(in conversation with three key dramaturgs)
In April 2023 I had the unique opportunity to meet three German dramaturgs of the younger generation. They are not a group or collective. In fact, before our meeting at a showcase of National Theatre in Athens they barely knew each other. In our intensive conversations, it turned out that we all shared many common views on contemporary performing arts, and especially on the position of the dramaturg.
For example, a number of theoretical and cultural concepts relevant to their work (and mine ) include artistic collectives, education that does not necessarily have to be theatrical, multidisciplinarity, the intersection of theatre with research in the fields of sociology and political science, immersiveness and the general openness of theatre as an institution, concern for the diversity of acting ensembles and audiences, awareness of the position from which an artist speaks, and the social responsibility of public theatres. Last but not least: the work of dramaturgs in the theatre is understood by all three as an expanded field, far from the purely “technical” aspect of this profession. They metaphorically identify it all as hosting, bridging and moderation.
These are three strong, important and still new voices of the contemporary German theatre and it is particularly interesting that their current work ranges across three German-speaking countries. The three are Tine Milz, co-director of Theatre Neumarkt in Zurich; Tobias Herzberg, newly appointed co-director of the Schauspielhaus Wien in Austria; and Martin Valdés-Stauber the newly-appointed dramaturg of the Schaubühne in Berlin. Talking to them was not only pleasing but also very interesting.
IVAN MEDENICA: Could you all say some words about your background?
MARTIN VALDÉS-STAUBER: I’m 31 years old, born in Kaufbeuren, a small Bavarian town, from a family that speaks Spanish. This has shaped a lot the way both my private and professional life developed. My training was in economics and sociology in Germany, at UC Berkeley and at the University of Cambridge. I try to keep in touch with these fields by reading and teaching, but in the past seven years I’ve been mostly working as a dramaturg at the Münchner Kammerspiele and as a freelance creator and manager. For me, it’s more about expanding my creative practice than about focusing it. My research has been on historical memory through art. I’m also concerned with projects involving local communities and other fields. But for now I’m a dramaturg at the Schaubühne in Berlin.
TINE MILZ: I was also born in Bavaria. I just turned 34. I studied economics too as well as political science in Paris, Venice and Munich. That was when I decided that this was not what I wanted to do, so I started studying comparative literature. and eventually got a Masters degree in dramaturgy at an art school. Then I started a Masters program in Fine Arts. I’ve always been interested in combining theatre and literature with politics and social science. In truth, I never wanted to be just a dramaturg. I’m a creator and a curator. For me it’s interesting to be close to the artists I work with, but also to co-create with them and shape projects. Mine is a transdisciplinary approach to theatre and I work a lot with people who don’t have backgrounds in theatre — writers, visual artists, filmmakers and musicians. I guess in that sense I am a dramaturg though I’ve only read relatively few traditional plays in my life. Yes, I’m very interested in text and composing texts, but not in a classical way. For the last four years, I’ve been a co-director, with two female colleagues, at the Theatre Neumarkt in Zurich.
Tobias, you have a more traditional theatre education. Yes?
TOBIAS HERZBERG: It depends on how you define traditional. I’m 36 and I’m from Hamburg. I was born and raised there and, yes, I have had a number of theatre internships. My interest has always been in how theatre is made, and how it is produced. I went to drama school to study acting, and that was my early professional education. But I only did it for half a year. After that, I realized – I was 19 or 20 — that the traditional curriculum wasn’t what I was expecting or looking for. So I quit. One of the things that was said about me was that I was thinking too much or perhaps thinking too loudly. So I decided to move my head elsewhere, to where this characteristic might be more appreciated. Later I started to study sociology, political science and German language and literature, which I never actually finished.
I was obviously wrong – there is nothing traditional in your education either.
