Germany-USA Theater Initiative

Germany-USA Theater Initiative

Amy Stebbins

This blog is a platform for critical reflection on issues pertinent to German-language and US-American Theater.

The Culture Industry 2.0: Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced" as the Identitarian Residual of Neoliberal Artistic Production

ArticlesPosted by Amy Sat, December 02, 2017 20:55:13
On November 12th, my article "The Hour of the Whopper" was published by Zeit-Online. In this text, I express my concerns about how German-language theater critics and dramaturgs have blindly celebrated Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play "Disgraced" without properly informing themselves about the neoliberal production models (and corporate interests) behind it (and, I should add, behind many of the most successful US-American well-made plays). I extend this economic critique into a political one, insofar as Akhtar's play substitutes class critique with an essentializing presentation of race that relies on the common ideology of ("Left-wing") identity politics and the ("Right-wing") Identitarian movement.

The debate was taken up by, which summarized my arguments and published a response by Chief Dramaturg of the Residenztheater Sebastian Huber.

English translations of both my article and Huber's response can be distributed upon request. Please contact

"Voices from Germany" Robert Falls and Sebastian Huber on contemporary theater (Goethe-Institut Chicago)

US-German Theater TopicsPosted by Amy Sun, March 26, 2017 23:03:51
This past week, I had the pleasure of hosting Chief Dramaturg of the Bavarian State Theater Sebastian Huber for a series of conversations about new play development in Chicago. From March 18-22, Huber had little time for the normal Windy City sites. On his first day alone, he caught a matinee of Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men (Steppenwolf) followed by the closing performance of Robert Fall's Uncle Vanya (The Goodman Theater)--some of you may remember that Falls came out to Munich for a similar trip this time last year.

Huber's visit also include more formal discussions. In addition to a private roundtable on questions of dramaturgy hosted at the Goodman Theatre, he met one-on-one with several members of the Chicago theater community. I also had the pleasure of moderating a conversation between Huber and Robert Falls at the Goethe-Institut for a public discussion on the state of the art in German and US-American theater. That conversation can be viewed here. Unfortunately, the readings of "Wut" (Elfriede Jelinek, 2016) and "The Civil Wars" (Milo Rau, 2014) cannot be included for reasons of copyright. (Also: my apologies about the beginning of the first video, which is sideways for about four minutes!)

Part 1:
Part 2:
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Part 4:

"The Theater Event of the Year" -- Ferdinand von Schirach's "Terror-Your Verdict"

US-German Theater TopicsPosted by Amy Tue, October 18, 2016 17:05:06
Monday night on German television, "the theater event of the year" took place. No, it wasn't written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, and no, it didn't involve a group of pasty white men screaming into their underpants. What was it then? A three-part TV extravaganza organized around Germany's newest hit play, "Terror--Your Verdict".

In 2015, "Terror" exploded (figuratively) onto the German theater scene. A straightforward courtroom drama, "Terror" takes up a contentious topic in German legal debates: the question of legal exceptionalism in the face of terrorism or, to put it otherwise, when should it be permissible to break the law?

The plot of "Terror" goes something like this: German military pilot Lars Koch is 32, a husband, and a father. He is also accused of murdering 164 German civilians. When a Lufthansa plane high-jacked by terrorists began to descend into a rock concert at the Berlin Allianz Arena, Koch decided--against his superior's orders--to shoot the plane down. His defense? Koch killed 164 to save 70,000.

The set-up sounds oddly like the opening case study in Professor Michael Sandel's internationally renowned lecture series on "Justice." Last night, however, the text was accredited to the play's author, Ferdinand von Schirach. Until recently von Schirach was best known from his crime thrillers (as well as for his relation to grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Hitler Youth who was prosecuted and convicted during the Nuremberg Trials).

