Martine Dennewald

Looking to the world’s
diversity, the new direction of Theaterformen

March 28, 2016
Martine Dennewald

Martine Dennewald

Director of Festival Theaterformen
Festival Theaterformen is an international performing arts festival founded in Germany in 1990 based on a concept of a festival for presenting the full variety of international performing arts that emerged in 1989, during the Cold War in the city of Braunschweig (English: Brunswick) near the border of the former East Germany. After an accident at the main venue in Braunschweig in 1995 caused a move to the so-called Hanomag submarine hall in Hannover, the festival came to be held in both cities, and since 2007 it has been held alternately in the two cities. Since its beginning, the festival has presented programs featuring a wide range of contemporary works for the stage, ranging from large-scale works to small-theater works for more intimate spaces, works of classical theater, documentary theater, solo plays as well as installations, audio walks and site-specific work. The programs have included numerous world premieres, European premieres, German premieres and numerous international collaborative productions have been undertaken. Since 2014, the festival director is Martine Dennewald (born in Luxembourg in 1980), who has worked at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), Budapest’s Kortárs Drama Festival, the Salzburg Arts Festival’s Young Directors Project, and Frankfurt’s Mousonturm theater with its leading position in Germany’s free theater scene.

In this interview we speak with Dennewald about her career as a leading next-generation director working throughout Europe and her views on directing festivals.
Interviewer: Makiko Yamaguchi
You were born in Luxembourg and you majored in dramaturgy at Germany’s University of Music and Theater Leipzig. What led you to want to work in theater and decide to become a dramaturge? Was going to the theater something that was part of your childhood?
 In my family and in Luxembourg in general, theater was part of our general education. It is the same with music and literature, and theater is positioned as an art closely linked to literature. My mother loved theater and often took me to performances. But, with regard to working in theater as a profession, it is often viewed as a field where it is hard to make a stable living. Also, since the dramaturge is not a commonly known profession, my parents were quite surprised when I said that I wanted to study dramaturgy at Leipzig University of Music and Theater.
Were you aware of the dramaturge as a profession?
 Yes. I became absorbed in theater in my teens and I thought that I wanted to become an actress or a director. I took acting lessons and I actually performed on stage, but I came to see that I lacked talent as an actress (laughs). At the age of 18, I wasn’t able to get a clear image of myself as a director either, but I still thought that there must be something I could do in theater, and as I was studying for the entrance exams for theater school at the university level, I got the idea that it might be good if I studied dramaturgy.
Leipzig University of Music and Theater certainly has a good reputation as a school for studying dramaturgy.
 At the time it was indeed the perfect university for me. It was a place where we could study dramaturgy not only for theater but broadly in the fields of film, music, theater, radio and television. Then at one point you decide which area you are going to specialize in. For the practical training (internship) that we were required to do as part of our studies, I went first to Germany’s Bochum Theater (Schauspielhaus Bochum). As an intern there, I participated in the premiere production of Der Narr und seine Frau heute abend in Pancomedia (written by Botho Strauss, directed by Mathias Hartmann) with dramaturgy by the present president of the Berlin Festival, Thomas Oberender. That fortunate encounter with Thomas had a big influence on my ensuing career. The second internship was at Gate Theatre in London, a small theater specializing in productions of exclusively foreign plays performed in English. This also turned out to be a very important experience for me. And, it made me feel that I would not be able to work in Germany.
Why was that?
 The public theaters in Germany (Note: State and city theaters. Operating on a system where the actors and all of the stage staff are hired employees of the theater and required to create and produce a given number of new works each season that are then performed repeatedly as the theater’s repertoire.) are actually huge and complex organizations, and at least from what I experienced at the time, had firmly entrenched hierarchies. What’s more, they had to produce an unbelievable number of productions, which meant that everyone had to keep working far more than full time in top gear all the time. That kind of organization depended largely on the unique individuality of the general artistic director ( Intendant ), stage directors and actors, and what a person could do within the organization tended to depend on their rank and powers. In theaters that had actor ensembles, it would appear that they functioned like a close-knit family, but on the other hand there was also a strict system of rank within the group. I felt that I would not be able to work within such a system.

