Survival Artists: a Journey

Die Reise: a tenderly observed theatrical production about 30 migrants and the winding paths that brought them to Austria

Safe now: Mahsa Gahfari from Iran and Azamat Chakhanov from Chechnya | Photo: Helmut Wimmer

It starts with a twangy piano tune: All eyes fixed on the stage, the actors enter in a languid trance-like state, subdued by their own understated movements. Like drifting particles suspended in a fluid, at first glance the assembly appears feeble. But soon enough, confusion is replaced by emotion as it becomes clear that the chaos of bodies and faces is bound together in calculated choreography. And yet, it doesn’t feel staged: Performers embrace in perfect unison, as dance melts into storytelling and the performance drips with reality.

Perhaps a daring decision to call it Die Reise (The Journey), this new production of the Viennese Volkstheater is a play about alienation and refuge, not recreation or adventure, or even memory. We see an anthology of 30 different immigration stories, all true, each told by the participants of how they made their own journey to Austria. And as part of the reality of these “survival artists,” as Jacqueline Kornmüller calls them, €1 from every ticket is donated to the Ute Bock Foundation.

It is not a conventional narrative, nor is it presented as such: The script, if you can call it such, was kept in its original form as written by the performers. Kornmüller picked out 260 people with immigrant backgrounds and finally selected 30 stories, piecing everything together as the collective memory of shared hardship. The result: a dramatic narration in a variety of accents of what it is like to be on the run: politically, socially, financially.

Far from being “the promised land” where all things damaged can be fixed, Austria as refuge is seen through the eyes of desperation: Though it may not offer comfort and salvation, it can at least help you forget whatever you are running from.

No doubt, the piece’s goal is to evoke empathy. By shouting, singing and tearfully relating their journeys, the overnight actors engage in deep relationships with each other and with the audience, provoking with near Brechtian intensity some sort of reaction.

Somalian Mana Abdurahman talks about how she was raped by her facilitator to ensure a safe passing to Austria. Wanda Gelecki – an ER doctor from Colombia – can’t get a job here. Hadi Mohammad recalls leaving Afghanistan on his own at the tender age of 13. Veronika Handl was one of the “Disappeared” of the Videla dictatorship in Argentina, taken from her family and forced into prison, where she gave birth to a son.

Was it all worth it?

“There are some very tough texts among the lot tonight,” Kornmüller told the Austrian daily Der Standard.

“Our intention is to move the audience with these stories, in whichever direction. After all, there may still be viewers who leave here thinking: ‘There are way too many Turks in Vienna.’”

Still, the artistic component is a big plus – a generally successful endeavour, especially if we consider that the artists here are amateurs of all different shapes, sizes and colours. Sure, there is a certain general feeling that some of the performers are trying too hard to impress and other not nearly enough, but these things are dwarfed by the humanity of the play at large.

And where there is humanity, there is Ute Bock. Viennese human rights warrior queen, Ute Bock has long become Austria’s most prolific and beloved defender of migrant rights. With a couple of documentary films about her integration projects, like Bock auf Kultur, promoting cultural tolerance towards refugees, Frau Bock is a sort of Mother Theresa with an iron fist.

Her storefront in the 2nd District is home to tens of others, who arrive in Vienna with no legal documents and no future prospects to speak of. But word travels fast on the street, and the Bock residence has gained a reputation, so much so that it has now even become an institution. At her own risk and in constant conflict with the authorities over her unique methods, Frau Bock shelters and feeds those who have nothing, maintaining government-funded housing for families in need until her lawyers can handle their immigration papers.

Such is the network of Austrian integration: Vast, interconnected and reliable. Judging by the good intentions of Bock’s volunteers and the tears in people’s eyes at the end of Die Reise, one would be tempted to think that discrimination is no longer an issue in the land of the multicultural Habsburgs; that humanity does indeed prevail in the end.

But will Austrians be able to see this outside the artistic license of the Volkstheater?

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