Yet this topical question is not all that von Schirach's 90-minute play offers. In a dramaturgical twist worthy of Rupert Holmes, following the closing arguments the audience is invited to play the part of the jury and to decide whether Koch is guilty or not. After the audience's verdict has been calculated and announced, the actors perform one of two endings, either convicting Koch to a life-sentence (which in Germany, by the way, is a maximum of 25 years) or setting him free.

Live Television
Last night's television event began with the 90-minute, commercial-free, made-for-TV adaptation of the play (starring Lars Eidiger for you Ostermeier fans out there). After the closing arguments, the station cut to a guest panel made up of four experts: a former Minister of Defense, the current President of the Federation of Air Force Pilots, a (female!) Protestant theologian, and the former Federal Secretary of the Interior. Moderating the panel was the TV journalist Frank Plasberg. The panel began to discuss the ethical questions posed by the play until the results came in. The audience opinion showed a clear consensus:

13% guilty - 86% not guilty

Simultaneously, similar television broadcasts were being hosted in neighboring German-speaking countries. At this point, Plasberg contacted his colleagues at TV stations in Switzerland and Austria to find out the results of their poll. The results were uncanny.

Austria: 13% guilty - 86% not guilty

Switzerland: 16% guilty - 84% not guilty

Following the announcement of the multinational audience polls, the expert panel carried on their discussion of the audience's verdict (and the play) for roughly an hour. Unfortunately Plasberg's moderation failed to guide the conversation with any kind of neutrality, and the conversation ended up tilting unanimously toward "not guilty" with the exception of former Minister of the Interior, Gerhart Baum. A member of the liberal-economic party (FDP), Baum argued that to tolerate legal exceptions in the case of battling terrorism threatens to undermine precisely those political values which separate a constitutional democracy from its less appetizing political alternatives.

Yet the rest of the panel members, Plasberg, and even members of the audience found strength in numbers, ultimately silencing the 83 year-old Baum. It was an unsettling reminder of how strength in numbers can make even the most unglossed of opinions sound like convincing argumentation, especially when those opinions are based on something as slippy as empathy--a key mechanism of moralistic plays like "Terror".

The Day After
On Tuesday, the newspapers were full once more. Yet this time, the stories were not printed in the "culture" section, but in the editorials, and frequently by the papers' leading contributors. Generally, these responses could be characterized as outraged, livid, and horrified. In the newspapers, Germany's reigning public intellectuals came to Baum's defense, not pleading so much against Koch's innocence, but against confusing entertainment and the law through populist practices like a televised referendum on the legitimacy of the German constitution.

For example, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (roughly the equivalent of the New York Times in national reputation and political tendency) the headline reads, "Populist Porno." The author accuses von Schirach and ARD (the TV channel that hosted the event) of confusing legal procedures with entertainment at the risk of misrepresenting not only the law, but of undermining the law as a nuanced and complex force. The idea of conducting a televised referendum on the basis of public emotional response to a film (an unabashedly biased medium) is denounced as both irresponsible and reactionary:

"By simultaneously polling of spectators in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, a real referendum was made out of a fiction. This confusion was encouraged by moderator Frank Plasberg as he posed the critical question to his Swiss colleague: Is it permissible to allow television audiences to vote? And then he added: Switzerland holds such referendums often."

["Durch die simultane Befragung der Zuschauer in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz wurde aus der Fiktion eine Art reale Volksbefragung. Diese Konfusion wurde vom Moderator Frank Plasberg bedient, als er die Kernfrage an den Schweizer Kollegen stellte: Darf man das Fernsehpublikum abstimmen lassen? Und dann ergänzte er: Die Schweiz mache solche Volksabstimmungen ja oft."]

The article also points to ways in which the logic behind the defense's winning argument could lead to less savory infringements on human rights:

"This isn't teaching the law; it's teaching the abuse of law. It is a guide to a way of thinking according to which the right against terror can only be upheld by betraying those very rights. With Schirach and ARD's methods, waterboarding too can be turned into a necessary means of fighting terrorism with free of either guilt or punishment."

