Theatre is not a Delivery Service: Interview with Stefanie Carp

by Savas Patsalidis*

Stefanie Carp grew up in Hamburg, and studied German Philology, Philosophy and Theatre History in West Berlin. After completing her PhD, she started to work as a dramaturg in different theatres in Düsseldorf, Basel, Hamburg, Berlin and Zürich. For many years she was the close dramaturgical collaborator of the artist Christoph Marthaler and the set designer Anna Viebrock. In 2000 all three took over the artistic direction of the Zurich Schauspielhaus. After Zurich and two years as Chief Dramaturg at the Volksbühne in Berlin, Stefanie Carp accepted an offer from the Vienna Festival as artistic director of the international theatre program. From 2018 to 2020 she was the artistic director of the Festival Ruhrtriennale. Since 2020 she has worked as an advisor for the international program of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival.

PART ONE

Stefanie, how did it all start? In particular, what prompted your love of theatre?

I was part of a theatre group since I was 15 years old. We post-68ers were a generation who did not rush for a career; we had an attitude of I prefer not to.

Working in theatre seemed to offer a possibility for freedom and less alienation. I still think that it is a very attractive lifestyle as compared to other professions.

You are doing a lot of dramaturgical work. I am wondering how long it takes you to complete a script for a play. Do you work faster and better under pressure?

It depends on what it is, i.e., an adaptation, a draft for a project, or just a concept. For a novel adaptation, I would need 4 weeks at least. For a new text, which starts out with an idea and a subject matter, I need about 4 weeks of thinking and writing. But the bulk of the writing work is done together with the actors during the course of the rehearsals. That is always a great pleasure. I definitely work faster and better under pressure.

What do you look for in a work before you start (re)writing?

It depends on the context in which it will be performed, where the main conflict lines are, whether the story or the language itself is more important, and whether or not all possible performers have enough material.

Also, how would it connect with the experiences of the imagined contemporary audience at a certain time at a certain place? How do I or we avoid didacticism? But also, how do we avoid indifference? A good performance cannot be just nice. How do I or we accomplish the point where a performance hurts? And how do we, in conflict drawing, achieve or enable beauty?

Stefanie Carp (2023). Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

Looking back at your career, do you think there is anything you might do differently?

I might consider switching from being a theatre dramaturg and an artistic director of a theatre, in other words, from producing theatre work to international program curation. That was a much bigger change than I realized when I did it. I would have thought about it twice before acting. I could have burnt fewer bridges and run into fewer conflicts.

Have you written or edited anything that caused you any embarrassment?

In projects with a political impact I tend to be too direct. That is one of my sins: I’m too direct.

What do you like most about being a dramaturg?

I would say the best part is creating a world with the artists, i.e., the director, actors, set designers, and musicians. I love to write texts at the rehearsals together with the actors.

Of course, it can be very useful to keep a distance and an outside eye. In that case you work on the concept and later visit the rehearsals from time to time and describe to the artists what you see, or what you probably miss, that they are right now flying to Mars and not to Venus as they had intended.

The other aspect of dramaturgy is the creation of the input of the whole theatre in which you are working, normally on a team with three other dramaturgs and in conversation with the artistic director of that theatre. In ideal situations, you are part of a creative brotherhood or sisterhood that can give to theatre a new character and new perspectives.

I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to work in this way for many years and on many productions with Christoph Marthaler and his team

Stefanie Carp and Christoph Marthaler in Berlin (2004). Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

What are you proudest of in your career?

One is always doubting. I think my best single dramaturgy was a production called Schutz vor der Zukunft (Protection from the Future). That was my peak as a production dramaturg. I am proud of the huge changes that Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock and I realized in the Schauspielhaus Zürich. I am proud of having discovered and encouraged some artists long before they became well-known.

Schutz vor der Zukunft, a site-specific work created by Christoph Marthaler. Concept and dramaturgy: Stefanie Carp. Hospital Baumgartner Höhe. Vienna Festival 2005. Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp
Stefanie Carp, Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock in Zurich (2003). Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

What is the best advice you ever got from a producer, editor or fan?

When I was a beginner, my first Chief dramaturg told me that theatre is a permanent crisis, and that is the beauty of it. The advice was “Do not get practical.” 

I still believe that theatre should at least try to create a state of emergency. It should not be a feel-good delivery service.

