Interviewed by Randy Gener
Thanks to a growing international reputation, German-language stages may now claim a new star on their marquees: a popular new dramatist who has taken his place alongside such favorites as Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller and Ibsen. His name is Roland Schimmelpfennig, a 44-year-old Berlin-based author and director, who is one of the most prolific and heralded young dramatists in Europe. At age 38, he had already written 16 plays that have been translated into 20 languages. In the summer of 2010, he was awarded the Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis, regarded as the highest honor for a playwright in the German language. Previous winners include Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and East German playwright Heiner Müller.
Born at Göttingen in 1967, Schimmelpfennig first worked as a freelance journalist and author in Istanbul before starting to study as a theatre director in Munich’s Otto Falkenberg School in 1990. Then he became an assistant director and later a member of the artistic team at Munich’s Kammerspiele. At present he is house playwright of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Schimmelpfennig lives in the Prenzlauer Berg section of eastern Berlin, with his wife, the playwright Justine del Corte, and his two children.
The following interview was conducted a couple of hours before the November opening The Golden Dragon, which had its U.S. premiere at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C. Schimmelpfennig joined me, along with Peter Kümmel, theater critic for the newspaper Die Zeit, and Peter Michalzik, journalist and theater critic for the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, all of whom flew from Germany. Together we all participated in the first-ever German and American Media Dialogue, a symposium organized by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Media Dialogue was an initiative that launched a sustained dialogue among theater critics between the two countries. It took place at the Goethe-Institut Washington.
Without question, Schimmelpfennig’s most famous work is the 2001 play Die arabische Nacht (Arabian Night), an absurdist and intricately plotted drama in which five characters experience an erotic urban fantasy in a nondescript housing project somewhere in Germany. One of the fascinating qualities of this glass-menagerie of a fanciful play, which opened at the Staatstheater in Stuttgart, is the way the author springs his characters into coincidences that ensure they all come into contact with one other, or at least spur memories of such contact in an otherworldly realm of mystery.
Such leaps of fancy are deployed in The Golden Dragon, which won all major German-language theatre awards since it premiered in the fall of 2009 at in Vienna and has since had over 40 productions worldwide. Taking place in the cramped kitchen of an Asian restaurant, where four cooks pull the tooth of a young Chinese co-worker, the play whimsically depicts how that tooth ends up in the Thai soup of a flight attendant, whose existential crisis becomes dramatically linked to the alienated lives of the 15 characters using brief and surprisingly comic scenes, thus suggesting a connection that they themselves rarely recognize. In a sense, The Golden Dragon is about illegal immigration and human trafficking, but this political theme of the lack of rights of illegal immigrants is depicted in a kaleidoscopic fashion and from varied perspectives. The social drama is served in morsels that are poetic, dream-like, brutal but enigmatic, filled with bitterness and poignant desire.
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world?— or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
In Berlin (or maybe in Germany as well), the big issue has been the situation of immigrants: what we call integration. We are confronted now with a situation where we can see that, after 30 or 40 years of immigration, not all of the immigrant workers mingled or integrated with the German society, because they were supposed to go back to their countries; that’s why they were hired. Of course, they did not go back to their native lands, and they had brought their families over to Berlin, luckily, and they are now part of the German society. This situation is not comparable with the American situation. The immigrant situation in Germany or maybe in all of Europe is something special and something that has yet to be dealt with onstage.
I see now, in the last year or 15 months, that other cultures are dealing with that immigrant problem. I see a few Turkish immigrant theatre-makers who have started to reflect on their situation; they are writing their own plays, which is very impressive. To be clear, I think there may be some writers in Germany who are probably touching on the immigrant issue by now, but it always takes time to hear their writings onstage. We will maybe see their plays in a year, if they are fast. Even if you write a play, you have to find a theatre that wants to produce it. Unless you have your own company, or you have a group of people who can put on a production very quickly. Theatre is so slow, which is what makes it difficult for theatre to deal with daily political problems. But there are advantages in that [deliberate pace] as well.
I’d say there is not yet a play about the financial situation in Europe or in Germany, which is of course not a city-related problem but a global problem. That is something that would be very interesting to write about: to write about money. But the issue is also very difficult to grasp, because it is such an abstract thing. You would have to find a way to get back to the human factor: to tell a story about money, not only talk about money.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers/directors/actors/playwrights? Why?