Tobias: I didn’t actually enter theatre school because I wanted to become an actor. That was never my dream. I always wanted to become a director. But I did think that it would be useful to understand what it felt like to be on the stage, to be in the position of the actor who is constantly being looked at and judged. It was a very important experience but, as I already said, I wasn’t satisfied with the curriculum. When I was 24 I finally decided it was time to study something proper. And that’s when I started to study directing. After that I went back to something I had already been engaged in: working as an assistant director. Part of the reason I did that was because I needed to earn some money. I just didn’t dare become a freelance artist. So I went to Zurich and become an assistant director.
I worked there for two years with internationally acclaimed artists such as René Pollesch, Karin Henkel, and others, I was then invited to a small festival at the Studio stage of the Gorki Theatre in Berlin. The festival was called Disintegration: a congress on contemporary Jewish positions. They encouraged me to look into my own biography. I was a bit hesitant in the beginning because I thought if I was to start developing an artistic project based on my own life, then I would rather look at my being gay. Rather than my being from a Jewish family on my father’s side. Being a gay man in a non-gay world has shaped my identity in a much more decisive way.
As it turned out, I was completely wrong. Whenever you do an autobiographical or even an auto-fictional work, you really can’t separate one identity from another or even one experience from another. In any event, that’s what brought me to the Gorki theatre. It really gave me the opportunity to work as a dramaturg in their Studio, which, a year later, I took over as its director. That was when I really started to work with playwrights. More recently I moved to Vienna where I am now part of the four-person artistic direction at the Schauspielhaus.
You didn’t mention your time at the Burgtheatre in Vienna.
Tobias: Yes, that’s true.In 2019 I got an invitation to become a dramaturg at the Burgtheatre, with a special focus on its Kasino venue, and I accepted it. It was a great experience for me to get a look behind the curtain of such a huge institution. But it was also a disillusionment, because I thought that it would be more open to change than it turned out to be. And so I left in disagreement with the artistic direction.
Can I ask what the disagreement was about?
Tobias: It had to do with what I saw as a lack of appreciation for risky artistic choices, a lack of appreciation for artists’ visions and ideas. I felt that the artists were not being sufficiently supported by the artistic leaders and that they were actually being questioned. As a dramaturg, I have always felt I was a bridge between the artists and the directorate. It just became an environment in which I didn’t want to work. This was also during the pandemic when we were forced to actually close the theatre. During that period we could have started to be more introspective and reconsider how we worked, how we talked with one another. But this never happened. People seemed burnt out. So I left.
There’s one thing in common in all your biographies: you all come from multidisciplinary backgrounds. Theatre is not the only part of your education, if at all. It is only one of your interests. This is not a new thing, of course, in the performing arts. Robert Wilson is an architect and a visual artist. Heiner Goebbels is also a composer. So nowadays it has become quite a common phenomenon and perhaps one could label it as a feature of the post-dramatic or post-directorial theatre. More and more people are simply presenting themselves as “creators” whether they come from the social sciences, economics or another field. For me, the most interesting part of all your biographies is this intersection between the performing arts, on one hand, and fields like sociology and politics on the other. Do you think this is it a generational thing? Is it a widespread tendency?
Martin: When I was a teenager in Bavaria we did a lot of amateur theatre. For example, I directed a performance with my friends who were studying engineering. That’s how I developed what I can call my theatrical intuition. I think I’m fortunate that it wasn’t professionalized. I never wanted to study theatre or even film. I wanted to understand society and be engaged with society. I knew about politics and history. I finally decided to study economics because I thought I lacked a specific understanding of how that field worked. Then I studied sociology, which was great. But art? No. What is art? It’s a quest for a form. If you already know the form, it’s not art anymore, it’s craft. And I was never interested in craft.
Matthias Lilienthal is someone who helped shape theatre and the performing arts generally in Germany on an institutional level. He has always opened spaces for young people. He was really the one who brought me from university to theatre, to the Kammerspiele in Munich. He wanted to have someone from outside to join in rethinking what theatre could be. How to expand the whole notion of theatre.
A lot of it has to do with being open to new perspectives and voices. This includes having an international perspective. What we do in theatre is a kind of bridging between people, between cultures. We are the experts in translating cultural codes, aesthetic codes, forms of production, and so on. Yet we are also strangers, as Simmel would say: people who are in-between worlds yet who change constellations, enabling them to exist in new ways.
