Judith Gerstenberg

Bringing the dramaturge to the cutting edge
The approach of Niedersachsen Staatstheater Hannover

July 29, 2011
Judith Gerstenberg

Judith Gerstenberg

Chief dramaturge of Staatstheater Hannover
Since Lars-Ole Walburg assumed the position of artistic director, the theater department of Germany’s Niedersachsen Staatstheater Hannover in 2009, the department has pursued a series of experimental projects based on extensive fieldwork. The work of the dramaturge is essential to these projects.

We spoke with the theater’s chief dramaturge, Judith Gerstenberg, about these theatre projects that delve directly into the issues facing local communities or the society at large and the role of the dramaturge in them.
(Interview: Ulrike Krautheim)
You are the chief dramaturge on the team of Lars-Ole Walburg who became the artistic director of the theater department of Niedersachsen Staatstheater Hannover (Niedersachsen State Theater Hannover) in 2009. Would you begin by telling us the basic facts about the State Theater Hannover?
The Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) State Theater Hannover has a very long history as an opera theater and now has a theater department with a large facility including five theaters, the main hall, which seats 650 and two 400-seat theaters and another two 200-seat spaces. The overall budget is between 52 and 54 million euro annually. It is funded solely by the State of Niedersachsen and receives no funding from the city of Hannover. We have an Opera Department, a Theater Department and a Theater Facility Management Department. Most of the budget goes toward maintaining and managing the theater buildings and the Theater Department’s share of the budget is about six million euro annually, with which we produce about 30 productions a year. As the recent closing of the Wuppertal Theater has shown, theaters have been closing one after another in Germany today. The State Theater Hannover has no problems at present, but we still have to deal with things like the decrease in available budget for our productions due to overall budget cuts and the rise of personnel costs.

In terms of artistic management our Theater Department is completely independent from the Opera Department and we work on productions under the authority of our artistic director, Mr. Walburg, and the administrative director who manages things like the budget and scheduling. Our dramaturge department serves as a sort of planning department within the Theater Department and, besides myself as chief dramaturge, we have a team of five other dramaturges. One of the five works as a special project member on a one-year contract basis made possible by a grant from the Töpfer Foundation. The special project is a “ Botany Long-term Theater ” project that has been going on for several years and for which we needed a special member at dramaturge team to concentrate on research for the project’s works. Niedersachsen Staatstheater Hannover has a youth theater and the fifth member of our team works primarily on that theater’s productions, so there are just four of us who work on the Theater Department’s main productions throughout the year. Also, the youth theater has its own artistic director, Marc Prätsch, and he is involved in the Theater Department’s planning activities as well.

In the past, the youth theater was an independent department, but after Mr. Walburg became artistic director it was absorbed into the Theater Department and the dramaturge section members were assigned to work on the productions of both. Recently the youth theater’s ensemble (company) has also been absorbed into the Theater Department ensemble. By the way, there are a total of 29 people in the ensemble.
Six seems to be a large number of dramaturges for one theater.
We prepare a highly work-intensive program at the theater each year. Many of our productions are project type productions that start from zero with writing a script and our team is actively involved from that very first stage in each project. Also, our dramaturgy department operates somewhat differently from others in that one of the dramaturges doubles as director and playwright while another works on the stage art. In other words, our dramaturgy department is actually a sort of brain pool.
In other words, the role of the dramaturge is changing today and is no longer a job of simply doing research in the library but a much wider range of work?
Yes. I believe so. Of course different theaters use the dramaturge in different ways, so it is difficult to generalize, but I definitely feel that more dramaturges today are doing their own artistic work. What’s more, the people in our dramaturgy department at Staatstheater Hannover create scripts, so I feel that the range of work our dramaturges engage in is especially diverse.