The Gate Theatre was completely different. It was organized in a way that stressed high levels of quality in the work each person was responsible for; in other words the focus was on high principles in the inherent work of theater, with very little interfering hierarchy to deal with. To be honest, things were tight because of the lack of budget, but they applied for grants from the arts council every year and everyone on the staff worked on a low but sustainable salary. That was by no means a desirable situation, but everyone worked together to help run the theater and there was never that much concern about which people had which powers in any type of hierarchy. From my experience there in London, I became interested in the creative process from an organizational (management) perspective and decided to study arts management at City University in London. There I learned about arts and culture policy and international comparison.
After that you worked at LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). LIFT originated from London’s international student theater festival launched in 1980. Mark Ball became the artistic director in 2009 and started things like site-specific projects that helped develop it into what it is known as today, one of London’s most active international contemporary arts festivals.
 As I continued my studies in London, I began to get the desire to return to actual work in theater. It was just at that time that the offer of a work placement at LIFT came to me.
What is a work placement?
 It is like a volunteer job, but perhaps a little better than a common internship. As work placements, we had lots of possibilities to engage with the festival’s work, and our expenses were refunded. This was the last year that the LIFT founders, Lucy Neal and Rose Fenton were there as artistic directors. They had started the festival when they were young graduates and had run LIFT for 20 years after that and were wonderful people with a wealth of experience. Rose and Lucy at LIFT (much like Erica Whyman, who ran the Gate when I was there) have been hugely inspirational. I really respect their courage in being able to start an international festival at such a young age, and also for the way they finally left the festival that they had nurtured with such loving care and then move on in their own directions to different work, they were truly models for me.
It must have been a wonderful experience. Then you went on after that to the Kortárs Drama Festival in Budapest, Hungary. What was the reason for a move to Hungary?
 I had returned to Luxembourg for a break when I was contacted by Penny Black, who I got to know during my time at the Gate Theatre. She is an excellent translator and dramaturge. She told me they were looking for someone to serve as volunteer at Hungary’s Kortárs Drama Festival. The festival is run on such a small budget and with such a small number staff that it is in constant danger of disappearing. Each year they took in one foreign intern who they asked to work for the festival in exchange for lodging and three meals a day. Since I had never lived in eastern Europe for any amount of time, I said that I would be glad to take the position.

I worked there for six months and it turned out to be a vey rewarding experience. You could observe how the political system of a country influences the form of the country’s theater and its role in the society. Even before the conservative Hungarian Civic Party (Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance) leader Orbán Viktor became prime minister, funding for certain parts of the arts and culture was scarce. Nonetheless, Budapest had and still has a very active theater scene. There is an active scene of theaters that didn’t have in-house actor ensembles, and independent companies. Meanwhile, there are also excellent theater facilities not only in Budapest but in various regional cities . It was very interesting, but the lack of funding and infrastructure also made things quite difficult.

Today, I believe that the situation for the arts in Hungary is even more severe than it was then.
From there, your next career move was to the Zurich Theater (Schauspielhaus Zürich) in Switzerland where Christoph Marthaler had formerly served as artistic director.
 Mathais Hartmann, who had been at the Bochum Theater when I did my first internship there had by then moved to Zurich Theater, and Thomas Oberender had followed him there. I contacted them and I got a position as an assistant in the dramaturgy department there. Later, Thomas was appointed director of the theater department of the Salzburg Festival and there were positions there for an assistant for him and a curator for the Young Directors Project. I then negotiated that I could do both of those jobs alone and they agreed, so I moved to the theater department of the Salzburg Festival in 2005.
You were 26 at the time, weren’t you?
 Yes. There I was entering the huge organization of the Salzburg Festival at the age of 26. But it was a very good experience for me to be able to work on the Young Directors Project. This excellent program (terminated in 2014) was started in collaboration with the sponsor Montblanc when the artistic director of the today’s Berlin State Opera, Jürgen Flimm was director of the festival’s theater department.

After I began working as a curator in it, we made two changes. First we expanded it to include different genres of theater, including companies like the Brussels dance company Peeping Tom and the Dutch object theater company Hotel Modern.
Hotel Modern became famous for their work KAMP dealing with the subject of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Thousands of little puppets were used in a model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp set up as an installation on the stage and the members of the company moved around operating the puppets and taking videos of their movements with miniature cameras and project the images in real-time on a screen to create a puppet theater and live animation work. In 2010 it was also performed in Japan.
 Yes! It was a wonderful work. Besides them, we also invited to the program the Dutch native theater-maker and artist Dries Verhoeven and performance group SIGNA from Copenhagen. And gradually, our curation came to include artists from outside Europe. In 2008 we invited Toshiki Okada’s Five Days in March . At the time I had no knowledge about Japanese contemporary theater, but from the moment I started watching video of performances, Okada’s work and his unique style was something I could relate to. I understood how Okada was able to project clear images of the processes at work in society and the misunderstandings that occur between people and how he stages his works with distinct aesthetic forms. That made me decide to invite him immediately. That was my first encounter with Japanese contemporary theater.
You worked at the Salzburg Festival for five years, didn’t you?
 Yes. It was the period when Jürgen Flimm was the general artistic director and Thomas Oberender was the director of the theater department. It was a five-year experience taught me so much, but I eventually found it increasingly difficult to work within an environment that included three huge theaters, a year-round staff of more than 200, an almost century-long tradition and an organization where the majority of the staff were natives of Salzburg and determined to work their entire lives in the city.