As to your question about whether new types of biographies are something that will spread through the theatre system, I think that yes, it will because there is a sense among younger people of the necessity for openness. It may even lead to a transformation of the German theatre. It is also a change that is already happening.
Tine: I grew up in the Bavarian countryside too. My parents took me to many different countries. But we never really went to theatre. I did perform a lot in school and I was always amazed by the presence of people – people who came to see something different, asking questions and exchanging ideas. For me this was always extremely interesting – this interweaving of social life, politics and the arts.
I eventually asked myself if I could do more in the theatre than simply being an actress. When I started auditioning, I tended to ask a lot of questions about what they wanted. I was told constantly that I wanted to know too much. But I needed to use my brain because only then did theatre become interesting for me. I never wanted to be a puppet.
Ultimately, I trained in non-theatre disciplines because I kept asking myself who I was to be telling other people’s stories. What’s the point of learning a craft when I myself didn’t seem to have stories to tell or real knowledge? So for me it was important to learn more about the world so I could share my stories from the stage. Sort of as a host. Theatre is a beautiful form of hosting. You invite people to go on a journey with you. That kind of thing is essential for so many things we do even at the institutional level. You invite artists to share, to exchange with each other, to shape a project together. And you also not just hosting people who want one particular kind of theatre, classical theatre for example. I’m not necessarily interested in an audience that is – as it is in a lot of theatre institutions — bourgeois, white, middle-aged. We want that audience, yes, but we also want to develop new audiences, people who probably have not had access to theatre. People interested in the visual arts might need a different approach. So I think it helps when you have different heads involved, when you have perspectives coming from different fields. This is where I see a place for my work: to show people that theatre is the greatest platform to come together, to think together, to live together. It can offer a very exciting kind of experience. It can raise questions, but not necessarily offer answers, can be radical or tender with both its art and its words, its aesthetics and its stories. Because we all tell stories to survive, let’s see what we can do with them.
Tobias: I find Tine’s description very beautiful. However, I would not give up the term or the function of dramaturg. I like it because it describes my own work, because I think this is precisely what dramaturgs do, what dramaturgy is about — the organization of not just information, but of experience. It’s a reception-oriented form of work. If we do it in a right way we can train not only artists but also audiences in a sort of open mindedness for one another. It helps to find platforms where people can share experiences, come together and be open to others who may not have had the same experiences, people who may even find a reason to resent it. I think that dramaturgy – perhaps theatre in general — is a way of organizing empathy, of enabling empathy.
All of you have referred to your own identities and experiences. I would like to raise a question which seems rather present in the contemporary performing arts, especially in the younger generation. It’s the question of the position from which we are discussing certain issues in theatre. An extreme version might be: who has the right to talk about certain topics? Does everyone have a right to speak about any topic? How important is that question for you? Or do you believe that anyone should be able to discuss any issue?
Martin: I think theatre is about opening up spaces. And that’s connected to power, institutional responsibility, management, and careers. Who ultimately has access to the stage? Who gets seen and heard? For centuries, there hasn’t really been a multiplicity of voices on stages that mirror social reality. For me, it is really important who is telling which story. And an important aspect of that is who truly occupies the dominant position in that space? It’s a very complex issue. For example, even if intellectually we can overcome personal discriminations that arise from different dimensions of diversity, the body memory may not equally overcome all those outbreaks of violence and discrimination. So, the discourse about who can perform what really is important. The problem, of course, is that not everyone joining that debate is intellectually precise in their argumentation. That’s what causes a lot of the problems.
Tine: I would agree. But it’s not just complex. It’s even dangerous because today we’re nearing extremes regarding this question. One group says that you can do whatever you want on the stage, the other says that you can’t, and the spectrum in between is simply not heard and doesn’t talk about it. The in-between people are left out. I fear that we’re losing our contact in that middle and for me that is the glue that holds everything together. How can we all talk together? How can we bring people together? For me, it’s all about togetherness. And forgiveness.