Christoph Marthaler and Stefanie Carp preparing a new creation at Waldhaus, Switzerland (1999). Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

What is your order of priorities as a dramaturg or curator or artistic advisor?

My priorities are artistic quality, recognizing that theatre is not always art, intelligence, complexity, making inventions, opening new doors in the history of this art, subversiveness and beauty.

Stefanie Carp dancing with Einar Schleef at the opening of the Schiffbau in Zürich (2000). Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

How did you feel on becoming the first woman in the position of the Ruhrtriennale Music and Arts Festival since its foundation in 2002? That was quite a challenge back then, wasn’t it?

Suddenly it was strategic luck to be a woman, whereas it used to be strategic bad luck for so many years. I liked the challenge and I knew that it would not be easy.

What did you learn from the crisis that erupted around the participation of The Scottish band “Young Fathers” in Ruhrtriennale?

If confronted with a situation that you don’t know enough about, take a much longer time before making a decision. Don’t let social media, the press, or nervous politicians, rush you. For me, personally, the much more severe crisis was the incredibly disrespectful campaign against the great philosopher Achille Mbembe, whom I had invited for the Festival opening lecture.

The Band, “The Young Fathers,” supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), as do many British artists. In 2018 I heard the word BDS for the first time. I did not know what was all about. I stumbled unarmed into a very bad situation. I made a bad decision by disinviting them. When reading my statement, I thought: this person who wrote that is not me. So, I took it back, wrote a new statement, and launched a public discussion about BDS with supporters and anti-supporters. That was turbulent. I tried to make myself as transparent as possible with all my contradictions and doubts. My position was and still is: being German I would personally never support BDS. I also do not believe in cultural boycotts in principle: they destroy where we should communicate. But I do not regard BDS as antisemitic, and I do not suspect artists from other continents or NGO’s who are fighting for human rights for the Palestinians as being antisemitic.

Panel discussion about BDS in Ruhrtriennale (Bochum), August 2008, with artists and politicians. Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

Since you have mentioned Achille Mbembe let me ask you if you find his cultural views about biopolitics interesting. How would you relate them to theatre practice and theatre theory today?

I consider him one of the most important contemporary philosophers and historians. I used texts by Achille Mbembe in theatre projects long before I invited him to the Ruhrtriennale.

In 2014 I read The Critique of Black Reason, which might be together with The Post Colony the core of Achille Mbembe’s thinking and writing. It seemed to me the most enlightening and moving book I had read in a long time.

Achille Mbembe’s analytic history of racism, slavery and colonialism as part of the capitalistic project provided perspectives for theatre projects as much as for curating. His analytic thinking is inspired by Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault and Marxism. He pleads for forgiveness and togetherness.

Achille Mbembe. Photo: Web

You must be aware of his influential essay “Necropolitics”?

Yes, in his essay “Necropolitics” Mbembe analyzes Western Democracy, which he considers an exclusive club for those who are allowed to have civil rights. The unspoken conclusion could be “Let’s decolonize and democratize democracy.” He shows that Western democracies under capitalist conditions need an enemy for their economic survival and the justification for the exclusion of a part of humanity.

In this context, Mbembe gives some examples: the refugees in the camps in Europe, in the occupied territories, the black population in the South African Apartheid and the still very poor part of black populations in the townships. Because of these examples and comparisons, the antisemitism expert of the German Government accused Achille Mbembe of being antisemitic. Nearly the whole German Feuilleton jumped into a mixture of opportunism and racism. It was a lynching, not a debate. The only ones who defended him vividly were international and Israeli Jewish intellectuals.

Not long ago Achille Mbembe received important awards from the German government, the Geschwister Scholl Prize, for instance. He was invited to a number of openings and university lectures and usually spoke in front of thousands of enthusiastic people. He decided to stay away from Germany after the lynching and not have his books published anymore in the German language.

The German government still has not apologized to him as of today.

Many Germans feel that because of the terrible crimes our grandfathers committed they are entitled to accuse people in all parts of the world, including Israelis, of being antisemitic.

I cannot forgive myself that I brought Achille Mbembe in this situation.

PART TWO

For the next question we’ll shift our perspective geographically to Greece where you are currently engaged. Did the fact that you studied Greek literature in your undergraduate program play any role in your accepting the position you now have in Athens/Epidaurus Festival?

