Notes From Berlin (Part I)

TheaterTreffen 50

Theater in Germany is serious business. From the ideas and work of the iconic Bertolt Brecht to the more recent innovations of Frank Castorf at the Volksbuhne and the pioneering theoretical and applied work of Hans-Thies Lehmann at the University of Giessenthe scope, reach and global influence of German theater is undeniable. While one may agree or disagree with the particular merits of the Stadttheater acting style (lots of shouting) and the pronounced (if complex and conflicted) chauvinism of German theatre culture, one must certainly admire the ambition, artistic excellence and rigor of the work, the system of support, the commitment to the form and Germany’s underlying belief in theater as a space for lofty civic discourse.

Over the course of seven days at Theatertreffen in Berlin I saw as many productions, met directors, dramaturges, critics and curators and began to get a sense of how this system works, how it operates in the culture at large and what it might mean.

Every performance I attended, each in a massive theater, was full. Partially this is due to the role of theater in German public life – more on this in a moment – but I would venture to guess that this is also due in some part to the intentional development of what I have been told is called Bildungsburgertum – basically an educated upper middle class. From what I’ve gathered in my cursory research, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian philosopher and founder of the University of Berlin, developed a set of educational ideals in the late 18th century based on Classicism and the notion of human perfectibility through education. These ideas influenced the cultural discourse on the relationship of the individual to the State and form the underpinning for an ongoing commitment to educational access for the citizens of Germany. [NB: this is anecdotal inference on my part and subject to verification/revision]. So not only does Germany have a commitment to theater as a form, they have invested in building audiences through education.

The centrality of theater to civic life in Germany is supported by a Stadttheater (State Theater) system that nearly defies the comprehension of most non-Germans. The Federal Republic of Germany consists of sixteen partly sovereign constituent states each of which has at least one State Theater, often more. (Once again, this is based on sketchy notes written under the influence of jet lag, so this may require fact checking). The theaters are amply supported through both state and federal funding and citizens are as invested in the success and reputation of their hometown State Theater as they are in a soccer team, in part because every year they are competing to make it to Theatertreffen in Berlin.

Now fifty years old, Theatertreffen is like the Super Bowl or Final Four of German Language Theater. For the 2013 festival the jury of critics saw and considered more than 420 productions from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. At their final meeting, the seven jurors chose the ten “most remarkable” productions of the last season to be presented during the festival in Berlin. The festival attracts people from all over the country and the world to see the state of Germany’s State Theater – who is up, who is down, who is the new talent and what is the condition of the old masters, who are the new actors to watch, who are the new playwrights and what are the new ideas.

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