Opening Speech Thomas Oberender

Dear Real-Life Friends of Theatertreffen, dear Yvonne Büdenhölzer,
My weather-app predicts 10 straight days of rain. What great news for an online festival!

This means that we will have plenty of time to watch on our screens. “At the theatre, you force yourself to endure certain things. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. That is the bet that you take. It doesn’t work like that when you’re sitting at your computer at home, on your own.”

A green colour field shows slight abstract contours.

This thought, recently expressed by artist Arne Vogelgesang, describes the central challenge for an online festival, which Theatertreffen has to be this year: “Should I stay or should I go?” goes the song by The Clash, and there will be ample opportunity for us to think of these lines over the next days.

Perhaps departure and new beginnings have never been easier than now? So many structures have had to transform overnight. The theatre had to modernise and update its forms of communication and narration. For art and theatre, this can actually mean a very positive and powerful impetus, which will catapult our work far ahead.

And yet, departure and precipice are very close neighbours. A departure to different ways of producing and telling stories, new ways of encountering our audience, a departure into the world of new, digital know-how, new digital infrastructures that we have to integrate into our working structures. A departure into questioning the price of physical presence. If sending an e-mail uses up as much energy as making a cup of tea, what is the real cost of streaming “Graf Öderland”, for example? And right next to the departure into this world of a different, new way of thinking and producing is the precipice, the crash into the burn-out-pit, the structural overextension that comes with the rushed introduction of a fourth discipline and the constant opening, locking down, testing, making plans and discarding them. The precipice of this new pressure to perform and to provide. At break-neck speed, everything has had to become more professional: aesthetics, interactivity, everything right here, right now – and no license is given to the newly initiated. This results in pressure to conform to new standards and a renewed and often exhausting precariousness of artistic working processes.

Where did we find the strength to manage this? I believe we discovered new strengths. The new world powers are Gaia, climate, viruses and the digital.

I personally found the Living Theatre more and more interesting over the past year. On the occasion of Berliner Festspiele’s 70th anniversary, Theatertreffen dedicates a series of focus events to the company, and Milo Rau has written a brilliant essay on the topic. The Living Theatre experimented on the margins of bourgeois society, searched for different ways of living and knowing in non-western cultures, and for other contexts of performing that border on action, ritual or spectacle. They saw the theatre as a form of life, as a space where a group of people would test different concepts of relationship and gender, and as a venue that would give us a foretaste of alternative worlds. Searching in the margins, not in the west – that was typical of the Living Theatre. For founder and director Julian Beck, a living theatre was what happens in the here and now and not only looks back to what lies in the past. The company yielded a different kind of actor – the “non-fictional actor”. In the late 1960s, this was the beginning of performance art and the independent scene as we know it today, and as it is influencing the aesthetics of many subsidised city and state theatres today.

The Living Theatre decidedly wanted to develop a reflection of society in all its diversity, a theatre of humanity, of togetherness, working against social division. How brutal have language and social interaction become these days. And yet, language is in fact a medium of connection. The theatre is so important because, over the course of an afternoon or evening, it allows us to experience a different kind of community instead of antagonism. It helps us to overcome divisions without preaching naïve reconciliation. And that is why I am so very much looking forward to this year’s Theatertreffen.

“Money is the fuel that you buy at the petrol station. But it’s up to you where you travel on it”, Cornelia Funke said. I would like to thank Yvonne Büdenhölzer and her team for making sure that this festival will be a petrol station of ideas and present all ten productions in ways that we have in fact never seen them before. But this freedom in front of our screens has a connecting dimension, too. We don’t chat on Netflix, we don’t get involved in the events, as we can in Arne Vogelgesang’s work. And I bet that we will stick with the performances of this year’s Theatertreffen.

Thank you to the State Minister for Culture and the Media, Professor Monika Grütters, and to all who have remained faithful to us – the German Federal Cultural Foundation, Hortensia Völckers and Kirsten Haß. Thank you to our wonderful media partner 3sat, the Foreign Office, Goethe-Institut and Pro Helvetia, even if it wasn’t possible to host the International Forum this year. Thank you, Necati Öziri – you and those involved made such a great effort. Thank you to the German Stage Association, the Federal Agency for Civic Education and all partners who are so important to Theatertreffen.

This year, thanks go above all to the inventors of our digital festival venues and to all the artists who supported us in trying out new pathways with Theatertreffen.

Who cares about the rain?!

Thank you very much.

Thomas Oberender
Director Berliner Festspiele