Matthias Pees

Interview with Matthias Pees,
the new Director of the Berliner Festspiele

Mar. 24, 2023
Matthias Pees

(C) Marlena Waldthausen

Matthias Pees

Matthias Pees started out as a journalist, and after working as a dramaturg at the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin and the Schauspiel Hannover, he started a production company in Brazil. After coming back to Germany then he worked as leading dramaturg at the Wiener Festwochen. From 2013 Pees has served as the artistic and managing director of the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt/Main until 2022.

In September 2022, he was appointed Director of the Berliner Festspiele, which brings together several festivals, including the Theatertreffen, and other projects and the exhibition hall Gropius Bau. We asked Pees about his views on his new team structure and reform of the festivals.

Interviewer: Makiko Yamaguchi
Congratulations on your recent appointment as Director of the Berliner Festspiele. I am sure that your appointment has been widely met with high expectations. May I begin by asking you about the most important experiences and perceptions you gained during your time at Mousonturm?
Mousonturm is a production house dedicated to what is called the free scene in Germany, which means to all forms of independent performing arts. It was the first time for me to run such a type of theater, so looking back, I feel that it was nine years of very intense experience.

In countries that do not have a system such as the German municipal and state theaters with their own ensembles and a repertoire system, the difference between a municipal theater and a production house may not be clear. Most of the foreign artists we’ve worked with are from such countries, so I think working with Mousonturm was meaningful for them. In the first place, there are still only a few theaters in Germany that they can do collaborative productions with.
It is true that German municipal theaters do not collaborate often with foreign artists and organizations.
Germany’s municipal theaters have a system in which they produce a certain number of works a year and perform them regularly as part of their repertoire, and that is why they normally cannot afford to collaborate with overseas partners. Recently, however, some theaters have begun holding international festivals, such as the Lessingtage festival at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, the Biennale at the Wiesbaden Theater, and the international new drama festival FIND Festival at the Schaubühne in Berlin. In reality, however, these are sometimes collaborations and mostly invited works. There are seven larger international production houses in Germany that commission or co-produce new works with foreign artists.
These seven houses came together to create a network in 2015.
With a total of seven theaters, including HAU Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin and Kampnagel in Hamburg, we formed an alliance. These seven production houses have played a very important role in supporting the creation and performance of free-scenes in each city and region, and they also connect these with the performing arts scenes in Germany and abroad.

Artists and organizations outside Germany will have access to the performing arts communities in the country, while local artists and organizations will be able to gain wider attention and recognition through international collaboration. What’s even more important is the presence of the audience. Local audiences will be exposed to projects and works from around the world and will feel the change in perspective.
You have experience working outside of Germany, in places such as South America, and you have shown that you have an especially clear idea of the importance of acquiring new viewpoints and perspectives.
Based on my experience in Brazil and my exposure to a variety of overseas performing arts worlds during my time at Wiener Festwochen, I believe that a change of perspective is crucial. What kind of changes will occur when we not only look at ourselves, but also look at the outside world, compare ourselves to what we have seen and known before, or expose ourselves to views from the outside? In that case, who are we in the increasingly diverse cities in Germany? This is a very important question.

The existing so-called institutions in arts and culture have long been premised on homogeneous social understanding in Germany. However, that does no longer reflect our reality. So, how can we reflect that reality in historically grown institutions and manifest it in them? In other words, how can it manifest itself at the level of the structure of the audience, the program, and the institution itself? This is a very challenging question for cultural institutions in Europe.

Production houses, on the other hand, have a shorter history, but they are still institutions. Mousonturm is a municipal theater, half of its budget is guaranteed by the city of Frankfurt and the other half by the state and other, mainly public sources. In that sense, it is a big question for Mousonturm as well. However, we don’t have our own artists and ensembles like traditional municipal theaters, so we can act as co-production partners or producers for external artists’ projects. It is very flexible. Another important task I have undertaken in Frankfurt is working with other institutions.
What kind of specific organizations have you collaborated with?
There are the six other production houses I mentioned earlier that have formed an alliance. In addition, the Hessian State Ballet, a dance company from the neighboring cities of Wiesbaden and Darmstadt, also co-produces and invites performances. We have been collaborating with them throughout the year for about eight years, and we have launched the Tanzfestival Rhein-Main. Furthermore, with the cooperation of the Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt am Main/ Schauspiel Frankfurt, we have organized productions of works by artists from the independent scene. We have also collaborated with museums. Some special projects were also developed with the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts, the Jewish Museum Frankfurt and the Archaeological Museum. We have worked with universities, educational institutions, and civic groups on a variety of themes and issues.