The Salzburg Festival is deeply rooted in a close relationship with the city, and there is even a Salzburg Festival ordinance adopted by the government under which everything from the reason for the festival’s existence, the necessity of support for it, the members of the board of directors and more are all set down in law. Since it is a festival that was established after World War I, it was originally based on the ideals that the arts contribute to the peace of our world and offer us salvation and meaning in our lives.
Then finally, the time came when you would begin working in Germany. Though it wouldn’t be at a public theater, but as dramaturge for Mousonturm theater (Künstlerhaus Mousonturm) with its leading position in Germany’s “free scene.” Would you tell us how that came about?
 When Thomas Oberender became the president of the Berlin Festival, I was also leaving Salzburg. When I learned that Niels Ewerbeck had moved from the Gessnerallee Theater in Zurich to Frankfurt to become artistic director at Mousonturm, I contacted him and then met him, we got along well and I got a job there as dramaturge, along with Marcus Dross.

Marcus is an outstanding dramaturge and it was only after meeting him that I encountered the idea that a production actually functions as a form of mechanism, a system of interrelated actions that in themselves can have a political as well as an artistic dimension. Until then, my understanding was that if you were going to do a production of Hamlet , for example, the concept of the production would be what you want to express through the play. However, [after becoming acquainted with Marcus and his ideas] I understood that that was merely a metaphoric approach and nothing more than translating Hamlet into the context of contemporary issues and problems. And maybe that’s not enough! What I learned from Marcus and the artists about the concept employed in the independent scene was that the play was like a mechanism, a “dispositif”, and how you used that to set the relationship with the audience and to explore a theme.

I felt very comfortable working at Mousonturm and it was rewarding for me, so I wasn’t thinking about leaving there, but after Niels died suddenly and Marcus and I had run the place for half a year I learned about an opening from Festival Theaterformen, and since I had always wanted work as a director of an international festival, I immediately applied for the job.
What is the positioning of Theaterformen as a festival in the German-language theater world? In English the name could be read as “theater for men” (laughs), but what is the actual source of the name?
 It is one of the festivals that theater professionals in Germany always keep an eye on. In terms of scale, it is not the largest festival in Europe, with a program of about 15 works presented over a period of ten days or so. In 1989, a plan was set in motion to establish a festival in Braunschweig. It was still the era of the Berlin Wall and the aim was to establish a festival in that town near the border between the two Germanys on the West Germany side to show the East what a wealth of theater works there were in the world. By the time the festival started in 1990, however, the Berlin Wall had already come down (laughs).

The name Theaterformen in German is a plural, “theater forms”, and it was chosen with the intention of asking people to look at the great diversity of forms of theater there are in the world. In the beginning, the festival was held with the Braunschweig city theater as the main venue, but in April 1995 the fire-proofing wall of the theater came down and until it could be repaired the among others a hall in Hannover had to be used as the festival’s alternative venue. After that, for a while the festival was held in both theaters every other year, and after that it was held alternating between the two cities each year.
In 2015, after you took over the directorship from your predecessor, Anja Dirks the festival program included Rimini Protokoll (Germany), Tiago Rodriguez and Mundo Perfeito (Portugal), Xavier Le Roy (France) and others for a total of 15 works from eleven countries, and you succeeded in attracting an audience of 6,000, we are told. Are there any new policies that you have introduced as artistic director?
 By the time of Anja’s period as artistic director (and those before her), the festival was already successfully established and had a large and faithful audience, so I didn’t think of making any major policy changes. However, I did considerable questioning about my curatorial approach. I didn’t want to collect works like building blocks, saying, “I have a square red one, a round blue one and a triangular yellow one, so now I want a green one, and I had doubts about the popular trend of thinking of the world as a market and then choosing works like going shopping in that market.

However, I thought that I needed some rules. Some may get the impression that festival directors are full of confidence and choose their programs without wavering, but that is not the case. We are always subjected to pressure from a variety of directions. There are many stakeholders: local and regional politics, the media, peer groups, the audience… As a result, there is a tendency to add certain works to the program in order to escape from some of those pressures and avoid certain problems. And I would rather not use works in that way, with the sole intention to free yourself from problems or issues that you are facing as a director or curator.