I would definitely say yes. I had always felt the Greek language and culture as an unfinished chapter in my life, to which I sometimes came back, but briefly. While I was engaged with the Vienna Festival program, I was also drawn to the Athens Festival. That was when Yiorgos Loukos, the newly appointed artistic director, made the big change and put it on the map of contemporary festivals. Of course, I had seen performances in Epidaurus. However, my knowledge of contemporary Greek theatre was limited. Following Loukos’ appointment, I became a regular visitor.

To work in Greece with the Festival is for me a beautiful chance to get connected again with the Greek language and contemporary Greek culture, and through my work to become better informed about a society and a country which existed in my childish nostalgic memories.

What have you learned through working with the Greek theatre community? Have you encountered any difficulties, that is to say, problems getting things done? How different are the working conditions in Greece as compared to, say, Germany or Austria?

One main difference is the lack of financial support. My impression is that the colleagues, if I may say so, who work in theatre in whatever position or profession are not respected enough. They are also very poorly paid.

What I miss most is collaboration. Whether in theatre or festival, I was used to working as a group, a sort of brotherhood or sisterhood of brains, who were in constant discussion, discussion with the colleagues of the production and the technical department, with colleagues of the press and the public relations departments.

My explanation for that has to do with the hierarchies in this country which are still very deeply entrenched. Not that we, in the German work context, don’t have hierarchies; of course we do, but they are structurally more differentiated. If there is only one boss and everybody else is treated as an assistant, then everybody is afraid to take responsibility and make decisions, and that gives the impression that things are not getting done.

You have been watching European theatre for a number of years. You have also watched a good number of Greek shows. How does Greek theatre differ from theatre cultures in Germany, Switzerland and Austria? What, if anything, could Greek theatre culture learn from the theatrical tradition in these countries, and vice versa?

Greece is like England or Russia: a more conventional but very passionate theatre country compared to Belgium, Poland or Germany. In Greece I feel that theatre is primarily logos and poetry. It is very text-based, even the experimental theatre. In many countries this hierarchy, in which text comes first and is the only condition for quality, does not exist.

Early Bob Wilson, Pina Bausch, Tadeusz Kantor, The Wooster Group, La Mamma, and the Belgian Need Company created spaces without genre borders. Theatre was not necessarily dramatic anymore. An installation, in which every spectator encounters the situations, images, and text on his or her own, can also be regarded as theatre.

I envy Greece for its theatre passion. I don’t know any other European capital that has more than 50 theatres, or a festival with such a huge audience. All invited international artists have told me how much they liked the liveliness of the audiences in Athens. I love to follow theatre discussions here in Greece. They are so serious. Ancient tragedies are still a “problem,” I think.

Why do you think so?

I mean, they are both a beauty and a burden. I feel that they are ideologized and nationalized, and that makes it more difficult for young Greek artists to propose new, cutting-edge ideas. The classics sit like a gigantic Über Ich on every artist’s mind and make him or her awfully humble not only in staging tragedies but also in developing contemporary interpretations of this art.

What could we learn from one another? What experiences could we exchange? I would wish for the German theatre more poetic beauty and ambiguity and for Greek theatre artists more courage in crossing borders and breaking rules, in becoming more anarchic. First and foremost, however, I would wish for them that they get more state support.

Epidaurus: its significance and function always make headline news. Photo: Web

Although things are rapidly changing now, one of the issues still hotly debated in Greece has to do with the isolation of contemporary Greek theatre from the major European stages (despite the impressive number of annual productions). Do you think that the overexposure of the classics comes at the expense of the country’s contemporary theatre achievements?

I would say most definitely yes. Conservative and right-wing governments have successfully nationalized ancient tragedies. That happened not only in Greece; the English did it with Shakespeare, the French with Racine and Moliere. In Germany we dismantled our nationalized Weimar classics in the 90’s by deconstructing them.

Many discussions in Greece about what is and is not allowed with regard to the classic text remind me of the German debates back then. It is essentially a discussion about the role of the directing artist. Is s/he an interpreter like a conductor or a creator? And how free is the creator in respect to the given text? There will never be a final answer. One creator meets a creation made decades before the present time. It is a dialogue, which is measuring the historical moment, the director`s generation in relation to the historical moment of the text`s creation. I think an artist should love the material, regardless of wherever she or he takes it.

