The Berliner Theatertreffen festival is back on the boards in front of the public for the first time since 2019. This year, after 10 years serving as artistic director, Yvonne Büdenhölzer will be stepping down. During her tenure at Germany’s most celebrated theatre festival, she has initiated many changes and witnessed a number of scandals.
The competitive element at the core of the Theatertreffen programme – a jury selects and invites the previous season’s 10 most “noteworthy” productions from the German-speaking world – always sparks debate. But it also gives visitors the chance to see some of the finest, most cutting-edge theatre made in the region, as it has since 1964. Büdenhölzer caught up with us to look back on her decade in charge.
You must be thrilled that the Theatertreffen can be presented in front of a live audience again.
Yes, we’re really looking forward to welcoming the public back, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to do it now. There may be some cancellations due to corona – you have to expect that these days. We can’t go back to 2019, where there were no restrictions and the venues were jammed with people having discussions and enjoying themselves. But that’s the current situation, and we’ll deal with it so that we can present the work.
Will the festival include everything it normally does?
Yes. There will be the 10 chosen productions. And we’ll be presenting the regular Stückemarkt (play market) for emerging global authors with six new works. The theatre artists who weren’t able to get here in 2020 for the International Forum will be arriving this year. There will also be public discussions and an ancillary programme covering various themes and topics. The difference this year will be the absence of a relaxed and informal gathering to hang out – which will be sadly missed, but we can’t allow it in the current situation, since having big parties without wearing masks isn’t defensible.
The festival’s aim has always been to present productions that are bemerkenswert (noteworthy). Not the best, but the most striking or remarkable
What do you think is the importance of the Theatertreffen for German theatre?
It’s a festival that focuses on the art of theatre and celebrates it as a medium. It attracts many ambitious and critical audience members, who, in a way, breathe life into the festival. And of course there’s always the debate over which productions got invited and which didn’t – but the discussions, the disputes, all that belongs to the festival. I see the Theatertreffen basically as a huge celebration of theatre.
What does the festival mean to Berlin?
Most of the audience are in fact Berliners. And they’re theatre connoisseurs. They don’t just end up at the festival by accident because they thought they might have a night at the theatre. Some of them have been coming every year for decades, even since 1964. And we also try to make it a festival for the public. There are elements in the ancillary programme that are free, and we try to make the festival a place of welcome.
The Theatertreffen chooses its 10 invited productions for having been the most “noteworthy” of the preceding year. What does that mean?
The festival’s aim has always been to present productions that are bemerkenswert (noteworthy). Not the best, but the most striking or remarkable. The jury discusses each work. Bemerkenswert is a wonderfully woolly word that you can interpret individually and that leaves itself open to debate. To me, for example, a production is bemerkenswert if I leave a different person to when I entered.
This is your last year with the festival. You’ve been its director since 2012. What has it been like for you?
I’ve always seen the Theatertreffen as an institution that learns and develops. There have been many topics that were circulating within the theatre world and that then erupted into open debate during the course of a festival – I always found that very challenging, but also very exciting. In 2015, we focused on the refugee crisis. We’ve also turned our attention to disabled theatre. And I took the big step of introducing a quota for women represented in the 10 invited productions. Obviously doing so doesn’t change the whole theatre sector in itself, but it automatically started a discussion in almost all theatres. It turned a spotlight on the topic. And for the last two years, we’ve had a strong focus on sustainability. We’ve started a forum for sustainability and have begun to make the festival climate-friendly.
What about scandals?
There have always been bigger or smaller scandals with some of the shows. Blackface, the N-word, plagiarism accusations. Looking back, though, we’ve learned from all these crises. I believe there are a lot of possibilities for Theatertreffen to inspire the wider sector. I’ve always seen the festival as something that accelerates debate, something that deepens and expands existing discourse.
Have you noticed any other trends during your time as festival director?
For one, there’s a strong aesthetic development away from classical play-acting towards thematic, documentary work. You can see it in this year’s selection, too – it’s very much about making a statement. Another major trend is the digitalisation that took place during the last two years. At the moment, everybody’s tired of streaming, and there’s a great longing for physical presence at theatre events. But I still think that, because of the pandemic, digitalisation has come to the forefront of attention for theatre artists.
What are you particularly looking forward to in this year’s festival?
I’m happy that we’ll once again be doing “Burning Issues Meets Theatertreffen”, a conference about the performing arts and gender equality. I’m also looking forward to our focus on sustainability: I’ve learned for myself what the areas are where things can be changed. It’s really a huge process of transformation that has to be initiated now, and that should have begun a long time ago.
Any tips for interested theatre-goers?
The Stückemarkt is always my insider’s tip because it presents artists who aren’t yet established. And our bloggers are also great.
Will they be in English, too?
Some of them. And all of the 10 chosen productions will feature English surtitles. The public discussions will be translated into English. We’ve been increasing English components in the festival.
What will you miss when you leave at the end of this Theatertreffen?
I’ll miss my great team, and the artists that have left their mark on the festival. I’ll certainly miss how fulfilling the festival is, when all the year’s work reaches that important point where everything just bursts into blossom.
- Berliner Theatertreffen Berliner Festspiele and other venues May 6-22
Yvonne Büdenhölzer was born in 1977 near Cologne. She studied German philology and educational sciences and went on to work as a dramaturg for municipal theatres and independent com- panies. From 2005 to 2011, Büdenhölzer was artistic director of the Theatertreffen’s Stückemarkt before becoming the director of Theatertreffen in 2012.
In 2020, she was awarded the Berlin Women’s Prize for her commitment to equal opportunities in the- atre. Büdenhölzer has been president of the International Theatre Institute (ITI-Germany) since 2021.