A prologue

The title’s a misnomer. Berlin is not Germany. Things are true there that aren’t true elsewhere. It’s also a bit of a theatrical pressure cooker, so even phenomena that occur throughout Germany are likely to find a more pronounced expression there.

Chapter the first: There is no such thing as “German” theatre

There is also no such thing as “Berlin” theatre. Let me explain.

All the plays I saw in the past weeks were staged by state-funded theatres. These are not just institutions supported by government grants, as in the UK or Canada; they are houses funded as a line in the annual state and/or municipal budgets – not unlike schools or hospitals. That funding can be cut, of course, but it doesn’t need to be justified anew every year or every few years. Beyond these theatres (of which there are five in Berlin, as well as multiple operas, symphony orchestras, etc. – let’s call them the “state-funded” ones), however, there is a wealth of independent theatres. Those form the “Freie Szene” and function quite a bit like smaller UK companies or pretty much every Toronto company. They receive support in the form of operating grants that may or may not be renewed every two to four years; that decision-making process relies on a jury of artists and experts. There are also project grants. (All of which will sound very familiar to those of you in Canada and the UK.)

From the perspective of many of those in the Freie Szene, what’s happening in the state-funded theatres is largely old-fashioned, boring, mainstream, and spoiled by too much money. From the outside looking in, that’s an insane notion: I’ve never seen as much exciting, innovative work in as little time as I did this May in Berlin. But obviously what counts as “experimental” is a deeply contextual question: innovation is only new relative to what those experiencing it have seen before. I can’t really judge just how mindblowingly experimental Freie Szene work is, as my specific interest in older plays led me to focus my attention on the established houses. I did, however, spend a day touring some independent venues, seeing samples of the work that goes on there, and talking to some artists (the day was organized by the Berlin Diagonale, a group founded to provide the Freie Szene with a communications platform). Those conversations confirmed my impression that independent theatre companies in Berlin by and large conflate formal experimentalism with a focus on new plays, or modes of performance that don’t rely on scripts in the traditional sense at all. I also got a strong sense that Berlin’s independent scene is in many ways quite like Toronto’s – there is an emphasis on devised work, a lot of interest in dance and movement, a commitment to specific angles (immigrant perspectives, non-Germanophone theatre, disabled theatre, activist theatre) and to the idea of theatre as storytelling (which often seems to go hand in hand with a particular version of identity politics).

Anyway: that was the kind of theatre I wasn’t really interested in this time around, but I think it’s important to understand that there are differences as well as similarities between the German system and ours. The independent scene is one area where there is a lot of overlap; there is also a commercial theatre world which thrives on West-End-style offerings. The difference is that in Berlin, there is an entire huge theatrical culture that exists alongside those scenes, and functions quite unlike them. This is most obvious in the way seasons are constructed. The larger independent venues in Berlin have schedules that will not look strange to anyone from a major North American or British city: performances are scheduled in blocks, for a week or two at a time, and then they’re done (often they go on tour afterwards). If anything, runs are quite a bit shorter than in Toronto; as the artistic director of the Sophiensaele, one of the largest independent venues, told me, they’d be hard pressed to fill their main space (a 250-seater) for more than five or six performances of the same piece in a row.

The state-funded theatres work entirely differently: all five of them still use a genuine repertory system. They will open a substantial number of new productions every year, anywhere between 10 and 15 or more; but they also maintain a long list of shows that they retain year-to-year. The most successful of these can run for a very long time – the legendary Berliner Ensemble production of Brecht’s Arturo Ui has been in rep there since the mid-1990s and has seen over 400 performances. In practice, that means that in any given week, a theatre may put on seven different mainstage shows, on top of a possibly equal number of shows in the smaller house or studio that they all have (the Deutsches Theater has three venues, all the others have at least two). In my time in Berlin, I saw a number of actors in major parts in three different plays within a week. It’s virtually unheard of for a production to run more than three nights in a row. Schedules are usually only set six weeks in advance, and older plays are often brought back for just a day or two, especially if they have been in rep for a while. This is true across the board for the five established theatres, all of which have permanent ensembles of actors. What’s not at all uniform is the kind of theatre that gets produced in these theatres – the Berliner Ensemble, Deutsches Theater, Gorki Theater, Schaubuehne, and Volksbuehne.

