Breathing Exercises in the Year of Adversity

On the selection of the 2021 Theatertreffen

by Wolfgang Höbel

A green colour field shows slight abstract contours.

Ever since I have known the theatre, the people who work there have been worried that their art may not survive much longer. In the spring of 2021, I find their concern more plausible than in years before. What seemed like little more than an unreal, dark vision born of a cultural-pessimist greed for the money pots and a melodramatic raising of end-of-days scenarios has been made real by the Corona-pandemic: Now we know what the world looks like when the theatre – as I and many other theatre enthusiasts used to know it – simply doesn’t exist for a while.

This experience has been and still is a shock for me. Of course, I hope that the global threat of this virus threatening so many people will soon be vanquished with the aid of vaccines, medication and protective measures. And I wish that the theatres in Germany, Austria and Switzerland will continue to work at a similar energy level after the pandemic as they did before. At the same time, I wonder about the traces left in the consciousness of theatre enthusiasts by the experience of a complete standstill in our accustomed theatre world over weeks and months – and in the minds of politicians who are in charge of their subsidies.

Actor Sandra Gerlin in “Reich des Todes”.

Reich des Todes. Sandra Gerling

© Arno Declair

The rites and celebrations of culture exist not least, as philosopher Alexander Grau recently wrote, to give societies “a symbolic system of order that provides security”. This may sound surprising to all those people in the theatre sector who like to claim that the primary task of their cultural work is to subvert, undermine and question prevailing conditions. In recent months, there has neither been a lot of subversion nor that much security. The paralysis of the Corona-lockdown has paradoxically caused a feeling of acceleration in the minds of many people, and of a radical transformation of our living conditions. This, says Alexander Grau, contributes to a crumbling of our faith in “culture’s claim to eternity”. A few months before Grau wrote this, philosopher Elif Özmen formulated this diagnosis: “On a global scale, this pandemic proves to be an accelerant for existing political, social and ecological upheavals”. As far as the “post-pandemic world order” is concerned, Özmen says, “We should be reluctant to count on moral or civilising progress.” So – in how much danger is the future of our theatres really?

Many people who love the theatre have been outraged over the past months, because the politicians making decisions about measures to contain the pandemic obviously don’t consider the theatre as “system-relevant”. The Theatertreffen-selection for the year 2021 may serve as evidence that the performing arts have managed to survive this slight for the time being. Theatre makers who were repeatedly forced to lock down their venues for days and months at a time continued to create. They took advantage of the gaps between the months of lockdown (including all kinds of hygiene concepts) to perform in front of actual physically present spectators. Wherever that wasn’t possible, they turned their theatres into broadcasting houses, as it were, and entertained old and new audiences by transmitting recorded performances and live streaming. Often with astonishingly virtuoso, aesthetically original results – applauded and marvelled at by frequently unusually grateful viewers.

The theatre is a space for groups of “people assembled in their own essential emergency situation”, said actor Fabian Hinrichs, describing his idea of successful theatre in a speech during the Theatertreffen in May 2018, long before the Corona-pandemic. This cultish space, he said, was the place to create “an inkling of community, of dreaming together”.

Performer Berit Stumpf in “Show Me A Good Time”.

Show Me A Good Time. Berit Stumpf

© Dorothea Tuch

It seems to me as if it isn’t so much the hygiene-appropriate refinement, a uniting attitude critical of our times or the stories they tell that form the common thread between the ten performances which the jury considered to be remarkable this year. Rather, it is an existential urgency and the more than conjectured ability to create community that sets practically every piece in this selection apart.

The men and women of Gob Squad, for instance, have invented an often cheery and absolutely comforting community of necessity. The title of their review, which is many hours long, about the performing arts and life in times of Corona clearly demands: “Show Me A Good Time”. They deal with some rather dark subjects, like the death of one’s own parents – there is one scene that includes some pretty funny handling of the urn of a recently deceased mother. The show testifies to the enjoyment of music and silliness, even within the loneliness of a world of contact bans. It is a wild show-spectacle, with correspondents reporting back from some peculiar locations. In the midst of the pandemic, the Gob Squad-performers set out to “archive the present” (as performer Tatiana Saphir says at one point of this entertainment marathon) with harsh, impertinent, clever and at times amateurish theatre devices.

Actor Maja Beckmann in “Medea*”.

Medea*. Maja Beckmann

© Gina Folly

A different but no less heartfelt community of necessity is the one that the audience is confronted with in director Leonie Böhm’s version of the “Medea”-myth: “Medea*”. One of the world’s oldest tragedies – the story of Medea, who is taken from her home, jilted by her husband and finally takes revenge by murdering her own children – is retold in a kind of workshop. Actor Maja Beckmann and musician Johannes Rieder, who is the representative of all male characters here and accompanies her on guitar and piano, fantasise themselves into an essential love drama together. They kiss with their faces shrouded in fabric and talk about the sorrows of being betrayed. “I am not full of rage, I am full of pain”, says this Medea, and indeed, the pain that this production relates to is a universal one. Something quite similar is achieved by Sebastian Hartmann’s “Zauberberg (Magic Mountain)”-production, which at first glance is a blatant, highly artificial and mannered counter piece to Leonie Böhm’s archaic acting arrangement in a nest of white fabric. You might say: “Medea*” is set in a padded, primordial theatre cave, while this “Zauberberg” resides in a hypermodern high-tech studio with a digitally generated snow storm underneath artificial polar lights. But both productions achieve a notion of this “communal dreaming” that Fabian Hinrichs invokes.