Working with German directors can be very difficult. I often have the feeling, which is maybe is a German phenomenon, that German directors are more interested in their own images than in the core of the play or in that point in the drama where it starts to hurt; that’s where the work gets interesting to me). It so happens that German directors are very superficial with actors; they don’t see the plays for itself; they are fascinated by the performer or the pretty way of lighting or the different airs of whatever. That’s always the problem — to communicate what I think is the depth of it all. German directors can be very arrogant. They are spoiled. They have been very successful in the 1980s and 1990s with the traditional regietheater, so you don’t always find the right director who really wants to follow the play. This is something that has never happened abroad, for example; it is something that would not be possible in the U.S. or in England, where the situation is still the other way around.
I have been lucky, because I have been working with Jürgen Gosch who is a very important and influential director who does not work in the regietheatre mode. Even when he deals freely with the text, he always cuts to the heart of it. He does not try to be smarter than the play. Recently, I have been directing some of my plays myself, and that’s been an interesting experience.
When you do find a director who is indeed simpatico with your dramaturgy, how early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production?
If that point is clear [if there is an agreement with the playwright and the director], I don’t have to communicate very much to the director, because I hand over the work to him or her. That’s the nice thing about it. In the ideal state, even if you write the play by yourself in a cabin and then you give it away, the play is out in the world, and then it is left up to other people to go through with it.
How often do you exchange views with the director?
It depends. Usually, if they are interested at all, there is a meeting one or two months before the rehearsals or before the production starts. Sometime I attend the first or the first two rehearsals, but that is something I have avoided more and more, because usually everybody is tense, and nobody has had yet the experience to ask the real questions about the play. I am just being a pest. I feel useless. If everything goes smoothly, I will maybe go up maybe two days before the opening.
What if you want to make changes before the opening?
I tried that once; I did not succeed. Usually if they are on track, you can’t do much about it. Unless they really damaged the play which luckily has not been the case.
So have you directed shows yourself, which I suppose does make that make communication during production easier?
For example, with the very first production of The Golden Dragon, I thought I was so secure and I was so smart. I know it all, I know how it works, I just have to go there and do it. On the first day of rehearsal, I started to sweat. I realized, This is really difficult. I just can’t do it just in my head. I need these actors; I need their inspiration. You can’t do it by yourself. I directed the premiere of The Golden Dragon in Vienna at the Akademietheater [a smaller, early-20th-century house, the second stage of Vienna’s legendary 19th-century Burgtheater]. It was during the opening of the new Burgtheater when the German director Matthias Hartmann took over the artistic director in 2009. He took over as boss. Hartmann started in the Burg with an epic production of Faust; I started at the Akademietheater with Golden Dragon. It was a luxurious situation because he was had the heavyweight, big-budget super-project, and I was coming in his shadow. We had lots of success with The Golden Dragon; he didn’t. We were sort of the underdog, which is a very good position.
After The Golden Dragon, I premiered this play, Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God, in Toronto; I directed that play in Vienna, too. In December 2011, I am going back to start rehearsals on a new play, The Flying Child, about a man who doesn’t realize it but he drives over his own little boy with his new car. He is in a rush; it’s dark, and he goes down the road, and he just touches the kid, he bumps the child, and the kids goes flying in the air. It tells this terrible and horrible story; it is going to be a very interesting production; it’s like a big chorus.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
Let me describe it to you. First you have an idea for a play. You walk around with this idea for months and sometimes even years until I get to the point where I really know how I want to do it. But this moment — it can happen one morning when you get up and you’re in the shower and, plunk, the idea gets into your head and you know how it all works out — this is the point which you cannot plan. You can work on the concept, but there is this final kiss of inspiration that you just have to wait for. That’s painful because you really can’t push it, and it can really take a while, and that makes me very nervous. Once you are over that point, you get into the second phase where things go very smoothly until let’s say two-thirds of the process of the writing is finished and then usually then you come to last and hardest of the surprises — all this bullshit of “yes” or “no” — and you have to go through that process, and then you are over it.
What do you mean by “yes” or “no”?
There is always a point when I ask myself, “Is this really good enough, what I am doing?” That is something nobody can answer for your. It is something you have to find out by yourself. You can walk around and say, Please read it and tell me if it is really good. But finally, that question is something you have to really find out for yourself. I have to be happy with it in the end. If it is a success or not, I have to be the one who says, “This is really what I had wanted to do.” That is always a barbaric situation because that forces you to achieve a level of honesty about yourself. Once the play is finished, it is pretty amazing; as soon as it is completed, the whole play is for me untouchable. It is gone. I can hand it over to the director. I would never change a word anymore. It is out there, living its own independent life.
