Half a million for five performances! Theatertreffen 2018 was a year of big-budget, splash-out productions. Was it worth it? Overwhelmed and queasy, critic Lily reflects on the ‘pricelessness’ of art and whether what she saw on stage was worth the money splash.
Toward the end of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, Woyzeck goes to buy a pistol to murder his lover. But the pistol is too expensive: instead he buys a knife. “It can slice more than bread,” Woyzeck imagines in a reverie. But in fact the Jewish shopkeeper is manipulating him – after he’s left, she sneers, “There! As if it were nothing. But it’s money! “Da! Als ob’s nichts wär. Und s’ is doch Geld.
Barbara Horvath spits these words staccato while walking atop a giant, stage-high, tilted, rotating disc in Ulrich Rasche’s production from Basel, one of the closing weekend productions of this year’s Theatertreffen. All the characters talk this way – presumably because powering the giant treadmill is exhausting, each step must fall precisely in time with the others, because the actors compete with a thrumming, moody orchestral-electronic score. As a result, I really hear the language of Büchner for the first time, choked out syllable by syllable like Giles Corey calling out for more weight. The result is a colorless, Jackboot world where there are no heroes and villains but only beautiful Swiss actors turning and turning on the same wheel of fate. No more morals in Büchner ’s great morality play: “We poor men, Captain – money, money! – try raising someone like me on morals alone. We also have flesh and blood.”
At the end of the play, the machine turns around, exposing its hydraulic lifts and pistons: a curtain call for the star of the show. I wondered how much did this thing cost?”
Rasche’s stage-machine is such a wheezing, whirring creature that it feels almost alive. At the end of the play, the machine turns around, exposing its hydraulic lifts and pistons: a curtain call for the star of the show. I wondered how it was made, I wondered about the faith required to build something like this before even starting rehearsals, and mostly, I wondered: how much did this thing cost? Even blogs which detail all the technical specifications fail to give a ballpark. I’m guessing the answer is: a lot.
To work in the culture industry as a critic and professor and theatermaker, I have to believe that art is not a luxury.”
I knew that the Berliner Festspiele had received some extra funding to produce Frank Castorf’s final piece at the Volksbühne, FAUST, on the stage of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. But then the Tagesspiegel tucked the number into a story about invited Berliner Theatertreffen productions, €500,000, “because Castorf declined showing the piece in the Dercon Volksbühne and so the production required more money.” Record scratch sound! 500,000! On top of the normal budget for inviting productions from all over Europe! Half a million for five performances!
To work in the culture industry as a critic and professor and theatermaker, I have to believe that art is not a luxury. Who said it better than Audre Lorde? “It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
There’s a long tradition of high taxes and public funding for the arts in Europe. In New York, I can’t afford to see plays; in Berlin, I discuss the latest Ostermeier offering at the Schaubühne with the receptionist at the dentist’s. It’s beautiful. But still these two nights at the theater made me feel queasy: what kind of a public is this? What percentage of the tickets are industry comps and Theaterwissenschaftler? In the intermission, I talked to the woman next to me, an Austrian theater critic. “Such self-indulgent Schauspiel!” she complained. “There’s no space to do anything but praise.” I have struggled to write about Castorf, to tease out the intense entanglement of his work on stage with Western misogynist, racist and capitalist ideologies he so vociferously opposes. And so maybe, rather than trying to make an argument on aesthetic or political or institutional grounds, maybe we could just talk about the economics of Castorf’s Volksbühne and ask the very simple question: is it worth it?
Should there be a tax on festival tickets like on furs? Should even we critics pay for our seats? Should all pay the same? Should some seats be set aside for the jobless or children or people from Marzahn?”
I wonder what would happen if we did admit that this was just some very expensive experiment in just how much an audience or Sophie Rois’ vocal chords can take, how much weight a stage can bear. There are, indeed, some perfect stage images in these two evenings: the mechanical Drehbühne or Marc Hosemann flap a set of giant black wings over the gaping Geisterbahn mouth of hell. But might the planet keep spinning without them? Might we rather think, “is this necessary?” rather than “this might be cool?”. Should there be a tax on festival tickets like on furs? Should even we critics pay for our seats? Should all pay the same? Should some seats be set aside for the jobless or children or people from Marzahn? To really take seriously the argument that these productions are not a luxury, then one should really take the responsibility to defend why. Audre Lorde’s paean to Black female experience doesn’t really speak to Castorf and Rasche. And nor do old Enlightenment criteria of “moral uplift” and “civic education,” which are precisely what this Faust and Woyzeck are meant to destroy. Part of my hesitation about these eye-popping budgets is that they are inextricable from an aesthetic which requires them – an aesthetic of overwhelmingness. Rasche’s giant stage machines do exactly what they are meant to – they exhaust both actors and audience with German precision. How much do you want to pay to be overwhelmed? What good does this do us? What do I learn?
I can’t shut up about the €500,000 figure. The responses I have gotten have been kind of predictable– with that kind of money you could hire a lot of schoolteachers, with that kind of money house the homeless – and here I verge into cautious territory – with that kind of money you could make sure that everyone in my city (Pune in India) has clean drinking water? You could start a freaking school? The oppression Olympics are a race to the bottom – it is intellectually unsound to argue that just because “there are starving children in Africa” we should all eat our peas in the Global North. But aren’t German institutions themselves still playing this very game? I get why in recent years, Theatertreffen has started a concurrent global program, Shifting Perspectives, to either a) avoid or b) prevent themselves from being accused of this very wastefulness, insularity and tone-deafness. But it seems that if your perspective shifts, your ethics and values shift too. “Is it worth it?” looks different in India where I now teach than in does in Berlin. This global perspective on Theatertreffen might make the giant European stage sets look both bigger and smaller. At the intermission of Woyzeck, an Asian guy with an International Forum lanyard explains to his friend: “It’s just literally them yelling at us and I need to wake up at 4:30 tomorrow to catch a flight to Singapore.”
I wonder what would happen if we called this development not ‘noteworthy’ but ‘wasteful.'”
Maybe this is because of my own shifted perspective, away from the ecology of German theater and German-language Feuilleton. Even poor Berlin is stinking rich. I am writing this on the plane back home to Pune, India, where there is performance in village squares and brothels and university halls and theaters and none of it is very expensive, because it doesn’t require much – actors, audience. As Germany’s most lauded productions are increasingly also its most expensive ones, as outgoing-greats strive to outdo themselves and rising-stars make a name, I wonder what would happen if we called this development not “noteworthy” but “wasteful.” One of the most beautiful things about theater, after all, is that it can disappear. I wonder if the next wave might be – if not a poorer theater – at least more sustainable, a more resourceful one.