The German-speaking theatre has experienced a great qualitative and artistic turn since the beginning of the millennium.
This turn does not feed on the accumulation of leading theatres in the metropolises—as it did around 1900 and later in Berlin, but from the interplay of professional ensembles, experienced dramatists, and of a new generation of directors—spread all over the country and the German-speaking areas in Austria and Switzerland. Among the new generation theatre artists are Susanne Kennedy, Anna Bergmann, Jette Steckel, Yael Ronen, Niklas Stemann, Thom Luz, Amir Reza Koohestani, Dusan David Parizek, Simon Stone, Kay Voges, Bastian Kraft, and Ulrich Rasche, who are successfully succeeding the big male directors, who were dominating the German theatres since the 1970s.
To understand the importance of directors in German theatre we have to reflect about the rehearsal-driven production processes in German theatres. German directors often rehearse six, seven, eight, and more weeks every morning and evening in a very intense process. All the other departments in the theatres are subordinate to the process. And even the shows following the premiere often fall into the background. In German theatre the process is primary over the product.
The Year 2000 is the New Landmark
The year 2000 marks a big break in the dramatic arts in the German-speaking theatre world.
While new post-dramatic theatre forms were rising in the late 1990s, a theoretical discussion about the role of the actor and of the play took place. Theatre scientists and theatre producers are still discussing what model is inheriting the future of the theatre. The mimetic fraction believes in a continuation and renovation of the model of the so-called psychological or mimetic realism, the other about a further rise of the several branches of the post-dramatic theatre.
The first includes: professional actors, who are trying to enter into their characters, and who are playing in “professional” plays, e.g., written by dramatists.
The other: documentary forms, discourse theater, plays without characters and narration, actors who show the public that they are playing their role (neo-Brechtian style), more inclusion, diversity, non-professional theatre groups, plays that are developed and written during the rehearsals (Stückentwicklung), etcetera.
The leading artists: Authors such as Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian playwright, whose work is mostly played on German stages, and Rene Pollesch, and directors, including Christoph Marthaler (Swiss) and Frank Castorf, who are showing how interwoven the German theater is with Austrian, Swiss, and other artists from other countries.
In addition, there was the great theatre concept artist Christoph Schlingensief, who brought his own dying and passing away and his lost fight against cancer on the stage, with productions, like Church of Fear of the Stranger in Me (2008), and Sterben lernen (Learning to Die) (2009).
The Fear of the Unknown
Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek (b. 1946) wrote two almost parable social dramas, which were intensively interwoven with the hated and beloved German history—Bambiland (2003) and Ulrike Maria Stuart (2006).
Bambiland is a drama about an embedded writer during the Iraq War, which includes a retelling of Aeschylus’s The Persians. Like many other important post-modernist writers, Jelinek uses classical texts, such as Schiller's Marie Stuart, on which she writes the new parable of Ulrike Meinhoff and her partner Gudrun Esslin, founding members of the terrorist RAF (Red Army Fraction)—for the provocation of the audience and the political community.
Jelinek clarifies that Germany has a paradoxical problem: a repetitious history of inside terrorism on the one hand, and xenophobic tendencies on the other. Many Germans have a fear of the unknown and unsecure, including the fear of strangers and immigrants coming into the country. Conservative political movements, like PEGIDA (so called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) and right conservative parties like the AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), are using this fear and becoming stronger and stronger in the last months; they are now part of the overall concert of conservative parties in Europe and the US, who are afraid of all foreigners coming from outside Europe.
The Sacrifice of Former Utopian Ideas
René Pollesch (b. 1962), is the other great theater author of the new millennium.
He was the director of the Prater-Stage of Volksbühne Berlin, and developed there the famous Prater Trilogy together with his actors, and directed the three pieces:
Die Stadt als Beute (The City as Booty); Insourcing des Zuhause: Menschen in Scheisshotels (Insourcing the Home), and, finally Sex (2001).
The trilogy is a parable on neoliberal capitalism and neoliberal language, which Pollesch transfers to the threatened privacy of his actors/characters—performing on a small stage of the always sold out Prater Stage. Pollesch mixes the antic chorus, with elements of the expressionist drama and post-modern texts. His plays combine snapshots from the life and work of underdogs with anti-neoliberal (Piketty, Žižek) and post-modernist theories (mostly Foucault)—presented by the chorus formed of the other players.
Pollesch directs his plays himself and then never (or rarely) releases them as written drama for other directors. A Pollesch is a Pollesch, which can only be directed by Pollesch himself, because he trains his actors on speaking and performing his texts.
In one of his last plays in 2016, I Love You, But I Have Chosen Entdramatisierung (which is a pun and means the undoing of the dramatic process in directing and acting), Pollesch’s actors are discussing a question of one of the most important contemporary European philosophers and thinkers, Slavoj Žižek, “What is an event?”
