The theater director Nuran David Calis: Nazis as grotesque clowns

Nuran David Calis wants to make theater a political space again. He staged Brecht’s “Arturo Ui” for the Leipzig Theater.

The theater director Nuran David Calis has a penchant for documentary Photo: Costa Belibasakis

“In God we trust” is written in golden letters above an arch of columns, while from behind a troupe of clowns abseil down through a hole. Somewhere between creepy and grotesque, in full mafia mode, the chaos squad gets the already corrupt politicians on their side. Then a door is kicked open. “Stop,” shouts from the audience. “Can you get both doors to open at the same time?”

Director Nuran David Calis attaches great importance to details in his production of the Brecht play “The Stoppable Rise of Arturo Ui,” a parable about Hitler’s career in the Weimar Republic, which premiered on Friday at the Schauspiel Leipzig.

“Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller, they are the really great ones,” says Calis, which explains why here – in contrast to his other works – he does not work with overwriting, paraphrasing or completely original texts. In Leipzig a few years ago he showed a similarly designed “Baal” by Bertolt Brecht and was also a guest at the house with Dürrenmatt’s “Visit of the Old Lady” and Fassbinder’s migrant drama “Fear eats the soul”.

The latter is a material to which Calis also has a biographical approach. Even born in Germany in 1976, as the grandson of guest workers, he remained a foreigner according to the law in force at the time. His parents are of Armenian and Jewish origins. After his grandparents’ generation first came to Germany to work and then to stay, his parents sought their fortune again in Turkey, their country of origin. But with the dark political clouds gathering at the end of the 1970s, they returned to Bielefeld, this time not as guest workers, but in the precarious status of asylum seekers.

Death as the ultimate turning point

After nine years of toleration, I finally received naturalization, but my father died shortly afterwards at the age of just 44. Nuran David Calis experiences death as the ultimate turning point: “I knew I wanted to make something of myself and my life – and put an end to this life in the shadows that my parents had shown me.” But what should that be?

Theater Leipzig, Big stage. Next performance: Friday, October 20th, 7:30 p.m. – 10 p.m., with English surtitles

After graduating from high school, he came to Munich through a friend, sat in on Klaus Reichert at the honorable Residenztheater, and director Dieter Dorn also noticed him. It worked on the first attempt by studying directing at the Otto Falkenberg School in Munich, including assistant directing at the Resi. “I was the only foreigner and the only one from a non-academic family there,” is how he sums up the situation at the end of the 1990s. “I asked myself: Where is my world here? I have to take the space and create them.”

At the same time, he recognizes opportunities for himself that he just has to seize, and at the same time he notices that many people like him simply don’t know about such opportunities. Here he found Brecht and Müller, and theater as a social question, which still concerns him today. This applies to the Arturo Ui, but perhaps even more so to other projects.

“On the one hand, I do political theater, but on the other hand, theater must also become a political space again. These are the poles of my work.” Pieces like Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” are subjected to a general revision and rewritten into today.

He wrote his first own and strongly biographical piece, “Dog Eat Dog,” on the principal’s laptop while he was still at school. In it, Calis reports on growing up in a high-rise housing estate in Bielefeld. It will be accepted at the Authors’ Days at Thalia.

Documentary theater about the NSU

In 2008 he dealt with German migration history in “Zero Hour” for the Cologne Theater. It corresponds to his penchant for the documentary, in order to turn the theater into a political space in which something is really negotiated. Nuran David Calis is one of the first directors to dare to tackle the topic of the NSU – using the means of documentary theater.

In 2014 he staged the play in Cologne with survivors and relatives “The Gap”, which takes as its occasion the nail bomb attack by the right-wing extremist terrorist cell on June 9, 2004. The victims not only report on the crime itself, but also on how the German law enforcement authorities dealt with it, who did not pursue the right-wing extremist motive, but instead looked for the perpetrators in the area around local residents.

In an interview with the taz, Calis repeatedly mentions the word empowerment. On the one hand, of course, the victims, who become the protagonists of their own story, but also the audience, who can grow through the confrontation with other positions and are able to recognize mechanisms and processes in the Brechtian sense. “It’s about empathy. Calis is convinced that there is a great willingness for reconciliation in the depths of society.

The topic sticks with him; he repeatedly deals with the NSU complex in various projects, especially with the failure and blindness of the state authorities. The highlight of this theatrical reappraisal is the 17-day re-enactment “438 Days of the NSU Trial” as part of the Weimar Art Festival 2021. For this purpose, he transforms an old radio studio, from which concerts were once broadcast, into a courtroom. The 17 NSU assassination attempts will be negotiated over the course of 17 days. It will be presented by actors and prominent guests from the trial files. Concise text versions bring to light the contradictions and inconsistencies; each production is followed by a discussion with politicians, relatives and lawyers.

The theater plays court and thus becomes a public space that negotiates more than the 6th Criminal Senate of the Munich Higher Regional Court wanted to negotiate. When threats were made against an installation at the venue – a map of Germany in which crime scenes were marked with bullet holes – the Munich police chief assured him of an unbureaucratic increase in patrols. Everything remains peaceful.

The theater as a courtroom

“In documentary, theater becomes political,” says Calis, summing up his position. A courtroom can also be seen in the stage design for the Leipzig “Arturo Ui” by Irina Schicketanz, who also designed the hall in Weimar. There are other works by Calis on the Mölln attacks, on the threatening letters from the NSU, with refugees, but also on the German-colonial massacres in Namibia and contemporary Turkish history.

All of this somehow leads to Arturo Ui, but more in parallel. “The perpetrators are of course interesting, but it is a requirement that they be made fun of. It has to be as a farce. I wouldn’t invite an AfD politician to a podium to sit next to a victim of the NSU. That doesn’t work!”

While Calis has found his spaces in the theater in which he can work, he sees that these same spaces are becoming narrower for young talent. “I doubt whether I could still follow my path today. Today there is more headwind, the directors fear the AfD, with whom they sit on the cultural committees.” In his opinion, this lack of access leads to fruitless polarization: “I experience that the aesthetic question is being played off against the social question, although we should have one take a position of solidarity. But that also means that you have to endure contradictions.” But it is precisely the institutions that are stonewalling.

“Why isn’t a Sibel Kekilli or a Mehmet Kurtuluş on the shortlist for the Academy of Arts. Where are these 60 years of immigration culturally visible? Why are the stage association’s new rules for looking for directors only non-binding recommendations?” Calis is involved in the Dialogue Perspectives program, a forum for interreligious and ideological exchange and pluralistic discourse. For him, the current election results in particular are a clear sign that theaters have to go much more on the offensive because freedom is at stake. Not just the freedom of art, but the freedom of each and every individual.

This also includes laughing at the old and new Nazis, even if it is sometimes difficult. If they clumsily slide onto the stage as grotesque clowns like Brecht did, that’s a good start.

Jean Harris

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