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After Clausnitz: How theater can counteract xenophobia

Interview: Ruben Kalus / kbm
February 25, 2016

The protests against refugees arriving at in Clausnitz have disturbed Germany this week. Dresden theater expert Robert Koall went to the infamous village and told DW why we must not stop talking to each other.

Refugee home in Clausnitz, Copyright: DW/B. Knight
Image: DW/B. Knight

When a group of refugees arrived in the German village of Clausnitz in Saxony last weekend, a hundred protestors were there waiting for them. Shouting racist comments and shaking their fists, the protesters tried to keep the refugees from getting off the bus.

The video of this disturbing scene has since been watched again and again in Germany and abroad, sparking a discussion on the right-wing tendencies that have surfaced in the eastern regions of Germany and whether Germany can ensure the safety of the refugees it is taking in.

Like many others in Germany, Robert Koall, chief dramatic advisor at the Staatsschaupiel Dresden in Saxony, was shocked by the video. He had already been an active campaigner against xenophobia and decided to pay a visit to Clausnitz. He posted his experience on Facebook and quickly wracked up thousands of likes and comments.

DW: There have been numerous attacks on refugee accommodations and racists demonstrations in recent months. What moved you to visit Clausnitz in particular?

Robert Koall: It was something I did privately and simply because I was personally moved. It was an emotional "displacement activity," so to speak. Like many other people, I saw the video and simply couldn't bear how these people were being treated - both by the people who had waited for them as well as by the police. Clausnitz is close to my home, so I thought, I'll just go there. I didn't have a particular goal, besides forming my own impression and hoping to be able to speak to these people and be able to take a bit of the pessimism out of my soul.

Robert Koall, Copyright: Thomas Rabsch
Robert KoallImage: Thomas Rabsch

A Syrian resident of the refugee home in Clausnitz said in an interview that she was afraid, was unable to sleep and that the situation disappointed her. What was the mood of the refugees in Clausnitz when you were there?

I had two conversations but because of the language barrier, it was difficult for me to assess the situation. We didn't sit and drink tea together for two hours, we just spoke briefly. But I was surprised at how confident and cheerful the mood seemed to be. I had been concerned that I would only meet crestfallen and intimidated individuals. But I met self-confident people who have a plan. As I later read in the "Süddeutsche" newspaper, they had said that they wanted to go into town and show the residents that it was possible to deal with them in a normal way. I was very impressed by this attitude.

In the past, you have said that in Dresden too few people are openly showing solidarity with refugees. What do you think? How can residents who are against the anti-foreigner group Pegida and against xenophobia become more active?

They can make public statements, show themselves and become active. And, I'm sorry if it sounds too evangelical, but they can also approach other people. It's so simple and I think it only works through personal encounters and private, direct dialogue. I hope that in the rural regions and the smallest villages, anonymity is no longer possible but that people are forced to deal with each other and that residents are forced to approach these people.

The big problem that we have with racism and the fear of the unknown in Saxony is that this kind of encounter does not exist - that's not the only problem, but certainly a big part of it. There are so few foreigners here. That's why I said rather polemically one year ago that we need more foreigners and refugees here so that people see that there is nothing to fear. And now when I say that I no longer mean it polemically.

As chief dramatic advisor at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden, the city's major theater, the refugee crisis and xenophobia are touched on in theatrical works like "Graf Öderland" by Max Frisch. How can theater and art in general make a positive contribution and even bring about change?

I believe that theater, and art in general, have to establish themselves as an institution, a place that is not in a vacuum but part of the world, and it must ally with the world and address issues that are being negotiated in the world. It's not about making art for art's sake, but about making art for the world's sake.

Screenshot YouTube, Aggressive mob theatens refugee bus in Clausnitz, Copyright: YouTube/Thomas Geyer
A YouTube video brought Germany's attention to the incident in ClausnitzImage: YouTube/Thomas Geyer

We regularly do things away from the stage to show that we would like to be a place in which people can discuss these issues, a place that invites people to be involved. Above all, we would like to create spaces for people to come together. That may sound too churchy again, but we want to show that you're not alone and there are many of us and together we can get something started. That is something that theater can certainly do - apart from art.

You once said that the people who sit in theaters are people who are already open and curious about the world. Are you hopeful that people can also be reached in the theater that may be concerned about the influx of foreigners?

I'm ambivalent about that. I don't know whether I believe that, but I hope for it. There are always situations like discussions after shows which bring up these issues. People come together, exchange thoughts and opinions, but without putting them into context. But then people have heard one or the other argument and no fist-fights ensued. Or they stop talking, and that is a danger here. When we stop talking with each other, we've lost. Theater is a good way to make sure the discourse continues and to make sure we stay curious about each other.

Robert Koall was born in Cologne in 1972. From 1995 to 1998, he was Christoph Schlingensief's assistant. Then he was a dramatic advisor in Hamburg, Zurich and Hanover. Koall has been chief dramatic advisory at the Staatsschauspiel in Dresden since 2009 and will move on to the Schauspielhauss Dusseldorf once his term in Dresden comes to an end.