Friday, February 12, 2016

Life in Planet Berlin

Lately, Berlin has been touted as the best place in the world for creatives to live. See here and here and here. Well, it’s been about one year since I made the move to London and somehow ended up in Berlin and I'm still not sure if this is really the place. In London, I had a coherent idea of what I could do: link the Asian-American and British-East Asian theatre communities, make experimental theatre, take a few more steps in film. But I’m in Planet Berlin where (because of language and culture) these options don’t really exist.

For one thing, in Planet Berlin there are no Asians. Or black people except for African drug dealers in Gorlitzer Park. Berlin is 82% white.  This is a wildly different reality to New York, which is only 44% white.  Or London, which is 60% white. All that concern elsewhere about the underrepresentation of minorities in mainstream media? Completely moot here. The minorities are so minor they barely exist.  There are good things and bad things about this. I’ll write about that more fully in another essay.

But living somewhere predominantly white isn't entirely unfamiliar. European culture is something we all know, even if we grew up in a place where it co-exists with other cultures. What is completely weird and alien in Planet Berlin is the strange lack of pressure. It’s like getting used to a different gravity. I’m still floating about, trying to figure out how to put my feet on the ground and actually take a few steps. Most of the Americans and Londoners I’ve met also grapple with the same challenge.

In Planet Berlin, the cost of living is so low that you no longer have to scramble to pay your rent. You can find an entire (huge! gorgeous! central!) apartment for yourself at €600 per month. I know people who paying €250 for a decent room and sharing with only one other person. I can see my New Yorker friends reading this with their mouths open. Say what??? Yes, it’s true.

 And groceries are ridiculously cheap. If you hit the Turkish market (open on Tuesday and Friday) at around 4:30pm, the grocers are all getting rid of fruits and vegetables. 2 kilograms of oranges can be yours for €1.  That's like 20 oranges. (I’m still trying to finish the oranges from my last shopping foray.) You can also eat nicely at a restaurant for less than €15, drinks included, since a glass of wine is only about €4.  If you’re a beer drinker, well eine kleine bier is only €2.

So economic pressure is way way way reduced. If you’re an artist, you really can have a good quality of life working a P/T job.  Though it’s not really possible for most of us to rely solely on artistic gigs here since the pay is like half of what you get in London or New York. A lot of performers I know get themselves booked in Switzerland or London, where the money is. But it’s still so much easier to survive as an artist. And so much more possible to live primarily on your artistic work.

The other thing that is way reduced is commercial pressure. In New York, your work has the distinct possibility of being the next new thing. The platform is much more public, much more visible. And of course, much more competitive.  I think everyone in New York feels like they’re dancing like a chicken while juggling eight balls and shouting the Gettysburg Address trying to be seen and heard above the ruckus of performers around the world.

But in Planet Berlin, you don’t feel the eyes of the world on you in the same way. There is something rather isolated about Berlin. Spaces are plentiful and cheap. You can do anything you want.  But it’s all up to you. And without economic or commercial pressure, there’s only a fire under your butt if you make one yourself.

So here I am, trying to remember why I do what I do. Which is, I think, what confounds most people from New York or London. In those two cities, there’s no time to reflect. You just have to do it. Now. But here? I can really do anything I want (well, almost anything...) so what is it that I really really want to do?

After six months here unable to write and trying to figure out where I might find a community of like-minded radical vintage literate geeks and weirdos, it seems I’m being cleaved in half between a “serious” writer/director known as Victoria Linchong and a wacky performance artist known as Viva Lamore. Which is maybe what it should be.

I know that I really can’t exist without being on stage. How I ended up off the stage for so long is a mystery to me. Well, a smart theater friend did explain a few years ago, “Once they find out you can produce theater, you’ll never act again.”  I wish I’d known that when I was 17. And what I used to be known for way back when I was 17 was comedic performances. That’s something that Bill Murray said that resonated with me, “If you can be funny, you need to be funny.”

So maybe the lack of gravity in Planet Berlin has resulted in a 360° double me or Victoria 4.0, the Viva Victoria version.  And maybe in this alternate atmosphere it’s possible to live cheaply while creating theater and film and performances that somehow gain a modicum of traction. I’m slowly adjusting to the lack of hustle, though I still wonder if I will ever get used it. You can take the girl out of New York but can you take the hustle out of the New York girl?