Every year, the festival Theatertreffen brings remarkable productions from the German-language region as well as works by emerging artists from across the world to Berlin. Which topics, aesthetics and urgent issues are shaping contemporary theatre?
The 10 Selected Productions are the festival’s core: Ten remarkable productions are selected each year by an independent jury of critics from among around 400 shows within the German-language region and the viewing period. They receive an invitation to Berlin and are presented together in a jam-packed two weeks in May at Haus der Berliner Festspiele and other venues around the city. These performances are complemented by other programme series and formats of the festival.
The Stückemarkt is almost a festival within the festival: It has been dedicated to the promotion of contemporary drama since 1978, inviting theatre makers (2018 was the first year in which invitations were issued worldwide) to apply by submitting their new plays or already completed theatre projects. The International Forum is a gathering of young international artists as part of a fellowship programme, where they experience art together and work on the future of the theatre. A critical coverage of the Theatertreffen is provided by the emerging journalists staffing the Theatertreffen-Blog; the programme TT Context serves as an additional discursive framework for the festival.
A number of smaller elements have developed into established Theatertreffen-components: In Open Campus, the Theatertreffen has become a place where students from schools and universities can meet and create networks. Each year, the Theatertreffen-Award has been handed out to the companies of the selection of ten invited productions. And each year, selected productions are invited to the Theatertreffen in China.
Today, the Theatertreffen sees itself as a meeting point for theatre makers and theatre enthusiasts from all over the world, a networking and discourse platform and open space for theatre arts, with an increasing digital presence since 2020.
Theatertreffen is: ten “remarkable” productions that convene in Berlin each May; seven critics traveling across Germany, Austria and Switzerland to view more than 400 productions. It is 35 young artists from all over the world, rethinking the theatre together in Berlin; it is international texts and performances that show the rapid developments of theatre languages.
Theatertreffen is also: countless panels, work spaces, discussions and conferences – about what? About art and the world, about feminism, about aesthetics and ethics, about digital and analogue worlds, about everything that will make the curtain go up, about you and me. It represents the previous season and sets quotas for the next.
And not least: Twitter battles, lucrative awards, concerts, lovers, hate mail, legendary parties, falling asleep in the front row, standing ovations all the way to the back row, ugly and semi-ugly scandals, the biggest emotions in overlong lavatory-queues, stars, newcomers and underdogs.
The Theatertreffen shows the state of the art of the German stage, it is the longest-standing and internationally most significant spectacle of German-language theatre, something between a platform for explorers and a school reunion party. It used to be the showcase of the West, now it showcases the world; sometimes it accelerates discussion, sometimes it provides a moment of reflection. It stands for taking the theatre deathly seriously and still letting it go in the end, for quarrels onstage and in front of the stage, for a festival-buzz in the capital, for much too much programme and still far too little.
History of the Theatertreffen
As early as 1963, one year prior to the first Berlin Theatertreffen, Berliner Festwochen invited five productions from German city theatres to Berlin – as a kind of pilot project. In October 1964, the first Theatertreffen took place under the title of “Berliner Theaterwettbewerb (Berlin Theatre Competition)” during the 14th Berliner Festwochen.
Its basic structure was the same as today: Ten remarkable productions were selected by a jury of theatre critics and presented in Berlin. The founding declaration (1964) states: “The Berlin Theatre Competition is an attempt to present a selection of drama productions from the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria and Switzerland with the aim of giving not only an overview of the current state of German-language theatre, but also to give an opportunity for comparison – an opportunity that is particularly necessary given the isolation of the individual theatre cities. A committee of German, Austrian and Swiss theatre critics has selected productions from the 1963/64 season that seemed especially remarkable to them. The annual confrontation with each other may serve to turn the theatres’ present contactless juxtaposition into cooperation, and to once more find common standards that used to be set by Berlin as the theatre centre.”
Nicolas Nabokov was the Theatertreffen’s director during its founding year.
The well-known epithet of “showcase of the West” initially referred to Berliner Festspiele in their entirety. After the construction of the Berlin Wall, however, it became more politically charged and from 1964, it was mostly used with reference to the Theatertreffen. Although being a “showcase of the west” may not have been the chief reason given for the necessity of hosting the Theatertreffen, but the slogan was a welcome argument, especially during the Cold War. Repeated invitations to East German theatres long remained of a purely symbolic nature.
From 1965, the Theatertreffen operated under the term of “Treffen (meeting)” and was moved to May to make it easier to consider productions of the already running season. The festival was also separated from the other events of Berliner Festwochen. The title of “Theatertreffen” was first used in 1966. In 1967, the Berliner Festspiele GmbH was founded as a supporting organisation for the Theatertreffen.
Gerhard Hellwig was the Theatertreffen’s director from 1965 to 1968.
1965 saw the foundation of the Theatertreffen’s International Forum (it was called “Begegnung junger Bühnenangehöriger” until 1973 and “Internationales Forum junger Bühnenangehöriger” until 2005). This makes it the oldest continually active institution of its kind. Initially an information and discussion event for young professional theatre makers from the Federal Republic of Germany (the GDR did not get involved in this format either), the circle of participants was extended to include participants from Austria and Switzerland in 1970, based on agreements with institutions in these countries.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Theatertreffen played a vital role in establishing new generations of theatre directors. Peter Zadek (21), Claus Peymann (19) and Peter Stein (21) were the directors who enjoyed the most frequent invitations to the Theatertreffen.