For example, the Hessian Theatre Academy is the only initiative in Germany that brings together educational institutions and theaters for the performing arts in the state of Hesse and its neighboring states, and the Mousonturm is one of the affiliated theaters.

I know the theater scenes well, but what I am also interested in is the field of natural sciences from a future-oriented perspective and its content. What kind of research is being done now, and what kind of efforts are being made? There is always a thesis involved in the “experiments” being conducted in the natural sciences and academia, and the purpose is to prove the thesis. “Experimentation” in art proceeds openly from the beginning without any set conclusion or result in mind. I am interested in disposing of the distinction between scientific and artistic experiments and further developing the concept of experimentation.

To what extent can the experimental ways of art be applied to the field of science? To what extent can we make the existence of something unknown or space to be studied a starting point for experimentation, rather than starting from a thesis to be proved? This is very interesting, and in thinking about the future of art, which traditionally has not taken a specific premise for experimentation, I think this will be an important challenge.
What about artists? For example, you have worked on projects several times with Akira Takayama since you worked at the Wiener Festwochen.
At Mousonturm, we chose artists to present new works and do co-productions as associate artists in order to introduce an external perspective into the theater on an ongoing basis and have their voices be heard over the long term, rather than just temporarily. They are artists who are mainly from countries other than Germany and ones with whom we already had a relationship of mutual trust. The implementation of such projects varies according to the specific circumstances in each case.

We have taken time to build this system, and when I left last summer, Mousonturm had five associated artists. Akira Takayama is one of them, the others are choreographer Eisa Jocson from the Philippines, the Congo-French writer, performer and theater director Dieudonné Niangouna, artist Mats Staub from Switzerland, and theater director Jetse Batelaan (artistic director of Theater Artemis) from the Netherlands.
That’s an impressive group!
We have done many projects with Jetse Batelaan. Some of those projects originated at Mousonturm. He partly developed works with his Theater Artemis in residency at Mousonturm, and then returned to Frankfurt to have them performed after they were completed. As a theater, we were committed to both the first step of creating works and then the performances after their completion.

Akira Takayama’s projects were similar to those of Mats Staub in that they center on research that they do in and around a city and its population. In other words, we brought the artist Takayama from Japan to get to know the city of Frankfurt where we live and to get him to know it, and perhaps even better than we do.
It’s a view from the outside.
It means that the better Takayama gets to know Frankfurt, the better we get to know it too. His view of Frankfurt serves as a guide for us, and not only for ourselves but for the artists and audiences of Frankfurt as well. Of course, we have also worked with many local Frankfurt artists on Frankfurt-themed projects, and in fact, some very good works have been created as a result. However, many of those works were installations. On the other hand, in Takayama’s projects certain phenomena, movements, and opportunities for interaction were systematically “directed” as a series.

Hans‐Thies Lehmann called Takayama’s works “theater hidden”. It must be hidden once in order to reappear. I think this could be called a “secret theater”. It is designed so that if you do not overcome many hurdles to get there and solve the problems imposed on you on the Internet, you will not know where you are going. Some of his projects in Japan were also adapted for Frankfurt, but the one he created from scratch in Frankfurt was European Thinkbelt. Based on Cedric Price’s Staffordshire area Potteries Thinkbelt project, he created McDonald’s Radio University as its core. I am certain that it was presented and adapted in Japan as well.