["Das ist nicht Rechtserziehung, das ist Erziehung zum Rechtsmissbrauch. Das ist Anleitung zu einem Denken, wonach man das Recht gegen den Terror nur mit Unrecht bekämpfen könne. Mit der Methode Schirach & ARD kann man auch Waterboarding zu einer notwendigen, schuld- und straflosen Terrorbekämpfungs-Handlung machen."]

At the heart of this critique is a rejection of "States of Exception", a hot topic in Germany both for historical reasons (remember the so-called "Nazi Seizure of Power" following the burning of the Reichstag in 1933) as well as more recent cases such as in France where martial law continues following a handful of terrorist attacks over the summer.

Art and Politics in the Public Sphere

For all its problems, however, the ARD event far exceeded anything we've seen for years on American television. What many of us wouldn't give for a national broadcast of any new theater production followed by rational discussion! What we wouldn't give for rational discussion! In these times of plummeting civil discourse, "Terror" demonstrates, if nothing else, the health of the German public sphere, even if it also reveals a disconcerting shift in the population's position on human rights and legal exceptionalism.

What's more, in a time where right-wing ideology is on the rise around the globe, the ARD broadcast of "Terror" warns not only of changes in public opinion, but also of the importance of aesthetic critique in public discourse. From our smartphones, to our computers, to our touchpads, we live a life immersed in constructed images. For this reason, the lack of a film or media scholar on ARD's expert panel made it possible for the panelists to speak for over an hour about a film without once mentioning that film's own complicity in the audience's decision. As Godard famously said, "Every cut is a lie."

Lastly, this television event asks us to reflect on how theater today can participate in such a public sphere riddled with so much information, so many images. First, it seems crucial that theater not try to disguise itself as television. It's always embarrassing when it tries, and, frankly, von Schirach's play never comes close to reaching the ethical or dramaturgical complexity of a standard American television show like "Law & Order", let alone something on the level of "The West Wing" or "The Wire". Yet by doing precisely what "Terror" does not -- that is, by unsettling our view of the world we inhabit and the societal norms we perform so as to confront us with their absurdity -- theater can provide us with new, alternative (albeit perhaps utopian) visions of how we might live together.

Not much unlike a third party platform.

You can watch the full TV version of "Terror - Your Verdict" here until October 24.

Stormy Interlude - Premiere of a Forgotten American Opera

US-German Theater TopicsPosted by Amy Sun, May 22, 2016 22:45:05
c. Anna Maria-Löffelberger

Friday morning, I had the opportunity to teach directing students at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (I will write about this shortly!). On Thursday night, however, I had the additional pleasure of seeing a dress rehearsal at the Salzburger Landestheater of a new production by the head of the Mozarteum's directing program, Amelie Niermeyer. Niermeyer has been a House Director at the Residenztheater since the early 1990s and is one of the leading RegisseurINNEN (ahem - women directors) in the German-speaking theater scene. She has also served twice as an artistic director, once in Freiburg and once in Düsseldorf.

Stormy Interlude is a one-hour-long American/Austrian opera, American in that it takes place in the US and is sung in American-English, Austrian in that it was written by the Austrian-Jewish emigré Max Brand. Brand fled Austria in 1938, and came to the US by way of Brazil in 1940. (FYI: In spite of Brand's significant contributions to the field of classical music and the development of the synthesizer and electronic music, he appears to have no English-language Wikipedia page!) In 1975, he returned to Vienna where he died in 1980.

Stormy Interlude (premiere in 1955) is unlikely the greatest of Brand's contributions to music (readers might be more familiar with his 1929 opera The Machinist Hopkins). The libretto sets up a kind of noir scenario. The young MONA is bored with her life. Day after day she sees travelers come and go from the guest house she calls home. She yearns for an adventure. Then, one stormy November night, Mona gets her wish, when a stranger, WILLY THE CHARMER, breaks into her home. Caught unawares, the two fall in love before Willy is hauled off by the police.

