Magdalena Lepka

Thomas Oberender

Leestijd 12 — 15 minuten

State of the Theatre

Windows without curtains

Opening Speech for the National Dutch Theatre Festival by Thomas Oberender on September 4th.Some years ago, I was a dramaturg at the Schauspielhaus Bochum and later in Zurich, the German production system made me feel increasingly uneasy. I felt that its terminology, which I had grown up with and was using as a matter of habit, didn’t seem to grasp what was suddenly emerging in the late 1990s and the fresh first decade of the new millennium. I started speaking of a “Theatre of the Day” and a “Theatre of the Night”.

Look at our traditional city theatres of the Western World – they are caves. Once the doors that lead inside have been shut, it gets dark and quiet, nothing intrudes from the outside, and everything we see inside theses caves from now on has been brought into existence under the conditions of its special artificiality – in the spotlights’ artificial light, at a place which is not the one the actors speak of, actors who visited the make-up department before they came onstage and who bear names that are not their own. In this vivarium, the dead reappear, characters from the past, revived by our blood, the blood of contemporary people. I’m sure you see what I am getting at – houses like this one, where I am speaking today, are Dracula’s castle. Inside these soundproof, gloomy walls, we encounter the esteemed dead, characters that cannot die. Their lives, lives that became literature, can teach us to live and that is why they are made to feel our blood, our spirit and our time.

I discovered the Theatre of the Day in Johan Simons’ production “Sentimenti” at Gerard Mortier’s first Ruhrtriennale in 2002. Inside Bochum’s Jahrhunderthalle, with sunlight shining through the windows and occasional raindrops drumming on the panes, 30,000 coal briquettes had been stacked to form a stage, with a huge rostrum for the audience in front of it, in an otherwise empty space. This space was no theatre; all its tools were on open display, the industrial history breathed from the pores of the ancient plaster and from the shafts and bridges of the remaining plants. The heroes of this history, basically the people next door, were the subject of this play, which was really a novel by Ralf Rothmann, which in turn encountered the music of Giuseppe Verdi. Everything was transparent, with the actors standing next to the musicians; the performance was no servient adaptation in the classical sense, but a creation – epic theatre which took us, the audience, into account, turned us into a part of the performance reality and developed a game between drama, musical theatre and large-scale installation, all with reference to this specific place and situation.

I love them both: the nocturnal theatre of interpretation that is based essentially on characters, on the repeatability of texts, even on bringing back other times, and I appreciate just as much the – broadly speaking – project-based character of the Theatre of the Day and its creations. Generally, it doesn’t produce texts intended for revival, they stay tied to their creators’ personalities and they often occur at places that weren’t meant for art, places where an artistic event is always a statement with no previous agreements, no rites or rules, taking on the real story of this place and its people. Art takes off its safety catch in these places, in urban spaces, in annexed factory halls, on open land. And it is often the Theatre of the Day that undertakes influential experiments, that questions the theatre’s role in society and that substantially expands our notions of what the theatre can be. I know that it is impossible to reduce the Dutch theatre scene to only this Theatre of the Day – needless to say, there is high-class literary theatre, there is a fantastic tradition of artistical theatre and, of course, great musical theatre – but what I am calling Theatre of the Day reveals a general development in contemporary arts; and although this doesn’t only apply to the Netherlands, they have certainly been an engine for this development.

This idea of the Theatres of the Day and the Night isn’t a clear-cut model, it isn’t a strict ideology, but rather serves to describe theatre worlds that co-exist, that blend and absorb each other’s accomplishments. And the fact that the Theatre of the Day has become part of today’s high culture and even substantially contributes to its dynamics, is due in large part to Dutch theatre culture. As a matter of course, in the Theatre of the Day, the actors became co-authors in the creation process of the productions. The work of these collectives, as Simon van den Berg so aptly described it, is informed by a do-it-yourself mentality and an open eye for all sorts of source-material. After all, Dutch theatre is essentially one of production families and companies. Holland, I often think, is a polder-society. It has to integrate everything, because it is threatened from the outside. This polder-society is constantly secured, as Hans-Werner Kroesinger described recently, to protect the land from the sea and thus from dissolution. Theatre companies are important institutions in this polder-society; they help to form city societies and regional communities, to drain their foundations and put them on stable ground, and thus to keep together what in more differentiated societies might drift apart and blow up the dams.