My feeling is that in the last years this overexposure of ancient tragedies and the construction of Hellenisms have increased. They seem to be connected with a cultural policy which wants to create a cultural identity of this country which consists merely of archaeology, and thereby neglects a rich contemporary cultural life. Archaeology serves here as the strategy for commercializing culture as a tourist attraction.

You are aware of the verbal war that erupted following the performance of Aristophanes’ Wasps and then Frank Castorf’s Medea in Epidaurus, a verbal war of extremes, insults, threats, and warnings. We have witnessed this phenomenon a number of times, but not to such an extreme degree. Have you encountered anything like that elsewhere? Can you imagine this happening in Germany, for example?

The question that dominated all discussions for about two months following the controversial performance of Aristophanes’ Wasps at Epidaurus had to do with the issue of “limits”: are there any limits when re-interpreting the classics, and if so, who sets these limits? Photo: Christos Simenonidis. Courtesy of the National Theatre

Scandalizing rule-breaking occurs in the opera, especially in the case of Wagner and Bayreuth. I remember that when Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock and I deconstructed Faust in the nineties, it caused a lot of fury and never-ending debates. Fooling around with Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell in Switzerland was also dangerous.

The last interesting theatre scandals I remember were caused by the wonderful artist Christoph Schlingensief, who unfortunately died too young. When he staged Hamlet with real Neonazis transformed into GIs shortly after Nine Eleven, the Zurich Board of Directors dismissed Christoph Marthaler, Anna Viebrock and me. That caused such a huge protest movement with demonstrations and committees that the board of directors had to step back.

I also remember the scandal that erupted when Claus Peymann staged Thomas Bernhards Heldenplatz in Vienna. That was back in the 80s. It seems the German theatre culture has lost its passion. Such an emotional ongoing debate like this summer in Greece about the Wasps and Medea does not happen anymore, not in the frame of theatre, which is a great pity

Frank Castorf’s re-reading of Medea was generally well-received. The comments of those who objected had to do mostly with the fact that Castorf’s stage designer (Aleksandar Denic) filled the orchestra with garbage. Photo: Thomas Daskalakis. Courtesy of Athens/Epidaurus Festival

What makes every debate, especially the Epidaurus debate, so extreme and vulgar and so totally lacking in respect, is the social media. Everybody can formulate and publish whatever enters into his or her mind, and this can be very harmful and misleading.

This being said, I believe that such passionate reactions like the audience fight during the opening of Lena Kitsopoulou’s Wasps are the really good moments, the moments when theatre comes alive. The journalists and the politicians should be proud of that.

In Greece people still talk a lot about Epidaurus and its (inter)national role. They do not think of Epidaurus as a purely theatrical site but rather as a kind of monument to be respected and protected; that is a very special place that should be accessible only to those who have something important to show in relation to the classical texts. If you were in charge of this site, would you open it up to everybody? Would you promote it in the theatre market as a brand? How would you handle this?

Epidaurus is, aesthetically speaking, a difficult place, and not only because it is an archaeological site with all the restrictions. Most contemporary aesthetics do not work in amphitheaters. And the question is: whose artist`s handwriting would work in this place or would go against it in an interesting way? Does it have to be theatre? Does it have to be an ancient tragedy?

Peter Brook, with his minimalism and simplicity, would have been, aesthetically, ideal. But possibly he would not have wanted to do an ancient tragedy. I would open it for sure to choreography and, depending on the artist, free creations. But then, there is the commercial aspect: the larger the audience, the greater the ticket sales and the consumers in the restaurants. How does one bring to this theatre site a 10,000-paying audience?

Reading and listening to all these discussions I understand that for most Greeks Epidaurus is something else beyond a theatre. It is a place of recognition and assurance of Greek culture and language; it is highly representative but also a sort of folk theatre.

I think I would install a think tank of Greek and international cultural intellectuals to find a contemporary identity for Epidaurus. Their final debate should be a public performance in the ancient theatre. Perhaps they could even decide to let it be what it is, without experiments, without foreigners, let it be exclusively Greek and concentrate on a really international and contemporary program at the Festival’s main venue on Pieraios Street.

On the subject of Epidaurus, many people object to the use of microphones and video projections, claiming that such technical means are not necessary in Epidaurus. Scenographic and technological additions should be in accordance with the environment and the very character of the theatre structure itself. According to their argument, nothing should shift the focus away from the theatre’s special characteristics, for example, its unique acoustics. Locals and tourists visit Epidaurus because it is what it is and not what scenography or technology makes it out to be. What is your opinion on this question?

