As Maxim Gorki Theater is reopening, we speak to leader Shermin Langhoff on keeping theatre alive in a time of physical distancing, new forms of live performance and the relevance of drama in the postpandemic world.
Shermin, after half a year of closed doors, you are opening the new Spielzeit with Hakan Savaş Mican’s Berlin Alexanderplatz adaptation Berlin Oranienplatz. What can we expect?
Yes, Hakan is a filmmaker, so we will have cinematic theatre! Then, Black Block, the project of Sebastian Nübling, which is still an experiment because we have had to adapt to the conditions: it was planned as an outdoor project with 15 people from the ensemble and interventions with the audience that would have included physical contact. So now the performers are in the container, acting with special cameras bringing them together as a chorus while being apart from each other.
It seems that cameras have moved from backstage to becoming a central part of the post-pandemic set-up. What will that look like for the audience that’s physically present?
In Black Block, the audience will be there sitting in the big auditorium and following the performance on screen and physical interventions will be only with one performer at a time. When the performers play in the container, the audience will have headphones with Dolby Surround sound, which makes you feel immersed, so it’s a totally different sound quality from what you get at home. Ersan Mondtag was thinking about a kind of queer drag musical, with at least eight people singing – and we had a huge, beautiful stage design that contains three palaces and the ruins of those palaces. Now it’ll be about only four actors as they wait for the colleagues they expected, while the musical they were called for can’t happen. And from this situation they develop a questioning of their art, the questions we are talking about now: What does it mean not to be able to shout, sing, touch or kiss?
How much of an audience are you able to have now?
Ninety-four instead of 440. But we still sell the €10 tickets and not make the few tickets we have super expensive. We can’t let culture become exclusive. We will stream these events, because we don’t want to do repertoire until at least December. We developed a system where we still do streaming, but in better quality, because now we know in advance that it’s going to be streamed and not just for the archive. That way, we’ll be accessible for all those who cannot come to the theatre. People are more precarious after the pandemic, and for many people going to the theatre will be an extra in their budget. And it’s also for risk groups, sick and old people who maybe fear coming to the theatre.
It’s interesting you’re not starting with repertoire. Was it important to you to just have new works – and are these responding to the situation?
Yes, that was very important. We went through our repertoire, and I would say half of the projects could relate to a post-pandemic situation. But just playing repertoire under some distancing rules – that wouldn’t be an artistic way to deal with such circumstances, especially not if you can only bring in 94 people.
Right now we don’t know if there will be a time “after” this pandemic, but there certainly was a “before”. Do you remember the moment when Corona entered your life?
The “before” was pretty much dominated by our Herbstsalon, which was the last big event we did before Corona. We had hundreds of artists and academics from Berlin and across the world sharing their intersectional perspectives on Heimat, on questions of nation and belonging, on ecology, feminism and social justice – all topics that were brought to the surface by the pandemic. We were already looking at theatre itself, thinking about what makes it distinct as an art form. Our art is so based on this act of ‘coming together’, which, for me, also means a democratic possibility: gathering for protest, criticism, dialogue and exchange in an open space, a public space, a forum for all – even though there is an entrance fee sometimes. So this idea of ‘coming together’ was being questioned – as was the emotional way of narrating it through acting, through the body. There’s a physicality at the very core of theatre. And that goes for the audience as well: the cliché is people coughing! We had to start thinking about how to develop a response – not so much against the virus, more about living with this fragility, instability and vulnerability. Of course, this was all from inside a very luxurious situation, within Germany’s network of state-funded theatres. Everyone at Gorki is still being paid.
As a state-funded theatre, don’t you fear budget cuts?
To me, it’s been clear from the beginning that along with the pandemic there would be an economic crisis, which would lead to budgetary choices – basically pitting theatres against hospital beds. Of course, the government is now using all the money for short-term help for the economy, including the car and aviation industries: Lufthansa alone is getting €9 billion in financial aid, while the whole German culture sector is getting only €1 billion. So it’s not just about us – it’s about the entire cultural landscape, because we do not exist alone.
Who do you think will be the first casualties on that landscape?