For example, when Staatstheater Hannover decided to do Hisashi Inoue’s play Shonen Kudentai 1945 , which had already been translated into German, one of the actresses in the theater’s ensemble, Sachiko Hara, pointed out some problems in that translation. So, we had the theater’s resident playwright Sören Voima work to find wording that was closer to the original and make a new stage script.
We want to talk with you in more detail about Shonen Kudentai 1945 later in the interview, but before that, would you tell us something about your theater’s ensemble?
The actors in the theater’s ensemble work on yearly contracts and they make up the core of the cast for each production along with a number of guest actors that will be desired for each different play. Also, besides our artistic director Walburg there are two resident directors in the ensemble. They are Tom Kühnel and Florian Fiedler, and they have directing styles that are completely different from Walburg’s. They each direct two productions during a year and have a major involvement in the make-up of the ensemble in a way that supports the Theater Department’s overall program.
Could you tell us about the division of roles between the ensemble’s directors and the dramaturges?
Since we have great respect for the artistic expression and the ideas of the ensemble’s directors, we try to get them involved in our work as much as possible. For example, we plan to do two-day retreats together in the countryside in preparation for each of the productions on next year’s program. However, since the directors also work with other theaters, most of the basic planning, in terms of the theater’s overall concepts and lineup of productions, is done by the artistic director and the dramaturgy department. Then we ask the directors to give their input on an advisory basis.
You took your position at Niedersachsen Staatstheater Hannover in 2009. What did you think of Hannover as a region at that time?
Hannover is the capital of Niedersachsen, which is one of the largest states in Germany. The city has a population of 550,000, and it has the image of not being a very interesting city. There is little in the scenery that is interesting, and for someone like me who came from Vienna or other members of the team who came from Leipzig or Berlin, to speak honestly, it was not an interesting city for us at first.

That encouraged me to begin by taking a look at the city’s history. When I looked into it, I found that the city we are living in actually has a very interesting history. Hannover is a city that grew along with the military industry, so during World War II about 80% of the city was destroyed by air raids. The city as it stands today has been built in line with city planning based on Rudolf Hillebrecht’s vision from the 1950s of a motorized society of the future, and in that sense it became representative of the 80% of the cities of Germany that underwent reconstruction in the postwar years. From the fieldwork I did investigating the history, a lot of interesting themes emerged. Of course they were not things that could be put on stage just as they were. They need the work of dramaturgy to reach that level.
Could you give us any specific examples of works that were actually brought to the stage with material from that kind of fieldwork?
Near the Ballhof venue that we use for our youth theater, there is a roughly 100-meter long street that bears the name of a man named Johann Trollmann, and under the sign that shows the street name there is a plaque with a short explanation of who he was. During the 1930s he was the German boxing champion. However, because he was a Sinti (gypsy), the officials were reluctant to recognize him as champion. Two days after he won the championship, the Nazi party stripped him of his title. Learning that, I wanted to find out more about his history. What I found out is that he was a very handsome man and very popular in Hannover at the time. So many women fans wanted to come and watch him practice that they actually set up a ring outdoors so people could watch him practice. The Nazis took away his title on the basis that he was Sinti and his boxing style was like dancing, and therefore not true German style.

After that he was tragically unfortunate. For the next match after being stripped of his title, as an act of protest he whitewashed his skin, dyed his hair blond and refused to fight back until he was knocked out. That protest and defeat ended his boxing career. Later he was sent to the Eastern Front as a member of the national defense army and wounded. After returning to Germany he was arrested and sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp where they killed him. Most people in Hannover don’t know this. The area where Johann Trollmann Street is today is the area where he grew up.

After leaning about this story we started a project with the boxer as its subject. In the course of the project we learned that the Ballhof used to be a Hitler Youth dormitory. This is another fact that was hidden away in the Hannover city archives. This is an episode that was also worked into the project.

You will still find many people who were moved to the Sinti quarter and continued to live there on what is called the Hartz IV class of social security while gradually losing their native Romanese language. In our project we used a Sinti youth as a narrator to recreate the story of the boxer.

We also did a production written and directed by the legendary radio moderator Jürgen Kuttner called Hannover Review that is a humorous depiction of episodes from the history of the city of Hannover. Our resident director Tom Kühnel and the puppet artist Suse Wächter also participated in this work.
Could you tell us a little more about how you developed the Trollmann project and what role your dramaturge team played in it?
Initially, it was a Hannover-native director who found Johann-Trollmann Street and discovered after some detailed research that it offered good material for a project. The problem was how to take it from there to a stage script and I thought that the playwright Björn Bicker would be the perfect writer for the job. He is a person with a wealth of experience at the Kammerspiele Theater in Munich doing amateur-participation theater, particularly with delinquent youths and social minorities. For example, there is a rather run-down housing development of high-rise apartment buildings in Munich called Hasenbergl and he did a project with residents from there. He is a playwright with the ability to not only create a collage of documentary type material but also to take material and turn it into a play script. So, I brought together Bicker and Prätsch, who later became our youth theater artistic director. Bringing together artists in this way is another role of the dramaturge.