There’s a certain symbolism to the fact that Dutch theatre managed without fixed ducal court theatres. It is a theatre for urban societies and regional communities, a theatre of companies, of ship’s crews, as it were, who embark on journeys. In my mind, this wandering confirms the close relationship of the Dutch with the Elizabethan theatre. Both of them work in daylight and in the open air. Their notion of art is not elitist. They are theatre forms developed by sea-faring nations, both adventurous and mercantile. Both traditions are Protestant. The Netherlands are a society with no curtains behind their windows. In a very interesting way, this theatre mistrusts everything formal. During the second half of the last century, it developed a reflected, transparent naturalism, which became ever more epic and installative in nature, without being at all solemn or pretentious. Quoting Joseph Beuys, one could give Dutch theatre the title of “Show me your wounds”, and thus the Protestant culture of immediacy leads to a theatre of vulnerability. I will never, never forget Jeroen Willems in “Two voices”. His windows without curtains.

For the German-language theatre, the Netherlands have been a constant source of aesthetic inspiration. After his ill-starred short term as Artistic Director of Berlin’s Schaubühne, Jürgen Gosch worked with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and was spellbound by the emancipated culture of actors here. Nothing but adults. Co-producers. With a vivid language that is a reality in itself, vigorous and specific. Jürgen Gosch was fascinated by this fresh, different way of speaking and acting. What he brought back to Germany from this experience was a – yes, I’d like to call it a revolutionary style of directing, which presented the actors’ personalities in a new immediacy and allowed them to be together on stage as a company. Cunningly, Gosch rehabilitated naturalism, in sparse, Protestant spaces full of precious details. Thank you, Jop Admiral. Thank you, Netherlands. Who in turn were so astonished by him. And this is what you want to destroy? Do you only recognize the European dimension of Dutch art when you are looking at merchant ships at the Rijksmuseum?

The writer and director Falk Richter spent his most productive learning period here, as did the young German director Susanne Kennedy. The Amsterdam Mime-Training includes both theatre and dance. Not the text is the point of origin, but rather the body in space. Acting is a process of self-sculpturization – which means being both a sculpture of oneself and its sculptor. And this process leads to the development of a character, rather than beginning with a literary character and fanning out into the space, the music, the associations. Dutch theatre turns the German theatre tradition from its head onto its feet, because it doesn’t develop a fixed role into a sculpture in space, but the other way around. Even if this form of theatre is created in studio theatres, it is a Theatre of the Day that includes the audience’s reality into its playing and tends to manage without the ramp, without the process of “Casting”. So, there are many reasons for the German-speaking audience and its theatre world to look at the Netherlands with fascination. The combination of local and national support structures were – do I really have to say ‘were’? – ground-breaking. In the Netherlands, producers and institutions were supported for four years, not case-by-case or project-by-project,as in Germany, which makes for a precarious situation for many independent companies there.

The work of Hollandia and Johan Simons have changed the European notion of contemporary art. We have become used to the fact that a large part of the international theatre avant-garde comes from the Netherlands – Anouk van Dijk, Dries Verhoeven, collectives like Veenfabriek, Omsk Bambie, Wunderbaum or Dood Paard. Under the direction of Ivo van Hove, Toneelgroep Amsterdam created an innovative theatre model without equal worldwide. And then came quite a different shock – the budget cuts decided on by the Dutch government in June 2011. What vengeful spirits were these? I have often cursed the culture politics of Austria, Switzerland or Germany (I worked in all three countries), but I don’t think that there could be a drop in culture- political temperatures there, as was seen in the Netherlands, where subsidized art could be derided overnight by Geert Wilders as “a hobby of the Left” and Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared: “The arts have their backs to the audience and their open wallet towards the state.” But were Dutch theatres empty? Was the only sound to be heard in theatres and concert halls – now indeed threatened and affected by void – the buzzing of flies? Not at all!

