After half a year of empty stages, Berlin theatres are back with a new Spielzeit. We spoke to Hebbel am Ufer’s director Annemie Vanackere about Corona lessons, hybrid theatre and why streaming shouldn’t be free.
After nearly half a year, HAU is re-opening its stages to the public. How does it feel to come back to analogue life?
There is a lot of pressure to have an analogue life on the stage again – not just from outside, but also from within HAU – because, as an institution, this is what we do! We’ve all missed it: technicians, production people, our whole curatorial staff – and even more so the artists. To be honest, back in March, I wasn’t optimistic about this Spielzeit. From the very beginning it was clear that we should prepare for everything but regular performances. I felt there was a duty for me to rethink what we do. HAU isn’t one of the city’s Sprechtheater, we are a more experimental kind of house, so I think one can expect that we try and be ahead of the curve.
And you were ahead of the curve. HAU was one of the first theatres to establish an online stage.
When we had to close in March, we immediately reviewed our programme and looked at what we could transpose online. Our upcoming festival was Spy On Me #2 and the subtitle was “Artistic Manoeuvres for the Digital Present”, so it actually fit well. There was one online workshop by the Dgtl Fmnsm collective about how to make your own alien mask – it was a critical take on face recognition software – and it was watched so many times during and afterwards. It was made for online and it really worked!
You were in the lucky position to be working with collectives who’d been exploring live- streaming long before the pandemic. I’m thinking of Forced Entertainment which premiered a live three-part web series in the middle of the lockdown…
We indeed spoke with Forced Entertainment about how people watch things online and that’s how we came up with the idea of a Zoom web series. They understood that an episode shouldn’t be hours long – that’s actually too long in front of a screen. So the trilogy was a great experience. The crucial bit is always that the artists have the desire to transform their practice to fit the changing times. We kept asking ourselves, what is the theatre of the future under these circumstances?
I wanted to have an online and analogue program, so I told our guest curators “I would like you to think about the hybrid form” and see what can be streamed so it is accessible for people who cannot get a ticket, cannot come, or who cannot afford one. But something has to happen in the physical space, because the space has an aura; and with Gob Squad I think it worked really well that the space was at the core of their show. It was a live show that had a quality in its own right. Even when you tuned in at midnight you knew the performers were really there in the theatre, some were really outside, some were in England and others were running around Alexanderplatz. Which is very different from just watching a DVD or VOD.
Now you can actually reopen, what’s the most challenging thing regulation-wise?
Actually, the regulations say you should also keep distance in rehearsals unless you are a real-life couple. This also means that our sound, lighting, and video teams can’t work together at the same time. Because of that we need more time to prepare for rehearsing and all those things. Backstage, we really work within the rules. Sometimes we need to lift something together, but then we are wearing masks. We have to get used to this. It gets more difficult when it is dance. I think dancers suffer a lot because it’s very physical.
So when it comes to dance shows, will we only see solos or duos from now on?
It’s a tough situation. Many choreographers are experimenting with how they can adapt and make their performances under the new conditions. For andcompany&Co., who are working with 70 to 80-year-olds from Schwedt, it’s obviously problematic so they’re figuring out a concept for them to be filmed or live streamed. And for someone like Simone Aughterlony, it’s really tough because she is preparing a show where audience members are invited to sit in a circle and pull their chairs around in the space. So very much not socially distanced. Through (in-house) dance curator Ricardo Carmona, we have really fought to allow choreographers to make bigger works, because sadly the small budgets have meant in nite numbers of solos, duos or sometimes a trio, but no pieces with six or eight people. The larger shows are so fantastic, but Corona is stopping this development.
What about performance group She She Pop opening the season at HAU 2?
There was a long discussion with them. We actually suggested to them that they postpone. Their Hexploitation is about the ageing woman and the “Hexe” – the witch. It is a super topic. They of course have to physically distance, both during rehearsals and the performances themselves. Otherwise they’re quite ruthless with their own bodies and it’s something we cannot put online because of the nudity. That makes it quite difficult. So this will be analogue only, which means an audience of only around 50 people. It’s not much: usually it’s 200. This limitation of audience numbers really hurts.
We are not so financially dependent on selling tickets, fortunately. But I always like to have as many people as possible; it’s about this feeling of community. Normally in HAU 1 we can have 500 people, and now it will be 100 or 120. One thing that will also change, for example, is that the audience will go in one by one. There will no longer be a cluster of people in the foyer before and after the shows, which was one of the things I liked so much about theatre: it’s a social art form in itself.
Can you describe how things will work with Corona rules and audience restrictions – I heard you have some innovative plans for HAU 1’s big stage…
I felt we needed a special concept for one of the spaces. We chose HAU 1 and we were very inspired by Paul Preciado’s essay “Learning from the Virus”. There he says that, just as the virus mutates, if we want to resist submission, we must also mutate; that we must go from a forced to a chosen mutation. We wanted to create an environment that doesn’t go back to the old normal – there’s no going back anyway – but that expresses the transformation going on. So we had Janina Audick, who is one of the great scenographers in the city and is now a professor at the UdK, challenge her students to redesign the HAU 1 using the text by Preciado as inspiration. We chose not to take out rows and block the seats; instead we thought, “let’s take out all the chairs and something new will emerge.” Redefining the space without it reminding us all the time of the Corona rules. That’s what’s going on at HAU 1 now!