Each of these theatres has something like a recognizable house style, but individual directors will depart, sometimes quite significantly, from that. (By and large, directors don’t move a lot between Berlin theatres, though they’re constantly working at theatres elsewhere in Germany.) How a particular “Intendant” – as artistic directors are known in Germany – defines that specific style or ethos will be reflected to some degree in the composition of an ensemble, and I definitely got a sense that some ensembles were much better at certain types of work than others, and could struggle when adopting different approaches. What I heard from more than a few people was that actors will choose, if they can, to work at a specific theatre because it suits their specific artistic interests. So in a very real sense, what being an actor means in Berlin depends partly on where you’re doing your acting, and what kind of performer you want to be partly determines for which theatre you might wind up working.

And those differences are far from negligible: the distance between what theatre means at the Volksbuehne and what it means at the Schaubuehne is in some ways much wider than that between, say, theatre in London and the Schaubuehne’s approach. I’m not sure that the stars of one of those theatres easily could – or would want to – work and do well in the other, but that doesn’t mean they’re not celebrated actors (and often celebrated in a way that doesn’t really acknowledge those fairly categorical differences). And yet, all of them do work that from the perspective of the independent scene would count as “traditional” theatre – on a stage, with some sort of set, with long rehearsal periods, and usually with the aim of putting on a particular play (this is least true at the Volksbuehne, where rehearsal processes can be very different and approximate devised theatre).

It’s true that certain stylistic tics tend to appear across the board: right now, use of a hand-held microphone, however brief, seems a necessity everywhere but at the Berliner Ensemble; the same is true of video projections. Bare stages are also en vogue, as is live music, often performed by the actors, always amplified. Historical settings are clearly completely out of the question, though ironically historicizing sets and costumes are OK. There’s less dirt and paint on stage now than there use to be, though both still make an appearance. And not a lot of nudity, somewhat surprisingly. In any case, aesthetically, there is something like a common vocabulary. And all the major theatres draw on a broadly similar canon of plays (again, this is least true at the Volksbuehne) – a mix of ancient plays, mostly Greek, Shakespeare, French and Spanish early modern plays, German classics, nineteenth-century European plays, and the entire canon of twentieth-century drama, though new plays and anything still in copyright feature far less prominently than in the English-speaking world. And recently, there’s been a massive trend towards dramatized versions of novels.

Where the real distinctions emerge, despite this shared visual, technological, and textual arsenal, is in acting styles and in the approach to the relationship between text and performance.

I’d guess that this is one reason that German theatre can appear so uniform from an Anglophone perspective. If you don’t know the plays especially well and don’t really speak the language, visual and sonic aspects will necessarily have a more direct impact on your theatre experience. But a production at the Volksbuehne might look and sound quite a lot like a Schaubuehne show, even though what the one does with the text and how the actors go about their business there may have little in common with what’s going on in the other. And of course, on the level of stage [as opposed to acting] aesthetics, all German theatre is strikingly different from mainstream theatre in the English-speaking world. Although the Schaubuehne’s acting style is quite compatible with the Anglo-American psychological-realist consensus, Thomas Ostermeier’s productions still look and feel strange enough when they tour the world that they have come to stand for the radical German tradition, even though in Berlin, they seem quite, well, traditional by comparison to what goes on in the other theatres. But, Toronto readers, I really can’t stress one thing enough: you would not be able to find a professional production in a major Berlin theatre that looked and felt like what Stratford or Shaw, or even Soulpepper, put on stage. That kind of theatre barely exists in Germany’s major cities.

I’ll try for a very rough and ready summary of some of these differences between Berlin theatres, though I’ve also described them in much more detail in my daily dispatches, and will keep posting on the subject.

Schaubuehne (the only remaining major theatre in West Berlin!)
The Schaubuehne favours a fairly realist acting style, and sometimes uses quite naturalistic sets; what they do is generally not worlds removed from TV or film. Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director, started out directing contemporary British drama and remains influenced by that. There is an overarching desire here to relate actors’ work to what real people do — Ostermeier has described the stage as a kind of laboratory where we can observe human behaviour. The Schaubuehne also seems to favour a fairly conservative attitude to the text; there certainly appears to be a clear sense of responsibility to put on a production of a given play, though what that actually means will differ from director to director and dramaturge to dramaturge (and from play to play: Ostermeier’s Ibsen productions are quite unlike his Shakespeare stagings). In practice, of course, none of this may apply, except when it does.

Berliner Ensemble
On paper, the most conservative of the lot – explicitly dedicated to staging plays “as they are supposed to be done.” A repertory dominated by classics, not a ton of contemporary drama, especially on the main stage. Committed to keeping older actors in the ensemble, partly to help train younger actors. I don’t have a clear sense of what their approach to acting is, though Claus Peymann, the Intendant, likes to praise actors who know how to speak classical drama “properly.” In practice, I think that means a certain stagey diction that rather lacks the metatheatrical self-awareness one finds elsewhere. All that said, the BE is also the main Berlin home of Robert Wilson, inhabitant of a different aesthetic planet than anyone else in town. Although the place feels to me like a bit of a throwback to what was cutting edge 30-40 years ago, it’s still grounded in a specifically theatrical form of acting.

