A Practice of Practices

Performer and theater maker Hendrik Quast speaks with author Kenny Fries about his stage works, his interest in the relationships between amateurism and virtuosity, humor and irony, comedy and drama, parody, drag, and queer dramaturgies, as well as his »positronic way« of making theater. In his latest works, such as Dancer with Cancer, or Spill Your Guts, Quast questions the normalization of the opposition of sick/disabled and healthy/nondisabled bodies. Fries and Quast discuss how to approach disability with humor, and how to invite the audience to laugh with instead of at the onstage protagonists. They also talk about the queer understanding of intelligibility, time, and class.

Hendrik Quast in conversation with Kenny Fries — Jan 31, 2023

Akademie Schloss Solitude - A Practice of Practices

Hendrik Quast in his studio at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2022. Photo: Anton Avdieiev

Kenny Fries: When we first talked, I was intrigued by the beginnings of your performance practice, especially how you connected your relationship with the audience to class and, specifically, your mother, who is a florist.

Hendrik Quast: To be honest, when I started studying at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Gießen, I didn’t even know what a performance was. As soon as I got used to it in practice and theory, I started to imagine my mother in the audience, as someone who did not experience an academic education or encounter performance art on a regular basis due to her rural upbringing. These premises fostered my artistic interest in handicraft and entertainment culture on stage, to create access to contemporary performance through different artistic realms.

Even as a child, I was fascinated by making floral arrangements, using cut flowers, an almost dead material, to create a natural illusion. This depended upon how each flower was set into relation to another, some making up the (green) base, some forming groups, some emerging as soloists, some facing each other, and some out of sight due to their fixed positions within the arrangement, not able to see what is happening on the other side. Observing discussions about funeral arrangements especially kept me busy and led to the creation of Trauer tragen, a performance in 2011, and my first radio drama in 2012 with WDR Cologne.

I was intrigued by how customers came into the flower shop after their loved (or hated) ones died, and tried to select flowers that would mirror the lost people’s personalities. I witnessed how my mother guided the flower talk back to basics, and creative limitation, for example due to seasonal availability. She later crafted the flower selections into personalized arrangements.

KF: For each of your works you’ve learned a new skill – ventriloquism for Spill Your Guts (2022), for example. How long do you take to learn such practices?

HQ: The length of learning specific practices or skill sets depends on what the technique demands. The basics are often easy to learn, but to reach toward virtuosity requires time. Also, observing the underlying power dynamics of a technique takes its own time.

By learning new skills from different professional fields, I follow a broadened concept of art and thereby try to expand what is considered as art and non-art, high art, and entertainment culture. Translating these acquired skills to the stage tries to queer the dramaturgical conventions of performance and undermines the boundaries between live art, documentary theater, performance art, and body art. This theatraliscation of handicrafts on and off the stage is a highly collaborative process that involves my team, among them for example my longterm collaborator, performer and light designer Maika Knoblich, costume designer Christina Neuss or production manager Lisa Gehring.

For my performance Mohrle (2014), a musical happening, I learned mouse taxidermy in a weekend, but practiced for months to bring this handicraft on stage. Through my research on therapy puppetry, I came across ventriloquism. Ventriloquism took a year, because it is very complex combination of voice technique and puppetry to create illusions, through testing out dialogues, scenes, and interactions with the audience. In German, this skill is called »Bauchrednen« which means »speaking with the stomach,« although – and I hope that does not reveal the magic or violates my code of ethics as an emerging ventriloquist – most of the technique is produced with the mouth. I was fascinated how I could recontextualize the voice technique and puppetry of ventriloquism as a method of making invisible processes of the intestines artistically visible.

Surprisingly, I learned the basic ventriloquist’s voice technique within three days.

KF: That’s pretty fast!

HQ:  I had some voice education within the creation of Mohrle and several subsequent projects, so my voice condition enabled that fast-track learning. In preparation for Spill Your Guts, the bigger challenge turned out to become finding an appropriate voice that creates the character of the puppet that personifies my chronic conditions: How could she sound both mean and caring at the same time? How can an invisible chronic condition be embodied through a puppet? What is the relationship between this puppet and the puppeteer? How to characterize the relation between the »real« sick performer’s body and the fictional antagonist of the puppet and the ventriloquist? How to combine two mostly excluded phenomena in theater: entertainment and sick bodies.