The theatres didn’t have an audience problem. And theatre arts are not a medium in crisis. The theatre has a financial problem. The same goes for Germany. And in both countries, we mostly have a social problem – how do we deal with an aspect of our history which I consider to be a typically European one? Because culture and art played a very particular role here, especially in the German-speaking countries. With all its pitfalls, Germans became and are still citizens of a culture rather than of a nation. There was no victorious civic revolution apart from the one of 1989, and this circumstance begot a chain of never-ending cultural revolutions throughout history, a series of attempts at emancipation by the bourgeois classes which finally gained dominion, liberated in effect from the outside rather than the inside. I think the Germans consider their own civil community much more of a fiction than an old civic nation like the Netherlands does. You had a golden age, we “only” had Weimar Classicism and Bauhaus. Our elites’ family trees are broken and so traditionally we look to our theatres, opera houses and concert halls to tell us who we are. Maybe this helps to explain why, as Johan Simons pointed out, during a recent German debate about budget cuts under the heading of a threatening “cultural infarction”, it was first and foremost the politicians who defended our cultural landscape.

Do I bring any happy news from Germany at all? After the previous remarks, it should be clear that the value of a theatre system can only be understood and justified historically. Would it be possible to transfer the German system of city theatres to the Netherlands? Would it be appropriate? It’s true – compared with the Dutch budget cuts, conditions in German theatres are still paradisiac. We’re still able to maintain a high level of infrastructure and qualified know-how, which is currently threatened in the Netherlands. And when I speak of infrastructure, I mean a lively network of institutions. I grew up with a mistrust of these institutions and I used to fight against them. They were the seats of power, the establishment, of torpor and arrogance. Today I think we have to fight for our institutions. They claim a right of residence that seems valuable to me today. No matter who runs these institutions with more or less success, it is the political will that keeps them alive. Which doesn’t mean that things should just keep going as usual, unchallenged. But how easy would it be to alter these institutions with all their know-how and equipment, compared with having to reconstruct them after their willful / spiritless destruction?

Of course money is tight in Germany too, the wages of artistic theatre professions are recessive, theatres are closed or merged with others. Only 0.4 percent of the federal budget is spent on culture and local authorities spend only an average of 1.9 percent on their cultural institutions. A struggle of distribution is going on and it is exacerbated by the fact that the independent scene is fighting to improve the precarious working conditions in its field, and the classic institutions, whose frozen budgets have caused a state of calamity, feel threatened by this scene – and vice versa.

Let’s look at this situation in closer detail: In Germany too, a culture of creation has developed which is shaped by the four big “I-s”. The work is interdisciplinary, international, intermedial and often intercultural, too. Usually, these pieces are created in networks, they are produced by independent companies in cooperation with festivals and other institutions and intended to go on tour. The large houses of the German city theatre system and their companies have also started to work increasingly flexibly and in networks, which means that they can supplement their budgets substantially with so- called third-party funds, funds for specific projects. So I would suggest that we no longer talk of city theatres and the independent scene in the old sense, but rather draw a dividing line at a different position within the system: The decisive difference is the one between an exclusive and a cooperative way of producing. Exclusive works are created at and for a single house. Cooperative projects, which include most independent productions, depend on funding from foundations, funds, festivals or production houses. But nowadays, classic city theatres too are realizing a great number of projects. There is hardly a large theatre in Berlin that doesn’t organize a festival or cooperate with a large festival. In most cases, these projects of the larger houses are financed by the same funds that support the independent scene.

Therefore, in my view, two things have to be urgently dealt with in Germany: instead of cutting budgets, the proportion of exclusive and cooperative productions should be chosen as the foundation of our funding policy, rather than confronting the independent scene with the classic institutions, as has been done so far. (Because there is no longer a fundamental difference between the flat, all-inclusive budgets of large institutions and the case-by-case budgets of independent project companies, who will turn into institutions themselves over the years, if they are successful. Here we can learn from Toneelgroep, for example). The old criteria are losing their meaning. In future, there will be more festivals rather than fewer, more networked projects than exclusive ones, and thus more projects rather than less. If we take this as given, the next step must be to make the institutions more flexible, to safeguard their standards and to improve the options for adaptions between the two systems. How can large and small institutions work together? The most advanced theatres in Germany have made experiments along exactly these lines – in Cologne under the direction of Karin Beier, at Thomas Ostermeyer’s Schaubühne and Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne in Berlin and, certainly with the greatest success, at the Münchner Kammerspiele of Johan Simons.

