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Acclaimed theater director Christoph Schlingensief has publicly worked through his recent brush with death with a best-selling book and a new play. Now he’s looking to leave a legacy in Africa before time runs out.

Schlingensief is to head to Africa on May 17 to visit potential locations for his next project: a festival theater for the continent. Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Tanzania are candidates for the endeavor, which has already received official support from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Goethe Institute.

Africa is, after all, „the cradle of opera“ and holds the „roots of music history,“ the director has said, adding that he wants to complete the project quickly.

It’s not surprising that Schlingensief is looking to leave a mark. Despite recovering from lung cancer, which was diagnosed in January 2008, the 48-year-old has said he feels he doesn’t have much time left won’t be around much longer.

Time running out

„Deep down inside, I believe that I’ll be on earth for two or three more years. It’s strange, but I sense that,“ he wrote in „Tagebuch einer Krebserkrankung“ („Diary of cancer“), a personal account of the struggle which was published last month.

He wrote that he doesn’t believe in life after death, so making a difference in this life is all the more important to him.

Schlingensief linked his life-changing illness to his work on a controversial production of Richard Wagner’s „Parsifal“ for the 2004-2007 Bayreuth Festivals.

„I opened a door I never should have opened,“ he said.

Though Bayreuth is known to be a pressure-cooker for all the artists involved, it’s also a clear career-booster that Schlingensief has praised on other occasions.

After undergoing several surgeries and 12 weeks of chemotherapy last year, Schlingensief wrote that his body and soul were „put through the wringer“ and that, „The cancer is gone, but the incision is still there.“

Staging fear of death

The physical, emotional and spiritual effects of the cancer are dealt with in his most recent play „Eine Kirche der Angst vor dem Fremden in mir“ (A Church of Fear vs. the Alien Within), which incorporates elements of the Catholic liturgy in a multimedia production.

One of the most discussed works of the season, it opened the Berlin Theatertreffen festival on Friday, May 1.

The event showcases the best of German-language theater and attracts a high-brow audience of theater connoisseurs. Only a handful of them joined in the smattering of applause that followed the opening performance of Schlingensief’s work, which had debuted at the Ruhrtriennale theater festival in Duisburg in September 2008.

Maybe it’s simply not appropriate to clap for this kind of show, speculated the online version of the German news magazine Der Spiegel in a review, „It isn’t just conventional theater: it’s more authentic, personal and private.“

The left-leaning Berlin tageszeitung, on the other hand, didn’t mention the near absence of applause, but wrote that „it was the very return of faith in the power of theater which was celebrated with (Schlingensief’s) piece at the opening of the Theatertreffen.“

African pre-premiere in Vienna

Regardless of the amount of audience applause, Schlingensief and his work never fail to spark discussion.

His new life project – the festival theater for Africa – recently made its debut in Vienna. A miniature version of the theater appeared as part of the scenery in his latest production of „Mea Culpa,“ which was performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater at the end of March.

As for the real-life version, with deep-pocketed supporters on his side like the foreign minister, Schlingensief may well manage to complete the project before the two-to-three-year deadline he’s given himself.

Deutsche Welle, DW-World, 06.05.2009