Author and playwright Thomas Perle has begun a new collaboration with the “Radu Stanca” National Theatre in Sibiu (TNRS). On this occasion, we had a talk about his writings and recent stagings, about complex identities, how the past remains present in the present, and why he writes in lower case and doesn’t use a full stop.
Meeting Thomas Perle, you realise that a culturally multi-layered personality is not only about fragmentation and tribulations, personal battles and burdensome reflections. A mixed identity and an intertwiningly rooted family legacy can just as much be a gift of fate. Author and playwright Thomas Perle was born in Vișeul de Sus, Romania, in a mixed (Hungarian-Saxon) family descending from a Romanian grandfather and a grandmother of Zipser origins (a German community displaced from Salzkammergut, Austria, and Zips, on the territory of nowadays Slovakia, to Maramureș and Bucovina) on his mother’s side, and from Hungarian grandparents of possible Jewish descendance on his father’s side. It feels like each branch in his genealogical tree reflects a historical change and a reconfiguration of the European political map. After the fall of communism, when he was three, his family moved to Nürnberg, Germany. Years later, Thomas emigrated again and settled in Austria, where he studied Theatre, Film and Media at the University of Vienna. During his second semester there, he started working as an assistant director at Schauspielhaus Wien, and later got involved in various independent theatre projects, as well as in collaborations with notable Austrian and German theatres. He is now one of the most promising young playwrights in the German-speaking space.
At the time of our interview, he was in Berlin. Thomas is one of the five playwrights selected to be part of the programme Autor:innenatelier, in the framework of which they will take turns to spend a month in residence at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater (DT). December is his month. After being postponed countless times, his play “karpatenflecken” (the carpathians as spots on my skin), which brought him the 2019 Retzhofer Dramapreis, will be staged (by András Dömötör) for the very first time at DT. For Thomas Perle, it seems vital that things remain simple, though nuanced, in both his writing and his manner of speaking. Everything he says sounds imbued in minimalism: ‘I dream that one day karpatenflecken will be performed at Casa de Cultură in Vișeul de Sus’.
Even though he joins our Zoom talk straight from another morning session, Thomas is full of energy. ‘Today, I’ve been told that I write more quickly than actors can rehearse’, he tells me enthusiastically. He’s talking about the rehearsals with the TNRS German Department group of actors (in which he’s involved remotely). I am surprised to hear him speak Romanian and have to rephrase my discussion points originally planned in English. We only use English for clarifications and nuances. I think Thomas too translates and rephrases on the go, as his mind operates in three languages at the same time: German, Romanian, and Hungarian. ‘I sometimes come up with all three versions simultaneously, as if they are only divided by a permeable membrane’, he says. After “LIVE” (2020), a show based on his texts directed by Bobi Pricop for TNRS, he has started a new collaboration with the National Theatre in Sibiu – „one everyman”, a modern adaptation of a landmark play that has given him the chance to reflect on certain topical issues for Romania. ‘Just yesterday, on a train ride, I wrote a scene for a Romanian-speaking character. It all grows and grows…’
You and the actors of TNRS German Department are working on a new project: “EIN JEDERMANN. ONE EVERYMAN”. What is it like tackling a play with such history, that’s been a decades-old tradition in the Germanophone cultural space?
Thomas Perle: The play “Jedermann. Das Spiel vom Sterben des reichen Mannes” (“Everyman. The Play of the Rich Man’s Death”) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is especially important, particularly in Austria, where it’s been performed at the Salzburg Festival every year. Every time, it gives rise to great curiosity: everybody wonders who will play Jedermann, who will get the role of Buhlschaft ‑ it’s like the Austrian Faust. The entire performance seems to be constructed around the play, which has been performed on the opening night every year for a century now. It’s a play surrounded by myth. And my project with TNRS is happening following our very good collaboration last year for “LIVE” (directed by Bobi Pricop). The head of the German Department, Hunor von Horváth, asked whether I’d be interested in writing a modern Jedermann. Though I wasn’t sure at the beginning, as the original play is very old, with archaic language, I soon started to find ideas. Then, when director Dávid Paška (AN. from Slovakia) joined the project, the directions became clearer. Since the play has already been adapted in several ways, I asked myself from the start why we’d need a new adaptation by Thomas Perle. Our aim is to rewrite the myth in line with Romanian reality. For instance, death is present in the original, though for me it’s less of an abstract, mythical figure, as we all regard death from a personal perspective.
And what is this modern Jedermann like?
In our play, Jedermann, or rather mr iedeman, which sounds on purpose like Dedeman in Romanian [n.tr. a Romanian DIY chain) is a capitalist who comes to the East, to Ocna Sibiului (Salzburg, in German), Romania. It’s there that he invites an association and organizes a charity gala. We’ve also created a new female character, mrs iedeman, as in my plays I usually try to include as many female roles as possible, strong voices that want to make a point; in this case, Buhlschaft is a male role, not as a provocation, but simply as an attempt to grant more visibility to the LGBTQI+ community. It’s going to be one of the most political texts I’ve written so far, a critique of capitalism and our contemporary society.
