The Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY, or Österreichische Kulturforum New York/ÖKF), apart from the recent events mentioned in our account of the “Vienna, City of Dreams” Festival centered at Carnegie Hall, hosts a lively series of concerts and exhibitions in its clean, if somewhat edgy, modernistic structure on 51st Street, just East of Fifth Avenue—the design of Raimund Abraham, a Vienna-trained architect from the Tyrol, who has practiced in New York since 1971. As this example suggests, the Forum takes care to balance cultural initiatives from Austria with local creativity, often collaborating with the equally progressive Czech Center, housed in its equally up-to-date facility on East 74th Street.
Austrians, and perhaps Germans as well, to my mind, make too much of the language barrier and tend to be a bit shy in importing theatrical performances to New York, where we speakers of our doubly bastardized dialect of German might well appreciate them with the aid of supertitles. (I have even heard talk of the German language dying out as a significant literary language, as Germans continue to join the global crowd of English-speakers.) We shouldn’t forget how the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder sent many New Yorkers to the Goethe Institut in search of a smattering of German in the 1970s, when he was at the height of fashion.
A highly successful recent experiment in solo theater has encouraged the ACFNY to consider more theatrical offerings in the future. I certainly hope they will follow up on this and that future productions will be as enthusiastically supported as this first step, Julia Rosa Stöckl’s Leaving Ziller Valley, a bilingual monodrama, which she developed at the DIVA Monodrama Festival Austria, an important new solo theater festival in Tux a town in the Tirol not far from her native Hippach, in the adjacent Zillertal, referred to in the title of her play. (Frl. Stöckl is the founder and producer.) This mountainous part of the Tyrol, which is due south of Munich, needs, I imagine, no introduction to skiers, who flock to the area along with summer tourists, seeking to enjoy the grandeur and beauty of the natural environment. Tourism has its way opening place up and connecting them internationally, but it also ties locals together, giving them a sense of “us against them” and a highly commendable desire to protect local traditions, which face a double-edged sword, because of their value in the lucrative tourist industry. While it is hard for the average foreign visitor to the Salzburg Festival to imagine what a provincial hole it seemed to Mozart and his family, it is equally surprising for a contemporary American to discover how strong the power of one’s local origins are for people from the regions of Austria. That may have been real for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, but that sense of regional origins has long dissipated in the United States, except for perhaps Texas. In the Tyrol, modern conditions have their way of strengthening local roots, setting up attitudes against outsiders closer to home, like Germans, and above all the Viennese.
Julia Rosa Stöckl’s passion for theater has led her far away from Ziller Valley, to Munich, Berlin, and now New York, where she is studying at the William Esper Studio. Leaving Ziller Valley, directed by its co-author, East German veteran Reinhard Goeber, is truly bilingual. I have seen both the performance at the ACFNY and a video of another at the DIVA Festival for a large German-speaking audience, in which there was not a great deal more in German than in the New York production, and that the passages in each language belonged in that language.
The play is as much about New York as it is about the Zillertal and Austria. In its basic story, which unfolds over forty-five intense minutes, a young Tyrolean businesswoman, Elisabeth, finds herself alienated and lost by the incessant plane travel around the world her job requires…a life spent in one luxury hotel room after another. As a remedy, she decides to settle down—in New York. Unintentionally dovetailing with “Vienna, City of Dreams,” she calls New York “a city full of dreamers,” which is not the sort of observation that would immediately pop into the mind of most New Yorkers, but a poignant and true insight, more accessible to a transplant from the another, very different part of the world.