Tobias: Who gets to define who is marginalized? Who has experienced more? I would always insist on theatre — the performing arts and the arts in general — not talking so much about universal truths, but rather about particular experiences, particular perceptions. Both in the art that I try to facilitate and in the way I try to communicate this to audiences, I aim to show that we are not necessarily telling stories on a Shakespearean level, stories which are talking about some eternal human issue, but rather we want to tell stories from personal perspectives. Stories which speak to those perspectives. And this for me is something that in the long run will result in empathy.
Tine: I recently reread some of Susan Sontag because I think she’s a great thinker. She always talks about creating a sensibility that can experience rather than interpret the world, an in-between space where the senses emerge, and where people can connect.
Tobias: The real question is what we expect from the performing arts. Do we always expect representation, a synchronicity between the performers’ identity with a role or a character on stage? What happens if we don’t offer that?
Is the theatre now too much into identity politics? What about class issues and political issues in general? Isn’t identity politics a kind of trap created by bourgeois theatre and by capitalist society?
Tobias: It’s both. It is a trap but a blessing at the same time. There isn’t only one movement in identity politics. It’s a complex of different issues, different theories, and schools of thinking.
And the question is not only can I speak publicly but also will I ever be heard? Who gets to speak for others? There’s a feminist psychologist from the U.S. named Linda Alcoff who published a very interesting text on this subject. It’s called The Problem of Speaking for Others. She makes a separation between speaking for others and speaking about others.
Tine: That’s interesting: who is speaking for whom? I suppose the question of audience has to come in here. Who are we creating these plays for? Are we doing all this in a bubble? Our own bubble is much more familiar with the topics of identity politics than maybe a broader audience is. So how do we invite others in? Then there is the class problem because if we are producing for our own economic bubble can those we want to speak about actually afford to come and listen to all these stories, theories, ideas, whatever. Ticket pricing reveals how inclusive we really are? I agree, it’s a class thing as well.
Martin: The German-language theatres are mostly public institutions funded by public money. If the audience we host is not truly from all social strata, then we are in a sense redistributing funds from the lower middle class, which is one that also pays taxes, to those in higher economic classes. I don’t think that is right. I imagine that all of us identify as left or left-leaning, social democrats, or something like that. If we think about economic redistribution shouldn’t it be the other way around? The question of who our audience really is becomes a profoundly political one, directly linked to class issues.
Comparing it with the left in Spain or Chile or other countries, I think that in Germany all these struggles — ecological, feminist etc. — are separated, demobilized. We don’t create alliances. That’s why the topic of class is so rarely present in German-language theatres. I would suggest that creating alliances is also a kind of dramaturgy.
Tine: It becomes even more interesting when we mix issues and audiences. It is the most boring when we have a homogeneous audience because then you are simply being self-referential, doing it for yourself, basically.
Tobias: I would slightly disagree. I think sometimes, depending on the issue and the group, that theatre can still serve as an emancipatory and safe space. It can also be important for communities to find themselves not only represented, but also in a position to create and/or curate that space. At the Gorki Theatre in 2018 we invited a group of Roma curators and artists from all over Europe. Now there were many Roma people in the audience as well. It made for electricity in the room. In such specific circumstances, I don’t have a problem with preaching to the choir. There are still many who have never actually seen themselves represented in a theatre. On the other hand, if you really do want to avoid having only a particular bourgeois group going to the theatre because they really want to see only their own marital problems represented in only their own white, middle-class homes, then you do need to change the content.
Martin: This is where urban sociology comes in. A. sociologist can ask what a city is. There are a lot of definitions and most of them are rubbish. The only one that I think is interesting is defining cities as social forms. City for me is a process that has to constantly be moderated. City is the place where you are invited to decide whether you will encounter only the known or the unknown. It’s a place where you are constantly put into a tension. If that tension disappears, if you don’t encounter the other then city life itself is diminished. A city theatre is a laboratory of sorts for this tension, this urban life in which you will have always to meet the other.
Tine: Theater is an established resistance, a force where different groups and individuals come together to create that kind of friction. That friction is theatre’s potential. And with it we can create a new potential.