Despite the fact that Niermeyer's staging has been publicized as the first ever scenic production, she made bold choices, taking the piece far away from its original setting, yet throwing into stark relief the psychoanalytic mechanisms at the core of Brand's opera in a way that would surely be impossible had she stuck to the rather banal scenario of the original. As Niermeyer stated in an interview with BR-Klassik:

"The piece is actually a rather banal story. Max Brand says in his preface that he wanted to tell a story that pubescent girls should be careful about whom they fall for. And this moral pointer finger, which he plopped onto the piece didn't actually interest us. We wanted to show that this girl, for whatever reason, perhaps because she has already experienced abuse, experiences such nightmares at night in the hope that she can escape from this desolation and this disparate situation in which it is. We wanted to increase this nightmarish aspect and therefore also played the piece multiple times. "

["Das Stück ist eigentlich eine ziemlich banale Geschichte. Max Brand sagt in seinem Vorwort, dass er eigentlich eine Geschichte erzählen wollte, dass pubertäre Mädchen ein bisschen aufpassen sollten, an wen sie geraten. Und dieser moralische Zeigefinger, den er so draufgesetzt hat, der hat uns eigentlich gar nicht interessiert. Wir wollten zeigen, dass dieses Mädchen, aus welchen Gründen auch immer, vielleicht, weil sie schon Missbrauch erfahren hat, solche Alpträume nachts erlebt, in der Hoffnung, dass sie flüchten kann aus dieser Öde und dieser disparaten Situation, in der sie ist. Wir wollten diesen alptraumhaften Aspekt vergrößern und haben deshalb das Stück auch mehrmals spielen lassen."]

Indeed, Niermeyer (and musical director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla) staged the opera twice in one evening. In the first iteration, Willy the Criminal was played by a single singer, Jason Cox. In the second version, he was substituted by a full male chorus. The Freudian line from pubescent girl to abusive parents (N.B. Without changing a word of the text, Niermeyer's staging subtly changed the insinuation from a father out for a stroll to an absent father) to an ambivalent rape fantasy transformed Brand's didactic original into a deeply troubling work about adolescent sexuality.

My sense is, however, that in the US, such a strong interpretive approach would prove deeply controversial, and be rejected insofar as this particular performance was a first-time performance of the work. Yet, as was my sense at the Lyric Opera's production of The Passenger, if an opera house decides to unearth a lost piece, it better have a good reason why. And Niermeyer's intelligent intervention did just that.

EuropeStay #1 Barcelona and Madrid

About my fellowshipPosted by Amy Thu, May 12, 2016 13:01:23
The German Chancellor Fellowship offers a number of opportunities for developing one's project. One of these is the "Europe Stay," a 3-5 week residency in another "European" country (broadly defined to include the likes of Turkey, Israel and Azerbajdzjan). For my Europe Stay, I am collaborating with the Catalan dramatist and director Marc Rosich.

I first met Marc in 2012 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where he was the guest dramaturg for Calixto Bieito's American debut, Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. During that production, I co-organized a trip to the play and a discussion with Marc through the Theater & Performance Studies Workshop at the University of Chicago. Now, for personal reasons, Marc is residing part-time in Chicago, and his presence in the city strikes me as a great opportunity for collaboration!

Marc is also the artistic director of Opera de Butxaca, a Catalan opera company that specializes in contemporary chamber opera. During my stay in Barcelona, Marc and I will focus our conversations on contemporary drama- and libretto-writing practices in Catalan, and brainstorm ideas for artistic collaborations and pedagogical workshops on the topic of new drama development.

Interview with Robert Falls

InterviewsPosted by Amy Thu, April 07, 2016 22:00:38

In the context of a weekend of American productions at the Bavarian State Theater in late February, the American theater director and artistic director Robert Falls was invited to Munich as our honored guest for a series of exchanges focused on new play development. Over the course of his visit, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre met with a selection of the city's leading dramaturgs, actors, and directors. After his return to Chicago, I had a chance to catch up with Falls and get his thoughts on his time here in Munich.

