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Wunderbaum, Healthcare, and the Power of Fiction

Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares highlights from her recent conversation with Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart in anticipation of Hospital, a collaboration between LAPD and Wunderbaum which opens for a run during Out There this Thursday. A few seasons before I came to Minneapolis, I lived on East First Street in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. […]

Wunderbaum & LAPD’s Hospital. Photo: Steve Gunther

Playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski shares highlights from her recent conversation with Wunderbaum actor Walter Bart in anticipation of Hospital, a collaboration between LAPD and Wunderbaum which opens for a run during Out There this Thursday.

A few seasons before I came to Minneapolis, I lived on East First Street in the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. My home was a short walk from Skid Row, one of the largest stable populations of people experiencing homelessness in the United States. In college, I interviewed people living there for papers on economic justice; afterwards, I worked full-time with Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-collaborative ensemble based in the same vicinity, through which colleagues introduced me to the work of Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD). Over the course of those years, I followed and was very much influenced by various LAPD projects, such as UTOPIA/dystopia and the Skid Row History Museum. My first short play ever produced was based, in part, on the Skid Row community.

Needless to say, I was excited to learn that LAPD would be coming to the Walker with a new project, Hospital; the news felt like a convergence of homes past and present. But I was intrigued to see they’re collaborating with Wunderbaum, a performance group based in the Netherlands. I knew LAPD had done a variety of national and international collaborations over the years, but I had never known much about that aspect of their work — and I didn’t know anything about Wunderbaum. Who is this group, and how did LAPD wind up working with them? How does LAPD’s work, which I associate so strongly with a specific geography and population, change when it’s created with Dutch artists coming from their own historical, cultural, and artistic context?

I contacted Walter Bart, a founding member of Wunderbaum, via Skype to hear more about Wunderbaum’s work and their process with LAPD.

Rachel Jendrzejewski: I’ve read some information online, but can you tell me a little bit about Wunderbaum, in your own words?

Walter Bart: Definitely. First of all, the company is fully collaborative. In Holland, there was a very popular movement in the 1960s and 1970s toward collective work. Groups of actors started creating work based on improvisation, without writers and directors. Wunderbaum works like that. It was founded in 2001 by five actors (myself included) and a set designer. This collaborative approach is a pretty big way of working in Holland now, especially among younger groups. Of course, it’s challenging; you have to be responsible for everything yourself. We often invite other people to come serve as outside eyes.

Jendrzejewski: From your website, it seems your work tends to have a social focus, not unlike LAPD. Is that accurate?

Bart: Yes. For example, over the next few years, we’re developing a project called The New Forest, which is a fictional alternative society focusing on topics like healthcare and the law. We’re gathering a community of people and making a fictional documentary, as if this alternative society really exists. Through this work, we’re brainstorming new systems and connecting people together. We bring in scientists and other speakers to give seminars on topics like space mining, green energy, wind power, alternative economies like Bitcoin — various bottom-up initiatives. We’re working with fiction because we believe it helps people to think big. When everything is fiction, people don’t feel like they have to come up with “real” answers to the problems we’re exploring; and as a result, they use their imaginations more freely.

WunderbaumCrop

Wunderbaum’s New Forest project. Photo: Jaap Scheeren

Jendrzejewski: How did you meet LAPD and decide to work with them?

Bart: We met John Malpede [LAPD’s founding artistic director] through a project that we did about the LA–based visual artist Paul McCarthy, who made a controversial statue of Santa Claus for Rotterdam. In our performance, a fictional character travels to LA to take revenge on McCarthy. We brought the piece to REDCAT in LA, and John wound up acting in it. We all liked each other a lot so we decided to collaborate. Also, our companies have certain things in common. For example, Wunderbaum works with many actors who aren’t trained as actors — people from neighborhoods where we’re doing work. So we began an exchange. LAPD came to Holland for four weeks, and we went back to California for four weeks.

Jendrzejewski: Do you have anything equivalent to Skid Row in the Netherlands?