»Perspectives of being queer, working-class, and disabled are lived experiences that inspire my way of working and help to question power structures.«

KF: This is true. Most people don’t think of disability or illness as something that can be called »entertainment.« In fact, historically, work by disabled artists has been looked at as »therapy« rather than art. But in your work, you use comedy to put an audience at ease, as well as to provide access to the disability experience. In Spill Your Guts you literally and metaphorically give voice to your illness, which both embodies and disembodies this aspect of your life. What did you learn by this process through your immersion in puppetry and ventriloquism?

HQ: This creation of Spill Your Guts walked a thin line between therapy and art. Because I was suffering from heavy inflammation in the two weeks before the premiere, I questioned my ability to perform, and my role as a theater maker, more than ever. But this modus operandi of taking out the puppet and playing with her and just putting her back into her box after rehearsal brought me to a better understanding of the episodic nature of chronic conditions: I learned that an inflammatory episode would last for a certain duration and then go away (but only when assisted by medical treatment). Before, every inflammation felt very existential, as if its symptoms would never end.

I realized that the virtuoso paradigm of theater excludes imperfection on so many levels. Even in dealing with humor.Often you find a pointed humor, clearly aiming for the effect of making people laugh in a certain moment of a performance, like a punchline. But humor often fails. I observe this a lot in daily situations, misunderstandings, or different tastes in what might be funny. This led to my interest in creating ambivalence or ambiguity with humor on stage.

Post-dramatic performance theatre in Germany since 1990 – through, for example, René Pollesch, SheShePop, or Gob Squad – also worked a lot with humor, but always with an ironic attitude. Somehow the main functions of this ironic humor seemed to affirm specific educated bubbles by having a similar point of reference and through distance to different phenomena – as irony is ironically a distancing mode. But for me, irony is dead. I want to disrupt perceptions and use ambiguity to confront the audience with their internalized and normalizing dogmas and taboos, maybe let’s name this a more post-ironic way.

Until 2010, it was rare for performances to bring different audiences and different forms of humor into dialogue. Just until a few years ago, I never even saw a disabled body perform humor. Through working on topics on illness, I realized that pain has always been a foundation of humor, like the clown who slips on a banana peel. For me, chronic conditions have the potential to create specific humorous tonalities. A crip humor that works in different stages of sickness and allows failure.

KF: This brings up the issue of the fine line between creating comedy that allows an audience to laugh with rather than atyou. The latter would reinforce the way disability has historically been viewed as something to pity and fear, rather than something that is actually universal to all of us. All of us, at some time during our lives, will be/come disabled.

In Dancer with Cancer (2020) you dealt with illness/disease. For this piece you talked with cancer survivors. What was the impetus for this work? What did you learn from your talks with cancer survivors and how did you take on the responsibility of giving them voice through your performance, without co-opting their stories?

»For me, irony is dead. I want to disrupt perceptions and use ambiguity to confront the audience with their internalized and normalizing dogmas and taboos, maybe let’s name this a more post-ironic way.«

HQ: One of the most interesting findings of this creation and the encounter with the cancer patients from Stuttgart was: »cancer survivors« do not exist! There are of course patient initiatives and associations who claim the »survivor« status.  As an empowerment strategy, I fully understand the necessity of that claim. But most cancer patients I spoke with avoided the term »cancer survivor,« because they understood cancer as a chronic condition that has to be dealt with for a lifetime, especially with medical therapy’s side effects.

The year before the performance Dancer with Cancer, I dealt with heavy abdominal pain. The computer tomography made visible a dark spot on one organ that could be affected through my ulcerative colitis as an extraintestinal manifestation. Doctors had difficulties evaluating this »shadow« and questioned whether it was an inflammation or something more serious.