AS. You've been the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre for thirty years. That's a remarkably long tenure, for both German and American theater alike. What role does theater play in your city? Is theater in Chicago a place for entertainment? For public debate? Or for something else?

RF. The Goodman is generally regarded as Chicago’s “flagship” theatre; as such, it takes very seriously its responsibility as one of our city’s (and our nation’s) premier cultural institutions. Yes, we certainly strive to entertain our audiences, but our commitment to the larger community extends far beyond that through our education and engagement programs for Chicagoans of all ages and interests; through our ongoing partnerships with a number of the city’s smaller theatre companies, which includes serving in both a consulting and producing capacity; and through our institutional mission to foster artistic excellence, diversity and community.

AS. When we first met, you surprised me with your extensive knowledge of contemporary German theater. What has been your relationship to German theater throughout your career? Has it had any influence on your own work as a director? As an artistic director?

RF. I made my first trip to Germany in the mid-to-late 70s, around the same time that I also traveled to the Edinburgh Festival. I was fortunate to see productions of the classics (Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc.) staged by such important German directors as Peter Stein, Peter Zadek and Claus Peymann. I have subsequently made nearly annual trips to Berlin to see productions at the Volksbühne, Schaubühne, Deutches Theater and Berliner Ensemble. I also saw a number of productions while I was visiting rehearsals of AIDA in Essen, Germany, during its international tour. Since I don’t speak German, I tend to focus primarily on seeing productions of classic works that I’m already familiar with, and not as much on modern works. That said, photographic features and essays about modern productions in two magazines, Theater der Zeit and Theater Haute, allow me to stay abreast of new developments in Germany. I should say that not every production I’ve seen in Germany has been successful in my estimation; however, I am almost always inspired by the boldness and intellectual power of the work done at the directors’ theaters—especially the design concepts and the highly disciplined physical and vocal work of the actors.

AS. At least twice during your visit, you ran into actors who had either seen or even acted in your productions. What is your sense of the current relationship between German and American theater makers? Is it a strong relationship? Has it changed over the past years? Is it in need of change?

RF. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think there is a noticeable “relationship” between German and American theatre. There are, of course, individual artists, such as myself and Thomas Ostermeier, who have taken a serious interest in studying theatre in both countries. Otherwise, most American and German theatre-makers seem little influenced by what either is doing, and opportunities to dispel rather clichéd notions of what either is doing are still rare. Change that fosters a deeper exploration of differences and similarities between our respective theatrical traditions would benefit all of us.

AS. The focus of your visit was the topic of "new play development." What seems special to you about how Germans make their theater?

RF. German theatre is known primarily as a “director’s theatre.” It focuses primarily on the director’s relationship to a classic work, which often involves taking a radical approach to the text. The dramaturg plays a more central role in German theatre than he or she does in the American theatre, and the repertory system—supported as it is by state funding—ensures that the German repertoire will enjoy a long life. The American theatre does many more new plays. In fact, new play production is increasingly at the heart of our work, and the Goodman is at the forefront of this movement. On the other hand, American productions tend to have limited runs and rarely travel. On a personal note, I have to confess that I love how the canteen/bar/restaurant is integral to German theatre; this on-site gathering place for staff, artists and audience members really helps to cement the actor-audience relationship. I also love the 10-minute curtain calls—a German tradition that would embarrass most American actors.

AS. Unlike the Bavarian State Theater, the Goodman Theatre dedicates a significant portion of its activities and resources to new play development. Of course, there are many ways to support new theater work. You can support performance collectives, directors, actors, etc. Why playwrights? Why text?

