Friendly Fire – Part 1

Notes on interviews about the Berliner Theatertreffen

In July 2022, Berliner Festspiele, the state-funded organization responsible for a bunch of festivals taking place in Berlin every year,  announced that the new management of the Berliner Theatertreffen, which is one of these festivals, would consist of the team Olena Apchel, Marta Hewelt, Carolin Hochleichter und Joanna Nuckowska. The recently appointed artistic director of Berliner Festspiele, Matthias Pees , explained that this team is intended to “connect the Theatertreffen more closely with the Central and Eastern European region”.
A small flurry of public discussion followed, with many commentators expressing their lack of understanding or scepticism for this decision, e.g.  Christian Rakow. Then people looked back at an interview that Matthias Lilienthal and Amelie Deuflhard had already published on the Theatertreffen website in May. And finally, Matthias Pees himself gave two interviews, one on, , the other in „Der Spiegel“, in which he explained his intentions.

In the following – as in Friendly Fire Part 2– some sentences from these three interviews are commented on because they are of general importance. The quotations are translated and   speakers are indicated by (ML) for Matthias Lilienthal, (AD) for Amelie Deuflhard, (Pees) for Matthias Pees.

German language

“The previous restriction of the Theatertreffen to German-speaking countries is no longer in keeping with the times.” (Pees)

That something is “no longer in keeping with the times” (“nicht zeitgemäß”) is the cheapest formula for those who want to abolish something and avoid giving reasons. Anything can be “no longer in keeping with the times”:  Café Mohrenkopf, an ice rink in summer, television, the privileges of the churches, compulsory vaccination, breast size descriptions in theatre reviews, SUV cars, hunting, animal testing, the Nutcracker ballet – whatever one happens to find annoying. Politicians like to use the phrase out of professional opportunism. “Times” is a rather vague term and opinions about what is “in keeping” with them differ widely. Even if a regulation, an institution, a procedure is no longer “in keeping with the times”, the question remains whether it is good if something is in keeping with the times. As we know, there are good times and bad times.

“The Theatertreffen as it refers to a ‘German-speaking territory’ also unconsciously perpetuates colonial structures.” (ML)

That Germany wants to colonise Austria is something not even the FPÖ dared to claim. And the German-Swiss, with reference to William Tell, will politely but firmly refuse to be called a subjugated colony of Germany. But probably one can also consider the “Council for German Orthography” a totalitarian attempt at colonisation. There was German colonisation of the Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages and German imperial colonisation in Africa and Asia in the 19th century. And there was the attempt to subjugate Eastern Europe in the Second World War. This must be borne in mind if one wants to create a Central European 1 theatre festival in Berlin. In doing so, there is indeed the danger of “unconsciously perpetuating colonial structures”. A Central European theatre festival with structures that would take on the representative claim of the Berlin Theatertreffen would probably have to take place in Krakow, not Berlin.

“Theatre culture has long since detached itself from the German language.” (ML)

It’s just a pity that the German theatre audience has not yet detached itself from the German language.

“In drama, the German language has turned out to be a great barrier”.(Pees).

Drama used to be called “spoken theatre”, in distinction from the “singing theatre” of opera. Those days are long gone. Through authors and directors like Edward Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowiski, Tadeusz Kantor or Pina Bausch, the visual and physical components of drama have emancipated themselves from words. And the tendency of all the arts to blur or leap over boundaries between sections, genres or art forms, the tendency towards the “fraying of the arts” (“Verfransung der Künste”) 2 is unbroken.

But some kind of verbal component almost always remained in the play (with the exception of some extreme cases in Handke or Beckett). The fact that drama is essentially moored to a national language has always been a “barrier” against the internationalisation of drama. Unlike music, painting or ballet, free movement across borders was restricted for drama. But word-bound, literary drama always had a means of overcoming all barriers: translation. Thus Calderon, Molière, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Grombrowicz could dance on the barricade of the German language.