If the space should speak for itself without addition, then we should make very abstract, timeless creations of Greek tragedies, which are more like a reading than acting. Minimalism is just one possibility. But it is also rigid thinking to oblige every artist to minimalism. There are always audiences who hate video and who hate Mike Ports in general, not only in Epidaurus.

The use of technology in Frank Castorf’s Medea (Epidaurus 2023) was one of the issues debated among theatre goers. Photo: Thomas Daskalakis. Courtesy of Athens/Epidaurus Festival

People who felt offended by the way Lena Kistopoulou directed Aristophanes’s Wasps claimed that those who want to experiment should better do it in a theatre that is more “user-friendly” regarding radical innovations.

What does it mean to be user-friendly? Are we talking about children’s theatre? Or do we mean a safe space, a safe space in which everything is understandable? Theatre art has to provoke, to ask questions, to irritate, to bring the viewer into conflict. It does not have to simply please the audience. I dare say that complex art would not even please.

My argument is the reverse: if a theatre gets a subsidy, it is obliged to be innovative, to open new doors in theatre history. Theatre as a museum can go the commercial route; it does not need a subsidy.

Promo trailer of the controversial adaptation of  Aristophanes’ Wasps

I cannot agree with you more. Do you know any other theatre structure so closely linked to people’s national identity? Would you compare its function to, say, Bayreuth?

It is comparable to Bayreuth and to the Jedermann cult in Salzburg. But there is one difference: the “Wagnerianer” are more isolated. It is not the cultural majority of society which is debating about Bayreuth.

The other difference is this: everybody from poor to rich visits the performances at Epidaurus and each has an opinion. A ticket for the Jedermann in Salzburg, on the other hand, costs about 400 Euro. That is not meant for all the Austrian society.

Yes, this is true. On a slightly different note, I know that you were on the working group that put together the first showcase of Athens/Epidaurus. What do you look for when putting a showcase or a festival program together?

I was more involved in initiating the showcase and encouraging the international colleagues to come. I was not very much involved in the details of the program as I am not Greek. There was an open call and then we selected a number of proposals. I would always look for the most specific artistic language and the most specific contemporary Greek content.

An ideal Greek showcase in my regard should be made by several institutions together: Athens/Epidaurus Festival, National Theatre and Stegi Onassi. An independent jury would choose the ten best or the ten most interesting of the season, which would then be presented as a showcase.

Of course, selecting performances is a very complicated matter here in Greece because most companies do not store their productions. Once they run their course they disappear. This is sad, but that’s the way theatre works. That said, how do you understand the significance of a showcase or a festival in our age?

A showcase and a festival are two very different activities with different aims.

A showcase is a tool to get international attention for a country`s culture if it is not visible enough on the map.

A really international festival brings theatre languages from all over the world to the audiences of a town. It should confront the local audiences with performances they do not encounter during the local season.

In Vienna, for example, I could invite, produce or co-produce thirty productions of which only three or four came from the German context. The eight or ten international performances we have the chance to show in Athens, are, each in its own way, significant because they widen the horizon and provide another perspective for local audiences and artists; they offer new aesthetics, other methods and conditions of work. An international festival has the chance to provide multi-perspectival communication.

Of course, it is not enough to collect some beautiful things; one also programs differently in Berlin, Vienna or Athens. You have to figure out what makes sense in which context, and you have to contextualize, to connect performances with other positions in the program, with music, film etc.

One last question regarding festivals and showcases: Do you anticipate any changes in the near future, any changes in their intercultural/international role? If you do, can you think of any alternative to the model to which we have been accustomed?

Internationality has changed in the last ten or more years. Internationality today means to include, among other options, the artwork of the post-migrant artists living in the European centers and to make them part of the debate.

Another change in our thinking caused by the climate catastrophe is our doubt about rushing like crazy over the planet in order to find artists others have not discovered yet. I am myself a very bad example. I hope that we will find alternative ways to communicate and to internationally cooperate and that we do not have to go back to local and regional. We do not want to give up our universal approach.

PART THREE

You follow contemporary theatre developments around the world very closely; so I would say that you are the right person to discuss trends that you think will pick up momentum in the near future.

