Believing in the purpose of theater - and how it could reach way more | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 06.03.2017
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Believing in the purpose of theater - and how it could reach way more

After the US presidential elections, before German national polls: Analyzing the development of theater in Germany, director Roberto Ciulli explains why it will regain influence as a key venue for debate.

Italian-born director Roberto Ciulli is a co-founder of the Theater an der Ruhr in the German city of Mühheim. Over the years, the theater staged a Roma play, and enabled artistic cooperation with Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, South Africa and Afghanistan. Ciulli, who had studied philosophy in Italy and has in the meantime won many awards, founded the "Il Globo" theater in Milan in 1962 before heading to Germany three years later. After stints in theaters in Göttingen, Cologne, Berlin and Düsseldorf, he founded the Mülheim theater in 1980.

DW: You have lived in Germany for more than 50 years, and worked at theaters here for more than 35. How has theater changed over the years in Germany?

Roberto Ciulli: Today, it often seems as if theater is getting high on constantly trying to renew itself through dazzling idleness, trying to hide its helplessness amidst complicated world. But the assumption that theater has lost its importance is not new. In 1924, Robert Musil wrote that the momentum generated by the theater every evening "misses its mark because there is a lack of cultural categories to take it in."

Today, too, theater no longer appears to be at the center of society. And how could it? "The" society no longer exists, it is fractured.

Still I'm confident because I believe in the purpose of theater. In times of political insecurity, theater will regain influence. In the years after World War II, people were extremely hungry for culture, for sophisticated theater. From 1939 to 1945, the people responsible for culture emphasized the propaganda aspect of theater entertainment.

In the 60s and 70s, a young audience stormed the stage, demanding that their parents' generation come up with answers to inconvenient questions. Coming to terms with the past - that happened on German stages, too.

If theater makers were to pause for a moment and distance themselves from the commodification of culture, which emerged with the creation of private TV broadcasters - then theater as such could hold on to its important position. The culture industry that gives so much power to superficial media also enabled Trump.

His election as US President is a negative political signal. There will be an opposition movement, just like there was in the case of the Vietnam war. And theater will be an important venue for this dispute.

The Theater and der Ruhr has toured more than 30 countries, and theater groups from just as many countries performed in Germany. Travel and getting to know different cultures are important to you. Over the past year and a half, Germany has taken in many refugees, and the mood has meanwhile soured somewhat. Is that noticeable in your work, too?

We haven't noticed that at all because people who are anti-foreigner simply are not our audience. Our audiences are curious about everything that's different. What is significant is how foreigners see us - that's the only chance we have to see ourselves from a distance, and a bit more critically. That can help us be better people. We should be thankful that foreigners are enabling this process of self-recognition. If foreigners didn't exist, we'd have to invent them in order to be able to take criticism.

When you and the ensemble are on tour, do you - more or less intentionally - bring along German cultural values?

What I take along is the German language. For a long time, people would think of Kant, Hegel, Rilke and Büchner. Then the German language became synonymous with military drill, obedience and orders. The Nazis spoke harsh, cruel German. Liberating the German language from that association took a long time.

Germany, German culture - what would you say it stands for today?

In this time and age, your question implies values like solidarity, human rights and tolerance. Of course, these values are universal and not linked to an individual nation. They exist in Saudi Arabia and Iran, too - it's just more dangerous to advocate them there. But they are so essential that people are willing to risk their lives for them.

Germans go to the polls in national elections in September, and it's likely that right-wing, nationalist parties might do well. Can theaters influence the mood in a country, or are they limited to being a mirror reflecting what's happening in society?

Only a mirror? It's a prop that allows self-reflection. Glancing into a mirror is an important condition for our train of thought, for our actions. Theater doesn't influence political action like other media that reach the masses. But when it does influence someone it is not superficial, it is much more fundamental. Theater goes deeper.


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