To get them to know the Sinti, we visited a number of places. The Sinti are a rather closed community and they tend to have a distrust of the state theater, so it was quite difficult to make friends among them. Fortunately, however, through an introduction of the job center in an employment support organization that deals with the Sinti, we were able to find people who would participate in our project and perform on stage for us. Also, we were able to find a nephew of Trollmann and had him play the role of the young narrator.
Were there any positive effects from this project focusing on Sinti, such and attracting a new audience?
One thing that Bicker said was that the work of doing theater is becoming a social project. I believed that certainly about 80% of our work in this project was socially oriented. And, in the process I realized anew how great the differences in Sinti culture are from ours. I have long been interested in minorities, and I thought that I was without prejudice, but this project showed me that I really didn’t understand the social gaps that exist.

Because the Sinti were persecuted by the Nazis, they still have a strong consciousness of themselves as victims. During the rehearsals some of the theater staff members realized that they were being looked on with the same kind of antagonism that was once directed at the Nazis. On the play’s opening night most of the audience was Sinti and I believe that some had come long distances to be there and many were coming to the theater for the first time. It was wonderful when some told us that the Sinti had been given a voice for the first time through this project. The performers were like representatives of their race and the stage was full of melancholy of a kind that made it feel like a requiem to the boxer.

A variety of movements began in the community as a result of the project. Thanks to the fact that the largest Protestant gathering place in the city, the Markt Church lent us their building, it was possible to have the audience move from the theater to the church for the performance. Also, a movement to review policy toward the Roman minority in Hannover city and the state of Niedersachsen has gradually emerged.
Could you speak to us in a little more detail about the ways that the work in theater is becoming socially oriented?
Certainly the Trollmann project is a typical example. Another example is the spread of theater pedagogic (educational) projects and we are seeing a lot of projects that involve young people in a variety of ways such as putting them on stage as actors. There are also active outreach programs like the “ Theater Truck. ” The target of these projects is youths who are not from a well-educated middle class upbringing where the parents provide the gateway to theater. There are many projects that bring youths off the street and give them a voice, or projects directed at young people with ethnic backgrounds.

Recently, many theaters have started their own youth theater departments with the aim of nurturing a younger audience. There you see plays being created specifically for young people act in, but as this trend grows we are beginning to hear debate about whether or not the trend has become excessive and should it continue this way. At our Staatstheater Hannover, our Youth Theater is in charge of these programs and it is just one part of our overall activities. Overall we mount 30 productions a year, so our focus in the dramaturge department is primarily on the program of works that will appear in our theater’s Main Hall.

One of our projects that has truly had a significant social impact is Free Republic Wendland , which was performed at the beginning of this season. This was a project with youth participation and it recreates an actual event that happened 30 years ago in the Niedersachsen city Gorleben. At the time there was a plan to build an atomic waste processing facility in Gorleben and as one form of protest activity local farmers and activists built a village of temporary cottages in the nearby town of Wendland. There, they experimented with the idea of creating a social utopia called “ Free Republic Wendland ” for a 30-day period. This temporary village became a venue for exchanges and bonding among the activists and farmers, and in the process a number of interesting anecdotal stories emerged.

In our project we invited young people to join in as we built a similar type of temporary village in the square in front of our [Youth Theater] Ballhof venue and gathered some of the people that had taken part in the original Free Republic Wendland 30 years earlier. In the village’s cottages the former activists spoke to the young people about their experiences of the time and also discusses current political issues. Then a few plays such as Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People that are normally performed in the theater were performed in the temporary village. Then the young people joined us in doing a performance of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists and other performances.

However, this project caused a considerable controversy, such as prompting the city council to send Staatstheater Hannover a letter questioning the appropriateness of the project. It appears that they got the impression that we were using state budget to provide anti-government activists with a base of operations. Of course, this was a misunderstanding. We decided to hold a public debate at the theater concerning the problems emerging from the Free Republic Wendland action, and we titled it “ Who does politics belong to? ” We were often told that the theater should not be a place where political activities are conducted but a place with the job of presenting plays at a quality level. In Germany today there is a growing gap between the people and politics and many citizens have begun to feel that their thoughts and feelings are not being represented in the political arena. As a result, political activism is growing more intense. In light of this situation, we believe that the theater can perhaps provide a different type of public stage for thinking about today’s issues.

