Dec 2 - Dec 4, 2016
While Americans tremble with anticipation over the governing body, the rest of the world has their own wave of fear-mongering nationalists to contend with. We arrived in Austria 2 days before their presidential election, which for the most part has been a largely symbolic position but this year the country faced a frightening prospect. Norbert Hofer, a far right wing candidate from the Freedom Party was running against Independent Alexander Van der Bellen. This was actually the second election because the Freedom Party demanded another after losing by a small margin in the original. We arrived in a country worn down by electioneering and dealing with an influx of refugees pouring in. Hofer, a sweet faced populist who sports a traditionally Nazi flower; the blue corn flower, proposed an agenda which included promising to eliminate parliament if they did not properly “handle” immigration, abolishing gay marriage, and closely monitoring mosques and places where Muslims gather. A theater had recently been attacked where immigrant students staged a piece about xenophobia by a new group of self-described “hipster Neo-Nazis”. We felt the heaviness in the air as we prepared ourselves for the task of creating a street performance in Vienna.
Our trepidation was tempered by meeting with the ever jubilant trailblazers, the Riahi brothers, Arman and Arash, who Monica had met during the height of Occupy Wall Street when they were filming their documentary, Everyday Rebellion. In the midst of screenings for a current movie and finishing the final edits of a new feature film, the brothers managed to find time to welcome us into their beautiful apartment, show us around their production office and later join us in filming our street performance.
As we sat down to finalize the details of the action, emotions began rising to the surface from our own histories of immigration and experiences of racism and we had to reckon with the force of hate rearing its ugly head yet again whenever nations are the most vulnerable. We couldn't leave it behind in the States. Here was another head of the many pronged Fear hydra.
The next day we rose early and began to work on our feet, choosing to move away from violent imagery and work instead with themes of hope and resilience. We call it “The Awakening”. We spent the day exploring the stunning city of Vienna, walking through Christmas markets packed full of tourists and locals alike sipping mulled wine from stocking- shaped mugs and nibbling at massive pretzels and donuts, through the museum district and imposing parliament, white marble statues contorting into impressive Tableaux Vivants.
We had debated whether to join a march against Hofer scheduled that day. We heard from all counts that its presence would be damaging, disrupting the Christmas shopping spirit with an aggressive message. Ultimately we couldn't even find it in the streets.
We tried out our new performance in the museum plaza to a curious audience. From that experience we learned what we needed to do to make it more clear and went back to the drawing board.
That evening we met with Hans Echnaton, a member of The Living from back in the heyday of the 60s, when he was hanging out in piazzas in Italy and was beckoned to follow a mysterious woman who led him to the theatre. He took us to a literary bar and we settled in to be regaled with stories of his adventures with the company throughout Europe and in Brazil where he was working to bring water to villages, found out the rest of the company was about to get popped and rushed over to join. They were all arrested and some were even tortured. Echnaton kept his spirits up and his wits about him and when he was called in for interrogation he made one of his famous “offers you cannot understand” which seemed to ease the situation.
After drinks we all met up with Arash for dinner and enjoyed a moment of calm the night before the elections.
In the morning we practiced “The Awakening” once more and set out on the town with the Riahi Brothers, agile and quick capturing our theatrical disruptions on film, working as a team to avoid security and get the best angles.
Our first target was the Vienna Hauptbahnhof train station. As soon as we lay down on the ground in fetal position, holding each other’s shoulders, eyes from all across the station on both levels focused on our still figures.
Dennis woke up with a shot and called out that three weeks ago, America reminded him that we need a re-education on what love truly means. We need to do it to understand it.
One after another we awoke and all but Dennis slowly came to standing and walking across the space singing Equiano’s words- “We felt tired for all our lives, but we rise to greet the sun. To be free, no hate, no fear. Light for green is love, my dear.”
Dennis was left behind struggling to stand and join us but his fear held him back. We would freeze in tableaux on our journey moving forward. Leah called out that she was of no nation, that we are the same, the same beating, bleeding hearts. Monica implored that our instinct to survive has led us to fear the other. We can’t let fear win the day. Brad reminded us that most Americans don't hate anyone. Most Austrians don't hate anyone. We must remember the power of our collective compassion and ability to help. With that, Dennis screamed, “I am afraid!” and Brad ran back to offer a hand. We all stood together, Equiano spoke about the power and permanence of empathy as we began unfolding signs saying we stood for a fence-free Europe, for equality, for peaceful communities. We invited the passersby to stand with us. We looked out to a growing audience, some applauded, some with tears in their eyes, a few teenagers yelling curses and laughing. Two women joined us. thanked us and embraced us. We exited slowly, with security closing in on us, the Riahi swift to join us.
We did it again in the metro and then once more at the Vienna Christmas Market, the largest Christmas market in Vienna.
With the festive spirit in the air and the bundled up shoppers bustling about, we wondered how our message would be received. But they did not miss a beat. Everyone was responsive, attentive and kind. More people stood with us and more tears fell. We sang all the way winding through the market, taking in the faces of a people not beaten down, still shining with hope and dignity.
Buoyed by our connections in the streets, we headed to the workshop ready to work. We met at Brunnenpassage, a cultural center in the middle of a migrant neighborhood that offers free arts programming. About 50 people joined our workshop, children, people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, local Austrian dancers and theater-makers and more. We started off with an impromptu dance party to lively Arab music and then began. We were honored to have Echnaton with us to impart some of his wisdom and feel the connection across the years, to see the tradition live on.
It proved difficult to conduct a workshop with many language barriers and a translator who kept disappearing but the big group was up for the challenge and threw themselves into the exercises with joy and curiosity. We only had three hours so it was a very condensed workshop but we still managed to take everyone out to the street with the Awakening piece to perform at a nearby voting station. The moment we returned to the space, the news came in that Hofer lost the election! Finally a glimmer of hope with this important victory!
We met Arman and Arash with a few hundred of their friends celebrating the win in a luxurious ballroom screening the results. The brothers were, of course elated, and we were delighted to share this with them, especially in the shadow of our own presidential race. We drank champagne and toasted the future and thanked Arman and Arash for their part in movement-building, in providing tools for and giving voice to creative activism on a global scale.
Our celebration was short and sweet because we had to catch a bus to Bologna, a 12 hr ride through the night, half of which we spent laughing and playing games, all of us feeling a little high from the syncronicity of this historic moment that we could be one small part of in our journey charging forward.