Theater der Welt 2023

You have been involved in the nomination of theaters in the city of Frankfurt to host the 2023 edition of the international theater festival “Theater der Welt” (by the ITI German Center), which is held every three years in rotation around German cities and regions. Did this nomination have a lot to do with your experience collaborating with your partner organizations?
The candidacy for the Theater der Welt in 2023 was based on a very good working relationship between Anselm Weber, director of the Schauspiel Frankfurt, and me. When it was decided that he would become the director of the theater, I got a call. He told me, “Why don’t we do a joint project with independent artists every year, we’ll give you the space, our resources and some production budget, so why don’t you bring your curatorial expertise and the other part of the necessary budget. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what kinds of projects we will work on together,” and he really did let us do the curation.

Schauspiel Frankfurt is a large municipal theater, but Mousonturm is a small production house. Despite the huge differences, they have placed a lot of trust in us, and together we have achieved a lot of success based on that trust. We’ve worked with amazing artists, from Forced Entertainment, Rimini Protokoll, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, and more. One of the productions has subsequently been invited to the Theatertreffen of Berliner Festspiele. Eventually, we talked about hosting the Theater der Welt 2023.

As part of our efforts for the Theater der Welt nomination, we approached two more partner organizations. The first is the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Arts, which is particularly strong in the fashion and design field and deals with a very wide range of applied arts. Its audience is also very diverse, and its building is a wonderful modernist building designed by Richard Meier in the 1980s. During the festival, the museum will be opened completely to provide use of its entire space, thus enabling entirely new types of use.

The other is the Department for Culture and Sports Management of the City of Offenbach. With the addition of this agency, the two neighboring “sister” cities of Offenbach and Frankfurt will be jointly holding the festival. These are two cities that have a history of hundreds of years of development.

Frankfurt was once granted autonomy as an imperial free city of the Holy Roman Empire where imperial coronations were held. As such, Frankfurt had clearly defined boundaries that prevented its later growth. Offenbach, on the other hand, was one of the surrounding areas under the jurisdiction of a count. These different aspects of urban development lasted until the Kingdom of Prussia annexed Frankfurt in the mid-19th century. Subsequently, the administrative difference was eliminated, but the economic gap between Frankfurt, which developed into an international financial hub with large commercial enterprises, and Offenbach remained imbalanced. In Germany today, Offenbach is one of the representative so-called “arrival cities” that immigrants and people seeking work migrate to.

These two neighboring cities have developed in different directions despite overlapping in some areas. Many people who work in Frankfurt, especially in the field of arts and culture, live in Offenbach and commute to work every day due to the high rents in Frankfurt. In some cases, the opposite is true. Today, Offenbach is home to a large number of start-ups in the field of communications technology, and it also has excellent (technical) universities. In particular, the Offenbach Design University is one of the best-known applied arts universities in Germany.

Located in the eastern part of the city of Frankfurt, Mousonturm itself is in fact much closer to Offenbach geographically than to the western outskirts of Frankfurt, so we have carried out many projects there, including experimental ones. I believe that the decisive factor in our being chosen to host Theater der Welt lies precisely in this combination of different urban aspects and differences in economic status. Specifically, it is the presence of new possibilities such as the parallel use of museums as performance venues for theater festivals and the combination of two cities with economic disparities.

Of course, the combination of a large municipal theater with ensemble and a repertoire system with a free-scene production house that runs very experimental program must have been significant.
That is indeed an interesting combination, and it is a convincing argument. I think this was probably the first time that a program director of Theater der Welt was selected on an open-call basis, was it related with the nomination?
I don’t think this is the first time that a program director has been recruited publicly. This time, however, I think it has made a widespread statement to the world. Applications were solicited from outside Europe. In the history of Theater der Welt, no one from a non-European country has ever been a program director, and furthermore, the fact was that Frie Leysen is the only non-German or non-native German speaker to become the director (for Mülheim and Essen in holding in 2010).

In that sense, this open call was very innovative. This call for directors was also incorporated into the concept created for the candidacy from the beginning. We wanted to call for applications from all over the world and bring in new perspectives from outside Europe into the festival. As a result, the Japanese team of Chiaki Soma, Kyoko Iwaki and Arts Commons Tokyo was selected from among no less than 80 applications.

