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Suburban nightmare: A Twin Peaks twist in Tempelhof

Sleuth through the town of Neu-Friedenwald in the immersive theatre project "The Shells", inspired by Twin Peaks, June 13-20 at Greenhouse. Co-directors Jos Porath and Kristen Brandt explain turning a cult classic into an interactive experience.

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Photo by Laura Jung

On the sprawling seventh floor of a mint-coloured building in Tempelhof, an American-style suburb is being built. At the moment, it’s a maze of plywood sheets and pallets and cardboard boxes. Several of the windows are taped over. The floor is covered in sawdust.

But soon, it’ll morph into the idyllic hamlet of Neu-Friedenwald: imagine white picket fences, Astro-Turf and an adorably retro diner. This is the home of a new immersive, interactive, bilingual theatre piece called The Shells. Inspired by David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks, the production invites visitors to spend four hours strolling the streets of Neu-Friedenwald, where – natch – a pretty teenage girl has just been brutally murdered.

Co-directors Jos Porath and Kirsten Brandt started working on The Shells: Ausflug nach Neu-Friedenwald more than a year ago (before, they note, a third season of Twin Peaks had been announced). Featuring dozens of collaborators from Berlin and beyond, the production aims to explore violence through a feminist lens, which doesn’t preclude plenty of fun: entertainment options in Neu-Friedenwald range from squeaky clean dance contests to lurid peep shows.

The Shells runs at the Greenhouse, a former Jobcenter just south of Tempelhofer Park, from June 13 to 20.

Let me start by asking about where we’re currently sitting. It’s not much now, but this will become the town’s nightclub. Can you tell me more?

Kirsten Brandt: The nightclub has a very elegant setup that is inspired by film noir, by symbolism, by art deco, but also has a very industrial touch. You could call it an industrial pleasure temple, an industrial pleasure dome. It’s very fancy, very gold- and metal-heavy. Then there’s the back room, which is more like a peep-show room, where we have live performances – the fantasies of the people in Neu-Friedenwald acted out – and also film projections and pole-dance performances.

What was the spark for the project?

Jos Porath: Two things, really. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer says she will see (FBI agent) Cooper 25 years later. Twenty-five years later would be 2015. David Lynch thinks it’s 2016, but we did our own calculations. We’ve been talking about this for over a year, before there was talk of a third season. As we started working, it became more of a general inspiration. The Shells isn’t Twin Peaks. The other was that in April last year, there was an immersive theatre performance at the Schaubühne. It wasn’t the first immersive theatre performance we’d seen, but it was durational; it was a big cast of people; it was on a similar scale to what we are doing with this.

KB: There were things we felt weren’t dealt with properly in Twin Peaks, or things we felt could be dealt with more profoundly or more intensely. And it was so interesting to make a cult phenomenon reachable – to make it experiential, to deconstruct a cult phenomenon that you’re not supposed to touch.

How did you go about developing Neu-Friedenwald?

JP: We’re working a lot with tropes and stereotypes – deliberately employing them, but also subverting them. We looked at American suburbs and combined that with filmic references that go beyond Twin Peaks. A lot of our inspiration comes from film and television since about 1990, but it’s always the view of 1990 – or 2000, or 2015 – on the 1940s and 1950s.

KB: Initially, we talked about motifs. We wanted to do something with facades that are crumbling down and revealing something. We were interested in the motif of thresholds, in the illusion of a parallel world. We’re giving certain rooms the illusion of being naturalistic, but then deconstructing that – having rooms that reconfigure themselves, or having windows that are not actual windows, or doors that lead to nowhere.

The story behind Neu-Friedenwald is that it was established in 1945 by Americans stationed in Germany. What sort of life were those Americans seeking? And what is life like now?

JP: The founding fathers of Neu-Friedenwald liked the possibility of creating an incredibly patriotic microcosm. Perhaps the US would not allow them to go as extreme – it’s the hyper-Americanness of doing it abroad. Now, in 2015, it’s a few generations down the line, so it’s not quite as pure anymore. It’s a site-specific thing, too, because we are in Tempelhof, and Tempelhof used to be part of the American sector in Berlin. There’s a military backdrop.

Every year, tourists are allowed into Neu-Friedenwald for one week. In 2015, the doors open again, even though a teenage girl has just been killed. What can visitors expect?

KB: It’s going to be a unique experience for everyone, because everything is improvised. When you enter this town, it’s very picturesque. It can stay picturesque, if you stay in the diner, or just talk to the people who are very welcoming. But you can also venture into the darker parts of the town. That’s the thing about immersive theatre: You can’t just consume what is front of you. You have to relate to it, you have to position yourself in regards to it. Visitors can even take on the role of the investigator – if they want to solve the murder mystery, they can do that.

JP: There is also a tourist season programme. There are dance contests. There’s the Miss Neu-Friedenwald contest at the end of the week. On a daily basis, there are small events that will be flyered and postered all around town. The inhabitants prepare the whole year for this week.

You’re working with actors, cabaret performers, dancers and musicians. How do you prepare performers for an unscripted, immersive, interactive performance? And one that welcomes visitors for four hours at a time?

JP: The only thing we’ve stuck to telling people is that they can never break character. Everything else – if they need to withdraw from a situation, if they need to have someone kicked out of the space because they feel unsafe around them – can be addressed in some form or another. And if things escalate, to have controlled escalation possibilities, so it can be played out in a way that’s still interesting – where you can play with that mounting tension, but it doesn’t compromise performers’ safety.

KB: We want the performance to stay with people. Immersive theatre offers the possibility to involve all the senses, so it might literally be the sheen of sweat that stays on you after you’ve left. It might be that you get a postcard from one of the characters sent to your home, or a phone call from Neu-Friedenwald. We want to make it physically stay with people, and for it to haunt them how they reacted in a situation, or how they could have reacted in a situation.

What about these ideas of violence you’re exploring?

KB: Rather than working with physically reenacted violence, we’re trying to create an atmosphere that is very much informed by violence. Violence is a cloud that hovers above the whole town constantly. You can’t avoid being confronted with it.

JP: To go back to Twin Peaks, a big starting point was when Bobby says, “We all killed Laura Palmer.” There’s this idea of shared guilt, of shared history – and the entanglement of guilt and community. Maybe this town is so tight-knit because they need to communally turn a blind eye.

It’s hard to hear conversation about collective guilt and not think of German history.

JP: It’s a universal thing, but not in the sense of confusing this with the Holocaust. You can call it a mob mentality, you can call it a universal experience, but what actually facilitates it? And that’s where the gender part comes in: How does power fall, and who ends up more commonly being the victim? Who’s perpetrator, who’s victim, who’s survivor?

KB: Referring to German history, how does it change a place that has been the site of violence? How can a haunting manifest itself in a space? And how do people, or even the generations after them, deal with the violence? In Neu-Friedenwald, people turn a blind eye. There seems to be no way of dealing with it without being ignorant to it.

The Shells: Ausflug nach Neu-Friedenwald, June 13-20 | Greenhouse Berlin, Gottlieb-Dunkel-Str. 43, Tempelhof, U-Bhf Ullsteinstr.