What does death look like in the performance “one everyman”? You’ve said that you felt the need to create a more personal adaptation, and this seems to me like a very topical theme in the context of a year in which we’ve discussed at length and inevitably reflected on death.
I regard death very narrowly, microcosmically, trying to use personal descriptions and stories. I wanted to bring up the problem of illegal logging; we have three murders taking place in the forest. To get there, the actors and I spend a whole day together in which each of them told me a personal experience related to death, a very profound experience. mr iedeman is also in business with the timber mafia. I’ve also heard about deforestation plans in Vișeul de Sus to make room for a ski resort, which is outrageous. I take a very personal approach to death and, in the play, try to reveal how we’re all affected by it and what happens to those who’ve lost someone.
In one of the entries on your website, you wrote – of course, in poetic, cryptic language – that you were “excessively dramatic” and that at some point “your silent cries” had to take the shape of writing on paper. How does this connect to your Romanian roots? Does that dramatic character stem from your Romanian roots?
Good question: is the Romanian soul more dramatic than the German? I don’t know (laughs). There might be a connection though. I was faced with death very early on. In fact, my first childhood memory is of my grandfather’s funeral, before we left for Germany (when I was three). It’s left a mark on me. In my family, which is originally from Romania, we’re used to death. Somebody always dies somewhere and candles are always lit in all our houses for somebody who’s died. Death is closer to my roots… Whenever I write something, it’s either about death or death is present in some way.
First and foremost, I feel European and when asked where I’m from, what I am, I must tell people my and my family’s entire history.
What does writing mean to you?
My writing began from questions about my identity. I’ve been asked whether I would’ve written had my family not left Romania. I think I would. Maybe not as early as I did in Germany, where I felt a pressure to find answers to certain identity-related questions, so I needed a reflection tool, which was writing. I had so many questions about my identity: my father was from the Hungarian minority, my mother from the Saxon minority, yet by birthplace we’re all Romanian. Then, I emigrated again to study in Austria, where I discovered another identity. Now, I am thrilled to be able to work in my country of origin (a dream came true). It’s actually a great honour for me to be able to work in Romanian theatre and to give something back to the country in which I was born. Now, it’s about giving back and having an impact somehow. I wish youngsters were more European in thinking. We’re a completely new generation, scattered all over Europe; yet it’s somewhat bizarre that we’re once again getting used to borders and to being closed in and everything is changing. I strive for a free, open Europe. I strive for the European idea and write about my Transylvanian identity, as it’s always been a heterogenous mix (a mishmash). I couldn’t say I feel I belong to one or another nationality. First and foremost, I feel European and when asked where I’m from, what I am, I must tell people my and my family’s entire history. I am not one part of what defines me, there are several layers, I am all these identities. I am but one case of mixed identity, but through my example I can (or hope to) open other people’s eyes, too. This is what I aim to do: make others believe in the European idea.
But what brought you into theatre? You’ve tried several things…
Which is of great help now. I performed as part of the young group of the Nürnberg National Theatre, then after the baccalaureate I started working as an assistant director. I tried to become an actor.
And it didn’t work or you chose to discontinue?
I’m happy it didn’t work and I am now here as a playwright and author (laughs). I feel it’s useful that I’ve been on stage and can see all the sides of this experience. I started working at Schauspielhaus Wien when I was studying in Vienna; it was a theatre with contemporary dramaturgs, where they placed an emphasis on absolute premieres. It was a notable experience, for ten years later I’ve become one of them. I also tried directing, which I enjoyed, but it was a… crazy experience. I settled on writing because it’s closer to my heart, I think while writing, which gives me more power.
Dramaturgy still comes with many preconceived ideas and confusions. In your experience, what’s the biggest preconception? Are there cultural difference between being a dramaturg in Berlin compared to Sibiu or Ruse, for instance?
The biggest confusion is that I am a dramaturg in Romania, a term that has a totally different meaning in Germany or Austria. Over there, the dramaturg is a team member sitting between the director and the writer and dealing with a certain number of plays, a person who works to adapt a more or less final play for a group of actors, a kind of an œil extérieur for the director and the theatre group.
Dramaturgs in German theatres have a lot of work and don’t have the time to write their own plays. They simply don’t have time. All dramaturgs are overloaded, as they try to save as much as possible there, too.
In Romania, the dramaturg is actually a writer, the equivalent of the German “Dramatiker”. It’s a completely different job. If you’re lucky, you get the chance to work as an in-house writer, as is my case now in Berlin. Here, I am part of a group of five playwrights in the framework of the programme Autor:innenatelier, in which each of us gets the chance to work for Deutsches Theater for a month. We all have a dedicated workspace here, where we can write. I hugely enjoy being able to collaborate so closely with a theatre.
When the pandemic began, I found myself working very differently. In my collaboration with TNRS for “LIVE”, I had a lot of time to develop the play, from March until July, so I did my research and looked for more profound themes together with the actors. The actors were grateful to work and stay busy during the lockdown.
