Trendy? Unavoidable? Difficult? As a foreigner living in Berlin, I was obviously curious to hear the Sunday talk about the “internationalisation of theatre” – and all the more disappointed because it missed its point. Notably because it lacked a clear definition of both key terms, “internationalisation” and “theatre”.
Let's start with “internationalisation”. What does that mean? Is “internationalisation” letting a renowned Dutch director take over the Münchner Kammerspiele? Inviting foreign actors to speak German with a funny accent or show their particular Italian way of moving onstage? Dealing with international issues? Or taking into consideration the growing percentage of “non-bio” Germans living in German cities while working on theatre productions?
Regarding the talk's participants, moderator Tobi Müller reduced the problematic to the hip trend of German municipal theatres inviting foreign directors to make obscure pieces, engaging foreign actors speaking their own kind of German, letting foreign directors be their boss. A living specimen was present, the acclaimed Münchner Kammerspiele's Dutch director Johan Simons – whom it nevertheless took two years to start being recognised in the city, as affirmed by Munich theatre critic Christoph Leibold. The discussion quickly lead to an appeal for patience (maybe you don't understand them straight away, but if you wait it can bring interesting interactions) and substance (“It's not only about producing some 'multiculti Europudding', it needs content,” stated Rita Thiele, Chief Dramaturge at the Hamburger Schauspielhaus, recalling a disappointing experience with a weak German-Hungarian project).
And Simons had plenty of anecdotes to tell about the culture shock he encountered when he started to work in this huge theatre house in Munich, where everything is discussed everyday in never-ending meetings, which leads to every little problem being interpreted as a huge catastrophe. “The word 'catastrophe' belongs to the third world!” he rebelled. After that, he never heard the word again.
But you can also understand “internationalisation” differently, considering you don't need to go abroad to find foreigners. Is making a piece with a foreign artist living in Germany still “internationalisation”? More tricky: is working with “non-bio” Germans, meaning Germans with foreign origins, but born in Germany, still “internationalisation”? That's how Thiele understood it. “Cities are getting more and more international, all you need is to open the theatre to your city. It is not about an international director circus, the internationalisation is to be found in the streets.”
Before working at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Thiele was leading the theatre in Cologne, where she tried to internationalise the actors' ensemble with quotas (!): if 30 percent of the population has foreign origins, so should 30 percent of the actors. It ended up being a counter-productive disaster, because they couldn't find enough “non-bio” German actors to fill the quotas and had to search for them in theatre schools – where they obviously found beginners, to whom they couldn't give leading roles, so the “non-bios” ended up playing the servants and chauffeurs... Embarrassing. Now that she works in Hamburg she won't repeat the same mistake: no more quotas. Still, they have one Japanese actress and one British actress in the ensemble. Whether that is representative of the “internationalisation” going on in the streets is another question.
At this point I would have expected a reflection upon the – sadly unique – case of the Gorki municipal theatre, whose new team, led by Shermin Langhoff, founded an ensemble where a majority of “non-bios” play Chekhov, Gorky and Büchner and search for new connections between those classical texts and today's multicultural Berlin. No one from the Gorki Theater was there – not invited? Oh, but none of their productions were invited to the Theatertreffen – not yet in the club?
The term “theatre” is also problematic. What kind of theatre are we talking about? Obviously the only valid theatre at the Theatertreffen, that which is made by the “state and municipal theaters” (Staat- und Stadttheater), this great German structure the whole world envies: a well-funded big theatre in every city, producing repertoire pieces with a permanent ensemble within permanent structures you don't have to fight for every couple of months.
Simons is right, there is a huge potential within this opulent structure to open the doors, they have enough money for that. But they are not alone. As always, the Theatertreffen completely ignores the “other” German theatre, the independent so-called “Freie Szene”. There, “internationalisation” is a daily reality as theatre makers constantly collaborate with foreign artists, based or non-based in Germany, be it for the structural reason of diversifying their funding resources.
Where can you see “internationalised” thioneatre in Berlin? In venues like the HAU, the Sophiensaele or the Theaterdiscounter, not to mention the Ballhaus Naunynstraße or the English Theatre Berlin. The Mousonturm in Frankfurt, the Kampnagel in Hamburg. Apparently they also are not part of the Theatertreffen's club allowed to speak about today's theatre.
All in all, clarifying what “internationalisation of theatre” is about would certainly have led further than this rather harmless exchange of anecdotes recalling again how fascinating it is to hear a foreign accent or how difficult it is to stay curious.
PS: The Stückemarkt, a part of the festival that examine broader forms of authorship and creative processes by inviting three unconventional theatre makers, started yesterday! Read my overview article here or the interview with Belgian artist Miet Warlop, whose show premiered last night enthusiastically, here.