Tobias: I also love when communities come together celebrating themselves and seeing themselves represented in a public space. But I also find the creation of contradictions super important. I suspect that’s what you mean when you speak of friction and resistance.
Let’s come back to your personal perspectives. Tine and Tobias, what projects are you actually planning or are already in development with your co-curators? On the other hand, Martin, you are in a different structure at the Schaubühne: It has been criticized for being patriarchal in different ways – regarding the gender issue, for example – although we know that there is self-criticism in this theater which gives results. How do you see your position within this structure and what would be your choices and agenda? Let’s start with you Tine.
Tine: I can give a few examples of what we have been working on. During the lockdown, we tried to focus on the blind spots in our structure and how we could actually change them. We talked a lot about sustainable practices for artists. And we did ask ourselves if we were really accessible. We decided that our primary goal was to open the institution to new audiences. But could that audience afford to go to our theatre? Ticket prices are super high in Switzerland. Of course, we could just drop ticket prices but we do also need that box office income. Our answer was to ask people to pay what they could. Of course, audiences get super lost when they don’t know how much to pay, so we realized that we needed to suggest appropriate prices. We have now a three-price system for all shows and you can choose which price you want to pay. We became more accessible with this system and I think we gained a younger audience with it, an audience that was generally excluded. As well, we decided not to stage so many known plays but to look for new voices, new texts. We are trying to tell stories that haven’t been told.
Let me mention two examples where we I think we succeeded in creating socially-mixed audiences. One was with the well-known fairytale Hansel and Gretel. We twisted it around as Gretel and Hansel. It was also done as an anti-capitalist play using two actors who identify as female as the protagonists — Nils Amadeus Lange and Annina Machaz, both part of Florentina Holzinger’s artistic team. And both are known for their radical performance art. Everyone called me crazy for bringing them in to create a family piece for Christmas but I was sure that their humor and approach would work for children. It turned out that this piece had the most diverse audience ever at the theatre — there were five-year-olds with their grandparents attending along with people from the contemporary art scene coming.
The other example is Sacre du Printemps jointly staged by the Belgium choreographer Michiel Vandevelde, the Brazilian visual artist Elen Braga, the fashion and costume designer Stef van Looveren, the sound artist Fallon Mayanja and the video artist Juan Ferrari. We transformed this famous dance piece into a gender-fluid apocalyptic sensual movement piece that invited the audience to a journey of transformation, a sacrificial ritual honoring the earth. It was something completely else.
Tobias: I can also give an example which is, I think, a major achievement. And we haven’t even started our first season yet. We asked the current artistic director, Tomas Schweigen, to allow us to introduce ourselves to the staff. Everyone was invited to our rehearsal space a couple of weeks after our appointment and after a warm welcome we had the chance to introduce ourselves and to get in touch with everyone directly. It started a process of intense talks with all the theatre’s employees. We spoke with everyone on a permanent contract, from production management to sound technicians, from box office people to people in the costume department. We organized a second meeting a couple of months later. We wanted to give each and every one of the people working there an opportunity to get to know us. We asked about everyone’s workload, current positions and how content they were with them. Through this process – which rarely happens in a theatre — I think we gained a lot of trust and also a lot of insights. Later, the technical director and the production manager said that they would like to adopt the same approach and work in the same way – as a group with a joint vision.
What would your ideal audience be Tobias?
Tobias: To be as diverse as possible. Of course, that is the aim of every public institution. How to do it? I think there should be at least three different complementary measures. The programing itself needs to be diverse acknowledging particular perspectives. We need to recognize the fact that not only are all people different but that all are equal at the same time. We are also not looking for Shakespeare or the classics so much but are commissioning new writing and new projects. We’re looking for stories which have particular views of the present be it from an urban, regional, national or international perspective. We will always make it clear that these are specific perspectives but ones that tell us something about the world, that are part of a mosaic.
Secondly: we want to engage audiences with these new programs. There have already been activities in the recent years in this direction — workshops in vocational training schools with young people.
