When Jenny Magnus landed in eastern Germany this winter--bringing along original performance pieces, longtime collaborator Beau O'Reilly, and little else--she was met with bewildered stares. "They said to us, "We've seen Americans through TV, through magazines,"' she recalls. "'But you are Americans we have never seen. You are Americans we did not know existed.'
"They saw Americans as greedy, materialistic, looks-conscious, surfacey," Magnus says. "It blew their minds that we came in and started sweeping out the theater."
Magnus and O'Reilly, cofounders of the vibrant but eternally struggling Curious Theatre Branch, were guests of the Free Comedians, a young, enterprising independent theater company in Halle, a small city about 100 miles southwest of Berlin, in a part of the country that used to be under communist rule. The Free Comedians may dream that American artists have it easy, but unlike any American theater company you could name, the Free Comedians have more space--and more resources--than they know what to do with.
"They convinced the city government to give them this building, this Volkspark, for a dollar a year or something," Magnus says. "Actually, it's a complex of buildings. There is an auditorium the size of the Goodman, a whole room full of lighting equipment, a whole room full of sound equipment, a huge industrial kitchen, banquet halls, gyms. It's about the size of the Overlook in The Shining."
Magnus saw dozens of similar facilities lying empty all over the city, casualties of German reunification. "People who owned property before the war, especially Jews, had their land taken over by the state," she explains. "Then when the wall came down and everything switched over to capitalism, so-called, suddenly there are all these disputes. "OK, you've had it for 40 years, but what about the people who had it for 170 years before you? And if there is no more state in the same way, what do we do with all their facilities?' A lot of them are just sitting there. Huge factories, meeting halls like VFWs, only much, much bigger."
The Free Comedians put Magnus and O'Reilly up in their smaller, "outbuilding" theater, which Magnus describes as "cavernous and beautiful." Once they got to work on their first show--The Trips: A Madras Parable, written by Magnus and performed by the duo--the bewildered stares increased.
"The first row of seats was set maybe 30 feet from the stage," Magnus says. "A huge gulf. So I moved the seats forward to where they almost touched the stage. I went out to do something or other, and when I returned they had moved them all back again. I told them, "No, I want them forward,' and I moved them all forward. They were like, no, and moved them all back. This little dance went on for quite a while." As she quickly discovered, the German approach to theater is formal, polite, and decidedly chilly. Getting involved is verboten. "They thought we were crazy," she laughs. "Why would anyone want to sit that close?"
The tug of war continued as she set up the room to rehearse O'Reilly's The Spewpolice, in which the audience sits in a tight circle and O'Reilly plays an unnamed, mercurial midnight specter, literally running rings around them. "It was pulling teeth to get them to agree to it," Magnus says. "They kept saying, "It's not going to work, people aren't going to like it.' And I said, it's OK if they don't like it! Let them sit there and not like it! That's part of what it is."
Next Magnus went to work on the lighting. "In Germany, it seems everything on stage must be blasted with light," she says. "Mottled light, or anything even remotely chiaroscuro, forget it. It's bright light all the time. What that does when you're onstage is blind you. That's part of what they want. God forbid you should see your audience."
She decided to run The Spewpolice under the theater's fluorescent work lights, which were mounted behind black curtains. This gave the room an eerie glow, like streetlamps on a late-night city sidewalk, the setting of the play. "They could not get over this," Magnus says, howling with laughter. "They were like, "What? How can you--? This is so--.' I think at that moment they really were scared that we were going to be bad."
The Free Comedians had unwittingly imported two self-taught artists with little interest in formal technique. The pair seek instead to "find a presence," in Magnus's words, often opting for candor over craft. In The Trips, for example, she and O'Reilly simply sit in chairs and take an imaginary car ride together, driving each other crazy along the way. The journey they take is unmistakably, exquisitely personal, and the piece is a lyrical diary of their intricately intertwined lives.
When Magnus and O'Reilly began their hour-long odyssey, the audience stared coolly. But as the show heated up, the icy stares melted. Even with their chairs placed unimaginably close to the stage, the audience leaned in. It seemed they couldn't get close enough. Magnus says, "I think it was the nakedness and the simplicity of it, our willingness to be open, that made the experience unique to that audience. After the show, little old ladies who spoke no English would come up to me, grab my hand warmly."
Back in the States, Magnus is gearing up for a remounting of The Trips in the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre. Their move from the old Garage on North Avenue to a multimillion-dollar facility may seem daunting, but Magnus is ready for the leap.
"Something really changed in me over in Germany," she says. "There were people who didn't speak English, people who didn't know what to make of us, out there in a different world, and they thanked me for my work. That gave me great confidence on some deep level. My friends laugh when I say this, but when I came back home I felt like an adult for the first time."
The Trips: A Madras Parable opens at 10 PM this Friday at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, and continues every Friday night through June 28. Tickets are $8; call 335-1650 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.