The Holy Volksbühne
The Berlin theatre Volksbühne is legendary. In the twenty-six years of the direction of Frank Castorf from 1991 till June 2017, Castorf and his fellow directors presented new outstanding productions nearly every year, which always set new standards in directing, acting, building sets, lighting, and multi-media.
At the turn of the millennium, Frank Castorf and his actors, started a great Dostoevsky Cycle. The Cycle included: The Demons (1999), The Humiliated and the Insulted (2001), The Idiot (2002), and was finished in 2016 with the Brothers Karamazov —perhaps the most fascinating, demanding, and exhausting Dostoevsky cycle of plays on stage that has ever been shown in Europe. The cycle arose in strong collaboration with Bert Neumann (d. 2015), the famous stage designer and master of the corporate design of the Berlin Volksbühne.
The Swiss director Christoph Marthaler combines music and body, text, speech, mimicry, light, video, and stage design (with Anna Viehbrock) as closely as possible to a very musical way of speaking and singing—without producing a musical, which is as a genre strictly separated from the dramatic theatres in Germany.
Marthaler's success is unprecedented. His mostly self-written productions between drama, Liederabend, opera and movement theatre—such as Hotel Angst (2000), Die schöne Müllerin (a Franz Schubert Liederabend, 2001), Elfriede Jelineks In den Alpen (In the Alps, 2002), and Groundings (2003)—have been regularly among the top ten productions that are part of the Berlin Theatertreffen. The Theatertreffen is the summit to which the best and the most important new theatre works of the theatre season in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are invited every summer.
The Big Picture Has Changed Again
Today, seventeen years after the turn of the century, the big picture has changed again. Although directors such as Castorf, Pucher, Marthaler, and Pollesch still stage, a scarce dozen new directors have been added: Thomas Luz, Amir Reza Koohestani, Susanne Kennedy, Dusan David Parizek, Simon Stone, Kai Tuchmann, Anna Bergmann, Niklas Stemann, Kay Voges. With most of the directors, a diversification of the artistic styles and techniques is finally taking place, portraying a world of the twenty-first century in its complexity much better and more openly than with the close-focused view of the years before. The new directors are influenced by new styles and techniques, and they are diligently studying old and new sources, post-modern texts, texts of critical theory, and post-contemporary thinking. They are both artists and scientists.
The public, as well as the independent theatres in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have in recent years experienced a great artistic explosion. It is characterized by a great heterogeneity, new artistic formats, and styles, immersion, inclusion, and diversity. Unlike in the US, the German theatre landscape is distributed evenly across the country, with a concentration in Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, but with 120 other theatres in the regions and provinces, including smaller cities.
To Live a Whole Life in the Shadow of the Inner Fragmentation
Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010) probably was the first of the new millennial theatre practitioners who combined theatre and politics again. His aesthetics and concepts still influence many younger directors. However, today, there is no one who is the outstanding conceptual thinker or dramatist, no one who leads the political theatre discussion and dominates the theatre repertoire. No one will be missed more than him and Heiner Müller (1929–1995).
Yet, there is a small female elite of younger German dramatists, like Sibylle Berg, Theresia Walser, Gesine Danckwart, Dea Loher, Anja Hilling, Ingrid Lausund, Rebecca Krichelsdorf, and Marianna Salzmann, whose plays are produced regularly at the big and smaller playhouses, and who have come into focus over recent years and made a name for themselves.
Style and content of their plays vary a lot, however all of them concentrate on societies or individuals falling apart in several pieces that cannot be repaired again, and people, who fall out of the world and lose their innate orientation.
Many younger authors and teams write new texts, which are increasingly developed or rewritten during the rehearsals. This kind of producing is called Stückentwicklung (development of drama). Producers and publishers say there have never been as many new plays in Germany as there are today, including additional festivals, like the Berliner and Heidelberger Stückemarkt and Frankfurter Positionen, which contribute year after year a dozen new plays and productions. And, this is an indicator of the fruitful artistic development of the German theater, which on the other hand has to battle with harsh structural problems, since the structures and organizational principles of the public theaters are more than 100 years old.
In 2017 Frankfurter Positionen’s topic is “I, reloaded.” The festival is inviting productions or is producing new plays, which all are describing the qualitatively new and overwhelming medial reality of the people. For example, in Marianne Salzmanns new play, Ich, ein Anfang (I, a Beginning), directed by Bernadette Sonnenbichler—a play about the fragmented biographies of the characters and its players. “I reloaded” is about the fragmentation of feelings, of connections to other people, of the inner self. The overall questions are: What is common today, what is a biography, and what does it mean to live a whole life in the shadow of this fragmentation?