And what’s to be expected on the big stage, programme-wise?
We have three guest curators: Saskia Köbschall and Tmnit Zere and Natalie Aguenzomo Mba Bikoro. The trio take a historical approach, looking into what has happened over the 112 years that this theatre has been around, while focusing on the discussions surrounding topics such as racism, sexism and BLM. We cannot to have shows longer than 90mins. Sometimes there will be a live performance and a lecture, or some music and an audio piece, for example…
What about HAU 3?
HAU 3 will not open for shows. We are transforming that space into a digital lab, the results of which will be presented online at “HAU 4”. We will organise an open call for a hackathon, where people – and not only theatre people – can apply with ideas. I think the theatre will benefit from people from other disciplines, Quereinsteiger like Youtubers, Instagrammers or IT specialists. And hopefully vice versa! We now have a budget for three residencies. So if there is a good pitch that comes out of the hackathon, we can grant a residency. And it’s not about having the best robots, but about what online tools can be developed to avoid old barriers such as racism, sexism, ableism. We work with Dgtl Fmnsm and with Christiane Hütter from Invisible Playground, so there’s a good combination of female experiences.
HAU is becoming more and more female-centric: you’re one of the few top-stage bosses in town, your curators are women, as are your scenography students and your digital lab people…
It’s true. And since last year, the discursive programme section, too, is created by a woman, Margarita Tsomou, an academic who’s also an activist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “but you can’t find women for these jobs, they just don’t exist.” And of course it’s never true, you just have to make an effort. This has been a concern at HAU from the beginning.
Will you continue producing online-only formats?
We look forward to the new online-only piece with Machina eX, which we are presenting in parallel with theatres in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt. It’s co-produced by all three theatres. Why have separate dates when the shows are online anyway, and we can all have a longer series that way?
Do you think co-production will become more dominant?
I hope so, because artists will need this even more than before Corona. When I started at HAU, I was surprised to find that competition is so strong in this country in terms of who gets the premiere and all those things. But you don’t have so many battles over online content. We have this Bündnis internationaler Produktionshäuser, a state-funded network. There are seven theatres involved in it throughout the country. Of course we have always exchanged and collaborated, but Corona times have intensified this enormously, also on a practical level. With Forced Entertainment, we split the €10,000 necessary for the production equally between three theatres. I could have said “no, it’s my idea”, but I think this is the future.
How do you see the future overall?
We will have to learn to live with the virus. For me, the transition to a digital space and a hybrid space is key, and with that, reaching out to a younger audience. Even without Corona, what would Generation Z think of our theatre? There was already a generational gap.
But do you think you might lose older audiences with this digital shift?
There are so many places where older people are very welcome and can see their canon. But this is less about age than about who and what is on stage. HAU’s mission is not to conform to the “eisernes Repertoire”, but to work on a new canon. I still love the Shakespeares and the Chekhovs, but there’s plenty of that. Where is the canon where the younger generation and people of colour can recognise themselves? Where they can think “oh, this is also about me”? These are things we want to experiment with. I want to combine things, to look for hybrid forms.
There’s this German concept of “system relevance” and some of your colleagues showed outrage at culture not being defined as system relevant. Interestingly, you said you could understand the distinction. As a theatremaker, what do you think your role is in this particular time?
I didn’t understand the people who were complaining so much that we were not considered system relevant. First of all, I wasn’t unhappy with how the city of Berlin dealt with us, with the Soforthilfe and other support systems for the basic needs of artists who were suddenly jobless. Health and care workers are clearly more immediately relevant to society. That said, there are other dimensions to life, things that are meaningful to our existence. For some people it may be religion, or ethics, or family – no one would ask how system relevant God, or friendship, or love is. If you go to see a performance, will it make you a better person? Will it give you something? In many cases people would say yes. Something happens amongst that community of people sitting together. In that sense, of course culture has to be defended and supported.
What about the economics of all this? If more performances are online, I guess fewer people will be prone to paying? How do you do ticketing?
There are still many aspects that need to be thought through and developed for the digital stage, like our HAU 4. Should people have to buy a ticket? Does the performance remain online afterwards? These are things we want to experiment with. We learned fast over the past months. You have to be brave and experiment, and sometimes fail, too. For Gob Squad’s Show me a good time, I insisted on selling tickets. It was a whole production, 12 hours long. The tickets were cheap: €8 and €5. Had it been in-house, I think we would have charged €25. I died 1000 deaths at the beginning because our online ticketing system didn’t work right. I’m sure we lost some people as a result – people online are very impatient. But overall I was quite invigorated by that experiment. We sold almost 400 tickets. People are not easily persuaded to pay for content online, because online was always free. And so I think all theatres should immediately start offering productions that you have to buy tickets for, because otherwise people will say, “well, there are so many other things so why pay for this one?” Online theatre is also more family friendly, especially for people with young children – why not offer to reduce their babysitting costs and invest it in theatre instead!