Sonja Zekri: The last DT premiere preceding the lockdown was, ironically, Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was staged as a German-Russian coproduction by Kirill Serebrennikov. Did you have an inkling at the time that that would be the end?
Ulrich Khuon: We had been planning the project for years. But that night it became painfully obvious that we would stop performing. So we completely put on the breaks, from one day to the next. There were another two performances of Decameron, and then I sent home 280 employees out of a staff of 300. I came to work every day and sat at my desk in the abandoned theatre, where I organised Zoom conferences and talked to people who I wouldn’t see in person for weeks.
It was a still stand that conjured an almost philosophical mood; I drove here through empty streets and felt a state of abandonment that evokes the world of cinema or theatre.
The theatre often examines catastrophe, loneliness, and exceptional circumstances. Do you think this renders theatremakers better prepared to cope with this kind of situation?
That’s a misconception that I had as well. We in the theatre world could of course claim a monopoly on suffering—after all, there are no plays that focus from start to finish on well-being; instead, theatre could be considered a kind of anti-wellness programme. With one notable difference: in the theatre, the audience experiences these crises and the consequences thereof as an observer. As artists, we are well-equipped to describe suffering, the avoidance of pain and overcoming disaster. However, when we experience a crisis ourselves, we are no better equipped to handle it than anyone else.
You don’t believe that the theatre can make people more resilient?
I don’t. During a crisis, you need to accept that things are out of your control. In the theatre, life is a permanent struggle to maintain order, while at the same time you feel a permanent dependence on others, whereby the slightest thing can destroy everything. And that’s a great thing about theatre—but in everyday life we tend to forget about this dependence.
What can theatre provide us during a real crisis?
The philosopher Odo Marquard and the sociologist Dirk Baecker have written that we always need to have more solutions than problems at the ready. It is only human to lack a specific solution for a problem, which is why it’s more important to overcome problems with solutions. Theatre is a discursive medium, which explores gaps, creates alternative spaces and only obliquely approaches its actual subject. In the case of Corona, taking a direct approach is a matter for policy and science, or, in the case of climate, a matter for climate protests. It is our task to identify problems and test out variations of possible solutions.
For weeks it seemed that there wasn’t much demand for this kind of talent. Hardware stores re-opened before there was even a concept for the theatres ...
Hardware stores, football, golf courses—everyone left us behind. Whoever screamed the loudest got what they wanted. While it is true that theatre is particularly susceptible from a virological point-of-view, it is also a quiet medium. After four weeks, however, I gave an interview to the radio station Deutschlandfunk in my capacity as president of the German Theatre and Orchestra Association, and I certainly didn’t mince words: I expressed my shock at the situation and received a lot of feedback afterwards, including from policymakers. The German president called me. I told him that we need a voice to represent us. Then, at the first concert performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, he described culture as ‘nourishment’, a basic essential of life. From that point on, you could see that a new consensus was forming on the issue.
Nowadays politicians in Germany are praising culture to the heavens. Does it bother you that they belated paid lip service to culture?
I was confident that we would be deeply missed. In the past there were of course consolidations and closings—Berlin’s Schiller Theatre offers a possible taste of what’s to come, for example—but when you consider the overall health of the theatre world then you can count these negative examples on one hand. I am not easily shaken when it comes to theatre; we enjoy enormous solidarity when we need it. Even cities with a population of 20,000 or 30,000 can support a local theatre. This time around, we also received many letters supporting our cause. I admit there was a vacuum at the beginning, but it was one that allowed us to see what was missing. That’s why I didn’t feel particularly hurt by the belated realisation on the part of policymakers, as I expected it would come in the end.
Like many other theatres, DT brought a few of its works to the internet. Was this a gratifying experience or more of a stop-gap measure?
This was the appropriate way for us to reach out. A few theatres fear the digital, but that’s completely unnecessary. Theatre has always explored new media, from silent films and later to cinema, television and the internet. It has a duty to as well. Just as we are part of a culture, we are also part of a digital culture, one that is changing the rhythms of life and communication.