In total, we had more than 200 applicants from 35 countries, and many of them applied as teams. That’s an amazing number. The selection process took six months. Fifteen applicants and groups were asked to submit more detailed concepts, and six teams were interviewed. It was a very beneficial learning process that far exceeded my expectations. I feel that it taught me a lot about the future of the festival. If possible, I would have liked to compile all 15 of the submitted concepts into a book that would reveal possibilities for the future of the festival. That’s how interesting and varied the perspectives and thoughts were that came in from all over the world.
What was the biggest reason why the Soma-Iwaki team was chosen?
There were a number of points that we considered. First of all, there was Soma’s wealth of festival experience. Not only from her work at Festival/Tokyo but also in her Arts Commons Tokyo organization. Besides working as an individual, Soma also has an organization in Japan, that organization can also be relied on. Iwaki’s achievements in the theoretical and academic worlds were also evaluated highly. Furthermore, the concepts that the two of them addressed are truly pertinent questions of this era, such as mobility and interaction in a corona world. And they summarized them under a new term they called “incubationism”. The word incubation itself originally includes the meaning of the incubation period of the virus. Many things they proposed, from the projects, the specific works, and the proposals for works to be commissioned for the festival were very convincing for us. A selection committee of eight members selected the proposal by these two after very detailed discussions in a democratic process.(*)
Did the selection committee consist of members from a variety of countries, too?
No, it was limited to the organizers of this event. There were two from Mousonturm, two from the Städtische Bühnen/ Schauspiel Frankfurt, two from the Museum and two from Offenbach.

Applying for the Director of the Berliner Festspiele

You have now been appointed Director of the Berliner Festspiele, despite the fact that two years still remained in your term as Intendant at Mousonturm. Was the position of the Director decided through an open call?
It was an open call. Thomas Oberender, who had served as Director for 10 years, decided at short notice that he would not do another term, so there was a rush to put out an open call in the summer 2021. Looking at Europe on the whole, there are not many positions that special, and I thought it would be a rare opportunity for me.
How long did you have to prepare your application?
It was a sudden open call, and the application period was short, and it would be just two months from application until the selection would be made. I was notified that I was tentatively chosen for the job in the middle of September 2021.
How did you feel when you received the news?
I didn’t expect to be selected.
When did your term as Director of the Berliner Festspiele begin?
Thomas Oberender’s contract ended by the end of 2022. But I first needed to finish the current Mousonturm season and make sure that the projects I had started were on track. That’s why my contract in Berlin only started in September 2022.
You were able to get a good team in place for your successor, weren’t you?
The succession was an important appointment for the city of Frankfurt. The theater that I had directed for nine years did not need to make a completely new start at that point. Preparations for Theater der Welt 2023 were already underway, and there were many projects that had already been initiated, along with collaborative projects based on partnerships. It is a small theater in scale, but there are other festivals that we were working on in addition to Theater der Welt. For example, there were the Festival Politik im Freien Theater and the Dance Festival Rhein-Main of 2022. All of them were run by Mousonturm in the role of executive producers and we are responsible not only for artistic aspects but also for the financial aspects of those projects.

Since it is a small institution, it is flexible and there is always leeway. In addition, since Mousonturm often works on international projects, our practices are more diverse than many other theaters. The responsibilities we take on are broad-reaching and weighty. In recent years, I have worked at Mousonturm with two dramaturgs, Anna Wagner and Marcus Droß. About a year and a half ago, we changed our perception of our roles so that the three of us functioned as a team of artistic directors. I was both the artistic director and the person in charge of management, so I was ultimately responsible for the final decisions, but the program was created from this three-person collective of ours. I proposed that after I left, the direction of Mousonturm would be put in the hands of two people. So, after one left, the other two could stay and carry on. You can’t abandon projects you’ve already started. Also, in addition to the funding we got from the city and state subsidies, we also receive grants from outside sources for each project. You can’t just stop the projects and abandon the grants you received just because the Intendant leaves.
In the end, Anna Wagner and Marcus Droß replaced you.
Yes, they will head the theater for the next three years. Together they will serve as artistic and the managing directors at the same time. It’s an unprecedented combination. In German municipal theaters, there are often two people heading the theater, the artistic director and the executive director, but originally at Mousonturm, one person was responsible for both of these posts. It is unusual for two people to take on both roles, as it is at Mousonturm now.
This can also be said to be a new experiment.
These two are colleagues who have already worked together at Mousonturm for eight years. They know each other and the rest of the team very well, and they know their mutual strengths and weaknesses, so I think they will be a solid and innovative team to lead the production house.
Certainly, their areas of expertise are different. Is Anna mainly handling dance and performance, and Marcus handling theater?
Marcus in particular is well based in how to work in the so-called free scene in Germany. He is a very experienced dramaturg. He was also an early member of Rimini Protocol. As for Anna, she was at the HAU Theater in Berlin, and then took the post as head of the dance department of the Theater Freiburg. It is true that Anna is more strongly based in dance and Marcus has a stronger theater background, but Marcus is also strong in performance and music.