As someone with an inflammatory autoimmune disease through lesions and change of tissue, for me cancer is always the elephant in the room. This shadow confronted me with my own anxiety of cancer. I was overwhelmed by how everybody – including me – tried to attribute meaning to this artificial body image and how family and friends looked at me after I told them about what was going on. At this point, I started researching how cancer is embedded in fictional narratives in novels and media.

As this didn’t bring up satisfying results, I put my thoughts into an application for the festival Die Irritierte Stadt in Stuttgart, a cooperation of Akademie Schloss Solitude, Theater Rampe, and Musik der Jahrhunderte, to dig deeper into cancer narratives. I wanted to design a project for cancer patients about the limitation of language in cancer experiences. I wanted to challenge the terminology of »cancer survivor« because this term included the possibility of not surviving. I observed a strong normalization of the opposition of sickness and health and wanted to know how this goes along with health paradigms fostered by pharmacology and science.

After my application had been accepted, and after starting the project, the first thing I learned through interviews with cancer patients was their estranged body experiences and their complaining about the lack of movement classes that treated their bodies as bodies still able to move. So, it became obvious to work with finding an articulation of cancer experiences beyond language through movement, more specifically through pantomime. As one part of the project I offered a course for cancer patients at Volkshochschule am Rotebühlplatz (VHS, a public continuing education institution) in Stuttgart, accompanied by a pantomime expert.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - A Practice of Practices

Dancer With Cancer, 2020. Photo: Jacob Jurkosek

The performative format I developed out of this collaboration was heavily influenced by  COVID restrictions. I wanted to give access to people who are not able to enter a venue due to medication and their immune status. I invented an alter ego who understands him*herself as a cancer coach and performed at the VHS Stuttgart, online, and on Instagram. The fifty-minute format is both a pantomime course and a performance. Here, through my alter ego’s theatricality, humor played an important role in finding the appropriate tone for this serious topic. My main goal was to develop a framework that entertains cancer patients. So, I referred to my dialogues with cancer patients within the process on biases of non-affected people about »cancer bodies,« »cancer smell,« or »cancer faces.«

This led me to addressing the audience as »current and future cancer patients« One important scene and training element is »cancer faces,« a sequence of how to recreate mimic reactions on addressing cancer by healthy people in daily situations, reactions between pity, disgust, mourning, and other emotions. By taking the patient as point of reference I tried to empower them in dealing with misleading cancer narratives in society.

KF: Do you see a difference between illness/disease and disability?

HQ: From the experiences of my bowel diseases, the main difference between chronic diseases and disability, for example through physical impairment, is time. My condition is episodic: I do have periods in which I don’t have any symptoms. These alternate with periods of inflammation to different degrees. Nevertheless, within the symptom-free episodes, I still take medication and am reminded every day of the condition’s existence.

I also experienced a shift of acceptance and identification as disabled through the severely- disabled status that I got three years ago. It was a strange moment because on one hand I felt some resistance in being measured by the social system, while on the other hand it was a big relief in articulating what was kept invisible, even though it was through the medium of a simple plastic card.

Artistically I am very busy with the translation of chronic condition in an appropriate time format on stage. Chronic conditions do not seem to fit into traditional dramaturgies, for example in staging a protagonist into a (story) development of being successful or not in the end. In Spill Your Guts, the performance about my ulcerative colitis, I tried to work with episodic and interruptive dramaturgies related to my experience.

My practice is strongly informed by queer understanding of intelligibility and time. But for me, queer aesthetics is not always glitter, not only a battle through the politics of visibility. I am intrigued by crip and queer artistic concepts as (failed) performance, representation, and subversion through parody, drag, and dramaturgies that could possibly arise from the concepts of queer and crip time and bring invisible aspects of queer experience into artistic form.

In the beginning of 2022, after twelve months of advanced training, I entered the stage as crip ventriloquist, meaning a style of ventriloquism that allows failure in creating illusions by, for example breaking out of roles, losing the voice technique, confusing voices.

KF: Thus far, your performance work has dealt with your self-identification through class, queerness, and disability. Not many look at class as an identity.  How do you see class as an identity, and also how has it intersected with your other identities in your life and work?