First of all, the freelancers. Gorki is working with 30 to 40 percent freelance artists – directors, set and costume designers, choreographers, videographers and so on. One third of our projects are done completely with non-ensemble members. For the first two months of lockdown we paid everybody, whether they worked or not. But we couldn’t continue this because, as a state theatre, we’re not allowed to generate so much debt. Here in Berlin, colleagues have been somewhat lucky because the city reacted very fast and better than other places – but for the coming months, they have to look for federal support. The second issue is smaller stages. Whether they are private or partly state-funded, the Freie Szene, the independent theatre scene, has to fight a lot harder now. And there, too, it’s lucky that Berlin tried to support them quickly. Then the third point, before I even get to the state theatres, is Europe. I really worry about our colleagues in different parts of Europe.
The lockdown has meant that theatres had to remain shut since March and are now reopening under very strict ‘social distancing’ measures. For an institution so reliant on the physical experience, how do you see your position?
We tried to define what “gathering” means. We literally took the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the meanings of the word is to embrace, to care. I was asking myself what theatre is really there for – and I saw a trap in just streaming it without context. What does this mean for the form, what can we really provide? Form is always political, and we thought about how important it is to remember history and take it personally. So our programme of streams was centred around that – on International Roma Day we live-streamed actions and the production The Roma Armee. Thirty percent of our audience watched from abroad with subtitles, which was exciting.
So you were losing your physical audience, but gained a new one. Does that shift open up a new way of thinking?
Yes. There was a big discussion about whether or not to stream. I would say that what I’ve seen on streams – especially from theatres, including us – has not been of the aesthetic and content quality that I’d have wished for. I am hoping that if this pressure persists, we will find better formats. Because we are creative enough. The question will be whether the funding system for state theatres is creative enough to invest in the equipment we need.
In these times of streaming, can Gorki still survive as a physical entity?
Totally. We will have immediate performativity in the Kiosk, for example – a shop space in Dorotheenstraße that people will be able to enter and look into. At the same time you have the history of this theatre: the building itself has survived all kinds of pandemics, the Spanish flu, cholera. It is so conservative and bourgeois – it will survive, as the big, state-funded spaces will. But Gorki is under another pressure, because we are under-financed, and really depend on third-party funds. And the pandemic has had a huge financial impact. Our artistic budget is around €3 million. One third is from ticket sales, one third is from the city, and one third is from other sources. Now we won’t have our income or the Drittmittel because foundations are also under pressure. In the worst case we will have effects on the budget itself in the upcoming seasons. Gorki has 200 people with fixed contracts, 120 of them technicians and workshop employees working in a two-shift system, and unlike operas and private theatres like the Schaubühne and Berliner Ensemble, we cannot apply for Kurzarbeit, which would help a lot.
But with all your innovative responses and ideas, do you see an opportunity in the crisis?
I wouldn’t neglect it totally. I know a lot of people around me are seriously thinking about what they’ve been doing, and what they want or don’t want to do in the future. But I haven’t had that leisure yet! Maybe I will in the upcoming weeks. So far, as the intendant of 200 people who were worrying about their jobs and future, it was a lot of care work I had to do. Not just sending Sunday love letters to the entire staff, but keeping them together and informed. Everybody has done their best, whether by organising the digital programme or sewing masks, as our tailors did in the beginning – and now, for a few weeks, we’ve been rehearsing in real life again. It is so good to gather again. We’ve become an even better team than we used to be!
You mentioned “care work” – do you think you’ve managed people differently because you are a woman?
I would say it’s just my way. If you are talking about non-patriarchal management, the spot could also be filled by a queer person. As a 50-year-old woman, I grew up with de Beauvoir and a very materialistic, Marxist kind of feminism. Then Poststructuralism, and especially Judith Butler, brought some criticism to this concept. And now I am also linked to movements of artists who call for femininity as a distinct quality against patriarchy. I think I need all three of these feminist perspectives. Angela Davis was helpful to me in a very pragmatic way. She asked how
she can remain active and believe in resistance while facing modern forms of slavery and racism in the United States. She made it very clear that there is no solution to this conundrum, but the fact that she could sit in a TV studio and ask this question was progress. She said it’s important to know that the things you do today as an activist don’t have to have results right away, but maybe they will for upcoming generations. This really touches me and gives me hope.