New Berliner Festspiele

Can we move on now to the Berliner Festspiele. What is the Berliner Festspiele in the first place? I think there are probably not so many people in Japan who know the entire picture of this.
Not so many in Germany either. Because Berliner Festspiele on the one hand is an overhead organization with a quite administrative organizational structure, and on the other hand it is an art festival and art event organizer with a long and partly legendary history in Berlin. After World War II, when Germany was divided into two countries and Berlin itself was divided into East and West as well, the West Berlin government at that time decided that they needed a festival as a showcase of the West. In 1951, the Berliner Festwochen and the Berlin International Film Festival were launched, and in 1964, the Theatertreffen and the Jazzfest Berlin began. The Theatertreffen served as a platform for state and municipal theaters in West Germany to travel to West Berlin to perform their works and interact with each other (note: Treffen means to meet). In the midst of this trend, the Berliner Festspiele organization was founded in 1967, which brought together multiple festivals to be carried out throughout the year, and this became one of the important organizations in West Berlin at the time.

Before the reunification of East and West Germany, the Berliner Festspiele also was an instrument of the cultural policy of West Berlin, and they were not at all held at the federal level as it is now. Latest, since the 1970s, in this era of reconciliation between East and West, the Berliner Festspiele played an important role not only as a platform for artistic and cultural activities but also for political exchange, and they sometimes served as an informal point of contact between the East and West Berlin governments. The Berliner Festspiele also hosted large-scale events in Berlin, such as the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin in 1987.
What happened after the reunification?
After the reunification, there was a debate for a while about whether the Berliner Festspiele should be continued or not. Ulrich Eckhardt, the Director at that time, insisted that Germany had been reunified in form, but that true emotional reunification would take at least 10 years, and that this emotional process should be supported by artistic and cultural activities focused by an organization such as Berliner Festspiele. Based on this stance it was decided to continue the Berliner Festspiele.

But after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the Berlin city state fell even deeper into financial difficulties, while many federal ministries moved from Bonn, the capital of the former West Germany, to Berlin, and Berlin was declared the capital. Some arts and cultural institutions and activities such as the Berliner Festspiele, which was once handled by the West Berlin city state, came under the jurisdiction of the German federal government, and the budget then also came from the federal government.
In Germany, there is a major principle called “Kulturhoheit der Länder” (Cultural Sovereignty of the states) in which the states and cities have authority over culture and education rather than the federal government. The Berliner Festspiele can be considered a big exception to this principle.
That’s right. The basis for this exception is that the festival was implemented based on an agreement between the government of Berlin and the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although the city of Berlin is a state in itself, it is also the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. That is why the decision was made to have the federal government supply funding to the cultural activities going on there, which have an important influence on Germany as a whole. In 2002, the public corporation managing the Berliner Festspiele and the public corporation managing the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the World’s Cultures) joined together to establish a new management company called Kulturveranstaltungen des Bundes in Berlin (KBB) GmbH.
What exactly does the company operate?
It bears authority and responsibility for the Berliner Festspiele as one of its divisions. The Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) that was a part of Berliner Festspiele before 2002, became an additional division in KBB. And the Haus der Kulturen der Welt is the third division. These three divisions of KBB join a common and central administration department. I am the artistic director of the Berliner Festspiele and I am also one of the four executive directors mutually responsible for the overall management of the KBB.
It is surely a very weighty and wide-ranging responsibility.
As we have a central commercial director at KBB as one of the four executive directors, in daily routine, my responsibilities are mainly in the field in which I am directly involved as artistic director. However, this field is, in itself, quite extensive. Ten yearly festivals, of which eight are artistically directed and completely organized by us; an extensive performance program around the year, between six and eight exhibitions, some larger-scale special events all over the city and two venues comprise the Berliner Festspiele. One of the venues is the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. This had been an independent theater before.
It is the former Freie Volksbühne.
It was the new Volksbühne that was built in West Berlin and opened in 1963 under the artistic direction of Erwin Piscator. But after the reunification, it lost its subventions, was commercialized and served for a decade as a venue for different shows and festivals. Since 2000, it has become the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Our other venue is Gropius Bau. This is one of the finest buildings in Berlin and one of Germany’s most remarkable museum buildings of the 19th century. It is a restored historic museum, built by architects Martin Gropius and Heino Schmieden in Italian Renaissance style. Martin Gropius was a great uncle of the Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius. The Gropius Bau opened in 1881 as the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Berlin-Kreuzberg. After it was destroyed in 1945, it was only reconstructed in the late 1970s and reopened as an exhibition hall in 1981. The Gropius Bau was located so close to the Berlin Wall (on its west side), that its entrance had to be transferred to the south side of the building. Since 2001, the Berliner Festspiele operates the Gropius Bau, and since 2018, we are responsible for the complete exhibition program throughout the year.