We see the theater as a public place and we hope that theater people can use the methodology of theater as a sort of analytical device to make issues more clearly visible and thus change people’s consciousness about issues. We also hope that things people experience from theater can be translated directly into action. It is our hope that the theater can serve the same sort of role as the agora squares did in the ancient Greek city states (polis) where people gathered to discuss issues. The problem today is that people are so absorbed in trying to protect their own property and are completely focused on the immediate needs of the present. They are afraid of what the future might bring and they can’t see what the future will bring. No one looks to the past for lessons. That is why we in the theater want to use it as a forum to present a broader perspective and pose larger questions that are important to society. And it is important that we do this in ways that are as tangible and specific as possible.

For example, another project we created in a documentary type style was Moschee DE . This is a work that takes as its subject the mosque that was built in the Heinersdorf locality of the Pankow borough of Berlin. This is an unusual case for us because it involves Berlin rather than Hannover, but we thought it would be an interesting subject to focus on considering our objective of nurturing a consciousness of history. As we were discussing things before the project actually began, our discussion turned to the fact that there is a lack of insight today deriving from a consciousness of history or connections between the past and the present. In relation to that, we got the idea that presenting the philosophies or motivations of the people involved in the controversy over the construction of this mosque in very specific ways could be a good way to encourage decisions about the larger questions involved.

From 2006, an opposition movement arose among local residents who feared that the construction of mosque would lead to a further influx of Islamic people into their neighborhoods. One video artist who was asked to sign petitions for or against the mosque took the opportunity to move to Heinersdorf with an essayist and interview a large number of people involved in this controversy. Moschee DE is a play script based on those interviews. We discovered later the very interesting fact that the same type of controversy had occurred in the Stöcken district of Hannover.

In Germany today, there is a big debate going on about assimilation of immigrants. In Switzerland there was a national plebiscite concerning the construction of minarets at mosques for calling the faithful to prayer, and the citizens voted to ban them. We realized what significance the side people choose in such questions that divide society has in their personal history. We found from research concerning the opposition movement for the Heinersdorf mosque that there were some common developments in the process by which citizens decided whether to oppose it or not. In other words, there were stories created in the lives of the people through the controversy over the mosque regardless of which side they stood on. It was extremely interesting for us to analyze this kind of process.
What has been the response from the public to these programs involving minorities and community issues?
We hope they will accept them and continue to come to support us, but it is still too early to tell. As the opening program in the first season after our [dramaturgy] team started working here, we staged Heiner Müller’s Wolokolamsker Chaussee and Ilja Ehrenburg’s Das Leben der Autos in consecutive performances, and it appeared that many people were saying that we shouldn’t be programming plays about old subjects like the collapse of socialism and that no one was interested in those themes anymore. Ehrenburg’s play was written in 1929 and no one knew about it. It is about the stock market crash. It depicts the failure of capitalism, taking as an example the development of cars at Citroen. Its text presents an overview of the larger systems that underlie our daily lives, such as where the rubber for the tires of our cars comes from. This work was staged in the style of a review with clowns and all, and both works clearly reached the audience with relevance. Some say that approach is too serious, but now we are using the satirical slogan “ Niedersachsen Staatstheater Hannover – Your Ethical Theater Facility. ” It is part of our strategy to address public criticism aggressively. We don’t want to bend our policies, and I don’t like the idea of scheduling mostly popular stages and throwing in a socially-oriented work every now and then. What I want to see most from our directors is works that stimulate audience awareness of societal issues.
Could you tell us about some of the things you program other than these documentary type projects?
When Wilfried Schulz was artistic director of our theater they performed a lot of the classic theater repertoire like Shakespeare. So, we had to think about doing other types of things. That is what led us to do a theater adaptation by our resident playwright Sören Voima of the novel The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (The Adventures of a Simpleton). This novel is about a character who lived through the 30 Years War (1618-48). In Voima’s version there was no original intend to rewrite it in a present-day context, but nonetheless, numerous connections to the present in areas such as the loss of values and the social collapse and confusion of the times naturally emerged.

