An Interview with Thomas Irmer, Experimental Theater Director

The Colgate University Theater in five performances that ran from November 14 through 17, in collaboration with the renowned German experimental theater director and C.A. Johnson Artist-in-Residence Thomas Irmer, staged “Herakles Block,” a play which combined two of German playwright Heiner M??ller’s plays. The first play “Mommsen’s Block” follows a historian and artist who reflects on unfinished business. This play is “invaded” by the legend of Herakles as written by M??ller in “Herakles 2”, a segment from M??ller’s play “Cement.” In this segment, the legend of Herakles’s labor is revised from killing the beast to a futuristic reprogramming of himself. Thomas Irmer sat down to answer some questions about his experimental theater production.

On combining “Mommsen’s Block,” play about history, with “Herakles Block,” a play about mythology:

One part is more about the history, which is “Mommsen’s Block,” the play by Heiner M??ller. It is autobiography, history, what he speaks of history in his writing. So on one hand, we have the real history of mankind that is being talked about, like the ancient Roman history up to the present when it was written in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Empire. A recurrent issue in this is “why do empires collapse?” And “what is the relation of the artist to such major changes in history?” And then Herakles would be the mythology. Herakles is a mythological figure, and Herakles is doing the 12 great labors. So therefore this play [“Herakles 2”], which is part of another play by the title “Cement.””Herakles 2” is about the second labor that he sets out to kill the beast, which is some kind of monster living in the swamp.

On the playwright Heiner M??ller:

M??ller came from East Germany and stayed his whole life in East Germany, but he was traveling a lot. Since the 70s, he has become a global figure as an international playwright, but he always stayed living in East Berlin. He has demonstrated, sort of documented some loyalty to the whole experiment that was communist socialism. Actually, he is the paradox of a political dissident who was much in favor of the project of socialism. Many people cannot understand how an artist can be a dissident and, even in a critical way, pro-communist as M??ller was. But he was not pro-communist in a stupid sense, so he saw it really as an artistic project and a philosophical project.

On the play “Mommsen’s Block,” which imagines a period of writer’s block that the German historian Theodor Mommsen went through as he worked to compose a history of the decline of the Roman Empire:

M??ller saw his point that [Theodor] Mommsen could never complete [his history of the Roman empire]. So M??ller takes that as a starting point for his narrative poem: why does an empire collapse and what does that mean for the artist who would be working in the historical field? We stressed a little more in our interpretation that he saw not only Mommsen as a corresponding figure to his own life but also Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound was this American modernist, great writer, great poet, but he was also associated with the Fascist movement in Italy and regretted that toward the end of his life that he really saw it as a failure. When we were working on this “Mommsen’s Block” as a biography in history, we saw that M??ller was referencing to Ezra Pound about his own problem, about his own life. It can be seen in this line [from the play]: “As Ezra Pound would say the other Virgil,” so this is the highest ranks of poetry, “who bet on the false Caesar,” so this is of course [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini, “he too a failure,” so M??ller admits that he himself might also be a failure because of his association with communism.

On why he chose to have another play by M??ller, “Herakles 2,” “invade” the text of “Mommsen’s Block”:

That is something for the audience to decide in their associations … But the text about Herakles by M??ller is, I think, one his best prose texts that he has ever written in his life. It has a surrealist quality, but it also has a science fiction quality because, as he sees the legend of Herakles, it is not only about killing the beast. It is that Herakles enters some biotechnological reconstruction of himself. That is something that we are very much concerned with now: our next future. This is what I meant about the confrontation of real history – the fall of empires, the Roman history, the end of the Cold War and so onbut we don’t know what is going to be next. Is it going to be the biotechnological revolution? … We don’t know … There is one more thing about Herakles. If you read the text carefully, you find out that he sets out to find his enemy, and he does not know who this enemy is, what he looks like, what he could be. Then, it turns out the forest that he walks through to find the enemy might already be his enemy. I think that is a very contemporary experience … where you don’t know who, where, what, how the enemy is. Know your enemy is a very imminent and urgent task for the 21st century. If you can’t do that, if you can’t deal with that, you might despair about the impossibility to be clear about this enemy, in whatever confrontation you are.

On the importance of multiple meanings in his work and the inclusive stage design of the play: 

It is the way that I work that I always look for things with at least two meanings, always multi-layered. So, it was not the aim to make a complete interpretation of M??ller, but create something with this performance that makes interpretations possible, that makes the people active. That is also the idea that we developed with the stage designer [Associate Professor of English and Scene Designer] Marjorie Kellogg that the performance and the audience should be in the same space. So, it is not just the people looking at something, but the people actually being in something. I thought that this is something that you can accomplish here at a university theater. It wouldn’t be easy anywhere else or even in Berlin.

On working with Colgate students to perform Heiner M??ller today:

So then the question is: is there anything interesting for students today, students who were born when “Mommsen’s Block” was just written. Some of the cast were born at exactly that time. 1992 is now history. That is not our present anymore. That was part of the long rehearsal process, the 10 weeks that we spent together. We found that there are different ways even from the personal points of view of the students to look at that. It happened to be that the cast was showing a great diversity of people, even though there were only five players. Of the five players there was one from Romania, one from Mexico, one who was Russian born and New York City raised, and one who comes from a Chinese family in Minnesota. So then I thought that we should be using their personal background as something that is valuable for this performance and to look at M??ller together with these young people and their biographies. I found that very inspiring. That is how the performance became multilingual. We have six languages in the play… Or if you remember the scene where they are chatting like students over a coffee table. That was to show that they make a big difference in this text by M??ller. They go in and out of the performance. They can make these hard-core political statements, but they should also have the freedom to demonstrate in a diversity of attitudes that is not really their own world … The [player as college] student angle of the production was to show their distance from this project.

On his students’ growth over the course of the production:

To stay in a production like this and to grow in itthat is the answer to a great challenge. I’m so happy and proud of them that they did it. I know what it means when you are 18 and 19 and your friends ask you: “What is the play about?” “I don’t know.” “What is your character?” “I don’t know.” “Do you know the playwright?” “No, I never heard of him.” It’s not “Romeo & Juliet” or “Death of a Salesman” or something like that. It’s really something completely different. But, of course, to some extent I think University Theater should be doing this, because that is the outlet where it is possible … University theaters should be committed to doing this kind of experimental theater. I think it is also good for the students because it is at once educational, artistic and maybe even enriching for their own careers or development as people. This University Theater and Colgate has excellent conditions for that, and I am very grateful for that.