On the aesthetics and politics of interim venues of German theatres
(Translation of a text published by „nachtkritik.de“ in October 2017 under the headline „Freiräume“)
Theatres must yield. Or give way preliminarily, at least. They have to give way to extensive renovations of their splendorous, but rotting, old buildings. Three great theatres in North Rhine-Westphalia have had and will have to dwell in interim venues for years: Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund. And these three are no exception in Germany: theatres in Frankfurt, Oldenburg, Stuttgart and many others will have to transfer to such interim venues, usually disused factory buildings, in the next years. What does this expulsion from the paradise of the grand old houses change? What effect does this widespread state of emergency have on stage – beside the strain on organization behind the scenes? How does it change the aesthetic conception?
There are four types:
- Cologne Depot 1 (a huge former storehouse for submarine cables in a suburb of Cologne, part of a complex of factory buildings which is being converted for other uses): Going back from a site-specific concept to a site-neutral one with a fixed spectator stand for the audience, a red curtain and a proscenium arch. The most conservative solution.
- Cologne Depot 2 (a smaller storage room next to Depot 1) and Düsseldorf Central (a large former store building for parcels of the German Post, situated right next to the main station and now encompassing two stages): A fixed spectator stand for the audience and an open space on floor level as stage. The most frequent and most cost-efficient solution for interim venues.
- Dortmund Megastore (a former storehouse in a suburb of Dortmund, next to the ruins of a steelworks): Complete flexibility. Each production creates its own structure of the room. The spatial relation between the audience and the actors is a result of the format chosen by the production. The most hazardous and most stressful solution.
- Bonn Halle Beuel (a scatter of buildings of a former jute spinning plant which also houses the workshops of the theatre and the opera): Abolition of the venue which allows a variable spatial design. The worst solution.
1 The conservative solution
Cologne is the most difficult case. For five years now the Schauspiel has to perform in its interim venue. And five more years are to come. In 2013, artistic director Stefan Bachmann decided to take over a warehouse in the suburb Mülheim, whereas his predecessor Karin Beyer had already chosen an exhibition hall near the city centre as her interim venue for one year. Centre or periphery? That is the question, and was even then. Now, Schauspiel Köln is firmly anchored in this peripheral area of the city. On the grounds of the former cable factory Felten & Guillaume there are other venues, media companies and publishing houses. And next door there are the restaurants of Keupstrasse, a street well known in Germany as a centre of the German-Turkish community. With theatre projects related to the site and the local area, and an urban garden, defiantly set up on the concrete surface, the theatre has taken root there so deeply that the venue will remain to be used by Schauspiel Köln even when it will return to its renovated theatre building in the city centre, some day.
Comparing the development of productions in the large hall of Depot 1 over the last five years, a change from theatre on location to a widescreen theatre with proscenium arch can be recognized. Raphael Sanchez’s opening production of Michael Frayns „Noises Off“ (Der nackte Wahnsinn) was an attempt to transform an intimate comedy into a widescreen format, which was a stunning failure. Stefan Bachmann’s following theatre version of Ayn Rand’s novel „Atlas Shrugged“ (Der Streik) made use of the vastness and emptiness of the warehouse: real iron rails which could be used by a Draisine were laid during the performance, a genuine GDR-lorry rattled stinkingly through the hall. But the problems became apparent as well: difficult acoustical conditions, wireless microphones had to be used, distances between actors and audience too great for nuanced acting. First, set designers tried to improve the acoustics and visibility by lifting the following productions up: the stage sets were designed so that everything took place somewhere at the middle height of the room. Then, in 2016, the width of the stage was reduced, a proscenium arch was built in: now, everything looks as in an ordinary playhouse. The stage now is metaphorical room, which signifies another, a fictional room, and in the consciousness of the spectator it appears no longer as a real room, which does not exclude a self-deprecating relation to this conception of theatre space. In Stefan Bachmann’s production of „Hamlet“ there were even two crimson velvet curtains: one in front of and one behind the stage.
2 The compromise
The common solution is a kind of compromise. There still is the separation of audience and stage, there still is the collective concentration on the fictional play. But the stage is open, without a proscenium arch marking the border between audience and stage. This border is blurred. The actor walks onto the stage in view of the audience as an actor and only there he turns into a stage character. The stage is a metonymic space (in terms of H.Th. Lehmann1). It is part of the real space, the storage house, and it remains that, is always perceived as such and nevertheless signifies another, fictional space. The industrial building, with its atmosphere of production, of work and of uncomfortable efficiency, tempers subconsciously the perception of the audience. This is the concept for most of the productions in Depot 2 of Cologne.