I set a rule for myself that I would always invite a given artist to perform [at least] two works. That means that I have to choose artists with more concern for the depth of their work. In English there is the saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” and in German there is the expression, “Don’t put all your bets on one horse,” but I made this rule exactly so I would have to bet on very few horses. I wanted to make things a bit more difficult for myself, more risky. I believe this was a new policy experiment, and in the end half of the festival followed the rule with four companies presenting two works each. I found that this rule presented the opportunity to compare works [by the same company] and it provided a context for getting a deeper understanding of the artists, and in that sense I think it was good for the audience too.
It has been said that research is an important element in festival programming.
 For me, research is the foundation of my work. Research takes effort, time and money, it requires energy. Clearly it is inefficient, since you will only invite a small percentage of the artists you find out about, but it is absolutely necessary for festival programming. The importance of research is not mainly to find unknown artists and talent, the real importance is in helping me find what I want to know about the background behind an artist’s works, about the reason they choose to create theater works and the necessities behind that drive.

There are times when I do not end up inviting a performance of an artist I have taken a long time with in order to understand their art, and no matter how big the world is with all its variety, that doesn’t mean we are always going to find satisfying subjects for research immediately in every place I go. Still, I believe that research is a job we must pursue and that it is a way to open up new horizons. The efforts we make to learn about the background an artist is coming from stand as proof that we believe their artistic activities are important for the wider society.
One of the policies cited for your festival is for “involvement” or the potential “participation.”
 Participation or involvement is clearly an important theme in our society today, and it is the same in the world of the arts. You could also call it a sort of contemporary trend. My thinking was that since this was my first programming as the new artistic director I definitely didn’t want to create the impression that this is my festival, although of course I decide what is presented. It is hard to claim without qualification that a festival belongs to everyone, but since it is a festival that is put on thanks to the cooperative efforts of lots of people, I wanted to try to make sure that everyone could consider themselves members contributing to this festival. In order to do that, I wanted to try to present works that made the audience part of work [of art] and works where the artists delegated part of the creative process up to the audience.
In specific terms, what kinds of works did you present?
 One was The Record by the New York-based company 600 HIGHWAYMEN. Some people mistake their work as theater with amateurs, but that is not what it is. In this production, the participants are 44 citizens who are meeting for the first time on stage, during the performance, in front of the audience, and when they come together they form a community, for what will be the first and last time. It is a work that creates a community that is formed by chance and will never exist again, and it puts that community on the stage. Also, there was the work Situation Rooms by the German theater group Rimini Protokoll, in which each individual in the audience is given a role as members of the world of international arms trade and puts them in a situation where none of them can escape from that role. In other words, it is a metaphor for a condition in which the passive audience member can no longer be a mere bystander.
Would you tell us what will be on the program for Theaterformen 2016? We hear there will be an Asia feature.
 I can’t tell you the details yet, but we plan to invite works from Asian mega-cities like Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. So that it doesn’t get lost within the rest of the program, we plan to present an Asia feature that has considerable scale. I am sometimes asked why I am focusing on Asian works, and the growing number of grant programs for encouraging collaborations with artists outside of Europe is certainly not the only reason. There is a huge wealth of different artistic approaches in the cities I mentioned, and most of them are hardly known in Europe, although they are well worth exploring! This may be a rather wishful observation, I believe that people are beginning to become aware that we can’t solve the problems our society faces today by ourselves; the only truly effecting solutions require that all of the parties involved are working together toward solutions. We feel this especially with the continuing problem today of the inflow of refugees. Furthermore, with the growth of the Internet, it is easier today to get information.
Finally, as one who has worked on a number of international festivals throughout Europe, I would like to ask you what you see as the role festivals can play in society in the future.
 With the frequent journeys I have undertaken, which means I often experience being the outsider, I have come to realize that there are different strategies people use to simplify life so they can create a place that is easier for them to live in within this complex world. Among these strategies are religion and ideology. With regard to this tendency, I believe that the role of festivals should not be to attempt to simplify the world, but to always try to show the real complexity that exists. I feel that the works of many artists in the large cities of East Asia that amplify and make visible the differences and complexities of their worlds make good examples of this role.

In my message for the opening of our 2015 Festival Theaterformen, I quoted a story from the book Gargantua and Pantagruel by the French Renaissance scholar François Rabelais. He writes that beyond a sea of ice lies a land so cold in winter that the words people speak freeze in mid-air. When spring comes the words begin to thaw and when they melt they can finally be heard. As soon as spring comes, all of the words that had been frozen thaw and can suddenly be heard all at once. Words of love and words of sad parting are heard together, words of worry and of consolation are heard together, as are words of hope and despair. It must be terribly noisy. But, if you can gradually begin to discern the different voices and grasp them with a larger perspective; if you can begin to see the meaning of the different statements and their interrelationship…. Within the resulting state of chaos when these things that have been frozen for so long begin to melt, you can gradually come to recognize their significance. I think it would be wonderful if a festival could make this kind of realization happen.

