Analysis of “Die Ruhe” by Signa

Analysis of “Die Ruhe” by Signa

“Die Ruhe” (in English “The Calmness” or “The Silence”)  is an immersive theatre piece by Signa which debuted in November 2021 in Hamburg, Germany. They re-opened their doors as part of the Berliner Theater Treffen from the 11th of May until the 20th of May 2022.

The performance invites 35 participants to join a cult for an entire afternoon and evening (5.5 hours). It is an unforgettable and unique experience. If you have the opportunity to go to Hamburg I strongly encourage you to do so. Please note that the performance is in German and requires active participation. 

In the following, I will discuss various aspects of the performance based on my visit. It contains spoilers and I recommend experiencing the performance before reading the article. 

 

About “Die Ruhe”

Die Ruhe takes place on multiple floors in an old building, the former post and parcel centre of Altona. There are around 30 actors and only 35 visitors which makes it a very intense and interactive experience. During the performance, you learn more about the cult and its members. This includes the cult’s history, its current state, as well as some background on cult members and the final goal every one of them is trying to achieve. Visitors are seen as candidates to join the cult which means you become somewhat of a new applicant or recruit although your role is never explicitly defined. 

 

The Beginning

After I show my ticket I am led into the building. People in dirty rags stare at me as I make my way to the receptionist who asks for my name and if I have any special needs. I am then guided to follow a much more well-dressed keeper down a dark corridor who leads me to a small personal space. I am told to put my things down and go to bed. I am slow to comply which puts a frown on his face. Finally, I lie down on the bed. I get tucked in and told to stay put. As I wait for further instructions I hear other people around me settle down and am full of excitement about what will happen next. Over the speakers, a disembodied voice tells us to close our eyes and starts talking about a dream.

As a producer of an immersive theatre, bringing visitors into the world you have created is a difficult endeavour. On the one hand, you don’t want to break the immersion. On the other hand, people have different needs and require some time to adapt and arrive. I fell in love with the approach from “Die Ruhe” because they managed to make it authentic and exciting at the same time. I don’t want to give away too much but still, touch upon a few details because I think they highlight interesting solutions to difficult problems creators of immersive experiences are facing. 

Observation One: Separating visitors. 

By assigning every visitor a specific space and making sure they can’t move out of that space, you are taking away their freedom, which will become a central theme in the experience. However, it also allows you to split visitors into groups. How deliberate the construction of these groups was, I don’t know. But I suspect that they pay attention to splitting up people who showed up together, thus isolating you from your companions. Each group consists of five visitors and one cult member. Once you are assigned to a group, you will stay within your group for the rest of your visit.

Observation Two: Considering visitor needs.

If your performance lasts for over five hours without breaks, you need to consider the needs of visitors. Especially if you are taking away their freedom to roam around. This seems obvious in hindsight but during the performance, I was surprised by how well they handled it. From arranging frequent time slots for you to either smoke, use the restroom or get some water to making dinner at their canteen a very special event.

Observation Three: Leaving your life behind. 

The last thing I want to mention is how natural it felt to leave everything material behind as you enter their world. It works great in the cult setting and it was deliberately only done after you were already in the performance for half an hour. At that point, you had been assigned to your group and you knew what to expect. Again, I think that is deliberate because the cult will ask you to put everything you have, including all your clothes, into a locker and put on the new clothing handed to you by the cult. It is an important transition in your journey and maybe quite a big step for some. 

 

Your Freedom

You are supposed to stay within your small group and with your group leader at all times and follow their instructions. Even something like a glass of water or a bathroom break has to be requested in which case somebody will guide you along the way. 

This level of restriction makes a lot of sense within the environment of a cult-like institution, but it can also be frustrating. I felt the urge to rebel against the system but I was quite sure that this would go against the spirit of the experience. Even small attempts, for example, to take a peek inside another room, were detected by the cult members and you were instructed to get back in line. Now that everything is over, I still wonder if it would have been acceptable to break out of restrictions or disobey their orders: Trying to sneak away and explore the space on your own. However, I do think it would have put a lot of extra stress on actors and organizers who were already doing such a great job that it felt fundamentally disrespectful to create such a disruption for them.