Secondly, we have to deal with the transformation of our civil society. There is an incredible discrepancy of wealth in the German city theatre system. And there are diverse tasks and audience groups, too. Maybe we can speak of three levels :

• The foundation is made up of small cities of around one-hundred-thousandinhabitants. This is a theatre of regions. In these houses of tradition – they often include drama, opera and dance – a community nobilitates and discusses itself. Should these theatres die, the lights will literally go out in these places. All attempts at merging theatres so far have failed. And Ulrich Khuon, as Spokesman for the Deutscher Bühnenverein (German Stage Association), has pointed out that closing a city theatre has never yet helped the local independent scene.

• Next is the level of the large-scale machines built for purposes of bourgeois representation with 1,000 seats and more – in Cologne, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf. If we look at the young citizens of the emerging net culture who live in these cities today, it becomes clear why these huge stages are difficult to position as locations for contemporary art. And this is where the need for a system debate of the German city theatre scene becomes particularly evident.

• Large cities like Hamburg, Munich or Berlin, as the third level, have several theatres, with highly differentiated outlines and audiences. They already tend to work in networks and international contexts. In these cities, there are also institutions of a newer type, like HAU and the houses of the Berliner Festspiele, Kampnagel in Hamburg or the Muffathallen in Munich. They generally present creations and permanently work on a project level.

We see that real ensemble theatre has only survived in artists‘ theatres, in traveling theatre families and independent companies. Even though they quicken our pulse, these companies’ visions of the future are closely connected to terms like continuity, stability and slowness. Here, we can once again learn from project-based theatre, theTheatre of the Day, the independent scene, to call it that one more time. The old Schaubühne was a first-class project theatre as well as an en-suite theatre. The way I see them, the challenges facing the German-language theatre system are above all these: To organize the strengthening of the institutions, without further bureaucratizing or isolating them; to find ways to particularly reform the middle level of the German theatre system and to move away from all criteria of liberalization and instead to safeguard the slowness, stability and duration needed by creative processes.

You may have noticed that I have really come to tell you what we in Germany owe to the Dutch structures and achievements of better days. They drew back quite a few curtains from our windows, too. Let in daylight and fresh air. A non-elitist concept of culture should not pose a threat. This doesn’t mean that the arts should be ruled by the market, but can rather promote a culture of an equal footing of stage and auditorium, of a strict focus on content. When state subsidies of the arts are suddenly discredited like they are in the Netherlands, it’s not enough to refer artists to the box office, to patrons and sponsors. In this case, the politicians have to be serious about liberalization and offer the same incentives to sponsors and patrons that are common practice in the US – that is, tax relief for every Dollar, 1 to 1, if invested in areas of the common good, like culture, education or the health system. This would mean a withdrawal of the state and a lowering of taxes, because civil society is arranging the reallocation of funds among itself. Why is this never mentioned in talk about budget cuts? Sure, it would challenge a European model of states, but don’t the alarming cuts in other areas of the local communities do exactly the same? Are schools and hospitals also a hobby of the Left?

I would like to thank the politicians of the Netherlands for making sure that their theatre scene has been one of the most flourishing in the world in past decades. They rendered a great service to Europe. Let me makes this appeal to you: Don’t stop! The theatre is the guiding medium of the future. While everyone else is busy trying to simulate reality in ever greater detail, theatre people for 2,000 years have been gathering experience of creating alternative worlds simply through the behaviour of a group of people towards each other. The theatre is the oldest art in the world. From its beginnings, it has endeavoured to create a lie that would tell us the truth. This makes us experts on change. I wish the Dutch theatre many successful examples to prove this point.

Je leest onze artikels gratis omdat we geloven in vrije, kwalitatieve, inclusieve kunstkritiek. Als we dat willen blijven bieden in de toekomst, hebben we ook jouw steun nodig! Steun Etcetera.

essay
Leestijd 12 — 15 minuten

#138

15.09.2014

14.12.2014

Thomas Oberender