TT 17 Feature

With its heady mix of radical work and discussions on the future of art and the creative process, Berlin’s Theatertreffen is always a politically charged affair. Annegret Märten meets organisers and attendees of the festival to explore how international affairs are making their mark on the German-speaking theatre ecosystem.

Berlin’s Theatertreffen has always been a political affair, but the tone differs from year to year. In 2015, when Germany’s Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders to 800,000 refugees, Theatertreffen opened with a heavily discussed Nicolas Stemann production of Elfriede Jelinek’s reworking of Aeschylus’ The Supplicants, but this year post-migrant voices were virtually absent. While the festival opened with Simon Stone’s millennial reworking of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the theme of political engagement remained a recurring theme throughout the 16-day festival.

At the heart of Theatertreffen is a selection of 10 shows that a jury of experts have deemed ‘notable’ – a nebulous term that is reinterpreted each year. From the outside, the festival can seem an elitist enterprise: tickets are hard to come by and sell out within a few hours, while the discussion and audience events often revolve around aesthetic forms and the political responsibility of art. However, Theatertreffen has always challenged production modes and forms of representation on stages in the German-speaking world and beyond. As such, it seeks to foster upcoming talent while grappling with problems that theatre currently faces.

The new writing segment Stückemarkt, for example, showcases radical theatre from across Europe. This is the forum to which Simon Stephens invited Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident in 2014. This year, however, the pieces presented at Stückemarkt largely avoided the refugee crisis. Petra Hulova’s Cell Number looks at Czech national identity, while Rainer Merkel’s Run and Bring Us Your Naked Life addresses colonialism and Tanja Šljivar’s We Are the One Our Parents Warned Us About is a touching exploration of grief.

Diana Insel, organiser of the Stückemarkt, says that themes such as populism and national identity were high on the agenda: “Borders were a huge topic, although, perhaps surprisingly, not many of the writers’ submissions focused directly on refugee experiences. Instead, the approaches to the current crisis were mostly filtered through personal lenses.”

The winning Stuckemarkt piece, The Growling of the Milky Way by Bonn Park, is an affirmative feat of wishful thinking that projects visions of a better world on to public figures such as Kim Jong-un and Heidi Klum. Another intriguing contribution, Who Cares?! by the company Swoosh Lieu, challenged the invisible nature of female care-workers.

The spotlight on the work of collectives such as Forced Entertainment, She She Pop and Familie Floz led to discussions about changing methods of production in theatre: how can international production structures work within the locally focused German city theatre model?

Festival director Yvonne Büdenhölzer and Berliner Festspiele director Thomas Oberender have questioned whether the trend towards international co-productions of the invited shows with directors such as Thom Luz (Theatre Vidy Lausanne) and Milo Rau (International Institute of Political Murder/Campo Gent) signals the end of the repertory theatre system.

Their conclusion that this is not the case was cast into doubt when the upcoming season at the Volksbühne, one of Germany’s most experimental ensemble repertory theatres, was announced during the festival. This was the latest turn of events in the hotly disputed takeover of the theatre from long-standing artistic director Frank Castorf by former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. While the 2017/18 season features many co-productions, many of them, controversially, will not originate at the Volksbühne. Dercon’s idea of theatre is a much more open concept of performance that includes dance, film and even game formats.

His many critics are worried that the festival-like curated approach to programming endangers the fragile ensemble model as well as the subversive aesthetic cultivated under Castorf’s quarter-century reign. Local audiences might adapt to these changes quickly, but it remains to be seen whether the Volksbühne will retain its famed political and artistic explosiveness.

5 things you need to know about Berliner Theatertreffen

1. The first Theatertreffen took place in 1964. Meaning ‘theatre encounter’, it is produced by the Berliner Festspiele, a body funded by the national Federal Cultural Foundation.

2. Every year a jury selects ten notable shows from hundreds of productions from the German-speaking world – there is no single winner.

3. Other awards are also handed out alongside this. The 3sat Prize for an artistically innovative achievement was handed this year to director Milo Rau who was invited with his show Five Easy Pieces. The Theatre Prize Berlin went to Herbert Fritsch for services to German-language theatre and the Alfred Kerr Acting Award went to Michael Wächter.

4. In 1978, the Stückemarkt was introduced as a way of discovering new writing talent from across Europe. Since 2012 it has focused on exploring new forms of authorship.

5. The International Forum is a platform for up-and-coming theatre practitioners that enables them to see the invited plays and take part in workshops.

Das Knurren der Milchstraße Reading

Another segment at the festival is the International Forum, to which UK theatre-maker Ira Brand, co-artistic director of Forest Fringe, was invited this year. The forum is a platform for exchange between performers, dramaturgs and directors from more than 20 countries. Activities include workshops and talks as well as the opportunity to engage with different theatre ecologies.

Brand reflected on some of the differences she had noticed: “At the International Forum there are people from all over the world. Here in Germany, people really seem to have to stake out their roles and say ‘I’m a director’ or ‘I’m a writer’. Perhaps this has to do with a difference between working within the state theatre structure or bigger institutions and working as an independent artist, as is my background.”

A key difference, says Brand, is the figure of the dramaturg, whose role in German theatre institutions is to facilitate dialogue around the work. “There is a readiness here to accept that the work can’t answer or even pose all the questions and I don’t see this so much in the UK. It does happen, but in many theatres, curation is more about programming work that fits under a particular theme.”

For Brand, the collective scrutiny of the International Forum has thrown up questions about representation which the makers of the big shows might find difficult to address from within their own production contexts.

“I feel a peculiar distance to the shows I see here on the big stages in relation to my own practice,” she says. “The discussions we were having in the International Forum often revolved around identity, position and voice. Who’s speaking here and who isn’t. It was interesting to witness the very different approaches that are taken with regard to questions of diversity.”

This critical counterpoint to the main programme is consciously built in, according to Daniel Richter, who is the organiser of the International Forum: “Our objective is to connect the German-language work that can be seen here with an international context and to establish spaces where knowledge and experiences can circulate.”

One of the many formats trying to extend this exchange to the public was the accompanying conference, Art of Democracy. Theatertreffen uses its public platforms to show solidarity with artists whose works have pointed at the fractures and shifting grounds in European democratic models.

For example, Croatian director Oliver Frljić, who has been viciously attacked in the past for his controversial work, talked about freedom of speech. Falk Richter, whose 2015 work Fear at Berlin’s Schaubuhne faced protests and legal action from the burgeoning German far right, was invited to reflect on identity politics and current threats to plurality.

The spectre of globalisation has long been knocking on the doors of Europe’s theatres. Now it appears to have found its way inside.

Profile: Theatertreffen

Artistic director: Yvonne Büdenhölzer
Stuckemarkt director: Diana Insel
International forum director: Daniel Richter
Location: Berlin, Germany
Founded: 1964
Performances and events: 10 invitations, Five international co-productions with the Goethe Institute, Six pieces of new writing at the Stückemarkt, Other events include VR installations, workshops, artistic interventions, conference, films, concerts and discussion platforms
Audience numbers (2017): 17,700 over 16 days on five stages and event locations
Funding: Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Cultural Foundation) – €1.9 million (£1.65 million) per year

Originally written for The Stage.