It also poses a fundamental question to the creators of immersive experiences Do they allow more freedom and accept the problems it would create? Is it worth the extra effort or does it not help the narrative/experience? I suspect they considered these aspects and deliberately decided to restrict the visitors’ agency.

 

The Narrative

The end goal of all cult members is to become one with the forest. As a group, you explore about nine different spaces that each explain part of the journey. The order in which you explore the spaces is different for every group. However, the meanings of some spaces are intertwined. That is, their meaning is only fully revealed to you after you have experienced a different space. This creates a challenge to the narrative for two reasons:

  1. There are seven groups but not all groups can go to the “starting” spaces at the same time (nor the “final” spaces at the end of the performance). This is solved by groups either going to “middle” stages in the beginning or two groups sharing an experience in a single space.
  2. Every group entering a space has already acquired a different amount and kind of knowledge which, in turn, changes their experience in the new space and might require actors to adapt their performance.

I can only talk about the experience of our group and I think this was almost the optimal outcome as we were the last group to experience the final space. This meant we had a build-up of the narrative tension over five hours, with a final space to resolve everything. However, even in our group, you could sometimes get into situations where experiences in a specific space became less interesting because a previous space had already explained the concept or idea it embodied. A cult member would then explain something that you had potentially already understood. It didn’t break the immersion at all, but it also felt less exciting than it could have been.

Overall, I felt like I understood the narrative very early on and started to hunt for secrets or things that were left unexplained. This might be a personal bias, but after being super excited for the first three hours I got to a point where I felt that the mystery had faded a bit. I understood the narrative, I knew almost all the characters and I felt like there were no more secrets to explore. Partially, because my freedom was so restricted, but also because the set of spaces we had visited as a group had seemingly explained everything that was there to explain. All that was left at that point was to look forward to the much anticipated final space, which, fortunately, we visited only at the very end. 

I would have loved a second layer of mystery here. More things that cult members actively try to avoid talking about, things that you only start to understand slowly and that keep providing the sense of mystery until the very end.

On the other side, I believe the point of the performance was not primarily to create a sense of mystery, but to bring people into a state of self-reflection. To evaluate what is important in life, what they want to achieve and what is blocking them. If you surrender to this, it can be a very cathartic experience. This is also reflected in the title and in the sessions that you experience. Other members of my group seemed to have no trouble doing so, actually finding an inner calm during the performance. However, seeing all the suffering and the struggles of the cult members moved me closer to a position of empathy in which I wanted to help the cult members to break free. I couldn’t focus on myself and I also didn’t feel like opening up to an organisation that seemed so misguided and toxic. Even in my state of suspended disbelief I still saw all the rituals as artificial ways to brainwash people and I wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. 

Independent of the goal, I found myself drawn in, being invested and immersed in the performance. I think this was in large parts because of the actors which I want to talk about next.

 

Cult Members

I have not much to say here apart from that I was deeply impressed by the performance of all actors. Especially our group leader, Dominik Bliefert, was simply amazing. But also all the other characters I interacted with were superb and I wish I would have had the chance to spend more time with them. For me, this was one of the strongest points of the performance: Creating a real bond with your group and your group leader. Something that felt real even after the performance was over.

 

Overall

“Die Ruhe” was an incredibly interesting and impressive piece of immersive theatre. Not only creating a large space with a unique atmosphere but being able to deliver such a personal experience with almost as many actors as visitors is truly amazing. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have experienced it and for the creators’ and performers’ hard work that went into making this possible. I can’t wait to see more work from Signa and hope that other groups in Germany receive the necessary support and funding to create immersive experiences on a similar level. 

 

Feature Image: Die Ruhe. Elise de Leede © Erich Goldmann

More information:

Berliner Festspiele

Signa – Die Ruhe. Official website

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