Third, we are developing a new department, Open House, for participatory projects. Our goal here is to give space to new interactive work to allow non-professionals people to experience live theatre for themselves. We are very interested in the concept of neighborhoods, so we are inviting neighborhood groups to come up with their own concepts. The work is semi-autonomous for now but it may eventually evolve a whole organism of its own.
Tine: We are also doing something with neighborhoods. Under the slogan “Love, play, fight” we have transformed Neumarkt into a hybrid space with three connected branches: Playground, Theatre, and Academy. We want Neumarkt to be an independent art center, a theatre for all who want to play, love, and fight. We want this to be a place of experiment, a space of possibility for testing fiction, narrations, and even realities. For us, this also means we are questioning the very basis of institutionality and the traditional understanding of theatre as a cultural institution. Playing in such a space for us is transcending actual boundaries, unleashing if we can artistic synergies through new networks and connections.
The Playground is our most experimental form. Every year we transform the whole space into some other kind of venue. In our first season we transformed the theatre into a spa: you could go there to sauna or to experience a floatation tank. It was a critical view of sorts of the whole wellness industry.
Our Academy was a kind of congress-on-stage because we also believe that it’s important to develop a discourse around performances. This season we have a conference on computer hacking where we invited a lot of hackers to come. We even invited Chelsea Manning. And we played a lot with the whole idea of hacking.
Martin: When I was at the Münchner Kammerspiele, Matthias Lilienthal had a very interesting approach to running things. He would frequently invite people in from the dramaturgy department, close the door, and we would discuss everything we were doing completely freely. In the end, he would say: if I understand correctly, this is our position. Then he would ask if we all agreed. At that point, he would accept total responsibility and trigger the chain of actions that were necessary to make it all happen. So even if it seemed that there was only one person in charge, there really was a multiplicity of perspectives behind them.
Now at the Kammerspiele, there is a different approach, even more open but flat. It is riskier because there are a lot of perspectives, you need to find a clear focus. You have to create a coherent, tangible agenda. An integrating figure is actually needed. I can’t really speak about Schaubühne, because I really have just started there.
Are you going to try to “transfer” your experience from Kammerspiele to Schaubühne and if yes how do you intend to do it? And what about the criticism that Schaubühne is not diverse enough it its acting ensemble?
Martin: I know that in Schaubühne they have already started a transformation. It’s a slow development because Schaubühne has been a stable and great ensemble for a very long time. So there may not seem to be an immediate change, but there is change happening. There is also a clear movement towards diversity. I think that all institutions develop slowly because of their structure but it is not because of any reluctance on the part of the people working there. This is something that needs to be understood.
As for international exchange, Schaubühne has, of course, always been open toward that. Indeed, international work is where I see myself most. Remember that Schaubühne has invited Katie Mitchell and many other artists from abroad to work there. Then it has its own annual international theatre festival (FIND) along with an immense international touring program of its own productions. We all understand that we are speaking about a very renowned theatre, one that positions Berlin and its theatre art at the center of the world.
Perhaps that’s a wonderful place to end this revealing conversation with you all: positioning Berlin, and through it, the whole German-speaking community at the center of the international world of performing arts. I thank you all very much.
 About these concepts and notions see Patrice Pavis, Dictionnaire de la performance et du théâtre contemporain, Arman Collin 2018.
*Ivan Medenica (Belgrade, Serbia), works at the FDA as Professor, teaching The History of World Drama and Theatre. He is an active theater critic and has received six times the national award for the best theatre criticism. He was the artistic director of Sterijino Pozorje in Novi Sad, the leading national theater festival in Serbia (2003–2007), to which he brought some important structural changes, especially in the domain of internationalization. For the period between 2015 to 2023, he served as the artistic director of Bitef Festival (Belgrade). From 2001 to 2012, Medenica was one of the main editors of the prestigious journal Teatron. He is a member of the International Association of Theater Critics’ Executive Committee and the Director of its international conferences. He is also a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages, the journal of the Association.
Copyright © 2023 Ivan Medenica
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.