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Mutual respect in theaters doesn't lead to 'Puritania'

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June 14, 2018

The German Theater and Orchestra Association has released a code of conduct that aims to prevent sexual harassment and abuses of power. DW got in touch with the association's president, Ulrich Khuonm, to discuss it.

Ulrich Khuon Intendant
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

DW: Mr. Khuon, you are the president of the German Theater and Orchestra Association that has produced a code of conduct on how to deal with the issue of sexual harassment and the abuse of power in theater productions. Was it a necessary document due to the current context?

Ulrich Khuon: It was necessary for two reasons. For the past five or six years, we have been debating in various panels on how we view leadership. Following these panels, some theaters have developed their own guiding principles; they have organized professional training, particularly targeting the managerial levels. Leadership is something that needs to be learned — it's not something that you can do automatically.

Read more: How Germany's film age-rating system works

And that's when the #MeToo debate started?

Yes. With the exception of a few selected people, the debate takes place on invisible ground. That's why it's important to formulate behavioral standards very clearly. Even things that are possibly seen as a given — respect, discussing conflicts and acting in a transparent way — need to be publicly formulated. When it comes to sexist jokes, certain gestures or phrases, you can't simply say: "Well, that's how it is in the art world; you just have to live with it."

More than 100 actresses in Sweden signed a text in November that describes their experiences with sexual harassment in Swedish theaters and in film companies. How many cases in German theaters have you heard of?

The numbers have not been passed on to our association. For my own theater, I can say that I had to deal with three or four cases over the last nine years. We need to address these problems, and that doesn't mean automatically terminating a contract.

When someone runs around in a sexist T-shirt, it's a good idea to say: "I don't find that funny," but it wouldn't be a good idea to immediately send that person a written warning. It's a permanent process because the way we deal with sexuality is a social question that undergoes permanent change.

The code of conduct is intended as a means to help prevent "assaults in the form of gestures and language, as well as physical assaults."  Does it offer suggestions, or compulsory measures?

If you take it literally, it establishes an obligation to act. It's important that the code is not too general. The association is not a control panel. We have passed on a concrete catalog to all theaters of association, but they must put it into practice in their own ways. They are to discuss about how they want to put the code into practice.

#metoo banner
A reaction to #MeToo: With its code of ethics, the association wants to raise its own standards Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Fludra

Theater is all about testing and overcoming limits. It's physical work, challenging, and at times, the language is vulgar. Where should the line between theater and assault be drawn?

Through voluntariness. If Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski go into a jungle together, they do that on a voluntary basis, even if the trip turns out to be hell. I remember only historical examples like Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

In general, art is about crossing borders. If we remove the abyss from the pieces, they lose a dimension. For example Othello is about jealousy, murder and manslaughter meaning that the actors need to intensively touch each other — things that wouldn't be permissible outside of auditions.

Are auditions a space without taboos?

No, these rules are also relevant for auditions. When someone says: "No, I don't want that," no damage may result from that for him or her, not even if they leave the production. But there are also artists who seek such special experiences. After all, it's no secret that (German theater director) Frank Castorf says of himself that he's anti-social. Obviously, there is a high degree of voluntariness there.

Read more: Curtain comes down on Frank Castorf's era at the Volksbühne

Even those who seek artistic challenges and see provocations as a part of the process may hit their limits. Isn't there individual and collective pressure in an ensemble to endure all that? Whoever drops out of a Castorf piece ends up stigmatized...

In general, people know about the theaters they opt for, and they have to decide for themselves if that's something they want. What makes our society both strenuous and exciting is the fact that we are permanently dealing with contradictions. We need to make greater attempts to see differences not as a problem, but as an enrichment. We don't want to create a homogeneous cultural sphere in which everybody thinks in the same way.

Frank Castorf
Frank Castorf, the former director of Berlin's Volksbühne, describes himself "anti-social" Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

Matthias Brenner, director of the Neues Theater in Halle, has welcomed the discussion while warning of restrictions. He said he didn't want to sign an official declaration every time a woman wearing a mini skirt would enter the stage. Are you concerned about how the code could be perceived as obstructing freedom of art?

We have decided on the code with a large majority. The meeting was attended by more than 300 members of the association, and only few abstained from the vote. In my view, fears like "I may no longer say anything" are exaggerated. In our theater, people love to hug each other when they meet. In general, we all know what the others want, and that's what it's all about. We basically need to become more sensitive. When somebody claims that now, we may no longer do anything, it's an exaggeration. Improving mutual respect will not lead us to Puritania or a censored environment.

Ulrich Khuon, 67, is the president of the German Theater and Orchestra Association, as well as director of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.