RF. The American theatre has always been playwright-centered, starting in New York City, with actor-managed touring productions of popular Broadway shows. Especially in the period from 1920 to 1960, new plays were essential to this engine and fueled the emergence of regional “resident” theatre companies starting in the 60s. American playwrights enjoy legal control over the life of their work. And while the American theatre can (and does) support collectives, devised and performance-based work, as well as unconventional, non-text-based work, the playwright remains central. Since there is relatively little state or federal funding for the development of new work, most of the financing must come from other sources—i.e., foundations, corporations, individual donors.

AS. You arrived in Munich just a day after the premiere of your newest production, a five-and-a-half-hour stage adaptation of Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666. Literary adaptation is less common in US theater than it is in German-language theater. Some American critics even think that adaptations of novels don't belong on the stage! Yet in Germany, these adaptations are normally created by the director alone, that is, without any input by a dramatist. One could argue that a director ultimately has a better sense of what will work on stage. On the other hand, a dramatist might have a better sense of language and dramatic structure. For 2666, you took a completely different route. You joined forces with the playwright-director Seth Bockley, with whom you then co-wrote and co-directed the play. What led to this division of labor? Did you ever think to just hire a dramatist to write an adaptation, which you would then direct?

RF. Literary adaptation doesn’t occur all that often in the American theatre, and the literature on which adaptations are based are typically narrative and dialogue-heavy. Rather than springing from the aspirations of playwrights, adaptations are more often the result of commissions by theatres, and directors and producers have a more significant role in commission-generated adaptations. The American theatre does have a few “auteur” directors who produce new work in close collaboration with writers. 2666 was essentially driven by my vision as a director; Seth Bockley has more experience as a writer and adapter, and that was his principal role in the project.

AS. The Bavarian State Theater currently has five American plays in its repertoire, three of which are works from the past decade (The Nether, Disgraced, August: Osage County). Were you surprised when you heard which American plays the theater had selected? Do you think these works are representative of American theater today?

RF. I am not surprised to see American plays in the German repertoire. All the works you cite are what we call “well-made plays” that have a strong narrative and great roles for actors. At their core, they are naturalistic and psychologically realistic. They have been widely produced in the United States, and there seems to be an increasing desire in Germany as well to see this kind of work.

AS. You had a number of discussions with dramaturgs, directors, and actors here in Munich. After these discussions, what do you think public theaters like the Bavarian State Theater could do to strengthen the output of new dramatic texts?

RF. As you and I discussed, the American playwright system—especially the commissioning process—is very healthy. The development of new work through readings and workshops takes time. I believe the German theatre could learn from this process.

AS. Is there a new American play or playwright you would recommend for the Bavarian State Theater?

RF. Entre nous, the memo from Tanya Palmer, our director of new play development, contains a list of many of the most interesting writers in the American theatre today. But it’s important to note that the diversity of American culture means that most of these individuals are “writers of color”—African American, Asian, South Asian, Latino/Latina—and “queer writers” who are looking at race and gender in the American landscape. In this regard, the American theatre is in the midst of a new golden era. The socio-political currency of DISGRACED certainly speaks to a German audience, but I’m not sure that works by some of the other playwrights would, so I would hope that German directors and dramaturgs will become more familiar with their plays. In the meantime, Charles L. (“Chuck”) Mee is a very important American playwright who creates texts that may be “shaped” very easily by directors according to their particular vision. His plays—”collages” that mix classic and non-linear texts—are under-appreciated in this country.

