have something to do with money, but there is much more to it than that.  Like The Roxy, Tacheles has chosen to create itself in a very particular way, juggling a self imposed simplicity  verging on crudity, with forward looking ambition.  It is a very special mix, unique to those spaces and their cultural histories.  Ten years from now will Tacheles be newly painted and floored in wall to wall carpeting ?   Who knows,  but cleaner though it may be,  it would be a shame for the dust to settle too soon.