And you’ve been a bit of a symbol – taking over one of Berlin’s oldest theatres while not being this ‘White German guy’…
From the beginning, when I came here as the outsider, or the foreigner and a woman, I saw it as a duty to reflect on these categories, especially in German theatre. Theatres always carry a notion of nation, of speaking the national language – and in Germany we had this era of the Nazis, where German theatre grew and gained its structural hierarchy. From the beginning, I wanted to look at where exclusion starts, how and why. Antisemitism has a long history on the German stage including at the Gorki. At the same time, the so-called Enlightenment, which is so important to German culture, still overshadows the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, which from the beginning called for rights and justice. I feel a stronger connection to the Haskala because it was about political acknowledgement of citizenship. From a post-migrant perspective, that’s very relevant today.
This is a strange time we are going through now, a time that will mark people’s lives. Can new narratives be brought to this?
Yes. For sure. Like the time after 9/11, things will be different in our everyday lives, for sure. It also raises the question whether art can change the world. At Gorki, we still see art as a practice of critique. Remember when the first spontaneous performative strategies came together in Italy – from singing and clapping to repurposing selfie sticks into “champagne sticks” for clinking glasses between balconies? I felt it was a little naive for artists to think you could just reproduce that and have the same subversive potential as the spontaneous event, as Sonja Iveković pioneered on her own balcony as an act of resistance against the Tito regime 40 years ago. I was surprised that some big museums and Sonja Iveković herself took part in it. I feel artists need to question what resistance means when you’re in different contexts – whether authoritarian communism or pandemic disaster.
You also hear ideas about resistance, like from former Volksbühne director Frank Castorf for example, which come close to the Hygiene demonstrations now.
Those protests are disgusting. The pandemic is an opportunity for important debates – pressurisation, feminism, care-work – but the issue is whether the opportunity will be used. This reactionary movement started before Trump and Bolsonaro – it’s a political development against what’s been unfolding since 1968. And it is happening in Germany as well.
Do you see that happening in Germany as well?
Of course I do. It’s not just represented by a potential 20 percent of people voting AfD and the not very forward thinking CDU. Angela Merkel may be an exception. She spoke in favour of non-heterosexual marriage in late September 2017. Right here in our house, by the way, and a few days later the legislation changed. Merkel lives around the corner, she is our neighbour. She’s been here twice, so not really often. But for a chancellor it is a lot. And she said when she’s retired she’ll come down a lot more. So we hope to see her around.
How do you think the pandemic made these reactionary waves worse?
In the domestic situation, old role models were revived. We will also face greater unemployment, fewer jobs. And women have always been the first to be affected by crises – women and children and old people. In Berlin, every fourth child falls under the poverty line. We have racism, we have classism, we have ableism – we have all of this in Berlin, even though we have a progressive government which is trying to address it. In a crisis there is always the question of relevance, and there might be a discussion about whether we need theatres or more intensive care units. I think the most important thing is what we saw on June 14 at the #Unteilbar demonstration. To really make clear that health, education and culture are the areas where already too little money has been spent, it was kaputtgespart as they say. And that’s what we have to do, to not let this pandemic divide us.
Solidarity was a big topic…
Yes, it was, but often kind of an empty word. So many artists, I read, were talking about how they use Corona times for reflecting and doing yoga – it’s not that self-care isn’t an important issue, but should we really use space in magazines and newspapers to talk about that? If we are intellectuals or artists and we are offered this public space, is that what is important to share? I tried to join political campaigns outside of Gorki. I was with the first demonstrations at Brandenburger Tor calling out the barbaric situation in Lesbos, which we used to know from poems and now will always remember as the place where bodies are cramped in overcrowded camps or washed up on the shores. I grew up just opposite the shores of Lesbosin Edremit. How can we still show Greek plays without reflecting this drama? There have been many calls for solidarity, and politicians saying “we” should show solidarity. But who is “we”? And does that solidarity stop at your garden fence, or are you going to the fences of Greece and the refugee camps? Those are questions we are now raising at the Gorki.