Conference Report CDE 2005

14th Annual CDE Conference at Bremen, Germany
June 2-5, 2005
Organised by the International University Bremen
„Mapping Uncertain Territories: Space and Place in Contemporary Theatre and Drama“

This year’s CDE conference, hosted by Thomas Rommel and Mark Schreiber at the International University Bremen (IUB), mapped out new places and spaces for CDE, as it was the first conference in the north of Germany and the first annual CDE meeting at a private university. Bremen turned out to be yet another reliable – and by no means uncertain – territory for conferences on contemporary theatre and drama.

Traditionally, CDE conferences bring together theatre practitioners and academics, who engage in scholarly papers and discussions as well as in workshops and performances. Participants this year included playwright David Greig, solo-performer Marcos Martinez, dramaturg Michael Raab and distinguished scholars such as Una Chaudhuri, Shaun Richards, and Aleks Sierz, who, in their respective keynote addresses, marked out the field for this year’s academic discussions. Sometimes, however, the boundaries between various theatrical territories became indistinct: the playwright’s reading with David Greig (Edinburgh) at the Kulturbahnhof Vegesack turned out to be a staging of his 2003 radio play Being Norwegian, with the help of Barbie and Ken on a coffee house table, illustrating uncertainties and transgressions of boundaries in personal relationships. Greig underscored his emphasis on dialogue – on stage as well as between actors and audience. The setting then shifted away from Scotland to the American South-West when Marcos Martinez‘ (San Diego) solo-performance „Holy Dirt“ took the audience halfway around the globe, to the liminal zone between the U.S. and Mexico. Societal frontiers of female sexuality were explored in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, produced by students of IUB. A visit of the Bremen Shakespeare Company’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale extended the conference’s territory from the IUB campus to a downtown Bremen theatre space.

Aleks Sierz (London) began his address „Alternative or Mainstream? London Fringe Theatre in Image and Reality“ with the provocative statement of „there is no fringe theatre in London – any questions?“ and then illustrated the dissolving of the tripartite structure of commercial, subsidised and fringe theatres in London in the 1980s and 90s. Michael Raab (Leipzig) approached the topic from a different angle in his paper „The West End – an Increasingly Marginal Place?“ Raab described a crisis of the well-made play that involves ‚old masters‘ like Peter Nichols, Simon Gray, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, David Hare, and Tom Stoppard, whose mainstream plays no longer guarantee box office success in the West End and are threatened to become marginal phenomena in a changing theatre landscape.

In her keynote address „Hell in the Heartland“, Una Chaudhuri mapped the nature-culture borderlands in contemporary plays by Sam Shepard (The God of Hell, 2004), Caryl Churchill (A Number, 2002; Far Away, 2000), and Tony Kushner (Home Body/Kabul, 1999), and found the mythical American heartland deconstructed according to post-human cartographies. Similarly, territories as metaphors for social orders or power constellations and the conflicts between public and private spaces formed the centre of Kathleen Starck’s (Bremen) analysis of „Current Global Conflict and the Invasion of the Private in The Pull of Negative Gravity and When the Bulbul Stopped Singing„. Jonathan Lichtenstein’s and David Greig’s play respectively illustrate the inseparability of public and private spaces. Graham White (London), speaking on „Compelled to Appear: The Manifestation of Physical Space before the Tribunal“, demonstrated in how far theatre space, court room and reality/history intersect and blur in an uncanny convergence in the Tricycle Theatre’s dramatisation of the Bloody Sunday inquiry, Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry (ed. Richard Norton-Taylor, 2002). Place as a symbol for political debate was also crucial for Ursula Canton (Sheffield), who, in „Guantanamo: Documenting a Real Space?“, explored the borderline between factual and fictional texts in another Tricycle production: Guantanamo – ‚Honor Bound to Defend Freedom‘, by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo (2004).

The most private of spaces – the individual’s mind – figured in Susan Blattès‘ (Grenoble) „From Page to Stage: Construction of Space in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis“ and in Christina Wald’s (Cologne) „‚What discoveries do we bring back from that alien terrain?‘ The Spatialisation of Trauma and the Exploration of the Paedophile’s Mind in Bryony Lavery’s Frozen„. While Blattès concentrated on fragmentation and disruption of temporal and spatial continuities, Wald introduced psycho-topographics as a method for exploring traumatisation in spatial terms on stage.

After Chaudhuri’s remapping of the American heartland, Shaun Richards (Stoke-on-Trent), in his keynote address „‚A country kitchen in the old style‘: Exhausted Icon of the Irish Stage?“, sketched the deconstruction of yet another mythical, nationalistic theatrical device: the time-honoured stage set of the Irish country cottage kitchen as a symbol for everything that is neither English nor industrialised is rejected as an image of a ‚perverse nostalgia‘ (Hughes), and, in the plays of Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy, Declan Hughes, and Conor McPherson, for example, vanishes from contemporary Irish playwriting. Enrica Cerquoni’s (Dublin) paper, „A Visual Journey: Scenic Images and National Metaphors in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa„, illustrated this nostalgia by analysing various productions of Friel’s play with an emphasis on stage design. Alyce von Rothkirch (Newport) made observations similar to Richards‘ for „Recent Imaginings of Space/Place in Welsh Theatre“: plays and productions by Eddie Ladd (Scarface, 2000) and Ed Thomas (Flowers of the Dead Red Sea, 1991; Gas Station Angel, 1998) underscore that for Wales (as for Ireland), national identity and space are not congruent in the present – Ladd and Thomas are looking for a new mythology for Wales in the future. Donald Pulford (Perth) concentrated on another attempt at creating congruence between past and present for a better future. In his paper „Holy Day: Staging Past and Present Simultaneously“ he analysed Andrew Bovell’s play, which concentrates on continuing aboriginal displacement in Australia.

Michelene Wandor (London) extended the space to active writerly spheres in her „Playwriting Workshop: Imaginative Space, Stage Space, Writerly Space“. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgraefe (Aberystwyth), in his paper „The Spaces of Consciousness: New Possibilities for Contemporary Theatre“, linked time and place/space on the stage to conceptualisations of time and place/space in Indian (Vedic) philosophy and found evidence of this in plays by Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn, Alan Ayckbourn, and David Freeman, while Neal Harvey (Brisbane), in his workshop on „The Online Theatre Project – Virtual Solutions to Theatrical Spatial Questions“ emphasised the physical and architectural aspects of the stage with the help of computer software. Terry L. Price (Seguin, TX), in his presentation „Shifting Place“, stressed the possibilities of new interactive video technologies that enable audiences to place-shift inside virtual worlds, a topic which Reade W. Dornan (East Lansing, MI) in her paper „Screen to Stage: Positioning the Subject in Murakimi’s The Elephant Vanishes“ described as skilful manipulation of theatre space, related to the illusionary authenticity of the cinema, including the danger of the disappearance of the character due to technological overload.

Academic lectures were supported by a number of staged readings from lesser known plays, which by way of illustration encouraged queries and lively discussions afterwards. These readings were organised by Christine Stahl and presented by students from Mainz University.

Heiko Stahl (Mainz)