A Night at the Audimax
A mostly historically-accurate sort of musical about the University of Hamburg
(this article tries to avoid spoilers as much as possible)
As a musical fan – if the first notes of Les Miserables’ ’‘On my Own’ don’t make you cry, you’re a liar – and once eager member of my high school’s choir – call me Eliza, call me Sandy, call me Kate –, I arrived at the Audimax with a lot of expectations. This is the first ‘sort of’ musical that the University Players created that I watched. Even though their Frankenstein included music(al) scenes as well, and the now-directors Marc and Svenja Borchert were also involved in the production of that play, A Night at the Audimax is another milestone for the University Players and their directors who also created the play.
Different groups of students, present for different reasons, find themselves locked in the Audimax. The one group is preparing a play for the University’s centenary celebrations but fails to consider that an accurate re-telling of history might not be the most entertaining evening activity (Ryan Stark, Friederike Baier, Margaret Metzler, Edgars Noskovs, Claudette Sifelani), one group wants to occupy the stage to demonstrate against the elitist system of the university (Ivy Haase, Clara Kasten, Aaron Meyer), and another group of students are reserving seats for an exam the next morning (Steven Montero, Kris Georgieva, David Rothmaier). They are law students, duh. They are shallow and selfish. At least that’s what they first come across as. Yet, slowly but surely they all show that deep down they are all as scared and anxious about the future, they are all keen to please their families, some are even pressured into studying. Anything really. But who are they really? And what do they really want in life?
Cut to the future. It’s 2119 and the university is celebrating its bicentenary. It turned into a proper company, led by president Christine Bowman (Arja Sharma) and entertained by Prof. Dr. Dr. Baistaf (Simon Deggim). They are updating their sponsors on a new system, Alexandria, where they are gathering their students’ and staff’s personal information to further research and most importantly, secure the university’s status of excellency. Studying is no longer equated with discovering one’s self, but delivering results for the university. Students have become un(der)paid employees. And still the system is elitist and only allows people to study who have the means to do so when in fact education should be obtainable by everybody.
Present and future narratives are interlinked by their common goal to find a way back to what university life should be all about: individual intellectual developments. It’s about young people who are keen on furthering and deepening their knowledge or who want to prepare for a certain vocation. But studying is not just a preparation for the labour market, it is about discovering what you want to do in life, how you feel about certain ideologies, positions, it is about finding your voice.
As a PhD student of English Literature I felt I could particularly relate to the play’s criticism of the systematic underfunding of the Humanities. William Fuhl’s (Paul Kahre) dire situation of depending on the university to extend his contract every month is probably the epitome of the university’s neo-liberal ideology. Yet, we can already see this trend of underfunding the Humanities nowadays. While other faculties are being given entirely new buildings (Earth Sciences?), students of our department are still waiting for an, at least somewhat final, return date to the Philosophen-Turm. Priorities. Why invest into the Humanities if they won’t bring in any revenue for the university? But why still offer classes in Humanities then?
In our most recent tba-podcast episode we talked about why we as English majors decided to study the subject and why it is still relevant. I still stand by what I said: the Humanities are a vital part of the University. It’s a counterbalance to the Sciences, the Justice or Economy departments. They all ask what and how. But we ask why. We question society’s ideologies. We question the past, the present, and the future. And it is perhaps the department that focusses the most on the individual student: their opinions, their values. It’s less about indoctrination than pushing students to self-reflexivity. And in a society that is constantly pressuring us to re-evaluate ourselves, in which we constantly rely on external validation to make us feel acknowledged and appreciated, self-reflexivity and the discovery of one’s own worth present the most instrumental aims the university supports and therefore merit an equal amount of budget.
But, hey, wasn’t this a musical? What about the music, you might ask.
A Night at the Audimax’s eight songs manage to emphasise the musical’s message that creativity and authenticity eventually trump pure economic agendas of self-fashioning. We should be who we are and not what others want us to be. The stories we tell should be true and honest, not placating neo-liberal ideologies. The sheer level of creativity that went into the realization of the songs and the experimental and transgressive lyrics of them impressed not only hundreds of thousands of viewers of Paula’s (Kris Georgieva) Instagram account, but also the audience.
The lyrical masterpieces captured the sense of a radical change for the return to the original idea of a university which stands for ‘an institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects and typically having the power to confer degrees. Also: the members, colleges, buildings, etc., of such an institution collectively’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Nowhere do we find the idea of a corporation or corporate identity. In contrast, it is about the intellectual exchange between scholars and those who want to become such.
The musical captures the spirit of hope that change can be achieved but that the dangers of change need to be calculated as well. History has taught us what could happen if we follow blindly, if we don’t question our actions. We need to dare to challenge corrupt and dysfunctional, discriminating systems. We need to dare to speak up. We need to dare to be dramatic if that is the only way for people to listen to problems. We need to dare to raise our voices. We only fail if we succumb and deny ourselves to doubt, to challenge the status quo.
Creators and directors Marc and Svenja Borchert, together with their assistant directors Marisa Sissoko and Jonas Hemmer, and Annika Gosset as the in-house producer, created a magical rollercoaster of revolutionary songs and scenes, that turns the Audimax into a dystopian space where people turn into profitable machines and can only free themselves by allowing themselves to break free from society’s tight grip around their necks – in this version Stine is the almighty controller of fates.
This production was sponsored by the University of Hamburg to celebrate the university’s centenary, and admission is free. But instead of glorifying the university and its history, the play is challenging the current ideology by questioning the system of devaluing individualism in favor of collective excellence.
Music has in all times been an instrument of revolutionary movements. From the French Revolution’s ‘La Marseillaise’ to Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’, songs are a vehicle to convey words in a way that (quite literally) moves and engages people by singing along. Appropriating means of telling a compelling story for economist purposes, such as proposed by Prof. Dr. Dr. Baistaf (Simon Deggim), are a threat to the narrative’s power.
Marc and Svenja Borchert’s musical highlights numerous threats of today’s society, such as the social media-induced crave for validation, and the cultural impact of stories. Most importantly it challenges the current ideology of self-denial for the sake of pleasing family, peers, institutions. And moreover, the university’s lack of interest in the departments that offer an antidote to this toxic ideal. That’s why I was blown away by the content and creativity of the musical last night that moved me to an extent that I did not see coming.
If you like stories that deal with the truth, that question the way we live right now, go and watch this musical about a bunch of students who discover themselves, people like you and me.
Maria was listening to the sounds of people in the mensa at Überseering 35 while writing this review. Please, rescue us from this exile.