The most important current trends and passions in theatre and the arts are

  1. queerness and fluidness as a content and as a form and an expression, and
  2. the recognition of the contemporary Indigenous expression, the recognition of the non-Eurocentric perspective.

The challenge for us is how to develop new criteria or unlearn our European criteria without losing our sense of art. It is a complicated but interesting process because it also leads to the question of hierarchies. Is creation a dialogue with others or the process of a single individual?

With a view to the frightening political developments I am convinced and I hope that a new political activism will infect all theatre, an activism that would touch on issues broader than gender.

Seven Days Emergency for Germany: Mission Impossible. Activistic, artistic creation by Christoph Schlingensief. Deutsches Schauspielhaus. Hamburg 1997. Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

If you were asked to compare the theatre of some thirty years ago to the theatre practiced now, would there be anything you miss from the past?

I was a different person thirty years ago and I lived in another society. That person admired passionately the new aesthetic and the new impact, the rebellion against the routine, against the institutionalization of performing arts, and the transforming of a theatre institution into a Gesamtkunstwerk.

I was always inspired by what I felt – and it is a physical sensation – whenever I witnessed that a door to a new room of theatre history had opened. I cannot describe this on an international scale; that would be too complicated. In the 90s and within the contexts I worked, these inventions were the separation of the text from interaction; situations like the Shakespearean readings of the Need Company; the use of video by artists such as the Wooster Group and later Frank Castorf and Bert Neumann; the action telling performances of Forced Entertainment in UK; the deconstruction of the classics, the collage of different material like choreography, music, text into one poetic and musical score, for example, what Christoph Marthaler did; the invention of projects with a theme, a subject matter not related to any given text of the repertory; the activistic political art of Christoph Schlingensief on stage and in the City, long before the Artivism movement, the crossing over of genres, the breaking up of the hierarchy in which a dramatic text is the center, made their presence felt.

The next door that was opened in our performing art culture was Rimini Protocol with the experts of daily life, which has led to a new documentary and site-specific theatre and the thought of the collective of artists, followed by the different expressions of post-migrant theatre.

Another invention was the emergence of immersive theatre, in which the audience member is a participant in the performance.

Morrinho: A group of Brasilian young guys rebuilt the Favella in Rio de Janeiro, in which they were living, and played and screened the experiences of their life. Vienna Festival 2008. Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

Putting everything in focus, it all comes down to the poetics and problematics of re-presentation, right?

Yes, that’s right. The biggest change in theatre discourse and theatre practice in the last 15 years has been the questioning of representation: who is allowed to represent whom. It all started with the discussion of appropriation. All of a sudden it felt perverse to us, that white privileged middle-class people pretend on stage to be refugees or even appropriate their texts. I worked as a dramaturg in such a production and I remember how this thought gripped us all of a sudden and the rehearsal process was a continuous discussion trying to find a way that felt right. These new thoughts questioned representation in general. That led to the attempt to have very diverse casts in age, sex, and ethnicity, in which every performer can perform every part in a conscious non-identification manner.

While chasing after the new and renewal, has theatre lost anything on the way?

The most recent change in the theatre, at least in the German theatre practice and thinking, is the questioning of the category of art quality and complexity as something elitist, exclusive instead of inclusive, and hierarchical.

Here I have a problem: if you question complexity, ambivalence and ambiguity, then you question art as such.

Simplifying cannot be the solution. I do not believe for example in the transferring of complex languages like the poetry of the Greek classics or the language of Lessing into so-called simple language. That is ridiculous.

I miss complexity, not always, but in many performances. I don’t like this kindergarten overprotection in the context of art. Protection in the arts, really?

You have collaborated with other theatres and festivals around the world. How important has this cosmopolitan experience been for your work and understanding of theatre?

International work has changed all my thinking and feeling, my interests, my personal understanding of what is possible in the performing arts, of the differences and views of those who are not European. It made me aware of how privileged, how arrogant and stupid we are.

I remember in 2008, after coming back from a trip to Benin and Nigeria, I saw the opening of an Othello performance in Vienna with a brilliant German actor. He was black-faced with all the perfection of the Burgtheater mask department. I imagined the sympathetic festival director from Cotonu sitting beside me and I felt so ashamed that I had to leave. Prior to that I had accepted it without giving it a thought.

Talking about cosmopolitanism, I understand from your career that you are after a cosmopolitan understanding of theatre. How do you see this in practice? Are there any limits to this openness? How would you protect the locality of theatre without being called nationalist, conservative or introverted?

