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The no-drama intendant: Oliver Reese

INTERVIEW: The new Berliner Ensemble intendant Oliver Reese explains his vision for a “contemporary writer’s theatre”.

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Photo by Daniel Mufson

New Berliner Ensemble intendant Oliver Reese explains his vision for a “contemporary writer’s theatre”.

Oliver Reese has thick skin and an open mind. After his predecessor, Claus Peymann, dismissed him as a “representative of a generation of sensible, well-informed, but tame administrators”, Reese declined to strike back, telling the Tagesspiegel he thought Peymann was “actually pretty nice”. Or maybe he just doesn’t mind the characterisation – his colleague Michael Thalheimer, whom he brought from Frankfurt to direct at the B.E., spoke similarly to Der Freitag when Reese’s appointment was mentioned: “The artist intendant, radical and unwilling to compromise, inspires fear. What’s wanted is the dramaturg intendant and culture manager.” In September, the B.E.’s new, sensible manager gave us a warm welcome in his modest office, where we discussed Berlin theatre’s past, present, and future.

How do you negotiate the impulse to leave your own mark on the Berliner Ensemble with the responsibility of preserving its traditional identity?

I think that the Berliner Ensemble in recent years has not been connected to its history. Claus Peymann was here for 18 years, and he staged many plays that were just pure classical drama, like Faust and Three Sisters. But I think the Berliner Ensemble in its history has always been a house for contemporary, new writing. This is one of the few theatres that had two writers as artistic directors: not only Bertolt Brecht but also Heiner Müller. It has been a writer’s theatre and it has been a contemporary theatre.

Your colleague Michael Thalheimer, like many others on the German culture scene, has expressed contempt for Yasmina Reza – he dismissed her writing as Boulevardtheater. But in Frankfurt you directed Reza’s Art

Oh, it’s beautiful! It’s a masterpiece.

So what’s Boulevardtheater for you? Is there a place for it at the Berliner Ensemble?

Sometimes. I don’t think it’s problematic if you do it every now and then. I think we really have a problem in Germany that we think badly of well-made plays. Art, for example, is a masterpiece because, when I directed it, I saw I couldn’t even change a word. Every word is necessary. And to have three men talking about nothing – a white picture – and make a worldwide hit out of it, you can see how brilliantly her dialogue is written. And therefore, no, I’m not of the same opinion as Michael. I think he pointed out that we shouldn’t have too many “entertaining” plays, but I think once a season, it’s nice to have something funny as well. There is so little good, funny work in modern theatre, and our actors need these kinds of roles. This season, for example, we’re doing Ballroom Schmitz, a musical radio play for the stage. I think a bigger problem is that we perform many plays in the Kammerspiele or smaller spaces, but where are the dramas for the big stage? I think those types of plays are primarily American and English dramas, and therefore the Berliner Ensemble will be a very international theatre drawing on international authors.

It’s a strange mix you’re brewing: you wouldn’t normally see Frank Castorf and the American playwright Tracy Letts under one roof.

Right, but we don’t have to be monochrome. Why should we? But there is a certain style, I think: It’s not amateurs, it’s not performance, it’s not dance, it’s not crossover; it’s acting a written text.

What is your interaction with the directors? Is there potential for artistic clashes if you have a director like Castorf, who’s used to being the boss?

Yeah, he will be the boss. Castorf is very masterful, he knows exactly what he’s doing. But I’ve worked with many important directors, and I know they like to have partners. I’ve been in theatre for 30 years now, so I’m experienced. I was a dramaturg, I was an author, I’m a director – I can mirror to the directors what is going on. Yes, there can be clashes, but they’re productive clashes. And I’m very happy if the directors I hire are the stars and not me.

It sounds like you’re looking forward to disappearing behind the work.

You should, as an intendant. Berlin has been a bit hysterical about the change of these artistic directors, especially of course at the Volksbühne. I think what happens on stage is more important. So, once we have opened, there will be fewer interviews with me!

Look out for English surtitles on Berliner Ensemble productions starting in November.