The problem only arose with the emancipation of the play from the word. When staging and no longer a theatrical text is the original work of art, the whole apparatus with actors, set, sound, including the spoken part, etc. must be hoisted over the barrier. A re-staging with a translated text would destroy the work of art. Theatre technology offered the means of surtitles. Opera was the first to use it. Text comprehensibility has always been an insoluble problem for opera singers anyway, so the practice of translating foreign-language opera texts into German was ended in Germany, operas are now performed in their original language and text projections are used. The fact that these can only imperfectly and in abbreviation reproduce the libretto text was acceptable in view of the gain of being able to hear the correspondence of melody and original language vocalisation.

That theatre then resorted to this means has three causes: the mobility of productions across language borders, the mobility of the audience (cultural tourism) and, to a lesser extent, the linguistic heterogeneity of the local audience. The linguistic loss through surtitling is disproportionately greater in drama than in opera. Nuances of meaning and linguistic beauties are lost. The spoken word is reduced to a dennotative framework, which must then be supplemented by the audience through perception of analogue communication (gestures, body language, facial expressions). In translated plays of the repertoire, curious retranslations also occur (for example, in a “King Lear” production, Shakespeare’s mocking metaphor of man as a “forked animal” appeared on the surtitle screen as a “two-legged animal” via the diversion of a German translation).

In German theatre, the language of the surtitles is either English or German, depending on the language spoken on stage. The assumption that everyone in the audience somehow understands English is likely to be refuted in a Central European audience and mostly excludes the first generation of migrants in Germany. But even among an average Western European theatre audience, English proficiency is likely to be limited. How much would a German audience understand of an original language production of a play by John Osborne or Simon Stephen (or even from a French one of a play by Bernard-Marie Koltès)? Do we want to make the presentation of language certificates compulsory at the theatre box office? Productions designed for the international festival circuit have found ways out: untranslated English, complete renunciation of spoken language, reduction of language to sentences presented in writing, or rare languages without translation as an exotic attraction3.

But without speaking the language of the actually present audience, drama can at best discuss, deepen or make perceptible general human problems. What is lost in the process can perhaps be shown by the example of Nuran Calis` project “Mölln 92/22” (Schauspiel Köln). It deals with a central conflict in German society: violence against migrants. The German language is indeed sometimes an obstacle here. The production depicts the real multilingualism of German society. But it is not transportable. Even if there are similar conflicts in other European countries, it would hardly be understandable in France or England or even Poland, not because it is too deeply rooted in traditional German culture, but because it is anchored in contemporary German culture and its current conflicts. Without spoken language, a theatre that wants to be political only achieves an emotional effect, but never the discursive level on which politics takes place. The structural analogy, the isomorphism of politics and theatre 4 is not possible without verbal language.

This is not to say that drama cannot or should not respond to the multilingualism of the world. Édouard Glissant sums up his experience as a speaker of the Creole of Martinique and French thus: “that I can no longer defend my language monolingually either. I have to defend it in the knowledge that it is not the only one in the world under threat.” For him, multilingualism is “the presence of all the languages of the world in the practice of one’s own.”5 To show the multilingualism of the world in the practice of German theatre is the paradoxical task. There have been many attempts in recent decades to make multilingual productions comprehensible to a German audience.6 Multiplying the surtitle screens (English, German, Polish, Turkish …) will not solve the task. German communal theatres will hardly be able to afford surtitle screens in the backs of the seats on which one can choose between different languages, as in the Vienna State Opera or the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A surtitle app for smartphones like “Burgtheater Promt” is cheaper, but leads to a forest of dimly lit mini-screens in the auditorium that disturbs everyone’s concentration.

There is a somewhat forgotten model for dealing with Europe’s multilingualism in German theatre: the Bonn Biennale “New Plays from Europe” (“Neue Stücke aus Europa”)7. From 1992 to 2004, this festival took place at Schauspiel Bonn during the directorship of Manfred Beilharz, supported with considerable federal funding. With a network of “godfathers” in many European countries, mostly playwrights, productions of new plays from these countries were selected and shipped to Bonn. There were no surtitles, but translators who sat in a booth during the performance and interpreted simultaneously, knowing the text of the play. The audience was given one (!) earplug free of charge and could listen to the translation. The second ear remained free for the original language. Thus, with a little more concentration, one could both hear and also understand Icelandic, Russian or Serbian. The cultural contexts of the plays remained foreign, of course, and could at best be relayed in panel discussions. But the incentive to learn about the cultural contexts remained. This model incurs considerable costs, but takes better account of the multilingualism of the world than English surtitles for everything or a battery of mini-screens for all languages.

