Un-Label: Diversity, next level

Spotlights are bathing the stage in a cool blueish light. In the rows of audience chairs, a director and a lighting engineer are sitting behind large-size monitors; on the stage and in front of it, one can find deaf persons, physically and mentally disabled people, blacks, whites, Germans, Greeks. That the theater group rehearsing this afternoon at Berlin’s Pfefferberg Theater is not a usual one is becoming obvious very soon.

The performance artists, actors, and singers are part of the cultural project Un-Label, and its name marks the objective: by means of the performing arts, labels, boundaries, and biases are to be reduced, and not only vis-à-vis any specific group of persons. Questions of feminism are just as significant as migration and inclusion are. The integration of mentally and physically disabled persons is one of the great concerns of Lisette Reuter, who manages the project. “In the cultural scene in Germany, professionalism is oftentimes equated with completed education. These people have no access to that. Despite this, we work with them on a professional level.”

  • Costas Lamproulis, Lisette Reuter

Reuter works closely with the director Costas Lamproulis. Cooperating with the roughly 100 artists participating in Un-Label – some more, some less closely –, they develop concepts for performances and workshops that will then be held in Germany, Turkey, or Greece. The project’s network extends all over Europe.

The performance to be given by Un-Label at Berlin’s Pfefferberg Theater as part of a gala event on the day following the rehearsal will be a mix of song, sign language, and dance that is wild and consistent alike. Turning the most different types of characters and impairments into a functioning group of artists is “the most difficult and, at the same time, the most rewarding task” as part of his work, says Costas Lamproulis. “Difference is at the core of the entire project, and empowers us. Body, language, cultural and artistic background – all these are different in each of us. That’s what we stand for.”

“We are convinced that diversity enriches art.”

First and foremost, it takes time to turn people into self-confident artists able to hold their own on stage, who because of their origins, body, or mental impairment have met all their lives with resistance and obstacles. “In addition, lots of things here are based on trust and freedom. What counts for us is that everyone can develop further artistically. You will have to leave sufficient space for that. For our group, nothing is specified by directors or chorographers but everything will be worked out within the group.”

The confidence makes itself felt during the experience of the group in the course of the rehearsal. Errors are allowed, and sometimes even desired. And, anyway: being different, and having divergent opinions, will not be an obstacle but rather an important resource. Reuter says: “We are convinced that diversity enriches art. All have different perceptions of society, of life. This is also reflected in our work.”

Despite all the liberties offered by a laissez-faire policy: rehearsals are done in a focused manner, and the break will be exactly five minutes, which cannot even be changed upon dancer Tom Auweiler’s request that the time of the break be doubled. Reuter’s ability to hold the Un-Label construct together as well as she does is probably due to her past as a cultural manager.

She and Costas Lamproulis, who took a course as a film director and has ended up at the theater, are a well-coordinated team. It is nine years now that they have been working jointly on projects that are similar primarily because of their differences. “We do not fit into any category; that is our big problem. In Germany, we are labeled as ‘social’ by art promoters, whereas social promoters classify us as ‘art’. If you then start working in an intercultural and interdisciplinary fashion, people will no longer know where to put you.” In almost no time, Un-Label has successfully liberated itself from all existing labels and categorizations. This is now doing the project harm in some places, particularly where it’s all about the acquisition of grants.

In 2015, Reuter and Lamproulis began to devise workshops jointly with a group of artists. 16 of these artists are now an integral part of the projects, with some of them being on stage at the Pfefferberg Theater. Since its foundation some two years ago, Un-Label has become a definite authority in the world of inclusive performance art in Europe. The initiative’s message tends to spread rapidly.

Un-Label has something of a snowball effect. When we were on tour in Turkey, our coach driver was the type of grim guy that everybody knows. After a few days, he had completely warmed toward us, saying to our Turkish colleagues: ‘If everybody were like you, then there would be no wars in the world.’ Our group’s appearance must have turned something in his head. To me, our mission is also a very political one. Everybody who gets in contact with us in some way will have that ‘click’ experience. We try to change and open up society.”

The market leader in inclusion

It’s stories like that which motivate the entire team – all directors, actors, dancers, singers, and lighting engineers – to carry on. Costas Lamproulis says: “There have been many difficult moments but I’ve never gotten to a point where I would have said, now that’s it.” For people with disablements, it was more difficult. Quite a few times, there were artists coming to him to tell him that a few days ago, they were just about to leave. Most of all, they wanted to say Thanks for the power they derived from the project, which was why they were ultimately staying on. “These moments are a great motivation for us”, says Lamproulis.

Lisette Reuter likes to speak of the “Company” Un-Label, and thus it may be quite correct to use economic terms by describing the project as the market leader in the niche of the inclusive performing arts. Projects that work both interculturally and inclusively do exist. Projects combining both are very hard to find. “We are rather unique after all.”


Text: David Jenal
Photo: Robert Rieger