Another prominent work we did was Parsifal (Percival). We commissioned the Swiss playwright Lukas Bärfuss, who I think is a very important contemporary playwright, to do a new version based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s original. Bärfuss writes plays that deal with the dilemmas that emerge from a liberal society. One of his themes is the way that the ego of a person who is constantly doing wrong breaks down when forced to deal with a specific issue. In his new version of Parsifal Bärfuss wanted to show that there is a need to look at this story again today because we have lost the kind of thoughtful approach to solving social problems that existed in the time when Eschenbach wrote the original text. The result was very interesting.

We have made this attempt to find material in literature that is interesting as an opportunity to look at the past with the eyes of the present. We have also included Alkestis in our lineup and we have adaptations of the movies Adams äpfel (Adam’s Apples), Die Träumer (The Dreamers) and Das Fest (The Celebration).
What about works by contemporary playwrights?
Today there are a relatively large number of contemporary playwrights that we can expect good things from. For example, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s play Der goldene Drache that we presented in Hannover was selected as the best play of 2010 by German critics. We had also presented plays by Feridun Zaimoglu and Lukas Bärfuss. Other interesting playwrights who haven’t been presented in Hannover yet are Händl Klaus and Elfriede Jelinek. In our annual programs we try to present a balance of documentary type projects, works based on history ad contemporary plays. We also strive for a balance of serious and humorous works. Recently we worked with Jürgen Kuttner to create the review type work Kunst wird woanders gebraucht als wo sie rumsteht . This work is entertainment with a philosophical background. However, I believe that all the works on our program should be selected on the basis of inherent relevance.
For documentary type projects you don’t need actors or a theater. That type of project seems to question the very system behind a state theater. What are your thoughts about the role of a state or municipal theater?
That is a good question. It is indeed true that we are doing more and more projects that seem to question the state or municipal theater system. Nonetheless, I strongly support that system. I believe the question of whether or not every city needs a resident theater company and resident stage technicians will certainly be asked increasingly. However, I do believe that because of the very fact that it is publicly funded by the state or municipality we can have a theater that will be a platform for free thinking and for imagining all kinds of new possibilities and examining alternative social models. It would be a dangerous thing to lose an institution with that inherent role. I believe that the state or municipal theater must be preserved as a place for debate, as a place for discussion, as a place for encouraging awareness of issues, for examining the state of society, and as a place to share all this with the audience.
Now, could we ask you to talk about Hisashi Inoue’s Shonen Kudentai 1945 ?
A production of Shonen Kudentai 1945 (Little Boy, Big Typhoon) was the inaugural performance for the opening of our Youth Theater facility at Ballhof. Since Hannover and Hiroshima are sister cities, I had already done some research about Hiroshima. As a sister city project we had a plan that chose an audience representative to go to the sister city, view a number of plays and then report on them. That was how our exchanges with Hiroshima began. Also, Sachiko Hara brought us play texts and performance DVDs, and that is how we learned about this interesting narrated play called Little Boy, Big Typhoon – Shonen Kudentai 1945 .

The text centers around three middle school students. They were three boys who lost their families in the atomic bombing and were hired by a newspaper company that had its building destroyed in the bombing and couldn’t publish a newspaper, so they had the boys act as messengers going around town reciting the news orally. The cast consisted of three adults, including Hara-san and three children.

Rather than using the text of Little Boy, Big Typhoon as it was, we combined it a text by Bicker about the pilot of the bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Claude Eatherly, for our production. Eatherly was the one who first said that Hiroshima would be a good target because the skies over it were clear. A lot of material remains about Eatherly because he exchanged many letters with the German novelist Günther Anders. There are a number of episodes from Eatherly’s life after World War II. He did things like robbing a bank specifically to get caught and sending money to the city of Hiroshima out of feelings of guilt. It is said that because of the intellectual gap Anders felt with Eatherly, he rewrote the letters he received from Eatherly, so opinions differ about the letters that remain. Also there is a completely different biography of Eatherly written by another author and it is very interesting to see the different perspectives on the paradigm shift that occurred in the life of the man who dropped the atomic bomb.
Where did the idea to bring the two texts together come from?
Originally it was my idea. Inoue’s text is not one that views Hiroshima from the outside but one structure in a way that reports on the situation from inside the city itself, but we the audience are on the other side, the outside looking in. That made me thing that we on the outside should be asking ourselves how to relate to the situation and how the memories of it have been spun until now. So I thought that another text would be necessary, but I didn’t envision it being done in the form of a montage. Rather, I thought about having it done as a two-part work or by adding an epilogue to the original Inoue text, or doing it as two separate works in separate venues. Eventually it was the director who decided to do it in montage form. After each performance we had a post-performance talk for discussion with the audience.