In the „Außenspielstätte am Offenbachplatz“ this is also the dominant conception. It was one of Bachmann’s strategic decisions to conquer this venue, the half-finished, new secondary stage on the eternal building site of the Cologne Opera house (which is supposed to be finished in 2022). Thereby „Schauspiel Köln“ again has its foot in the door to the city centre, where it belongs in Bachmann’s view. From him, the strangely outmoded demand can be heard, that the triad of city hall, church and theatre belong in the city centre.
The most versatile concept for dislocated theatre has been developed by „Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus“. When Wilfried Schulz signed his contract as artistic director, he thought he would come to a renovated theatre building, but now it has turned out that he will have to reside in exile until autumn 2020. His answer is to attack the problem head-on: making the dispersion useful. In the smaller venue of „Central“ you find the compromising concept. The audience looks down from the spectators´ stand to the plain of the stage area. In the larger venue (Große Bühne) little more is possible: In her version of „Animal Farm“ (Farm der Tiere) Daniela Löffner put the actors in the centre of the room enclosed by a square of spectator stands. Even Rimini-Protokoll had to place their carousel workshop on „The construction site as a model for society“ (Gesellschaftsmodell Großbaustelle) in the unchanged room with its fixed spectator stand, although this interactive installation, with groups of spectators elaborately guided around each other, needed a completely different structure for its venue.
In addition, Schulz tries to enter new places for his theatre with a circus tent. But in the opening production „Gilgamesh“ only the acrobats hurling their bodies through the air in minor parts reminded the audience of being in a circus. There was no arena, only the well-known confrontation of auditorium and stage. With „Faust to go“, the production of a German classical text designed to be appreciated by secondary school students, the theatre becomes even more mobile and goes touring the schools and community centres. On the other hand, Schulz, like Bachmann in Cologne, has begun an attempt to return to the magnificent „Schauspielhaus“ in the city centre. Robert Wilson’s musical „Sandman“ is shown in the Schauspielhaus though it is supposed to be closed, awaiting renovation, and can only be entered by the back entrance. And all the friends of the theatre are more than happy to return to their representative place in the heart of the city, though only temporarily.
3 The innovative solution
The Situation in Cologne and Düsseldorf is ambivalent, yet successful on the whole, but in Dortmund it is unambiguously successful. The expulsion from the little paradise of the Schauspielhaus in Dortmund and the escape to the warehouse „Megastore“ in the suburb Hörde was a relief for Kay Voges, the artistic director and his team. The first production in this venue, „Das schweigende Mädchen“ (The silent Girl) by Elfriede Jelinek, directed by Michael Simon, lead the audience into a room, in which actors were speaking at different corners in various fragments of stage sets. This setting combined free deployment of attention with general deconcentration, a mass audience was treated as individuals. Only after that beginning were you lead to a spectators’ stand. But even in the second half of the performance, the vastness of the venue was used by a large speaking choir of lay citizens. For Mike Daiseys monologue „The Trump Card“ (Trump), Marcus Lobbes developed a new and original format of stage: It was a kind of election party with poser tables and a mock-proscenium-stage, which were dismantled in the course of the performance. And Kay Voges’ much acclaimed „Borderline“ production with its huge filmset between two opposing spectators’ stands would have been completely impossible in the Schauspielhaus.
Because inside the storehouse „Megastore“ three separate rooms could be established, it was possible to stick to the German repertoire system of performing different plays nearly every day, though the number of spectators had to be reduced because of the limited capacity of these rooms. Taking root in the local community of Hörde was not Voges’ aim, understandable in view of the short time which was originally scheduled for the renovation of the Schauspielhaus. So the rusty towers of the old blast furnaces greeted the former storehouse for fan articles of the local football club BVB Dortmund, only as unrelated reminiscences. From December 2017 on, the theatre will return to its paradise in the city centre. The regret for the loss of adaptability of the rooms is mingled with relief because of the end of the miserable working conditions for the theatre producers.
4 The worst solution
The most questionable solution has been found in Bonn. Because of the reduction of the budget provided by the city, the alternative venue, „Halle Beuel“ was abandoned. This venue had been the site of many groundbreaking concepts of theatre rooms as the first production of Jelineks „Wolken.Heim“ (1988) or Peter Palitzschs production of „Antigone“ (1985). The drama department (Schauspiel) of the theatre of the former West-German capital Bonn was reduced to „Kammerspiele“, a former cinema in the suburb Bad Godesberg, and „Werkstatt“, a very small venue in the basement of the opera. „Halle Beuel“, situated on the right bank of the Rhine, near the university, which was attractive for a younger audience, was rented to a private cabaret theatre. This is the solution with the worst perspective for the future of drama.