A scene from “Der Zauberberg”; actors Linda Pöppel, Manuel Harder and Niklas Wetzel run across a white stage area.

Der Zauberberg. Linda Pöppel, Manuel Harder, Niklas Wetzel. . Probenfoto

© Arno Declair

At any rate, the boost in technology and digitalisation that the theatre has experienced during this past crisis-year is certainly the most gratifying development that we as jury members became aware of, and it provoked a great deal of debate amongst us. Older theatre enthusiasts remember the videotism of German-speaking theatres during the 1990s. In those days, some audiences rejected Frank Castorf’s camera images transmitted from inside stage bunkers and back rooms to a big screen on stage, for example, arguing that they were robbing the theatre of its very own devices and that they could not even be guaranteed to be live. Over the years since, many theatre makers have become proficient in the use of blue screens and green screens, hand-held and head-mounted cameras and thousands of other tricks of digital image production on stage. They put the theatre’s intellectual possibilities and emotional energy to the test, especially with film material, as exemplified by Christopher Rüping’s version of Xavier Dolan’s film “Einfach das Ende der Welt (It’s Only the End of the World)”, which is in turn a film adaptation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play. But this year of the Corona-lockdown will well and truly convince even the most conservative theatre enthusiasts of the benefits of the theatre’s technical upgrade.

Actor Maja Beckmann in “Medea*”.

Medea*. Maja Beckmann

© Gina Folly

The uniqueness and magic of live experiences at the theatre are irrefutable – but they are actually only slightly diminished when digital methods of recording and transmission are employed to simulate and conserve the enchantment of live events. The beauty and symbolic power of Olaf Altmann’s monumental hell-mouth of a set for Stefan Bachmann’s “Graf Öderland (Count Oederland)” can definitely also be felt by those viewers who unfortunately can only see the recording and not a live show at the theatre. The feminist cleverness, surprise and wit of actor Anne Tismer and director Marie Schleef work perfectly for the filmed lecture performance “NAME HER. Eine Suche nach den Frauen+ (NAME HER. In Search of Women+)”. A duel that vibrates with blazing fever and cold rage like the one fought between the outstanding performers Franziska Machens and Julia Windischbauer, who portray the two queens in Anne Lenk’s “Maria Stuart (Mary Stuart)”-version, only loses a very small degree of its powers of conviction when watched “only” on a screen. And even the staggering intensity of Lucy Wilke’s and Paweł Duduś’ physical theatre in “SCORES THAT SHAPED OUR FRIENDSHIP” is communicated with heart-rending intensity in its video version.

Lucy Wilke and Pawel Dudus in “SCORES THAT SHAPED OUR FRIENDSHIP“.


© Martina Marini-Misterioso

If anyone should be set, as tradition would have it, on identifying trends in the Theatertreffen-jury’s selection of this year, they should perhaps not merely count how many independent groups and how many theatres from which countries or regions have been invited in 2021. Perhaps some of the jurors are even a little proud of this selection’s lack of trends, of the wide range of theatre languages, the diversity of performers, the truly diverging political ambitions of the productions. In Anna Gmeyner’s “Automatenbüfett”, director Barbara Frey describes the brutal destructive force which the heroine of this great play is subjected to in a society shaped by male morality between the world wars of the 20th century. With her production of Rainald Goetz’ dramatic fit of rage “Reich des Todes (Empire of Death)”, Karin Beier sits in judgement on the lapse of US-American power politics during the second Iraq-war at the beginning of the 21st century. To me, these two productions especially testify to the vitality of a text-obsessed art of interpretation which has in recent years been reviled as “literary theatre” by the allegedly most progressive theatre makers.

Members of the acting company in a scene from the production “Automatenbüfett”.

Automatenbüfett. Ensemble

© Matthias Horn

In my view, all of the productions invited this year have the power of the absolute, of existential necessity, of the will to survive. All ten of them make me feel confident that the theatre will go on after all, once the pandemic has been truly overcome. In recent months, I have frequently read how often London’s theatres had to close down because of the plague in William Shakespeare’s time. Apparently, this was the rule: If more than 30 Londoners died of the plague in one week, the theatres had to close. It is said that during the years 1603 to 1613, the theatres were closed for a total of 78 months, which is an average of seven months a year. “We will cave for a short while”, Karin Beier said as artistic director of Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg when her theatre was shut down due to the second Corona-lockdown last autumn. “And then we will rear up again.”