Deutsches Theater
Probably the most diverse (or one might say, least defined) theatre in Berlin, but as I wrote in my post on their production of Wastwater, I’m not sure they’re at their best when venturing into what seems more like Schaubuehne territory. They did some of the most impressive physical work I’ve seen in Berlin. Stylistically, the ensemble seems the most versatile (the Intendant claims they have the best cadre of female actors of any other German theatre, and I’m happy to believe it – a lot of extremely impressive performances). Generally, I didn’t see a lot of clearly improvisatory work here, but a certain lightness of touch, a dedication to being in the moment was often in evidence (especially in the production of Maxim Gorki’s Kleinbuerger directed by Jette Steckel: the one show I didn’t blog about at all, although I loved it). It’s not a theatre that seems especially interested in a realist aesthetic or psychology. The focus seems to lie on work that explores theatre as a distinct art form, producing performances that are rigorously conceived and polished, but also deliberately distant at times. Different directors engage with that overall approach in very different ways: Michael Thalheimer’s work is the most extreme in its self-conscious artificiality; Stefan Pucher’s productions find different mechanisms to distance the stage from reality; and Stefan Kimmig seems especially interested in exploring what happens when you switch back and forth between different representational registers, moving from quite naturalistic moments to extraordinarily abstract or exaggerated gestures and interactions. Steckel is different again – but they all appear to share a general tendency to play with form and with acting styles while maintaining a fairly structured aesthetic. (Not sure if the DT requires the longest description because that’s where I’ve seen the most shows or because of its particular artistic approach….)

Maxim Gorki Theater
The most familial-seeming of the state-funded theatres – at least that’s my impression, and it may all be about to change, as the Intendant, Armin Petras, is about to move to Stuttgart. The Gorki productions I saw were all quite actor-centred (I’ll have much more to say about the mistake of thinking of German theatre as director-driven in a later post), and the entire ensemble has mastered a very loose performance style, unusually playful and swift-footed. They do incorporate quite a bit of actual improvisation into their shows, and rehearsals, from what I could learn, also seem to rely significantly on playing with situations rather than bringing a text to life. This is the company that had me guessing the most as to whether what I was watching was very accomplished improve or actually scripted and rehearsed (on inquiry, it usually turned out to be the latter, impressively). Their acting style, broadly speaking, has a relatively light-hearted, ironically self-conscious quality, but that doesn’t mean every situation is played for laughs: what impressed me most with this ensemble was their ability to turn on a dime and switch into a heartbreakingly serious register. A perfect example that metatheatricality and irony don’t have to weaken a performance’s emotional impact.

The most radical and most experimental of the five big theatres ever since Frank Castorf began his tenure as Intendant there in 1992. I can really only speak to Rene Pollesch’s work there, who has been one of the most influential figures in the recent history of this theatre, as a writer and a director – and there is so much to say, thanks to the time I got to spend with one of the dramaturges and one of the stars of their ensemble, that it’ll take a separate post. But briefly, in a Volksbuehne production, you are likely to find actors interested in testing out extremes – extremes of slapstick, extremes of physical action, extremes of textual production (many of Pollesch’s plays feature pages upon pages of philosophical discourse, often delivered in performance at breakneck pace) – and deeply invested in the politics or the conceptual ramifications of their work. What you’re not likely to find are characters or figures; psychology is kept out of these shows as much as possible. The other thing I learned is that their artistic process relies on a great deal of autonomy – on the part of the set designer and the director as well as the actors – and thrives on exploring conflict as a means of collaborative creation. Much more to say about this. What’s clear is that although stylistic elements familiar from the other theatres also appear in the Volksbuehne, the approach to performance favoured in this theatre pushes the general tendency towards heightened theatricality much further than the other ensembles choose to. I didn’t really think the over-used “postdramatic” tag fit any of the other theatres especially well; the Volksbuehne clearly is a poster child for the postdramatic.

So there you have it: “German theatre” or “Berlin theatre” as a unified institution doesn’t exist. There is, however, a wonderfully rich array of kinds of theatre in Germany. And there is an undercurrent that can be found in all of these houses: a conviction that theatre is essentially unlike TV or film; that theatre has to exist in — and be responsible to — the present (it cannot be a place that conserves the past); and that in the competition between text and performance, while different theatres will give lesser or greater weight to the text, performance ultimately always has to take priority.

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