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"German theater has become very versatile"

Interview: Sabine Peschel / dbMay 6, 2016

Every year in May, the Berlin Theater Festival brings together theatre-makers, journalists and international guests. DW spoke to a juror about the selection of plays, and new approaches to staging and production.

Scene from "Schiff der Träume" Copyright:PR/Matthias Horn
Image: PR/Matthias Horn

DW: The Berlin Theater Festival begins on Friday (06.05.2016) - the start of two and a half weeks of discussions, exhibitions and of course the performance of ten plays carefully selected by the jury. How did the jury make its choices?

Barbara Burckhardt: It's always the same procedure: we are seven jurors, and each is assigned a specific region where German is spoken, that is, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We can go where we please, see whatever plays we want. Once a juror has voted in favor of a particular play, the others have to go see it, too. So we travel a lot. As far as I know, we saw 394 plays in 59 cities this year. That's a lot, and many plays were actually seen by all seven jurors. In the end, the group has to agree on ten plays.

How many plays did you see?

I saw 107 plays; the juror who saw the most plays chalked up 131. You have to make sure you stay alert, and don't fall into a rut. Seeing too many is actually a risk.

The stage seems to be a perfect place to react to crucial issues of our times. Was the jury influenced by whether the plays revolved around, for instance, the refugee situation, the changing social situation in Germany?

This year was really extreme. The public debate about the political situation and how theaters have reacted - that's taken on a meaning of its own like I've never seen before. After Chancellor Angela Merkel decided last year September to open the borders to refugees, the jury started to wonder whether it could still choose plays based on aesthetic principles. We asked ourselves whether we shouldn't mirror what the theater scene has been up to, which was quite a lot: theaters opened their doors to refugees, including overnight stays, German language classes and free tickets. These past months, we focused on finding productions that give room to refugee issues.

The jury Copyright: PR/Iko Freese/drama-berlin.
The 2016 juryImage: PR/Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de

Which of the ten plays are about refugees and migration?

There's "Das Schiff der Träume" (The Ship of Dreams) staged by the Hamburger Schauspielhaus and directed by Karin Beier, loosely based on a film by Federico Fellini. The three and a half hour production about the sea burial of a contemporary composer by his orchestra addresses the entire range of irritation, helplessness and introspection currently ongoing in theaters as well as society. It was very important to me that this play was on our list.

Yael Ronen and the Berlin Maxim Gorki Theater stage "The Situation", a play that toys with the actors' and actresses' identities: a Syrian, an Israeli, a Palestinian with an Israeli passport, a black Palestinian and a German with Russian roots. They get involved in disputes in their German language class.

It's a great honor for theaters to be invited to the Berlin festival. The Kassel State Theater, for instance, will be showing Ersan Mondtag's "Tyrannis". What persuaded the jury to choose that play?

It's very distinctive. "Tyrannis" is a play that makes do without words, vacillating between installation and theater. It's incredibly precise in its use of video - aesthetically, it knocked us off our feet.

Scene from The Situation Copyright: PR/Ute Langkafel/MAIFOTO
A scene from "The Situation"Image: PR/Ute Langkafel/MAIFOTO

The selection is incredibly versatile. Is there any one element that all the plays have in common this year?

There are no trends in Germany theatres anymore. Our selection includes three adaptations of novels, and a musical play, the wordless installation, and a play that uses documentary material. The theater has become diverse and multifaceted. The only trend is perhaps an absence: our selection contains practically none of the classic playwrights, no Schiller, no Goethe, no Kleist. Of course, that can change next year.

What's so special about this festival?

The festival asserts the relevancy of live performances, which some people continue to question. It also brings together theaters in Berlin, the German capital. When the festival was launched, the Berlin Wall still stood, and the festival lured plays to West Berlin that the city normally couldn't experience. Back then, it was an act of solidarity.

Today, it's more of a get-together for people in the theater business. That's why, apart from the ten plays chosen by the jury, the debates, discussions and exhibitions that are part and parcel of the festival are so important.

Interview: Sabine Peschel / db

Barbara Burckhardt studied theater, German language and literature and political science in Munich. She later spent many years working for the Bavarian radio and the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. Burckhardt was a juror for both the Impulse and the Mülheim Theater Festivals, and has worked as an editor for the magazine "Theater heute" since 1997. This is her second three-year sting as juror for the Berlin Theater Festival.