A mass of Apple computers, lighting trees, a video camera and a boom microphone seemed incongruous in the industrial setting replete with brick and black steel beams on the cement and river stone flooring. On the silver screen, a bus was driving into the warehouse when the diesel sound pricked the ears of the audience. Heads began to turn sequentially as the audience became aware of the bus entering the space from behind. The image on the screen was not recorded, but on a live video feed. Welcome toStart Up, GTA Road Theater USA’s hypermedia show of Berliners in America, written by Ronald Schimmelpfennig and directed by Ronald Marx.
A German actor greeted the audience, handing out German flags to 70s disco music. An African American man in a blue coat and briefcase executed smooth dance moves. A German woman in a leather jacket and cowboy hat and an African American woman in a green and black schoolgirl uniform with gold cowboy boots sauntered in. The cast massed in the center and retreated as a microwave popped popcorn. The ready signal of the popcorn initiated the show.
Ostensibly, Start Up is the story of three Germans who want create a storefront for cultural exchange. Their encounter with a landlord revealed their actual business plan: creating a theatre company with no seed money. Ironically, the German woman adopted the landlord’s dream of reinstating the video store on the deserted block even as the American daughter of the landlord ran toward the theatrical gypsy life following an amorous encounter with one of the German actors. As the other German actor invented words to make the idea of a theater company palatable to the landlord, he created euphemisms such as the ‘cultural factory’ or ‘culture station’ where one can find ‘gas for the head.’
Indeed, this play was greatly enhanced by the mise-en-scene. The director’s concept deftly interwove live and recorded images with actors performing on stage. The subtle interplay resulted in a montage that surprised the audience. At times, the awareness gradually dawned that what seemed to be recorded was actually live. Interviews on tape took place in different settings across the country. The German woman seamlessly continued her conversation about America with multiple people representing a strip mall slice of life.
Local icons are inserted; the Germans entered wearing Mardi Gras beads. Throughout the script, send ups to films such as Das Boot and The Trial at Nuremberg contrasted with Saving Private Ryan and the American cult classic Tremors about sand worms. The fatty American diet is pointed up by the stash of Reese’s peanut butter cups and Coke on the bus as they go for miles without service. Like Urinetown, they wonder were to find the next bathroom; however, their bourgeois values reappear in their disappointment with its condition. Actors also compared different state laws about “illegal practices.” Yet, a central image formed a leit motif through the show: a near-death experience of the bus almost being hit by a train because the German driver questioned the need to stop at the stop sign at a railroad crossing. There is no autobahn in America. While the actors lived to tell their story, the dire state of the world then and now is alluded to in images and readings about the bombing of Berlin, the numerous deaths on D-Day, the rise and fall of the iron curtain and the need for a Marshall Plan, not only post World War II but also in New Orleans today.
The interactive Question and Answer session following the 90-minute performance reinforced the intercultural experience: New Orleans was a key stop on tour of Start Up. Not only did Director Ronald Marx share insight into the creative process of the real-live-recorded work, but he also expressed immense curious about how New Orleans is doing two years after Katrina. He listened as New Orleans residents shared experiences. As GTA came to bring a slice of a contemporary German’s life in America to New Orleans, the company takes the footage of Road Theater USA with them to share on their epic real-live record across the America. Ultimately, Start Up will return to Germany where footage of America’s cities, including New Orleans, will be integrated into a video installation in Berlin in March 2008.