Don’t you worry that the digital will replace the theatre or render it useless?
On the internet site of Junges DT you can see the line ‘Live AND digital’ with a flashing ‘AND”. We should be much more confident: after all, everyone has a television nowadays. When the television was still new, people thought that no one would go to the theatre anymore. And yet they continue to go to the theatre, football games and restaurants. If you watch a performance online, you don’t watch in one sitting; instead, you can go out, grab a beer. The viewer is not as invested. It doesn’t work like that in the theatre: we go to experience the performance with others. For a moment, the viewer is immersed, freed from multitasking, and completely in the moment.
You moved the entire festival RADAR OST online.
I did. We were convinced that we would have to go all in if the digital performances were to be more than just a Band-Aid solution. So we streamed stagings by Kirill Serebrennikov, Ewelina Marciniak and Timofej Kuljabin, all of which had never been performed in Germany. There were also new stagings, which granted viewers virtual access to DT, to places like the main stage, the wardrobe department—everywhere you looked there were new digital formats, such as post-performance discussions and lecture performances.
The season will kick off with Corona regulations. Some of the rules mandate that performers maintain a distance of 1.5 meters, and even 6 meters when they perform at louder volumes. Is it even possible to perform under these conditions?
The Swiss Theatre and Orchestra Association published an entire book with regulations, while we have a short list. You can reduce everything to a few main principles: the main concern is practicing social distancing and maintaining good hygiene. The rules are easy to understand but also strict, such as the need to maintain a distance of 1.5 meters at all times.
The season begins with Melissa gets everything (‘Melissa kriegt alles’) by René Pollesch. How does he feel about the new rules?
René Pollesch needed to stop rehearsals for ‘Number Four” in March, which was a big disappointment for both of us. Rehearsals resumed in June–the premiere of Melissa gets everything (‘Melissa kriegt alles’) took place on 29 August–and obviously everything is much more complicated now. The theatre’s own safety commission analysed potential hazards. Pollesch arrived at the theatre with his very own thermometer because he wanted to adhere to all regulations, lest work needed to be put on hold again. Pollesch’s work can be seen as a cascading discourse, one that flows around its subject, accumulating new layers with every revolution. That’s why he was able to continue working and it wasn’t a death blow to the work.
Peter Handke’s Zdeněk Adamec will premiere in Salzburg and then be staged by Jossi Wieler for DT. Why this work?
I have read plays for years, and yet it took time to grasp how great the text is. Zdeněk Adamec was a young man in the Czech Republic who died from self-immolation in 2003 on Prague’s Wenceslas Square. He has since been forgotten. Handke’s piece feels its way around the subject; it could go this way or that. It portrays a group of people who explore this forgotten figure in a series of polyphonic discourses. I find Handke’s approach—the way he opens up new realms, even though the viewer cannot determine the location—to be the perfect antidote to society’s grim fixation on spoken promises.
Handke has a talent for pinning things down ...
… but he also masters the smallest gestures. This work depicts a victim of suicide who has not been treated kindly by history. A misery that has long been overlooked, and for which he crafts a suitable language.
Your theatre will premiere ten new works by the end of December. Is that less than usual?
We had already been planning to do less this season than in previous years. We had to postpone a few premieres from the spring season to the autumn season. We will perform ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams, directed by Jette Steckel, and Timofej Kuljabins ‘Fräulein Julie’ after Strindberg (assuming we can find a solution for social distancing). Anne Lenk will stage ‘Maria Stuart’ using a display case as the set. That fits ‘Maria Stuart’ well, as it is a tragedy about loneliness. Since the work has a stunning dramatic arc, it is not merely a fantasy. I am especially curious to see how the climactic confrontation between Elisabeth and Maria plays out, and how the performers maintain distance from each other.
Do all of these rules make theatremakers and actors more creative? As a kind of Coronainfluenced dogma?
I definitely wouldn’t say that I embrace the new limitations, but we do consider the overall inclinations of the various directors. When we can’t find a suitable solution, then we try to separate the performers into pods, just like in sports, who are then regularly tested.