This sort of theater, which, as Stöckl states owes much to both European and American traditions, while paying special homage to Peter Brook and Frank Castorf, the current Phantom of Bayreuth, who has raised many eyebrows in Berlin and throughout Germany, does not waste a lot of time on exposition. When the lights go up, we see Elisabeth in a claret-colored satin cocktail dress cut in the style of a Dirndl. Her back faces the audience, as she gazes at a video of Manhattan at night. She has set down a large suitcase with an “I heart NY.” sticker on it. When she begins to speak, she reflects on the concept of connoted by the German word “Heimat,” something much more complex than the English word “home.” She talks about her personal definition of Heimat, which is by no means concrete, but she concludes that the good thing about her Heimat is that it is there, wherever she goes. New York, on the other hand, is a sort of chameleon. One gets into it or out of it like that. Switching into English, she says that home is the moment, the people she’s found in New York, love, life, and her mission. She can say, “New York, I love you.” with warmth and sincerity, but perhaps without conclusiveness. From the suitcase she produces a number of Chinese cats in gilt plastic, which wave their paws at the beholder, and she arranges them in rows across the stage.
Her family members reflect a range of different attitudes. One sister advises her to open her eyes and heart and to trust the world. She is grateful to her father for being open to her artistic mission. He thanked her for opening his eyes to art. Her other sister is less affirmative, with her consciousness of change, inconstancy, and uncertainty. On the one hand, Elisabeth can say “everybody understands me in New York. (then in German…) isn’t Heimat the place where one doesn’t have to explain oneself?.” But she goes on to reflect that one of her girlfriends, who is absorbed in family life, doesn’t understand her, and there is another who spends her life traveling around the world shopping.
About a third of the way into the show, she opens her laptop and produces lengthy dictionary definitions of Heimat. From there, she jumps into the subject of Austria as a nation. This takes the form of an introductory German class, with the primary goal of explaining why Austrians are better than Germans. She divides the audience into right half and left half and tries to set them into competition, demanding that they speak out the words for crude drawings she has made on sheets of paper. “Die Berge…Die Kuh, etc.” during which we learn about Sacher Torte, the Queen (sic), Mozart…until we finally get to the most famous Austrian of all, Hitler. As a teacher, she is most aggressive and judgmental, and her portrayal of Austrian mores is razor sharp. Her conclusion is that the Austrians hate the Germans, but not as much as they hate the Viennese, and the Tyroleans like the Bavarians as brothers. Actually their liking for the Germans improves, when there is money to be made from them.
An interlude of local rock music leads her into a discussion of her boyfriend and some plucking of rose petals. Their love and their future becomes increasingly ambivalent as the petals fall until there’s nothing left. The lights go down. She spins until she collapses on the stage. She rises, and with her back to the audience absorbs herself in a romantic song.
She decides to assume the identity of a clown, but we don’t see the grotesque slash of red she has painted over her mouth until she turns and the lights go up. After singing a folk song in dialect, she finds herself mentally back in New York and rhapsodizes about her favorite brands. “I love Starbucks, Armani, Facebook, Karl Lagerfeld…” Then she wipes off the rouge and lapses into depression. She thinks of “he loves me, he loves me not,” the definition of love, her own identity. “I don’t know who I am. I’m a bohemian, a hippy, a hipster…no, just a shitty hedonist.”
She concludes, “Heimat is in the moment, it is yearning.” As she thinks of homelessness (=lack of a homeland), homesickness, she says, “Heimat is being, not being alone…” The lights go out and we hear her steps, as she exits.
In this Julia Rosa Stöckl covered a wide range of states of mind, moods, and sounds, as she gave us a brave, honest, often ferocious account of what it’s like to live with a sense of local and national roots as they dissolve into and indeterminate corporate, global pool. I’ve translated most of the German into English (as I said the two versions I saw were different in this respect), and I therefore can’t give you a precise idea of the way the two languages worked together, and we can be sure that the effect in Tux was quite different from New York. Stöckl, with her perfect English, her High German, and Tyrolese dialect, is a strong presence in all.
The capacity audience at the ACFNY received the play with long, loud standing ovations. Frl. Stöckl has also performed Leaving Ziller Valley at Omar Sangare’s United Solo Theater Festival 2013. I can’t think of a better conduit for Austro-American understanding than a play like this, whether it appears in an Austrian cultural center or in a totally international context like the excellent United Solo.