Robert Falls has been the artistic director of Goodman Theatre since 1986. Most recently, Mr. Falls partnered with Goodman Playwright-in-Residence Seth Bockley to direct their world premiere adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Last season, he reprised his critically acclaimed production of The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, and directed a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Other recent productions include Measure for Measure and the world and off-Broadway premieres of Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian. This spring at the Goodman, Mr. Falls will direct the Chicago premiere of Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. Among his other credits are The Seagull, King Lear, Desire Under the Elms, John Logan’s Red, Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels, Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio and Conor McPherson’s Shining City; the world premieres of Richard Nelson’s Frank’s Home, Arthur Miller’s Finishing the Picture (his last play), Eric Bogosian’s Griller, Steve Tesich’s The Speed of Darkness and On the Open Road, John Logan’s Riverview: A Melodrama with Music and Rebecca Gilman’s A True History of the Johnstown Flood, Blue Surge and Dollhouse; the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden and the Broadway premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida. Mr. Falls’ honors for directing include, among others, a Tony Award (Death of a Salesman), a Drama Desk Award (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), an Obie Award (subUrbia), a Helen Hayes Award (King Lear) and multiple Jeff Awards (including a 2012 Jeff Award for The Iceman Cometh). For “outstanding contributions to theater,” Mr. Falls has also been recognized with such prestigious honors as the Savva Morozov Diamond Award (Moscow Art Theatre), the O’Neill Medallion (Eugene O’Neill Society), the Distinguished Service to the Arts Award (Lawyers for the Creative Arts) and the Illinois Arts Council Governor’s Award. Earlier this season, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Interview with George Cederquist on OperBoxScore

InterviewsPosted by Amy Mon, April 04, 2016 16:29:35
Last week, George Cederquist of Chicago Fringe Opera interviewed American opera director Lydia Steier and me about the current German opera scene and about artistic as well as institutional differences between opera in Germany and the US.

Long Night of New Drama at the Kammerspiele

US-German Theater TopicsPosted by Amy Sun, March 06, 2016 22:20:51

Last night, the Kammerspiel hosted the fourth annual "Long Night of New Drama" a cooperation between the Culture Department of the City of Munich, the Drei Masken publishing house and the Münchner Kammerspiele. The evening lasted four and half hours, and included five short plays (officially) of no more than 30 minutes in length. Following the staged readings, the audience voted for its favorite (a rather clumsily executed endeavor that ended up in an unofficial tie), and then the jury awarded its own prizes. Supported by a mix of public funds and the Edith and Werner Rieder Foundation, this competition rewards its winners with generous prizes. The jury sponsorship prize amounts to€10,000, and there are additional prizes of €5,000 (people's choice), and €2,500 (two scholarship prizes). It never ceases to amaze me, how many arts organizers continue to exploit young artists with competitions that offer little more than the "opportunity" to have the work presented in a public forum. Kudos to the partners behind the "Lange Nacht" for honoring these young artists with adequate compensation for their work.

On to the plays. As way of introduction, artistic director Matthias Lilienthal discussed the three criteria on which the jury based their selection: i) The topic. ii) The diversity of the language. iii) The text's implication of "a plurality of forms of expression. The first two are more or less resonant with concerns in American drama -- although American drama might be more concerned with the "effectiveness of dialogue" - achieving perfectly crafted, Aaron Sorkin-esque dialogue - than entering into the realm of poetry, which remains an important component of the German dramatic tradition. But "a plurality of forms of expression"? What's that?

This criterion resonates with a subject that has come up again and again as a fundamental difference between German and American theater -- namely, the relationship between text and actor. At the risk of repeating myself, in successful new American drama like "Disgraced" or "August: Osage County", the actors have one mode of engagement with the text: that is, speaking it as if it were their own, "authentic" voice. However, in German drama, it is desirable that a text proposes multiple kinds of relationship to the performers, that is, to use the forms of chorus, narration, poetry, and so on. In other words, the qualities that make American writers like Young Jean Lee so unique emulate what is to be expected of a contemporary German playwright.

[As a side note: after the first reading of "Disgraced" by the cast at the Residenztheater, the actors were dumbfounded by the text's . . . lack of a plurality of forms of expression.]

