John Cage might say “Silence” in these circumstances. But the difference between the great composer and me is that I can’t shut up, but rather continue shooting foolish questions: Why is German theatre so politically engaged? Why is Regietheater still so strong in this more fluid modern age? Why are most directors men, and white? And why do many end up directing operas? Is that the ultimate success for directors, or is that already an old-school perspective? And, yes, this is a big one, has most of German theatre become totally post-dramatic, abandoning the power of storytelling? You see, I am full of these horribly biased questioned, and am the least qualified person to provide an insider’s view to this festival.
Guidance is definitely needed. Required is a crash course in German theatre from an expert who could answer my ultimate question: what is really going on in contemporary German theatre? So I luckily ended up having coffee with Vasco Boenisch, one of the seven jury members of this year’s Theatertreffen. Not to my surprise, he in crooning tones refuted most of my subjective hypotheses and taught me about the real trends in theatre circa 2012:
1. Regietheater is aging.
2. Fringe theatre is growing.
3. Storytelling is coming back.
Vasco explains that, just five years ago in 2007, most of the productions invited to the Theatertreffen were plays with big-name directors, such as Andreas Kriegenburg, Michael Thalheimer, Nicolas Stemann, Dimiter Gotscheff. “This year,” he continues, “big directors’ plays are still here, but there’s also collective theatre, fringe theatre, and experimental theatre, which are created specifically to approach narrower audiences. Think about John Gabriel Borkman. A lot of people will say, “What crap. This isn’t theatre.” True, if what a majority of audiences are still looking for is a theatre piece dominated by one man’s direction, childish, messy, mostly improvised 12-hour plays should not be their cup of tea. Yet, online ticket sales are also showing that these non-Regietheater plays are selling out faster than, say, the play by René Pollesch.
Why? I ask, and that leads Vasco to explain the second trend: the rise in fringe theatre. He says that because of the long-lasting economic depression, even in Germany, directors are all starting to chant, “Full house! Full house!”, and so they play it safe, inviting well-known directors. It naturally follows, then, because “their performances are sometimes predictable, audiences go look for something exciting in the fringe theatre. Also, because these small theatres don’t have to prove anything to a majority of tax-payers who ask for something in return, they can experiment more freely.” But hey, I mumble in my mind, I think there’s a contradiction here: If it is really true that more audiences are seeking out non-Regietheater experimental productions, wouldn’t it be wrong, or further, disrespectful to the audiences to assume that most of the tax payers can only be satisfied by plays with big names attached?
But then Vasco very patiently goes on to explain that, statistically speaking, “most of the German audiences are still looking for actor-focused emotional dramas. It was only a small audience that was keen on those post-dramatic movements. But probably, many of those audience members are craving for more storytelling these days. ”Undoubtedly we are living in an unstable age, economy-wise, politics-wise, and consequently psychology-wise; so, as Vasco says, people are yearning for a more understandable world, and more understandable theatre: “something with a beginning and an end.”
After an hour of intensive German theatre lessons, I feel more informed, more equipped, but also more perplexed. I get the impression that this is only one window to German theatre, and others could easily counter with absolutely different perspectives. “We have to be careful, because there is no one audience, so no one German theatre,” Vasco concludes, and though that all sounds so true, for a simple-minded Ausländer the line is not enough, more research is called for and I’m looking forward to speaking with more players in the local scene, from reviewers to people working in theaters, even audience members; it’s going to be a busy few weeks…