Intense commune living, immersive theatre, and incestous tendencies: Learnings and life changing from a production based on Charles Manson’s family.
Catalysts for reevaluating how you see life, yourself, and other people arrive in the most unexpected ways. It could be a stranger asking “are you ok,” simply because they know you’re not; it could be someone you trust dicking you about; it could be someone handing in a lost wallet. Or, as I found, it could be something as strange as an immersive theatre production in a Berlin ex-slaughterhouse. One based around 1960s countercultural communal living and its sinister flipsides: cults, dangerous deifications, tales of the Manson Family and similarly dark alternative lifestyles that flew in the face of emergent capitalist drives.
The production in question was titled Your Home Is Where You’re Happy, borrowing its name from the Charles Manson song. It reconfigured the idea of “theatre” into an intense and at times disturbing simulacra of commune life; replete with inherent hierarchical struggles, incestuous subplots, the nuances of gendered relationships, (re)defining “madness” and vulnerability and yet above all, heavily incense-scented love.
Orchestrated by director Jos Porath, Melody Pasanideh and Corinna Duemler, (Porath and Duemler had previously worked together on an immersive theatre piece called The Shells, loosely based on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks) YHIWYH a was collaboration between a small team of multidisciplinary artists from performing arts scenes in Berlin, Cologne, Vienna, London and Copenhagen, many of whom had worked with groups including SIGNA, Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train. Such a powerful and oddly life-affirming piece would surely be almost dangerous in the wrong hands; boundaries could be crossed, lines between the real and the performative could be muddied. Yet they pulled it off, drawing together an aesthetic that relied on somehow sensuous squalor and total trust from its performers. It’s only with that level of faith in a piece of art that you can convince an entire cast not to wash for a week, to add to the total immersion through olfactory as well as visual and dramatic cues.
The cast comprised ten women and two men, one of whom was known to all as Papa (played by Christian Wagner), the charismatic epicentre of a strange world he’d created around him. Audience members were “invited” into the commune in groups of around 15 people, under the auspices that those living at “Home” were looking for new family members. The performers – the “family” – welcomed them in their individual and sometimes disquieting ways: they made them tea, or chatted about their respective lives, or somehow found themselves almost naked and giving or receiving massages. In one performance, a family member greeted visitors with the sight of him feverishly masturbating over a shrine encompassing a chicken carcass, candles, photographs of Papa, and other multifarious offerings from previous guests.
Family members’ names were taken from the Greek alphabet, according to the date they’d “come home,” or arrived to live in Papa’s space, one that’s ramshackle, yet so, so warm. Though I’m a journalist (far from a performer), having been involved in The Shells as a dancer I found myself playing Papa’s sister, Alpha, the first woman to be swept up in the grandiose yet small reimagining of how society could be called “Home”; and one so affected by past traumas to be rendered non-verbal.
Depending on the level of guest and family interaction, the backstories of this group gradually emerged. All were different, yet each character brought with them a certain often harrowing reason for seeking out such an intensely familial and close environment – some substance abuse, others family abuse, others the abuses thrown onto them form a society that is overarchingly unkind to those whose minds, bodies or philosophies differ from the norm. Everyone’s looking for comfort or likeness, everyone wants to be felt to be loved and to be “understood.” The dramatisation of that makes it so plain why the counterculture commune lifestyle, for all its dark undercurrents and sinister sidelines, was (and still could be) so appealing.
At Home, longings for human kindnesses and empathies are most frequently projected into unerring adulation of the guru-like Papa. He saw their vulnerabilities, understood his capabilities to manipulate these, and eventually found he could inspire utter devotion.
Through him, we feel we’ll find salvation. For him, we’re salvation too: we validate what he sees to be his potential to make the world a place that’s more understanding to those who’ve been previously slighted or maligned. We help him reconfigure his past, to shape an idea of the world being wrong about ideas around madness, or religion, or sexual interactions with your sister (in both biological, and metaphorical guises.) As the directors put it, those at Home “have been rejected by society, diagnosed as unfit, ill, and incapable. Pushed to the margins, they followed Papa’s call to join his dysfunctional family and become part of a movement built around the uncompromising affirmation of what is commonly repressed, pathologized, and punished. Papa’s mission is to initiate his followers into his teachings, and to nurture the ‘victims of the system’… Sanity is a small box, insanity is everything.”
As someone who makes living through words, playing a non-verbal character seemed daunting, but proved revelatory. Who knew how little eye contact we truly make? How could I have not understood the power of looking at someone so intensely that they seem to understand everything, and simultaneously understand that you understand them? The inherent communicativeness of physicality and the unspoken is so underestimated in normal life, yet at Home, in acting out this odd and claustrophobically loving family, it all made so much sense.
YHIWYH’s setting compounded the paradoxical sense of suffocation and freedom; of nurturing and powerplays. The performance took place in a disused slaughterhouse in Neukölln-Berlin, a large yet deliberately claustrophobic space. In self-imposed isolation, cues of day and nighttime were lost to windows shabbily blocked with cardboard. In practical terms, Home was divided into a communal “sleeping area” (where some cast members, myself included, slept for some of the play’s duration, if things weren’t quite intense enough); a kitchen where the family (and a few guests, on occasion) ate a shared meal together every evening; a living space; Papa’s eerily peaceful room, where family and guests were occasionally invited (a rare and thrilling privilege); a shrine; and a breathtakingly haunting room filled with candles.We shed tears in there, real and performative, on more than one occasion.
But more than the physical space, what Home felt like was a strange twilight zone of reality and unreality. Art and performance reveal truths about who we are, and who we are not, and who we could have or should have been, and can be, and shouldn’t be, who we want to be, who we want everyone else to be. Home brought out some harsh, biting revelations and constructed falsehoods that intermingle in ways we hadn’t foreseen. Together with our brothers and sisters we fought for love and attention both among one another and with our guests, but most of all for the one that had picked us all up and somehow convinced us that he could offer us salvation, Papa. We loved my brother. We hated my brother. We wanted to fuck my brother; everyone at Home felt exactly the same way. The communal living and the promise that people around us are ok with us, or so they say, is at once incredibly seductive and quietly rather frightening.
So what actually happened in the performance? In an air thick with joss stick fumes, sweat and expectations, everything and nothing happened – just like everything and nothing happens in any home. We ate, we loved, we argued, we cried, we socialised, we isolated. The family symbolised a turning away from our former lives, and a turning towards Papa and everything he embodied about eschewing the cruelties and realities of “normal society.” Yet even in this warm cocoon of togetherness, there are cruelties. Were the characters living there happy, had they escaped? We were all so different, but unified by adoration for Papa, and his strange and multifarious forms of adoration for us. He is what made it a “Home.” Aside from my character, I learned so much: about how we interact with others, about the joys of simple and intense bonds with near-strangers, about the meaning of “home”. Home truly can be where you’re happy, but in the real world, it’s not Papa who is its epicentre, but ourselves. We build our “home” and our safe-house, as we build ourselves.
Words: Emily Gosling
Images: Laura Jung