The five selected playwrights have little in common other than that they are all under 35, have not had more than two of their plays staged, and have no professional representation. Here is a list of the five, with a short synopsis for each (translated directly from the program):

i. Frederik Müller's "The World's Biggest Bouquet" - "Paul hasn't fallen in love many times. Once he had a thing with a friend, but that ended up rather embarrassing. He is able to talk about all this with his friend Rachel, who might actually be a guy and who knows much more than Paul about love and desire. But when Rachel meets and is seduced by the independent and beautiful Sara, her friendship with Paul changes. Rachel's stoicism comes to an end, when Sara becomes pregnant with Paul's baby. (Or was it Paul who becomes pregnant?)"

ii. Joël László "Lullaby for Baran" - "A couple sits at the kitchen table and can't sleep. Asleep on their sofa is Baran, talking and screaming in a foreign language that takes the sleepless couple out of their warm kitchen, across the Mediterranean toward the East. And then, there's Samadhi, who's real name is Robert, and who dreams himself away into a world in the far east. The refugee asleep on the sofa robs everyone else of their sleep - they try to sing a lullaby, but it doesn't help to calm them down."

iii. Wilke Wehrmanns "Excavation" - "Four boys and an older man live on the off-sides, beyond civilization, in quarry, close to the abyss called society. More and more conflicts build up among them. Whom will only woman, the young Saskia, accept? Will anyone find their way back into the city? They are all in limbo between their own inadequacy, irrelevance, and discord in being together, until the group finally dissolves - and someone disappears."

iv. Nele Stuhler's "Fish" - "Fish and Es are all dolled up, Fish in her glass, and Es outside. The couple negotiates their being together to the smallest ethical agreement, not as individuals alone, but as a twosome. In classical sonata form, the author Nele Landstuhler leaves the pair fighting for what divides them and what might possibly bring them together; for there is indeed a romantic utopia of togetherness. Out of Fish and Es become fishes."

v. Sophia Hembeck and Svenja Reiner's "René Pollesch #Twittergod" - "Cerebrum to Emotio - what have you done? Something stupid! But back to the beginning: Nele was blocked on Twitter, closed out, declined as a friend. Indeed, not found to be good enough? And not by just any old digital unknown - but by René Pollesch, the messiah of postdramatic theater! It's a good thing that the small student apartment has enough room for overreaction and misinterpretation and can serve as a military base for the counter-shitstorm-offensive! #HIPSTERWAR!"

Each piece was performed by actors from the Kammerspiele, and staged by a student from the Bavarian State Theater Academy - although due to the godly reverence in which the German theater holds its directors, these young people were listed in the program not as "Regisseure" ("directors") but as "Einrichter" ("facilitators"). The fact that the plays were staged, in addition to the fact that the texts often created a lot of room for the director to make fundamental interpretive decisions, made it difficult to decouple the performance from the text. This was apparent insofar as Joël László's "Lullaby for Baran" tied for the audience prize (and was in my opinion the most effective piece of the evening), yet was the only play not to be awarded a single prize by the jury.

Despite the "diversity of the language" and "of the forms of expression", there was another kind of diversity lacking from the evening, one that constitutes an important difference between the societal aims of theater in the United States and those in Germany. Diversity of sex, ethnicity, or socio-economic background was never mentioned during the evening. Whereas in my experience, American theaters today see promoting diversity as a core part of their mission (from the August Wilson/Robert Brustein debates of 1997 to "Hamilton"), there seems to have been no attention to featuring playwrights of color - though one did get the sense that there was an effort to support women writers.

They were selected from many submissions by a jury consisting of Guido Huller (Drei Masken publishing house), Hans-Georg Küppers (Head of the Culture Department of the City of Munich), Jakob Lass (film director, “Love Steaks” and others), Caroline von Lowtzow (Bayern 2/Zündfunk) and Christopher Rüping (stage director and in-house director at the Kammerspiele from the 2016/17 season). Now their texts will be presented at the Kammerspiele. The entire ensemble is involved in these deliveries, which are consciously not acted out but done as readings. Your imagination will be required: What theatrical energy would be released by these dramas? Which directors would be suitable for bringing them to the stage? So, watch out theater makers: these plays have not yet seen their debut performance!

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