Walther Schmiedling was the Theatertreffen’s director from 1969 to 1972, Ulrich Eckhardt held the same position from 1973 to 1981.
In 1978, the Theatertreffen’s Stückemarkt was founded as the first supporting initiative for contemporary drama in the German-language region. Prior to this, there had been no authors’ support and no platforms for as yet unproduced plays, much less any writing academies for emerging dramatists. During the festival’s first twenty years, the Stückemarkt’s directors selected five plays from among all those licensed for a first production, in order to present them to a broader audience during the Theatertreffen. There was no jury yet – the Stückemarkt’s directors were single-handedly responsible for the programme.
1980 saw the beginning of a cooperation between the International Forum and the Goethe-Institut, which opened up the International Forum to the world. At the same time, the Forum’s focus shifted towards practical work – after a phase of experimentation from 1975, workshops became an essential component of the Forum programme.
From 1982 to 1988, the Theatertreffen was headed by Ulrich Eckhardt and Börries von Liebermann. Torsten Maß was the festival’s director from 1989 to 2001.
In May 1989, only a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, theatres from the socialist part of the country were finally permitted to travel to the Theatertreffen. After the fall of the Wall, the original argumentation of the founding declaration moved into centre-stage again: The festival was to “give an overview of the status of German-language theatre” rather than a “showcase of the West”, which had been important during the period of West-Berlin’s isolation.
Since the reunification in 1990, the “showcase of excellence” has not lost its relevance. In fact, due to the fact that numerous international curators, artists, artistic directors and journalists from all parts of the world have visited the festival’s performances, the Theatertreffen has become a showcase of German-language theatre for the world.
The Stückemarkt expanded in 2003 to include authors from all over Europe, who were invited to submit theatre texts in their original languages. The presentation of new plays for an audience of theatre professionals was thus transformed into a competition for as yet unknown authors. Since then, a jury of experts shifts through hundreds of plays; and five to seven of them are presented as staged readings during the Theatertreffen.
Iris Laufenberg was the Theatertreffen’s director from 2003 to 2011, after Dieter Hansen had taken over the directorship in 2002.
In 2005, the festival-newspaper was launched. Until 2008, it was created in cooperation with Berliner Zeitung and provided a critical accompaniment to the Theatertreffen. In 2009, this initiative went digital and the festival-newspaper became the Theatertreffen-Blog. Furthermore, the inclusion of English-speaking participants leads to a greater internationalisation of debates.
Yvonne Büdenhözer has been the Theatertreffen’s director since 2012.
In 2012, the Open Campus was launched as a place for theatre makers of tomorrow to meet and form networks. As part of this education programme, emerging actors, directors, dramaturgs, scenographers and theatre scholars from universities, art academies and theatre institutes from the German-language regions attend the Theatertreffen’s performances. They take part in the festival’s discourse programme und enter into an exchange on aesthetic and socio-political issues as well as their own interests and ideas.
In 2012, the Stückemarkt expanded its concept of authorship: For the first time, devised projects by theatre collectives were admitted to the competition.
Since 2015, the International Forum has focused increasingly on the global dynamics of social development, with the aim of investigating the theatre as a venue of the political public sphere. Since then, its workshops and discourse events have focused chiefly on the theatre between the poles of art, politics and society. In 2015 photographer and director Marcus Gaab also started his project One on One on One, which lasted till 2019.
Since 2016, the Stückemarkt and the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung/bpb) have been awarding a commission of work together.
The Theatertreffen’s international platform Shifting Perspectives was launched in 2017. It added non-European perspectives to the ten remarkable productions from the German-language region and reflected a broader spectrum of current social issues, aesthetic positions and pioneering trends.
The overarching discourse programme TT Context took place for the first time in 2018, complementing the festival’s established artistic programmes. It opens a discursive approach to the Theatertreffen’s artistic programme by creating social, political and economic contexts and backgrounds and by taking the presented works as an opportunity to raise questions about our ways of living together, here and now. Furthermore this year, the Open Campus started cooperating with LiteraturInitiative Berlin (LIN) to include students from various schools in Berlin.
With its 2020 festival edition, the Theatertreffen introduced a female quota of at least 50 percent in the position of directors for the selection of ten productions. Due to the limitations caused by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the Theatertreffen was hosted online as a Special Edition 2020. It featured recordings of the selection of ten productions as well as audience discussions and conversations on the online platform Berliner Festspiele on Demand.
In 2021, due to the ongoing Corona pandemic, the Theatertreffen again took place purely digitally. The “Berliner Festspiele Digital” platform, which also included a virtual festival garden and two digitised stage sets, was developed for the presentation of the 10 selected productions, the Stückemarkt, the focal points “Stages Unboxed“ and “Focus Living Theatre” as well as the TT Context events. Unfortunately, the International Forum could not take place this year.