You describe very well that part which you enjoy the least. So how you do you deal with it?
I used to have some techniques. Usually it’s about entertainment. In the moment of worst crises, I tend to go to see blockbuster movies just to sort of blast my head away. That’s one possible technique which I haven’t done for a long time. A reduction of sleep is very good, too: getting up very early. Less poison or more poison — whatever — you can work with that as well. The most basic thing I’ve found out is you have to sit there and stare at the paper and don’t run away from it. It is possibly the most effective way.
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
It was not really criticism. but it was something that I worked out and which took me sometime. The “criticism” has something to do with social relevance. I think we had a dinner party with friends of mine. My wife is a writer herself, and she had been writing a version of Medea. And we started to discussMedea and our conversations became more general: touching my work and touching her work. And then it came up, this insight: that the work must cut through the society — that the greatest writers like Shakespeare always deal with all classes in one play — and that was a key moment for me, something I did not realize before. This cutting-through-the-society was something I had not always integrated in my own work. At that point, after that conversation, something changed inside of me. It was not conscious, maybe it was unconscious, but I started to write in a different manner. Afterwards, I wrote Arabian Night, which coincidentally became my big breakthrough play. Since then, this [theme or approach] became a permanently returning issue in my plays.
5. Why are you a playwright?
A good question. I think in dialogue. It is something that comes naturally to me. My whole perspective of the world is immeditely transferred into a theatrical point of view. I observe people. I listen to parts of conversations in the subway, and it immediately turns into a scene. I can’t help it. Lately, I have been working on a novel. I had been writing little pieces of prose. This time the work is bigger, and it [writing a novel] really feels awkward in a way that I have never felt when I write drama. I feel like I am walking in somebody else’s shoes. It is really bizarre.
6. Do you see yourself as documenter? A chronicler? A social critic?
No, I don’t see myself as documenter. There is too much of let’s call it magic realism or fantasy in my work. I always have this little itch where I just want to jump into another level, to somewhere that is surreal. My plays are not documentaries. Of course, I am trying to figure out the major issues of our time, and not just to create my own little fantasy world here. What I do is some sort of echo of the world that I live in, or however I can conceive it in a way. It’s not only about me, me, me — it is about me and the others.
7. I like to think of what you do in your plays as leaps of fancy. What is the function of these leaps of fancy, or what you call magic realism?
It often helps to sketch the real world and observe it in a sharper way. Let’s look at Arabian Night: although it has all this magic realism or surreal elements, this play basically deals with the sad, daily routines of a woman who can’t escape her own fate; she leads a monotonous life. The only whole thing around it is to just focus on that existence, and that’s why I like the tools of fantasy. The dramatic action in Arabian Night is a little bit the same thing in The Golden Dragon. In the second play, if I did not have this fantastic tale of the tooth in the soup bowl, which is of course not very realistic, I would not be able to connect as quickly the lives of the sick Chinese and the flight attendant [two characters who do not belong in the same social worlds]. Using this tool, they can connect very quickly, so that’s a very powerful tool. It is also a very entertaining tool, something that gives me freedom and also a focus.
8. The word “global” has been used to describe your plays. You also identify yourself as a German writer. Do you see yourself as a global writer?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There are plays like Push Up 123 and Arabian Night which are global pieces of writing. When I wrote Push Up 123, I had in mind that it should be possible for other cultures and other countries to follow it, so it is not a local play. I have nothing against local plays, but this one was designed to work in London, in Paris or wherever. Luckily, amazingly, it really happened; it has been performed in Chile and all over.
Another successful play of mine, the 2004 drama Die Frau von Frueher (The Woman Before or The Women from the Past (depending on how the title is translated) — it was produced in New York City where it was directed by Daniel Fish; it was a very strange production — in the case of this particular play, I had no idea that it would have an international career. Then I saw a reading of it in Istanbul, and I saw a production of it in Tokyo. The views of these two very different cultures are very different. In a Muslim country the whole idea of faith and marriage is different and perhaps more traditional than in Germany. I have no idea of the concept of it in Tokyo. That was not an international play, but it became an international play.
Other plays of mine are too big, have too many characters (some have 30 or 32 characters), are too complicated and maybe too German so they can’t travel as easily everywhere, and you can’t do them in the free market…. Let me correct myself. I don’t think I have ever really written a particularly German play. I have not yet worked on a German play; I would like to do one though, about the Holocaust, Auschwitz in particular. But maybe that one is not going to be a really German play once it is written. I don’t know yet; it’s one of those ideas that I walk around with in my head.