The necessity of shutting down these great theatres was caused by the procrastination of maintenance and overhauling. In Düsseldorf as well as in Cologne these closures triggered off extensive public debates. These had at least the effect that the projects of refurbishing theatres were started – however slowly. For certain periods, the debates about the future of theatre buildings was at the center of local debate in Cologne and Düsseldorf. But these debates were ambivalent. Their impulse has always been conservation and perpetuation. Only with these aims, it seems, political participation can be mobilized in a German society, characterized by the fear of downward mobility. Theatre producers could only achieve minor concessions for the remodelling of stages and auditoria. As with most renovations of theatres the auditoria are reduced in size reflecting the diminished social importance of theatre (which has the effect of improving the figure for the degree of capacity utilisation). In Cologne, a movable front-stage is planned, in Düsseldorf the design of the entrance area will be opened into the direction of the city centre. Similarly, Johan Simons, the coming artistic director of Schauspiel Bochum, has achieved that in Bochum’s main theatre, the border between auditorium and stage can be defused by placing spectators on the stage. These are only marginal changes to the space concept inherent in the buildings of the 1960s and 70s.
The future of the past
In fact, there once were quite different concepts for such buildings. The secondary stage (Kleines Haus) inside the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus was built in 1970 as a „Raumbühne“, in which performances could be staged without a fixed spectators` stand and with adaptable spaces for auditorium and stage. The „Grillo-Theater“ in the centre of Essen was reconstructed in 1990 as a „variables Raumtheater“, in which the spatial relationship of audience and stage could be changed according to the needs of the production. In both cases the architects relied on the ideas of Kiesler, Piscator, Gropius and others from the 1920s2. But the innovative structures were used only for a short time. Set changes and adaptions were too expensive, too complicated for a repertory system which staged a different play day-to-day. Over the course of years, the technical crews were further reduced. For flexibility there was neither time nor money. The concept of theatre rooms in German municipal theatres is a financial question as wells an aesthetic one.
Milo Rau, the designated artistic director of Belgian state theatre NT Gent, complains about „theatre spaces, which are equipped with all the technical infrastructure, but are not adaptable to the reality of theatre today“3. But this does not apply to the interim venues, and only – in part – to the grand old houses. This lament has been around for quite a long time and the concentration of public debate on the preservation of substance has made any reanimation of the old plans for the future of German municipal theatres unlikely. A citizens’ initiative for the restructuring of the Schauspielhaus of Cologne as flexible open stage remains unthinkable. Because, as Dirk Baecker put it so nicely, an asynchronicity has overwhelmed people, „according to which their practice takes place in the present epoch of media, their intellect remains on the level of the previous and their emotions are stuck in the pre-previous one.“4
A pluralist solution
Surrendering the theatre fortresses in the city centres, tearing them down (which the mayor of Düsseldorf considered seriously in public), rebuilding them on the periphery of the cities (which was considered in Cologne and which is one of the possibilities discussed in Frankfurt now), would accommodate the current trend towards decentralization and dissolution of hierarchies in all areas of society. But even a society which consists of self-regulating, autopoietic subsystems, needs a centralized political system. Theatre as a media which is political by its own structure can assume such a centralizing function in a city. Therefore it belongs in its centre. On the other hand, the structures of communication and social life change under the influence of the internet and of social media. Theatre responds to these developments. And for this response, it needs a different structure of theatre spaces. This can be found in the factory buildings of the interim venues at the peripheries of the cities. Therefore, what do we need? A pluralist solution: a rededication of the provisional venues as permanent, decentralized secondary stages and a flexibilisation of the spatial structure of the theatre buildings in the centre in the course of their renovation: interim for evergreen, peep box to colourful cube and money for flexible municipal theatres.
- Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater. Frankfurt/M: Verlag der Autoren, 1999, S.287 ↩︎
- cf. Stephen J. Phillips, Elastic Architecture: Frederick Kiesler and Design Research in the First Age of Robotic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017 p.73) ↩︎
- Milo Rau in „Nachdenken über ein Theater der Zukunft“, a discussion in organised by „Berliner Festspiele“ 2017 ↩︎
- Dirk Baecker, Wozu Theater. Berlin: Theater der Zeit 2013. S. 152 ↩︎