The more local you are the more global you become. All good theatre and the performing arts communicate empirical, local experiences. Of course, this local itself has changed and is changing all the time to more diversified forms.

The languages and the habits are changing and what we regard as our specific literature and cultural core gets mixed up with the texts, the music and the memories of other cultures.

I think the specific beauty of a language can live beside the strange beauty of a hybrid language which comes out of hybrid life and finds its own strength.

But there are productions which are created for the international market and the needs of international touring and the taste of international curators. That dominant European taste policy, a perspective, is a problem, and I would not dare say that I am free of it.

Hotel Prora. Artistic, activistic creation by Christoph Schlingensief in Volksbühne, Prater, Berlin, 1998. Photo: Courtesy of Stefanie Carp

How do you respond to the postmodern slogan, “Anything goes”?

I never understood exactly what that means. Postmodern philosophy was a reaction to the age of ideologies. Every artwork follows some inner strict directions or laws of form and measure. Art is the seismograph of our present being. It should never be restricted by outer laws like tradition, religion or politics.

The only requirement is that it has to matter. The world is getting worse every day. Nothing comes easy.

If we consider most festivals as the ideal place to host experimental works, does that make them elitist, in the sense that they somehow weaken their role as places that reflect the collective spirit of the city or the country?

I was always convinced that a festival creates an exceptional time. It shows many and very different events in a condensed form. Not accidentally the word festival contains the word feast.

Above all a festival should bring together the different and unknown in an urban society; the more foreign, novel and unknown, the better. If a festival program repeats what the theatres are doing during the regular season, nobody needs it.

But to give your question a second thought: there are festivals and festivals.

There are highly representative festivals for a certain society, which are economically speaking elitist, and there are Festivals which are programmed for other professionals. These festivals function more as trade fairs rather than as festivals for audiences.

Could you give me an example of what you consider to be an innovative international festival?

There are good examples of innovative, international artistic festivals for the audiences of a city. The Kunstenfestival in Brussels is one of them. It was founded in the nineties by the bright lady Frie Laysen, who convinced the politicians in Brussels to be patient: it will not have huge success in ticket sales in the first year, but after some years the audiences of the city will love it and will be proud of it.

There seems to be no end to crisis; we all know that theatre is accustomed to that. But things seem to be more complex and difficult now. What are your thoughts about theatre’s Day After? How do you think theatre will react to all the current crises? Do you think we will see a response with darker and more provocative and urgent plays? 

Difficult to say. We are now experiencing very dark times. The massacre of Hamas and the war in Gaza are the worst manifestations of dehumanization which make us lose any hope in a future humanity. It is said, that dark times can produce good theatre. I hope that does not sound cynical to you. Most theatre performances were recently dealing with gender issues in a very cheerful way. In the years to come we will encounter a new expression of fury, urgency and desperation.

I would like to end our talk with an issue hotly debated during the pandemic: live streaming. Many people claim that live streaming is an effective and inexpensive way to reach audiences unable or unwilling to go to venues.

Yes, live streaming is a useful addition, if it is very well done. But the best live stream can never replace the experience of being in an audience with others, with all the nonverbal communication between the people in the audience, and the emotions that arise. The climate in an audience can change a performance. A performance without an audience is not a performance. With live streaming you can reach out to spectators who live in another part of the planet. Technically well done streaming as an archive is something I appreciate. It is also very useful to stream lectures and discussions, because they are not repeated, or because they take place in locations to which I do not have physical access. But still, in my thinking, one important aspect of all live performances, whether it is music, theatre, dance or a talk or a reading, is the creation of an assembly, of a community.

I would want to protect the rare occasions of physical assemblies but also include the possibility of creating an additional community by live streaming. 


*Savas Patsalidis is Professor Emeritus in Theatre Studies at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he has taught at the School of English for close to 35 years. He has also taught at the Drama School of the National Theatre of Northern Greece, the Hellenic Open University and the graduate program of the Theatre Department of Aristotle University. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. In 2019 his book Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published by University Studio Press. In 2022 his book-length study Comedy’s Encomium: The Seriousness of Laughter, was also published by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he writes theatre reviews for various journals. He is on the Executive Committee of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, a member of the curators’ team of Forest International Festival (organized by the National Theatre of Northern Greece), and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

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