The dramatic moment seemed simple enough. When the cousin of the dead girl, Cecilia Fitz, walks into the wake everyone thinks they’ve see a ghost. On the first run through the actors’ reactions were too big, too small, or too individualized. Following some instruction from the directors, the performers ran the scene again and, on the second take, the reactions were stronger, sharper, and more coordinated – even I shuddered when the actress walked in and the mood in the room changed: it was a sudden shift, haunting.
I was sitting in on the rehearsals of The Shells—Ausflug nachNeu-Friedenwald (meaning Daytrip to Neu-Friedenwald) watching as the creative team shaped, moment-by-moment, their immersive, interactive, durational performance piece inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. This particular scene will become the prologue to the 8-day performance taking place in Berlin in June.
The Shells is unscripted (though the actors are working from a narrative framework) and it’s an incredible undertaking for its creators, Jos Porath and Kirsten Brandt. The production is being funded through a Kickstarter campaign. Porath and Brandt met through a mutual friend and, sharing a fascination with Twin Peaks, they embarked upon a creative journey that has taken just over a year to realize. With an international team of designers, advisors, and performers from France, Greece, Germany, Austria, Poland, Denmark, and America, this collaboration will see them building an immersive theater environment in a former jobs center, which is now an art space.
One of the inspirations for their approach to The Shells came from an immersive, durational production called MEAT, directed by Thomas Bo Nilsson at F.I.N.D festival in Berlin in 2014. It lasted 10 days and was about Luka Rocco Magnotta, the Canadian porn actor and killer. The experience of seeing MEAT showed them the possibilities of the form. “What got me so hooked on the idea of multi-sensory immersive theater was how repulsed I was by the smells I was smelling [in MEAT]. How much I was sweating because of the way temperature was used. The narrative that was most successfully told for me was told in the things that were not said. And that’s still theater. It’s theater that’s actually speaking to me in such a physical way. It was very unique in that,” says Porath.
But their main inspiration was Twin Peaks. As Brandt explains, when they started talking about this a year ago the new TV series had not even been announced yet and as big fans they really “wanted something to happen 25 years later.” We watch[ed] Twin Peaks repeatedly and it just didn’t really leave us,” says Brandt. They loved that “it plays with different genres, with different stylistic eras, with kind of everything you would experience in pop culture [which is then] merged into that weird little but also very nice and charming town that is somewhere in Washington State but it’s [also] kind of lost from a space/time continuum.”
Their interest lay in looking at Twin Peaks today with a contemporary perspective. Brandt notes that Lynch often deals with violence but “the perspective is mostly on the one that inflicts violence, and not on the one that experiences violence.” For The Shells the desire is to go beyond just depicting victims of violence or a voyeuristic point-of-view. “There’s a love for Twin Peaks in a lot of ways. But there are certain things that were not discussed at all. Problematically not discussed at all,” says Porath.
In order to explore some of the problematic aspects of Twin Peaks, Porath and Brandt are interested in “activating” their audience through the interactive dimension of the performance. Watching violence or even scenes with an undercurrent of violence involves the choice to look and not act. Here the focus is on the community and complicity and the audience is necessarily a part of that. In this production “it is really meant to put you in the position where you’re thinking about every choice you make despite the fact that you are at a performance,” explains Porath. “Hopefully in the end the performance achieves a certain consciousness,” suggests Brandt. “Not so much about people having their minds changed about what would be a respectful way to engage with women after they’ve come into this. But rather [focusing] on the one hand [on] violence against women/sexualized violence, but also very much about consuming art and especially women in art and what does that mean?” says Porath.
Space and place are also critical to the story. They wanted to situate this story in Germany—presently, physically, and through German history. The fictional setting for The Shells is Neu-Friedenwald an imaginary, self-isolating American enclave established in Berlin after the War in the 1940’s in the very real Tempelhof area of town which is the former American sector of Berlin. Neu-Friedenwald was created by “founding fathers” who saw it as a way to escape the world they were coming from and build on a “purified or stronger version” of American-ness thus giving the creative team the freedom to create “a hyper-real idea of American-ness. It allows us to go more into a kitsch/camp/Americana direction with a few things because it’s always an over-saturated version [of America],” Porath explains.
A spiritual parallel to the mythical Native American themes in Twin Peaks (which they wanted to avoid since it “further[s] cultural appropriation”) was the history of witch-hunts in Brandenburg, a town near Berlin. “We wanted to manifest that in the history of the town but also in the actual goings-on in the town,” says Brandt. Therefore, the story in The Shells focuses on Cecelia (the Laura Palmer-esque character) who becomes the fixation of the town and is so demonized. The witch-hunt manifests itself in Neu-Friedenwald“under the disguise of actually glorifying and worshiping one single female character in town: Cecelia Fitz. Singling out and trying to manifest guilt and evil in that person and then having to eliminate that person,” Brandt explains.
“Tourists,” as the audience members are being called, are free to wander the public spaces of the town ofNeu-Friedenwald and their interactions with the characters may lead them to be invited into private spaces. Because of the interactive nature of the show, “there will literally be ways [for the tourists] to directly influence the way things go in the play,” says Porath.
When you buy a ticket for your time slot you will experience a piece of the narrative that will not be repeated throughout the rest of the run. “I think it is essential to not only come there once, but to come there several times,” says Brandt. With a ticket, you will be invited to the prologue on the first day where all the characters in the town gather for the wake of Cecilia and the final day when “when the town is in the worst shape it will be,” says Porath.
Both characters and the setting will be impacted by the durational nature of the performance. “It’s basically like a downward spiral that has to unfold over the course of several days,” says Brandt, “Because on the one hand it’s the sets that are being deconstructed or that are actually decomposing and that is also being mirrored in the characters. Their façades also crumble. It’s inseparable.”
Porath and Brandt want The Shells to leave a lasting impression. Through the cyclical structure of the 8-day project, starting and ending in the same place, they hope to “[give] you the feeling like it could go on beyond the moment when you leave the performance. Tapping into the eeriness and haunting-ness of that,” explains Porath, “Because so much about the [The Shells] narrative is about haunting and the idea of something that keeps coming back that you can’t quite shake.”
The Shells runs from 13th-20th in Berlin and will be performed in English and German.