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Director Explains Allure of America-Focused Theater Festival

DW-WORLD talked to Frank Hoffmann, the artistic director of the Ruhrfestspiele theater festival, about his decision to make America, land of cinema, the focus of his 2008 season.

US actors Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum in David Mamet's Speed the Plow, at the Ruhrfestspiele

Putting known film actors on stage is one of Hoffmann's successful moves

The Ruhrfestspiele, or Ruhr Theater Festival, one of Europe's most important and oldest theater festivals, opened this year on May 1, 2008, and runs through June 15, 2008. Ever since it was born of a unique deal between miners and actors who traded coal for performances during the hard winter of 1946/47, the festival has kept up the tradition of putting on top-quality international productions in Germany's working-class Ruhr Valley.

Luxembourg director Frank Hoffmann took the artistic helm of the festival in 2004 at a precarious time in its history, pulling it back from the brink of bankruptcy and boosting visitor numbers from year to year. In a conversation with DW-WORLD.DE, he discussed his fascination with modern American theater, and divulged his recipe for success.

In the past you have focused on different authors at the Ruhr Festival. This year you took on a country, America. Why?

Originally we wanted to stay with my concept of focusing on a playwright, and I thought it might be Arthur Miller. But then it became clear to me that we had to take a broad look at American theater of the 20th century. That era -- from Eugene O’Neill, whom you can count as the father of American theater, to today’s authors -- underwent a singular development. I thought it was worth focusing the festival on it.

Portrait Dr. Frank Hoffmann, artistic director of the Ruhrfestspiele

Hoffmann's approach has had popular appeal

Weren’t you concerned that featuring the US could stigmatize the festival? After all, many Europeans these days are fed up with American politics. And the US is much better known for its pop culture than for its high art.

It's true that the image of America is not necessarily very positive, especially among artists, and especially when it comes to foreign policy. I’m critical too -- whether about the Iraq war or other things that have happened during the Bush presidency. Still, America is a very great nation and a great culture, and you have to be able to separate those things. I think US theater rises above pop culture.

European authors early in the last century -- Strindberg, Ibsen, Kafka -- they all influenced American theater incredibly. The American authors have absorbed it and are giving it back to us, with a focus of their own.

What sets American theater apart?

American theater has a strong tie to cinema, much more than in any other country. Playwrights like David Mamet and Sam Shepard are also Hollywood scriptwriters. This tie between cinema and theater is present even when it comes to actors, who play both on the stage and screen. And there were many plays that have been turned into films. There are enough interesting ties to support a festival.

Your predecessor at the festival, Frank Castorf, lasted less than a year. His avant garde approach turned off the public, and the festival almost went bankrupt. You have been lauded for rescuing the festival by putting on plays people wanted to see, and pulling in big-name actors. What message does that send about pushing artistic boundaries?

We sold more than 75,000 tickets this year, more than ever in the history of the festival. Which means we have to suit many peoples’ tastes. But I want to be clear that we do not just put on popular plays. We have a lot of world premieres and Germany premieres. We do modern theater, unconventional theater. Our public is ready to take in the new; they demand it. But they also want to see popular things.

scene from The Crucible (Hexenjagd) by Arthur Miller, as performed by the Thalia Theater Hamburg

Austere aesthetics are frequent in in festival productions

I can’t say exactly what explains our success but I think it has to do with how we present theater to people. There isn’t just one aesthetic or style at the festival, there are many different aesthetics. And the interesting thing is they are all found side by side. They all bump up against each other. It is exciting.

So what is your recipe for a good theater festival?

First, there is the idea of it being strongly focused on a given concept or topic. In the past it was an author, like Shakespeare, Beckett or Goethe. It allowed the viewer to compare a variety of different productions of one author's work, and compare them.

Second, I created the idea of having festivals within a festival. We have a festival of world premieres -- every year there are three. We have a series called Young Theater, with plays by young actors and directors. We have a cabaret festival, and a children’s festival. We try to make clear divisions.

Do you, personally, advocate a certain type of theater?

I think one thing is important -- it has to be a sensual experience. On the other hand, it has to be an adventure for the mind. I think it needs to have both of those sides.

In the past you have directed plays by a lot of Europeans and South Americans. This year you are directing "A Moon for the Misbegotten," by Eugene O’Neill. Was it a different experience for you?

No matter what I am directing, my method is the same. I explore the play to its depths, and try to find out what holds it together. In the context of this festival, of course, the subject of America had to be dealt with.

Best of Kataklo combines theater and athletic performances

The troupe Kataklo combine sport and theater

I found it fascinating to work on this play because I have never been closer to using language of film -- and not because I used any media in the production. I’m talking in terms of the spirit of the play. It was important for me to tie together the emotionality of cinema with the directness of theater.

You said Arthur Miller was the starting point for this festival, and you are showcasing two of his plays: "The Crucible" and "Resurrection Blues." Both are on very political topics. Were you trying to make a point?

There are so many plays that I think are very current, beyond their time. They have everything to do with our daily reality. As a director, I cannot avoid dealing with political issues. And you can’t take on the topic of America without asking political questions. This year I am also directing "True West," by Sam Shepard. It is a piece from 1980, but while I directed it I was very conscious of 9/11. You read this play differently knowing that 9/11 happened, and the audience sees it differently. It is very enriching.

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