In the summer of 2010, Hara-san went to Hiroshima with the video artist Axel Töpfer and filmed and interviewed there. One of the people who was involved in the Hannover-Hiroshima sister city program was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped and suffered wounds, and they interviewed that person too. Actually we wanted to use that video footage in our staging of Little Boy, Big Typhoon but the directing plan changed and it wasn’t used. Then Hara-san came up with a plan to do a “ Hiroshima Salon ” project using the video to inform audiences about Hiroshima. Plans now call for those salons will begin in January.
I would like to ask you now about your own profession history. You studied literature, philosophy and art history at the Free University Berlin rather than theater. What got you interested in theater?
When I was at the university there was no course in dramaturgy yet. It wasn’t until relatively recently that a dramaturgy course was established. There was a theater course but it wasn’t a course that would connect me directly to practical theater, and at the time I still didn’t have the idea that I wanted to work in theater. But, my grandmother was an actress and my father worked in the theater as a director, so the theater was a very familiar work to me from childhood. After graduating from high school, I didn’t want to go to university immediately, so I worked as an intern at the Thália Theater in Hamburg before starting university. I feel that the things I learned in my art history studies about how to appreciate and describe a painting—for example reading information from what you see in a painting and using it to make speculations about the social background behind it—is probably more useful in my work today than anything I would have learned studying in a theater course.

What interested me about theater is the appeal I found in the perspectives on the world that could be shown through the methodology of theater. I was attracted by the questions of how to find drama in the midst of everyday reality, how to be aware of the elements of staging hidden within the everyday, the way those questions are posed in what could be considered a form of unique language.
Then I began to go and see plays staged in different ways. Of the plays I saw I was most impressed by the productions of Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theater at its peak when Peter Stein was artistic director and Klaus-Michael Grüber was also directing. I was also very much by the productions of Castorf when he came along later.

I first began to work in theater as a result of my encounter with Christoph Marthaler. At university I had studied about Paul Celan and I was intending to continue on to graduate school, but them I was stunned by seeing Marthaler’s productions of Faust and Murx . When I learned that Marthaler was going to be resident director at the Schaupielhaus in Hamburg where I had always gone to see the Christmas plays as a child, I decided to apply for the job of assistant there and was hired. That was back in 1992-93 when Frank Baumbauer had become artistic director and the Schaupielhaus was involved in a lot of new experimental projects.

The city of Hamburg had two big theaters in the Thália and the Schaupielhaus and at the time the Thália was very popular for its high-level productions of the theater classics. To differentiate itself, the Schaupielhaus embarked on a bold course of programming including works by Rainald Götz and Elfriede Jelinek. But the public responded with distaste, the performances were played to virtually empty houses and only the arts pages of the newspapers had anything good to say about them. The theater got through those difficult times and eventually Schlingensief and Castorf were working in Hamburg. I was greatly influenced by them as well and I made up my mind to make my career working in theater.

After two years I got an offer from the Neumarkt Theater in Zurich and moved there. It was a small theater with just six actors in its ensemble and only 40 people altogether with the staff and workshop crew. At the time the Neumarkt Theater did a lot of project type productions, so I was able to learn how to create montages and stage scripts.