9. Wow, the Holocaust in your mind. Earlier in our conversation, you spoke of the phrase “when it starts to hurt” and you talk about this notion of depth. In terms of understanding how you view your own work as a dramatist, these ideas seems key. Can you explain?
I want to touch people, not in a cheesy way, but I really want to make them identify with what is going on onstage, especially if you tell the story of the underdog like I did in The Golden Dragon and Arabian Night. I want the audience to participate in a real way; I don’t want them to just nod and agree, “I know. Life is hard.” I want the plays to achieve more, and that’s the important thing. I want to seduce the audience to really get into it. That is only possible in the theatre if there is a certain amount of truth, and if there is truth, there is pain as well.
10. Do you feel that the fact of being borne in a divided Europe, although this is not the main subject of your works, that aspect of it is almost always present in your work?
It is present. And it is not only the idea of a divided Europe that is present, but German history is very present in a way. Sometimes German history is not visible on the first or second sight, but I carry it around with me. And it is still there even when we are freer and more free-minded — but it is the shadow or let’s say this consciousness about our positions is always present. Always in my work, there is always a certain mistrust. For example, in Push Up 123, this new corporate generation is portrayed and satirized in the new economy for their seemingly different styles — but you see that underneath the working lives of these people lies very high amount of oppression and an archaic, hierarchical world. Even though things seem to be very different and modern today, that play describes a very cruel and archaic world. The Golden Dragon in a way is a global play, but it also gets down to the very heart of it, which concerns personal needs, personal problems fears and pains.
Many of my generation in Germany will probably will not see themselves as a freer and more international generation, but I totally agree that being born in a divided Germany, everything has now changed so much after 1989. Now we live in a European or let’s say an international world which is much, much wider than it was before in Germany. Even now with Europe going through a difficult and deteriorating phase, I think that this generation is something that has never existed in Germany before: young people who can speak languages, who can travel, who are open-minded, who are free of all the old shit. I don’t know if this is because of the Internet or the state of pop culture after 1968, but there has been a big change, and that is what makes it very interesting to write in these days.
11. Of the plays you’ve written, which one would you say is your most personal work?
There are two plays that I would call my personal favorites. There is one play that not been translated called Angebot und Nachfrage (Supply and Demand). It is a two-character play about two unemployed actors, a young woman and an older guy. They don’t get jobs anymore, like a lot of friends of mine who work as actors. They are trying to survive. What do you do if you are born an actor and nobody wants to look at you anymore? It is a very sad experience. That is one of my personal favorites. Another one also has not been translated, and it is entitled Calypso, about two couples in a drunken evening somewhere in a city like Hamburg. That play has a lot to do with me and my personal fears.
12. Are you satisfied with your evolution as a playwright?
I am never really satisfied; that is something one can see in my work. I always try to look for something new. I have never tried to follow the same track; especially if you look at the plays in a chronological fashion, you will find always these are plays work like opposite magnets. They don’t resemble each other.Golden Dragon has a certain resemblance to Arabian Nights in terms of technique, because they are narrated theatre where the actors make contact with thr audience and just tell the story in order to make things happen in the audience’s imagination — things that can’t be shown. In Arabian Night, for example, you have a man who is transformed into this little person in a bottle sitting in the sofa, and there is a caretaker who is suddenly standing in the desert.
On the other hand, The Golden Dragon has nothing to do with Arabian Night. There are 10 years in between the writing of these plays. There has been a lot of evolution. The Golden Dragon is the more political play. It cuts through society from top to bottom. It is simply written by a man who is 10 years older. If I take a look at the four or five early plays that were internationally successful, you can see that I like to go back to sofa plays or office dramas with old-school dialogue. I have to free myself after I have written the play to go as far away from it as I can. I always try to raise a certain energy, a certain amount of pain as in The Golden Dragon, to really get to the bottom of things as fast as I can. This is what links those internationally successful plays, although they are in fact very different works.
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, and artist in New York City. He represented the U.S. media in the first-ever German and American Media Dialogue, a symposium organized by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and launched as a sustained dialogue among theater critics between the two countries. Author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays, Gener is the recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States, and NLGJA Journalist of the Year, among numerous other awards, for his critical essays in American Theatre magazine, where he works as contributing writer. He also won a Deadline Club Award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “shedding light into censorship and repression of the arts.” Gener most recently helped curate, produce and create “From the Edge,” the USITT-USA National Pavilion to the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. His website is theaterofOneWorld.org.