To me, the full stop does not show the end of a sentence but is rather a tool to mark rhythm. (…) It’s easier to write in lower case only and to create several layers and meanings.
How did you come about writing the five stories of “LIVE”? What inspired you?
It’s very hard for me to write for myself alone. Coming from the world of theatre, I know what actors need. Whenever I write, I have the ensemble per se in mind. People are my inspiration. And “LIVE” was based on the actors’ personal lives. I’m a team player, but obviously in the end I’m the one who decides what to write. It’s a constant exchange and ideas don’t always come from within me, but from everyone involved. I take this input, something happens inside me, and then I bring to the table something that’s once again taken over by the actors… over and over until they interpret my writing. I love this process. I’m happy as a child whenever I hear the actors on stage utter the words I’ve written. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it…
If “LIVE” was based on topical themes, in “karpatenflecken” (the carpathians as spots on my skin) you conduct an impartial remote exploration of a past in which you family history intertwines with large‑scale political changes. How important was this distance?
Distance is liberating. In this case, distance was time. My grandmother could only talk about the war and emigration years later. Time helped. My mother was part of a generation that talked about these the least, as historical events were too close to her. The same with my sister. Europe was experiencing great changes and so was she. She was only 13, going through puberty. As Eastern Europe found its identity, so did my sister. I was too young to remember the fall of communism, which is why I often use my sister’s point of view, as she’s ten years older than me. In my writings, I always look for the truth. I’ve done a lot of research, not only on my family history, but on the history of the whole region we’re from. All the narratives in my play are based on true facts.
The characters in “karpatenflecken” are fluid, evolving continuously: their names change with history, their identity constantly changes in our imagination. What was it like working with director András Dömötör on developing the characters in the play and transferring them from paper to the Berlin Deutsches Theater stage? And why did you choose to place an accent on female characters?
“karpatenflecken” is a historical overview of three centuries in which I tried to capture both positive aspects and the dark painful sides of history. It’s a play about three generations of women: a grandmother, a mother, and a niece. Using different languages and dialects, the text traces their German-Austrian-Hungarian-Romanian biographies and destinies in a wider context of political changes and the history of violence over the centuries. The original play included more male characters, such as the Romanian grandfather, a worker, the settlers, the forest, and the mountain. But DT wished for a feminine perspective and chose three wonderful actresses to interpret all the roles. I am very happy with the result. And after three years of pandemic-induced postponing the absolute premiere, I am glad to see it finally presented on stage. It’s a very touching moment for me.
All your writings reveal your own style, with repetitions, no capital letters, no full stop at the end of your sentences, fluid lines, and flowing ideas. Are these defining elements a result of your complex identity reflected in a minimalistic style where you avoid being categorical or placing things in rigid classes?
To me, the full stop does not show the end of a sentence, but is rather a tool to mark rhythm. And the reason why I don’t use capital letters actually has to do with Hungarian and Romanian. In German, nouns begin with capitals, which is not the case in Romanian or Hungarian. So I thought I should write everything as in Romanian literature. However, when I worked on “LIVE” in Sibiu, I learnt that capitals are used in Romanian, too. Some asked why I wrote God or Romania in lower case. When I started writing in German, I wanted my mother’s language – Romanian – and my father’s language – Hungarian – to be visible as well. I wanted to keep something of these languages. In time, I understood that I sometimes need both versions, both this word and the other. I play with language. I don’t know where to use capitals, as to me there is no beginning of the sentence. It’s easier to write in lower case only and to create several layers and meanings.
You also write outside of theatre. In 2018, you published a short prose book: “wir gingen weil alle gingen.” (“i left because everyone else did.”). Do you consider yourself a writer in a broader literary landscape?
I don’t think of myself as a poet; I’m a playwright, but poetry is part of my dramaturgy. In fact, my plays include all three genres: prose, poetry, and drama. It all started from my beloved grandmother, who told a lot of stories, while I loved to listen. I stored all that within me and at some point could no longer keep everything in. So I wrote this text, which brought me the 2013 “exil” literary prize. The book was published in 2018.
Your metaphoric, poetic style remind me of Herta Müller. To what extend has she been an influence?
Yes (brings his hands together above the heart), very much. Herta Müller is a model for me, though I haven’t experienced all the horrible things she has. I have a different perspective of that time, as my path and my family history were different. I would like people to understand through my writings that the past remains present in the present. I don’t want to condemn everything there was in the past. The years my parents lived under communism were not all about Securitate (n.tr. secret police agency of communist Romania) or hunger; they also experienced good moments, they lived! And all that was passed on to me as well.
Since I’ve moved to Austria, I’ve noticed that many people only think about the country’s current borders. They have no idea what the Habsburg Empire meant for the countries in the East and the South-East and how their history is connected to their own. I think it’s very important that we look to the past and advocate for peace, which is essentially an exception.
English translation: Camelia Oană
*cover image: Volker Schmidt