Isolation or, conversely, forced time together have been the dominant issues of the past few months. Does the current repertoire reflect these situations?
Hell is other people, as Sartre said, but time with other people can also be the solution. In September, Sophie Rois, Manuel Harder and Ulrich Matthes will give a scenic reading of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s comedy ‘Play Strindberg’, which could be considered a kind of quarantine for couples.
Sebastian Hartmann will stage Thomas Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain’ (‘Zauberberg’): even more loneliness, this time in the fresh Alpine air.
Definitely. Hartmann doesn’t treat the dissolution of time on the magic mountain merely as a re-telling, but rather as a philosophical cacophony offering an array of interacting voices. He will likely focus on themes explored by Mann, of a society removed from the excesses dominating before the First World War. A physical still stand while at the same time change is afoot just beyond the gate.
Amir Reza Koohestani wants to stage ‘Woyzeck Interrupted’. How likely is it that he will be able to leave Iran?
We will have to wait and see. He plans to set the piece in a time that connects to the present day. We want the play to be performed in December, which means that rehearsals would need to begin in autumn. We hope that it will work out.
The festival Autorentheatretage was also scheduled for June, but will now be presented in October.
We commissioned ten short plays, partially with the intent of telling authors: you are sorely needed in these difficult times. We will also belatedly host the Lange Nacht der Autor_innen, which is to feature three premieres from Graz, Leipzig and from our own theatre. Our contribution is ‘Hitler's Goat and the King's Haemorrhoids’ (‘Hitlers Ziege und die Hämorrhoiden des Königs’) by Rosa von Praunheim. This is a grotesque work about the political party AfD, Hitler and being gay. It will later become part of our repertoire.
This season’s slogan is ‘Everything at once’. A Corona motto?
Yes, but not only. There are several social movements that raise this question as people protest climate change, racism and gender-based discrimination. The notion that change will come eventually in a democratic nation no longer suffices. I can definitely see this, especially regarding gender. When I started as a theatre director 30 years ago, there was just one female theatre director in all of Germany. Now 22 per cent are women—but that’s after 30 years. For a while I was appeased and believed that change had arrived, but now I believe that 22 per cent is just 22 per cent, and not 40 or 50. And that is too little progress for 30 years. This is not an easy problem to solve, however. The fate of the values-based code of conduct for theatres, which I helped negotiate as part of my work for the German Theatre and Orchestra Association, was shrouded with uncertainty up until the last-minute. This is about power, of course. And, sadly, it’s an issue that is not over yet. ‘Everything right now’ is a demand—one that is abrupt, outrageous, helpful or even dangerous.
‘Everything at once’: More utopia as a threat?
Some may warn that ‘Everything at once’ is a danger to democracy, because this system of government requires the slow negotiations of compromise. But if we look at the gap between rich and poor, we can see that the gap is growing out of control. For this issue, we can’t just wait around until it is fixed in a capitalistic system. People can adapt but changing habits doesn’t come easily. This applies to actors and other theatre professionals, just as for other people. Corona taught us one thing: everyone can decide if they have the desire to learn.
Sonja Zekri, born in Dortmund, works as an editor for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. She was the CIS-correspondent in Moscow and Middle East correspondent in Cairo, before becoming head of the cultural section of the SZ. Beginning in October 2020 she will be the cultural correspondent for the SZ, based in Berlin.
Ulrich Khuon studied law and completed his studies in theology and German language and literature, which he completed with the state examination. He came to the theatre through his work as a theatre and literary critic, writing for the Badische Zeitung in Freiburg from 1977 to 1980. In 1980, he received his first engagement as chief dramatic advisor at the Stadttheater Konstanz, before he took over as director of the theatre from 1988 to 1993. Khuon was later artistic director of the Schauspielhaus Hannover from 1993 to 2000, and succeeded Jürgen Flimm at Hamburg's Thalia Theater in the 2000/01 season. He became director of Deutsches Theater Berlin during the 2009/2010 season.
Top photo: Yang Ge in Decameron, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Deutsches Theater Berlin ©Arno Declair