After that I moved to Theater Basel as a member of a team of people my own age, and that was the experience that made me what I am today. Theater Basel left the management of the theater up to a young team centered around Stefan Bachmann and Lars-Ole Walburg. We knew nothing about the rules of theater management and there was no one around to tell us, “ You can’t do this, you have to do it this way. ” It was an inexperienced but brave team and we ran into many obstacles along the way, but we were very happy in our work. After that I moved to the Burgtheater in Vienna, and it was there that I worked with people of my parents’ and my grandmother’s generation. It was a good experience, but it also made feel fortunate that my career had not begun from a theater like that. The theater in Vienna was a large-scale theater and the work there was not what I was longing to do. So, to be in a position where I could work with a view of the entire process and where I could create projects, I moved to Hannover.
Could we return now to hear your thoughts on the role of the dramaturge?
The profession of dramaturge is something that is unique to the German-speaking countries. I think this is related largely to the fact that theater in the German-speaking countries is characterized by a lateral alignment of many different elements, which provides the place for a dramaturge to work in a central planning position to tie those elements together. Besides bringing together the director and actors for each project, the dramaturge can also think thoroughly about the overall programming for a season. In the case of casting, the dramaturge can look at the careers of a number of actors and gather a balanced and effective cast rather than having the same specific actor playing the lead each time. Thinking about the type of image the theater wants to project to the public and what kinds of communications to engage in is also the job of the dramaturge. That may include things like whether or not to hang a slogan over the entrance and the concepts for advertisements.

In other words, the role of the dramaturge is to bring out the possibilities hidden in the materials at hand and make them visible, much like an image becomes visible as a photograph is being developed. By giving invisible things a name, defining them and talking about them, it becomes possible to move on to the next step. A good dramaturge naturally reads a lot of books and has a unique perspective on the world. A good dramaturge is not necessarily the one who has graduate from a dramaturgy course but one with a perspective on the world and the ability to see the connections between things, the ability to inspire artists and the means to turn ideas into action. At times the dramaturge must be able to carry out an idea despite internal opposition within the theater and in that way protect the production from the theater organization. At other times the dramaturge must protect the organization from a production. I hope that the dramaturge can always be valuable as an intermediary between the organization and the production.
What is the division of responsibilities between the dramaturge and the artistic director?
You cannot make generalizations about that. Each artistic director has a different way of operating and puts together a team with different roles. There are a good number of theaters where the artistic director assumes a very strong position where he or she independently decides on the basic programming policies, does the negotiations with each project’s director and does the casting as well. In a case like that the role of the dramaturgy department dramaturgy department is different as well. In my case, I feel fortunate that I have always been in positions where the dramaturgy department plays a central role in the planning. In my jobs at Basel and now at Hannover, I have not been bound by a hierarchy in the organization. We should note that when the artistic director changes the members of the dramaturgy department are always changed as well. At the time of a change the members of the theater’s ensemble may also change, as some actors move with their artistic director, while other actors have a contract with the theater that cannot be terminated. In contrast, the technical staff and administrative staff do not change when the artistic director changes.
Finally, I would like to ask you to tell us about a project that you personally want to do in the future.
It is very difficult to narrow it down to just one, but there is one special project I will tell you about. It is the “ Botany Long-term Theater Project – A World Without Us ” that I mentioned briefly earlier. I can’t really envision how this project will develop, but it is a project where plants are the main characters. In short, it asks the question what will the world look like after the human race is gone and attempts to create a play where plants are the actors.

At present the project has progressed to a stage equivalent to 30 years after the human race goes extinct. We have created a garden in what was formerly a military facility where we go in for four days every three months and replant a variety of plants. The project’s aim is to continue this for five years and eventually show what the world might look like one million years after the extinction of the human race. For this project we are studying botany and scenarios for the future of the Earth. This is a completely new challenge for us and for it we have to create an entirely new (plant centric) project with a unique artistic and theatrical structure. The audience is taken to the venue by bus, and once there they sit in a modified container with a large window for them to view the world acted out by the plants. The world of plants is acted out by actors. It is a grand-scale story in which some plants become main characters and then may be subjected to some tragedy in the next episode. If Walburg’s [5-year] term as artistic director is extended we plan to extend this project as well.
Is the director of this project someone from the theater world?
The director is Tobias Rausch, who is a botanist as well as a theater director and writer. He is the one who conceived this project, and he is a member of the Berlin-based performance project unit Lunatiks. One member of our dramaturge team at the Staatstheater Hannover is also a member of the unit. Lunatiks is a group that meets on a regular basis to think seriously about the world regardless of whether the projects they conceive are actually realized. Within the unit there is active interaction between artists and researchers and they are beginning to create a variety of projects with different people involved each time.
Thank you very much for this extremely interesting interview.