Bart: No, we have nothing like that. It’s really crazy. But when we came to Los Angeles, the LAPD actors took us around to meet their friends and contacts — and we found out it’s actually a pretty warm neighborhood, in some ways. There’s good stuff happening. For instance, they took us to a church that does karaoke every Wednesday! Of course, I don’t think we ever would have found places like that without their help.

Jendrzejewski: So the two groups started doing this exchange. How did you land on the healthcare system as the subject for the piece?

Bart: It’s interesting. Things are changing in Holland; we’re moving to a more privatized, free-market system, where you have to find your own insurer – similar to what happened in the US. Meanwhile, the US has been moving toward this new, more social system. So we were interested in that juxtaposition. At some point, we decided to tell John Malpede’s story – from his birth to the present, his whole biography – because he’s dealt with a lot of weird stuff when it comes to healthcare! The piece ends with kind of a future perspective, what could be. In Holland, we have this alternative model emerging, Buurtzorg. which basically means “neighborhood care.” Community-based groups are trying to organize care in more personal, less centralized ways. The result is better quality of care, yet it’s also cheaper.

RADAR L.A.- HOSPITAL A collaboration of Los Angeles Poverty Dept

Wunderbaum & LAPD’s Hospital. Photo: Steve Gunther

Jendrzejewski: It sounds like a big moment of change in the Netherlands – and as I’m sure you know, things seem to be changing by the minute in the US, too. You already performed a version of this piece at least once already, at RADAR L.A., right? Has the piece changed since then, to reflect current events?

Bart: Yes, it’s still developing, changing as the system changes. We performed in both LA and Rotterdam, and we learned a lot from those experiences. As we continue and as the systems in both countries change, we evolve aspects of the piece.

Jendrzejewski: Can you talk a bit about process? How does your company normally create work, and then how do you then create work with this group from a completely different culture?

Bart: Yes. Making this piece was a little bit different from our normal way of working. As I mentioned, Wunderbaum has been together more than 10 years, so we know each other really well. We make everything through improvisation and we have a strong vocabulary. With LAPD, we spent a lot of time trying to understand each other. It wasn’t always easy bringing our styles together; we come from really different backgrounds. But basically we just kept sharing ideas and building a new vocabulary. We still used improvisation a lot: we would create these short acts, vignettes, present them to each other, then layer them together and see what happened. We also drew on hospital dramas like ER. In fact, the birth scene at the beginning of the piece is copied exactly from ER. Interestingly, ER isn’t too bad in terms of accuracy. We asked some doctors to watch it, to tell us what was realistic and what was not, and most of them were pretty impressed by the quality!

Jendrzejewski: Can you think of a specific moment when the process, with the two groups trying to understand each other, was especially challenging?

Bart: Irony has been a big discussion throughout this process. In Wunderbaum, our humor can be very ironic. But that’s not always LAPD’s style. John says in the performance, “In Skid Row, there’s no place for irony; everything is real.” It’s been really interesting to think about that concept in this process—what’s funny and what’s not for people in different contexts. While generating the work, we would bring things to the table like Reagan, communist jokes, all those mental institutions that closed in the 1930s, which is how a lot of people ended up on Skid Row… and the question has been, how can we tell these stories in ways that are meaningful for everyone involved? Can you use irony and humor? It’s hard.

LAPD and Wunderbaum perform Hospital January 9-11 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater; it is the opening event of the Walker’s 2014 Out There series.

 Join the artists in the Balcony Bar on Thursday, January 9 for a post-show artists’ toast. Stay after the performance on Friday, January 10 for a Q & A discussion with the artists, moderated by Dr. Angie Erdrich. After the show on Saturday, January 11, all audience members are invited to join a SpeakEasy conversation about the work, facilitated by Walker Tour Guide Susan Spray and local artists Evy Muench and Renee Copeland.

Inside Out There: Saturday, January 11, 11 am–1 pm. Actors from LAPD and Wunderbaum invite you to join them to improvise a new alternative healthcare system.