Finally, if the German language has turned out to be a major barrier – barrier to whom or what? Matthias Pees says, for “all those who do not have a sufficient command of the German language”. Are they audience members or theatre-makers? Or does the Theatertreffen only count on an audience that is professionally connected to theatre anyway? German language as a barrier to attracting audiences to the Berlin Theatertreffen? Probably not. Barrier to selecting productions for the Theatertreffen in which German is not spoken? That is not the case. Meg Stuart’s “Alibi” was already invited in 2002 and Alain Platel’s „Wolf“ in 2003. And many other productions followed in which the German language did not play a role, also in this year’s selection of 10. Barrier to the import of productions produced internationally in other languages? Yes, certainly. Barrier to attracting non-German-speaking directors and actors? Only in part.

“The challenge of having to find a common language on many levels is being met in many German theatres today.” (Pees)

This is true. The list of directors at German theatres whose primary language is not German is long, from Laurent Chétouane to Oliver Frljić, Alvis Hermanis, Antonio Latella, Ewelina Marciniak, Toshiki Okada, Dušan Parizek to Kiril Serebrennikov. They work in the German city and state theatre system because they find comfortable working conditions and good fees there. And the potential for aesthetic innovationl of these foreign workers is enormous. German theatre has gained a lot from this openness. But the effort required for such productions is also enormous: translation problems everywhere, in writing the text, in the rehearsal process, in communicating it to the audience. Communication via Google translators is tedious, time-consuming and ineffective. In the interview, Matthias Pees also has to admit that theatre is bound to a national culture and language: “It is true that artists from our neighbouring countries to the east are already present in this country – but often with works that are weaker than those they stage in their home countries, because they work with new, foreign ensembles in a foreign language.”

The association „drama-panorama“ is dedicated to these translation problems. Barbora Schnelle, for example, writes “When I translate political theatre from the Czech Republic, I have to think very carefully about where I want to go from and to and ask myself, for example: What does the German-speaking audience know about Czech oligarchic structures? Where do I have to convey what, where do I have to enlighten, where do I have to contextualise and where is it best to find domestic parallels?” This need for translation and contextualisation will increase if one wants to achieve a stronger connection of German theatre with Central European theatres.

A parallel model, as proposed by Matthias Pees in the Nachtkritik interview, in which there is a group of productions from Central Europe, also selected by a jury, in addition to the existing selection of productions from German-speaking countries, would necessarily lead to a reduction in the number of invited productions from German-speaking countries. Even if the funding for the doubled Theatertreffen were increased, a reduction in the number of performances would be unavoidable.

  1. On the term “Central Europe” cf. the works of Karl Schlögel, e.g. Karl Schlögel, Die Mitte liegt ostwärts. Europa im Übergang. Munich: Hanser, 2002
  2. “In recent development, the boundaries between the genres of art flow into each other or, more precisely, their lines of demarcation fray.” Theodor W. Adorno, “Die Kunst und die Künste”, in: Ders., Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 10.1, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1997, p. 432
  3. See my report on this year’s Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen in: Theater heute 7/2022
  4. cf. Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze philosophische  Abhandlung. Vienna: Passagen, 2015, pp. 36, 48
  5. Edouard Glissant, Kultur und Identität. Ansätze zu einer Poetik der Vielheit. Heidelberg: Wunderhorn: 2nd ed. 2013
  6. e.g. Karin Beiers production of Shakespeare’s “Summer Night Room” in 1995 at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, in which actors of different nationalities not only spoke their languages but also practised their national styles of performance. See my old review in the taz of 4.11.1995
  7. The last two directors of the Theatertreffen, Iris Laufenberg and Yvonne Büdenhölzer, acquired their first experience as festival organisers there.

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