German and American theater students collaborate and collide on a pair of plays. | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

German and American theater students collaborate and collide on a pair of plays. 

click to enlarge Culture klatsch: Performers rehearse for Yinzerspielen.
  • Culture klatsch: Performers rehearse for Yinzerspielen.

Yinzerspielen is not a real German word. It's one of many English-German hybrids born from a theatrical collaboration between University of Pittsburgh and University of Augsburg drama students. And it's what they're calling their cross-cultural festival Sept. 9-13, featuring the plays You Can't Get Lost in America and Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

"We like to joke that nobody's English or German gets any better," says festival co-director Cory Tamler. "Both languages get worse. They've become this conglomeration of half-phrases that no one understands but us."

Simply watching the cast run "breakdown" exercises illuminates the often humorous friction. In one, cast members take turns reciting lines and coupling them with movement. Standing in a circle, the cast must rapidly mimic each member's combination. The Augsburgers seem to delight in choosing the most elaborate German sentences, leaving the Pittsburghers sputtering guttural nonsense.  

The plays are bilingual, but Tamler says English-speakers will have no trouble following along.  

"Don't let those Germans scare you away," she says.

Yinzerspielen also includes: lectures and workshops by Pitt and Augsburg faculty; a reading of Paula Vogel's Baltimore Waltz, at Té Café; and a traditional Bavarian breakfast. 

Tamler, a Pitt alum, wrote You Can't Get Lost in America. Augsburg student and co-director Nora Schüssler wrote Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Both used Grimms' Fairy Tales as a loose framework. 

You Can't Get Lost follows a semi-estranged German brother and sister as they hike through a Grand Canyon teeming with magic and crawling with talking animals. 

Big Bad Wolf centers on six characters stricken with an AIDS-like illness, living together in a generous stranger's home.  

The plays were first performed in Augsburg, in June, but the actors have swapped roles for  the Yinzerspielen production. In Germany, Tamler and Schüssler directed their own work, but in Pittsburgh they traded. 

"[Schüssler's] play is very abstract," says Tamler. "Her ideas tend to be very intellectual, so it was hard to help the actors find a way to connect emotionally to the script. Especially the Americans."

Tamler explains that German and American actors approach performance differently. Germans are more conscious of stage presence, while Americans tend to search for personal connections to their characters to create emotional verisimilitude.

"I'm used to actors saying, 'What are my motivations?'" says Tamler. "But German actors ask, 'What should this look like?'" 

Germans and Americans also differ in how a play is treated as a text.

"In the U.S., the text is the center of the performance," Tamler says. "The purpose of the production is to be true to the writer's intentions. In Germany, it's very rare to find a faithful performance."

German theater is state funded. The government encourages troupes to experiment "in a way that's often not that appealing to audiences," says Tamler.

The idea for Yinzerspielen came about during a trip to Germany, where Tamler traveled on a grant to direct students at the University of Augsburg.  

There she met Schüssler, who expressed frustration with breaking into the German stage scene. Theater companies in Germany often hire only writers and directors with degrees from certain universities.     

"In the U.S., theater is so much about luck," says Tamler. "There are so many different ways to make theater your life, and we wanted [Schüssler] to experience that."


Yinzerspielen features Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? and You Can't Get Lost in America

Wed., Sept. 9-Sun., Sept. 13. Cathedral of Learning Studio Theatre, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. $10 ($7 students). 412-624-6568



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