We operate eight of our own festivals. Three are music festivals: the Jazzfest Berlin, which has now been held for 60 years, and the Musikfest Berlin (formerly the Berliner Festwochen). The Musikfest is a large-scale festival concentrating mainly on orchestra concerts that we organize in cooperation with the Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker, and is held in their concert hall every August/September. Furthermore, there is the festival MaerzMusik, a contemporary music festival which was inherited from East Berlin after reunification.

Also, there is the Theatertreffen, which presents – also for 60 years – every May the 10 best or most remarkable theater shows of German-spoken theater, according to the choice of a critics’ jury. And there are four festivals of young artists, all of them based on national competitions for participants in the age group between 12 and 25 years. This has been going on for decades, and while originally it only had a theater division, now it is conducted in four divisions, including theater, dance, literature and music.

Each festival has its own artistic director or curator, temporarily appointed by me or my predecessors. Also, the Gropius Bau has its own director that I appoint, and its own structure and team.
In other words, you are only indirectly involved in the programming of content for each festival and for the program conducted by Gropius Bau.
I oversee these parts and define their strategic goals, overall strategies and possible synergies. Together with all these programmers and curators we work on the further development of the practices and principles of festival- or exhibition-making, and also of more sustainable, diverse and accessible event management. And, on common topics and contemporary approaches, on our institutional role for the artists, the audience and in society.

Building new teams, introducing external perspectives

You mentioned that you plan to make changes, but how long do you think it will take?
There is no deadline, and some changes will not become visible all of a sudden. There are so many events and activities at Berliner Festspiele that place a huge workload on the staff, so it will be necessary to coordinate things well and make adjustments at times. Since it has come to constitute such a large cultural institution at the federal level in Berlin, I hope that in the next five years we can use the Berliner Festspiele as a platform for thinking about the future. It would be great if it can become a little bit more of a forum for discussion about future symbiosis and co-existence. What kind of lives should we strive to live in the future? How should our society function in the future? The themes we must face include equality, de-colonialism, identity, history, and remembrance.