Elfriede Jelinek's new drama Wut (Rage) has come out in the Munich Kammerspiele—one of the two major drama houses in Munich—under the direction of Niklas Stemann in 2016. Stemann and Jelinek have been working together for many years, including the famous production of the extraordinary play Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns, the palimpsest of Shakespeare's masterpiece The Merchant of Venice, in 2009. The Contracts of the Merchant, is one of the best post-modernist dramas, a tabloid of speech material, including an analysis and reflection of the speech and thinking of people who are working in finance and mergers and acquisitions.
Rage reflects the rage of young people, organizing in anti-neoliberal circles and submitting their rage on the world, on commerce, on the media, on the image ban.
It is a large tabloid of nearly non-structured material on which Stemann groups the various voices into figures. The language is sharp and hard, spoken in soliloquies and as polyphonies, and it bears witness to the great reservoir from which the 70-year-old Grand Dame of the German-speaking drama draws.
The other great postmodern dramatist is Sibylle Berg. Her view of the world arises from the longing for an exchange of so-called truths. Who is a man, who is a woman, who is a person of color, who is white, who is abled, and who is disabled? And who can say this with certainty?
In 2016, she was very successful with Viel gut Essen (Much Good Food), which the master director Sebastian Nübling produced at the Zurich Schauspielhaus with great success. Their pieces are understood by explaining an essential aspect of the post-dramatic theatre: the player no longer falls into his character by feeling (or something else), he only represents it, regarding himself always as an actor acting Hamlet and never as Hamlet himself. This is no longer Stanislawski or Strasberg. The actor becomes merely an exhibition of his role.
In Sebastian Nübling’s production, three actors play three disadvantaged men who only want one thing: to eat well.
Everything has gone, their dreams, their love, their women, their children, their jobs—the world's unintelligible dilemma, which every new generation tries to escape. The clue of the production is that three famous actresses play the deceived men. With little beards, and men’s clothing, they develop them to caricatures and Sibylle Berg’s drama into a big success.
Palimpsest is the cultural technique of overpainting or overwriting, which is often found in ancient and Renaissance frescoes, and which is successively transferred to the theatre landscape in recent years. Theatre Basel's young director, Simon Stone (b. 1984), who directed Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters last year as well as the stage adaptation of Lucino Visconti's film Rocco and His Brother, is a master of overpainting and overwriting, the major techniques of palimpsest.
Stone’s Three Sisters, however, is regarded as a masterpiece of overwriting, especially when one does not even notice that the entire, original Chekhov text has been skeletonized and gone. Only the old fable survived of the original text.
Amir Reza Koohestani (b. 1978), a young Iranian director working in Germany directed another adaption, of Kamel Daoud’s book, The Mersault Investigation (2016), which for many of the critics was one of the most important productions of the last season. The text was written as an answer on Albert Camus existential masterpiece The Stranger (L’etranger) and staged several times last year.
As you can see, the German public theatre is becoming increasingly diverse and post-dramatic. The directors who, forty years ago, had accepted the approach of the literary as the most important prerequisite in their textbooks, are replaced by the new posse, who use the technique quite self-evidently to move away from the source text, and to come back to it with the knowledge of the present and to overwrite it. In many cases they develop the material in the context of rehearsals itself and finish the drama the day before the premiere. The drama has turned into a post-drama, a genre that incorporates all the other genres and deserves itself as a model for the overall work of art that many artists dream of.
In terms of dreams, despite the profound analyses of the neoliberal working and living conditions, people are still dreaming and working on utopias, dystopias, and strange worlds, which became the origin of many dramas.
The Austrian-Israeli director Yael Ronen, the house director of the poly-cultural Gorki Theatre, was in process with an ensemble at the Kammerspiele in Munich, when the story of an active shooter burst into the middle of her rehearsals. Ronen changed the original concept into new material for Point of No Return, which is closely linked to the effects of a terror attack.
Ronen works at the smallest of the five Berlin public theatres, the Gorki Theatre, where she directs the so-called Exile Ensemble, in which fugitive actors and migrant performers from all regions of the world work together. An international, very highly regarded example of diversity and integration, which should serve as a role model for many, many other exile ensembles all over the world. I believe it is our responsibility to enable projects like this, wherever we are, to stay and work.
An artistic director who builds great, dreamy, musical works of art is Thomas Luz, whose Unusual Weather Phenomena was staged and shown as a free project at the small and independent theatre Gessnerallee in Zurich. The drama is about the scientist William R. Corliss (1926–2011), who collected records of strange natural phenomena and presented them in several books, including Mysteries of the Universe and Strange Life.
In 2017 Luz is invited to the 2017 Theatretreffen with his production. Like many of his directing colleagues, Luz’s work defends against the excesses of modernism and neo-liberalism with theatrical and musical elements. The theatre remains critical even if it does not produce slogans and future leitmotifs at first sight. They are a kind of artistic research; no longer willing to follow a common truth, but to create new worlds and new realities.