HQ: Perspectives of being queer, working-class, and disabled are lived experiences that inspire my way of working and help to question power structures. To be honest, the awareness of being marginalized was a process of understanding over the past ten years. I didn’t grow up in an environment of politicizing my social situation in any way. But being confronted with situations and feelings of injustice in the art world, which I was not fully and properly able to articulate at the time, led to a crisis of passing, and a more explicit way of articulating my practice.

What most of my marginalized experiences have in common is that I can make them invisible. Except for my chronic condition, which due to its uncontrollable character is very hard to keep secret in working relations in our deadline-based sector.

After being confronted with my infinite vulnerability, questions that still keep me busy are: How to postpone an inflammation? How to reschedule a premiere? How to find forms that can be adapted to my current ability? Through my chronic conditions, I became more aware of all my wasted energy and tactics of hiding things instead of explicitly using them as a source.

For example, I have never fully understood how to properly carry a pretzel and a glass of (alcohol-free) champagne in the foyer of the theater before the show starts. That might sound ridiculous, but everybody has their baggage to carry, and this is one of my bags. In a foyer, I usually deal with a conflict between my two hands and my mouth by holding a pretzel in one hand, and the champagne in the other. I keep myself busy by serving my mouth. The »balls« of this triangular juggling of shame are vanishing over time: The hands are emptied until the next refill at the bar. But this visible labor of holding and chewing, refilling, and emptying helps me to find first words or come up with an adequate topic and ritual for my encounters. This led to a scene in Spill Your Guts in which my ventriloquist puppet guides me in making a puree of pretzel and champagne in a mixer.

Within my performance creations I focus a lot on how to address the audience: How to irritate people. How to establish ambivalences in performing styles. How to find dramaturgies that turn a space or situation around and around. How to find new comedic tonalities for taboo topics.

KF: What’s next for you and your practice?

HQ: The next thing I will do is an education as clinic clown, which will take me about three years – the longest advanced training so far – and will be part of my Ph.D. project starting next year.

Hendrik Quast studied for a degree in applied theater studies at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen (2006–2013). Since 2023 he is a Phd candidate at Stockholm University of the arts. He is a radio dramatist and performance artist. He embraces a process-oriented concept of theater, devoting himself to performing techniques at the interface of entertainment culture, such as ventriloquism, pantomime, and musical singing. He purposely allows these to collide with everyday practices, crafts, and cultural techniques including taxidermy, funeral floristry, and nail design. His performances have been produced in collaboration with numerous institutions, including the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm (Frankfurt am Main/Germany), Gessnerallee (Zurich/Switzerland), FFT Düsseldorf, Theater Rampe (Stuttgart/Germany), Sophiensæle (Berlin/Germany) and Kampnagel (Hamburg/Germany). Additionally, his works have been shown at international performance and art festivals, including the Impulse Theater Festival (north rhine westpahlia/Germany), steirischer herbst (Graz/Austria), Festival a/d Werf (Utrecht/Netherlands) and the International Summer Festival Kampnagel (Hamburg). He has adapted several theater works as radio dramas for the broadcaster WDR Köln (among them Nagelneu, which was declared Radio Play of the Year 2021 by the German Academy of the Performing Arts (Deutsche Akademie der Darstellende Künste). In 2022, Hendrik Quast was a fellow of Akademie Schloss Solitude in the context of a collaboration with the Theater Rampe and Villa Kamogawa in Kyoto/Japan.


Kenny Fries is the author of In the Province of the Gods (Creative Capital Literature Award); The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory (Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights); and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out, and his books of poems include In the Gardens of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. He was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera to write the libretto for The Memory Stone. Twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), he has received a Rockefeller Foundation Arts and Literary Fellowship, was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, a Cultural Vistas/Heinrich Böll Foundation DAICOR Fellow in transatlantic diverse and inclusive public remembrance, and has received grants from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange), Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. He is curator of the Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer exhibit at the Schwules Museum Berlin, and his current work-in-progress is Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust, excerpts of which have appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, and Craft, and form the basis for his video series What Happened Here in the Summer of 1940? He is a 2022 Ford Foundation/Mellon Foundation Disability Futures Fellow.


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