We will surely be living in a society full of great diversity in the future. It’s a situation where we no longer share one common narrative or collective memory. I am very interested in thinking about this, so I asked people from different backgrounds to join the team. I also invited Yusuke Hashimoto, who had previously been the program director of ROHM Theater and before that, of KYOTO EXPERIMENT Kyoto International Performing Arts Festival, as Chief Dramaturg. Because, he has experience working on similar themes, challenges and situations with us here in Berlin.
Again, it involves the external perspectives you have spoken about.
I believe that by introducing outside perspectives, clear shifts can occur in our own perspective. In order to achieve this in positive ways, it is necessary to incorporate outside perspectives not only into the programs of the festivals but also into their structures. So, I thought about ways to build external input into the system.
That’s a revolutionary approach. Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, no one would have thought about introducing staff members from outside of Europe into the Berliner Festspiele, would they?
There have of course always been artistic and some curatorial positions from outside Europe, but the latter ones have maybe been more exceptional than today. And rather, it was practiced in the music world, in dance and the visual arts than in spoken-word theater, where the language barrier remains very high.
It certainly was that way. From 2000 to 2004, I sent groups of Japanese theater professionals to Germany three times, including to the Theatertreffen in Berlin, but none of the performances were given with subtitles.
Nowadays, it has become the standard to have sub-/surtitles, but at that time, for example, even films were all only available in German here. It was that way from my childhood. While today, international productions and international festivals are held on every street corner in Germany.
What was completely unthinkable 30 years ago is now commonplace.
Yes, it’s a big development, but I think there was a part of it that was driven by mere exoticism in the beginning. Over time, the change shifted from simply inviting artists and their works to actually doing curating, communicating with the audience, and even incorporating the changes into the institutions themselves. That’s exactly the stage we are in now. However, we don’t have to feel ashamed of the way we did things 10 or 20 years ago, as it was so outdated and backward compared to what we are doing today. Change is a very relative thing, and 10 years from now, what we think we should do today may again seem rather ridiculous in hindsight.

Instead of judging prematurely or acting on the basis of preconceptions, we should first recognize that change takes time. We need to have our colleagues, the organizations, and our audiences all be present and participating in the process going forward, because it is important that we communicate to them clearly where we are trying to go and keep the channels of communication open.
So, you’re anticipating major changes going forward?
Even if we keep aware that things will take time, it is still necessary for us to fight for change. Naturally, we can’t let ourselves underestimate the difficulties we face ahead. There are certain methods and ways of thinking that have been developed in the process of making progress, or that we have been involved in during the developments thus far. But these things will be put on the table each time new changes or transformations take place and be subjected to the risk of change.

For example, the issue of whether to stage classical plays or whether to support contemporary plays is often discussed. However, we actually think that there are also far more interesting theater practices than just the performance of plays. Playwrights writing texts and plays being staged are one way to make theater. But there are also many other methods, other forms that theater can take. When theater is expanded, that is, when the scope of the concept is expanded, there is an immediate cultural struggle between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to innovate.
That’s always the case in any era, isn’t it?
It is certainly a classical phenomenon, and it has always been present in every era. In ancient times, there was a great debate when the shift occurred from chorus to drama. In this field of cultural struggle, communication is essential, not fighting for opposing positions. In such conflicts, you often end up trying to defend your own influence while at the same time exercising your power. What should be done instead is to create discussion on the questions at the heart of the struggle, and to draw the audience into the discussion by saying, “Come talk with us about the questions involved.”

What and how to change

So, what exactly are you planning to change and how?
The Theatertreffen, which Yvonne Büdenhölzer has successfully led for the past 10 years, is now in the hands of a leading team, not a single director. This is a team of three female theater and festival makers. Two of these three do not speak German, albeit so far. The members are Olena Apchel, a theater director from Donbass in Ukraine who moved to Poland a few years ago and has been active there since, and Joanna Nuckowska, who was the vice-director of the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw for 15 years, working on international projects and festivals. Carolin Hochleichter is a German dramaturg who has already worked with Joanna at Nowy Teatr in the past.

In addition to the critics’ choice of 10 remarkable shows from German-speaking countries to be performed in Berlin, the festival also has related programs, such as the International Forum for young theater professionals. All old and new frame or fringe events will be included under the title “10 Treffen” (10 meetings), exploring one of the two words that constitute the title of the festival, Theater-Treffen. Besides existing formats, We are trying to open the Theatertreffen a little bit more to Central and Eastern European input. Of course, this will be based on processes that are carefully planned and implemented, while communicating thoroughly with the outside participants.
There is also the issue of budget.
Indeed, there is.