In 2015, Dusan David Parizek, was invited to the Theatretreffen as well, with his outstanding production Die lächerliche Finsternis (The Ridiculous Darkness), based on the play of the highly-acclaimed author, Wolfram Lotz. Using this play as basic material, Parizek worked on the material with montage techniques, combining Joseph Conrad's journey into the Heart of Darkness and Coppola's movie Appocalypse Now. Wolfram Lotz, says, "Theatre is the place where reality and fiction meet, and so it is the place where both are lost in a sacred collision." There is little to add.
Kay Voges, is another invitée to the Theatertreffen 2017 and the theatre director in Dortmund. His Borderline Procession is a great report on the mental and emotional state of the exhausted people and the overburdend society. Never before, has the borderline personality disorder been put on the stage so well, clear and cleverly. In the beginning, the large installation—a villa with ten rooms—will be seen on the stage itself. After all actors and spectators form a procession around the house. "Oh, give me the words, that tell me nothing, that tell me everything,” are the words spoken by the performers. Half an hour later, the core of the piece begins, with pictures that suggest paintings or photographs of film sets and stills.
Voges is thus developing another new theatrical style that combines post-dramatic and realistic elements in a very intelligent way without playing against each other.
How It Goes On: The Farewell of the Castorf Guard
Behind us is a year of farewell to the old Volksbühne team, their director and coining head, Frank Castorf, and his two co-directors Rene Pollesch and Christoph Marthaler.
In 2015, Frank Castorf finished his Dostoevsky cycle with The Brothers Karamozov, a grand eight-hour theatre evening of the superlatives with the best German actors, premiered at the Vienna Festival and later on at the Volksbühne.
Castorf has devoted himself extensively to Dostoevsky, perhaps the greatest and most far-sighted European author of the nineteenth century, for almost twenty years. Hehas celebrated transience and evil in man in his work—a nihilistic approach that corresponds to Castorf's political reflection on the neoliberal Zeitgeist.
This year ends a great era, which will be discussed in the coming decades in theatre history. I am very proud to have seen more than two dozen productions in and around Volksbühne and Prater.
Castorf will work as a director at the Berlin Ensemble. Many of his former assistants are now spread over the stages of the country and continue to develop many of his important concepts. René Pollesch is one of them. Another successful director is Herbert Fritsch, who was a former actor in Castorf's ensemble. His trademarks are his absurd, slapstick, artistic, colorful, and strident pieces. He as well is invited year after year by the theatre critics to the Theatertreffen, with productions such as Murmel, Murmel and Molière's School of Women. Last year he directed the play Pfusch (Botch) at the Volksbühne.
On the Contrary: The High Quality of New Realism
The other strong branch of the German drama is the New Realism. One of the master directors is Thomas Ostermeier, the executive director of the Berlin Schaubühne, the other extraordinary drama house in Berlin. Ostermeier shows his productions all over the world, especially at the theatre festival in Avignon, in Paris, in India and New York. In the last years he has produced two outstanding Shakespeare productions of Hamlet and Richard III. Last year a production of Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler followed.
Even if it refers to the means of mimetic and psychological realism, this branch of theatre has developed its quality and its kind of acting, directing and producing, further and further, mostly under the influence of the post-dramatic theatre. It is no longer the same, as it was in the early twentieth century. And the old fathers of acting and directing theory and the first generation of their followers, Stanislawski, Meyerhold, Brecht, Piscator, Strasberg, are no longer sufficient to enable the actors to play in the modern or post-dramatic plays, with their high complexity and differentiation, the montage of several techniques, the use of methods of palimpsest to show a part of the post-contemporary world in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century on stage.
Back to the Future: The new Volksbühne
Chris Dercon, the new director of the Volksbühne, will have a hard time with high responsibility and large shoes to fill making the program of the most important German theatre. Nevertheless, the Berlin theatregoer’s are more and more open to this change. I always welcome, what happens next, as John Cage said. Not ever easy but irresistible.
Dercon, together with his collaboraters Alexander Kluge (Media), Mette Ingvartsen and Boris Charmatz (Dance), Romuald Karmarkar (Film), and Marietta Piekenbrock (Drama, Program),has presented the new program of the next Volksbühne end of May. The program is promising: project-driven and interdisciplinary approaches to theater as a common ground for the overlapping arts, including Film, Arts, Dance, Music and Multi-Media-Design. I promise to report end of the first season in mid-2018.
Theatre means change in an increasing changing world. There are new, younger directors with more holistic ideas, there is a partial reflection on psychological realism, while on the other side the German independent theatre is evolving, with their superstars SheShePop, Chris Kondek, group Signa, Ligna, Gintersdorfer and Klaßen, ancompany&co, Rimini Protokoll and Monster Truck, and others—an excellent program of superlatives. In the next and third part of my essay series, I will report on the state of the German independent theatre.