Open to Eastern Europe

In this plan you have two members related to Poland.
The Polish theater world starts at most only 100 kilometers away from Berlin. The nearest Swiss theater is 1,000 km away. It is said that the German theater world is close to that of Switzerland, but that is mainly because of the common denominator of the German language.
I understand that opening up to Central and Eastern Europe stems from the proximity of the countries involved, but does it also correspond to the current situation, such as the war in Ukraine?
In terms of the current situation, even if we are all focusing on the war in Ukraine at the moment, it is important to talk about the large gap between East and West from the perspective of an integrated Europe. Berliner Festspiele has historically functioned as a platform for reconciliation between East and West, and in May 1989 the Theatertreffen succeeded in inviting East German theaters for the first time. This was a few months before the wall was torn down. My desire is to take another step or two towards the East. I believe this is very important and necessary.

Also, the theater systems in Germany and Eastern European countries are actually very similar. The German municipal theaters have a repertoire system and ensembles, but this is not unique to German speaking countries, it is also common in most Central European countries. On the contrary, it is a system that doesn’t exist in Western countries, especially in France or in English-speaking countries. And it’s not even found in other parts of the world either.
That is certainly an important common denominator.
It can also be found in Poland and Hungary, as well as in Russia and Ukraine. Also, in the Baltic states. I think it is safe to say that this is already a common cultural heritage. There has long been a movement to make the German theater system an UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, but this is a cultural heritage shared by several other countries. It is a Central European theater system.

Theater works created within similar frameworks can be compared. Therefore, I dream of the possibility of inviting “remarkable works” from beyond the German-speaking countries to Theatertreffen, as expansion and alongside of the 10 shows that are selected each year from the German-speaking countries.
Will the jury system for the selection of the 10 remarkable works change?
The fact that the jury consists of theater critics is a brand essence of the Theatertreffen, and that will not change. The question is rather, how has theater critique changed, or will change? And the media in general? New forms of communication between journalists and readers have become an issue, a new generation raises new and urgent questions, and we all need a diversification of perspectives, in all fields.
I see. So, that means things will become more open in this area as well. I would like to ask you one more question. In an interview with a magazine, you said that you would open the festivals not only to Eastern Europe but also to the Global South. This was mentioned in relation to the urgent current issue of climate change.
Colonization is a topic both in what global politics calls the South and the East. Which countries were colonized and by whom? Central and Eastern Europeans have first-hand experience of being colonized during the Soviet era, they have a quite recent experience of decolonization and democratization processes, and right now it seems as if the empire strikes back. Very different concepts of global dependencies and responsibility related to the heritage and the present of colonialism arise from these different historic experiences. In the West, we tend to forget this, and this includes the former western part of Germany and its ways of thinking. So maybe, when dealing with the so-called Global South, we should start by approaching these different understandings within Europe, and stop imposing our point of view on everyone else.

There is a need to have others speak about different aspects of history from their own perspective and for us to listen to those perspectives, and through that, to then face the questions and problems involved and engage in discussion and communication. We don’t experience things in the same way. We have to acknowledge that and to live with our differences. That is the key. We can’t allow ourselves to think that everyone should have the same ideas about things.
Based on this idea, you are thinking of changing the structure of the Berliner Festspiele.
As an example, the Polish-Egyptian music curator Kamila Metwaly is the new artistic director of MaerzMusik. She has contributed to shaping a much more diverse contemporary music scene in Berlin over the past years, and her focus now with us is to widen and deepen marginalized and non-normative music cultures and sound histories, in a place that is very open for encounter and exchange.

When talking about ecological sustainability and climate change, I would also like to look at global equality and climate justice. Decolonization and the Global South are deeply intertwined with the issues of ensuring sustainable living conditions and dealing with the climate crisis. So, I would like to address these issues in that context. If we don’t, we could fall once again into colonial type behavior, in which we allow ourselves benefits and assurance that are forbidden to others.
This certainly amounts to an admirable undertaking.
Well, I don’t know how it will turn out, but I intend to try working in these directions. It won’t be easy to make it all happen.
What kind of strategy do you use to make your ideas become realities?
Make sure my eyes are wide open, and then do it!
Thank you very much for your thought-provoking words.

*Due to personal reasons, Kyoko Iwaki quit her position as chief dramaturg and continued her relationship with the festival as program advisor.


Berliner Festspiele


Artists’ House Mousonturm

Festival International New Drama

Mats Staub

Theater der Welt

Tanzfestival Rhein-Main