Festival Theaterformen

Thomas Oberender
Born in 1966. Oberender studied dramatic at university and after receiving his Doctor’s degree he worked from 2000 to ’05 as chief dramaturge at the Bochum Theater under artistic director Mathias Hartmann. Following experience as chief dramaturge at the Zurich Theater in Switzerland (2005 – 2006) and director of the theater department of the Salzburg Festival (2006 – 2011), he assumed the post as managing director of the Berlin Festival in 2012. The Berlin Festival has music, theater, fine arts and literature departments as programs for young artists and Oberender’s job is to administer overall coordination. He has visited Japan to give the keynote speech at the Bunka no Chikara: Tokyo Conference 2014.

Free/Independent Scene
As opposed to the public theater administered and funded by the various states and cities and permanently employ their own companies of actors and stage technicians, etc., and present works on a repertory system, the term “free scene” refers to the scene of private-sector theaters and independent performance spaces that in many cases function with the minimum necessary staff in the roles of artistic director, dramaturge, production management, technical and maintenance staff. Among these, the theaters and spaces that not only invite outside performances but also produce new works are often referred to as “production houses.” These theaters and spaces often receive public funding from the states or cities as bases where artists not employed by public theaters are active. In Germany, the main free scene bases that receive public funding include HAU (Berlin), Kampnagel (Hamburg), Mousonturm (Frankfurt), Tanzhaus NRW (Dusseldorf), FFT (Dusseldorf), Hellerau European Centre for the Arts (Dresden), PACT Zollverein (Essen) among others.

Montblanc & Salzburg Arts Festival Young Directors Project
The Young Directors Project (YDP) is a program that gives young directors a chance to have their productions performed in the Salzburg Festival. It resulted from a 2002 proposal by Jürgen Flimm, who was director of the festival’s theater department at the time. The Project was then initiated with the writing materials maker Montblanc as the sponsor. Each year, four or five works are chosen, primarily from within Europe, and the winner of the most outstanding director award receives a prize of 10,000 euro and Montblanc writing materials. The project ended in 2014 when Montblanc withdrew its sponsorship. In 2008, chelfitsch’s play Five Days in March was selected as a participant.

The Mousonturm in Frankfurt is one of the important free scene bases in Germany and it serves as a place where artists from all over the world can perform, create new productions and communicate. In addition to its main theater facility, it has numerous studios and residence facilities where overseas artists frequently stay to work on productions in residence. A few times a year, there are festivals organized by the theater, with a recent one being the 10-day “Indonesia LAB” festival held in October 2015. Since Matthias Pees became artistic director in 2013, Akira Takayama (Japan) and Dieudonné Niangouna of the Republic of the Congo have come to the theater as associate artists and plans call for them to present woks on a continuing basis.

Theaterformen 2015 Program
In this first program organized under the directorship of Martine Dennewald, there were 15 works performed from the 11 countries of Argentina, Chile, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States. The program was unique in the fact that four of the participating companies, Rimini Protokoll (Germany), Tiago Rodriguez and Mundo Perfeito (Portugal), Xavier Le Roy (France) and 600 HIGHWAYMEN (U.S.) performed two works each. In addition to the theater works, there were nine concerts and also a breakfast each Saturday morning for the artists to meet and converse with and people from the general audience.
Dates: July 2 – 12, 2015 (Venue: Hannover) Festival Theaterformen 2016 will be held in Braunschweig between 9 and 19 June 2016, and the programme will be announced on 13 April 2016.

600 HIGHWAYMEN is the New York-based theater unit of Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone. They have presented six works since 2009 at festivals around the world. Their work The Record (premiered 2013) is performed by citizens of the locality of the performance. In the performance in Hannover in 2015, there were 44 performers ranging in age from seven to 76.

Rimini Protokoll’s
Situation Rooms

Rimini Protokoll is a German and Swiss theater group made up of Helgard Haug Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel. Their works are created by bringing together people with special experience in the field of the work’s chosen theme (experts or specialists of their particular spheres of life) in order to bring the realities of that theme or sphere to the stage or to areas of the particular city the theme centers on. This work, which takes the weapons industry as its theme, uses as its set a large shipping container with a number of devices built into it. Each member of the audience is given and iPad and with it in hand they move around the venue according to the instructions appearing on it in a way that the members of the audience themselves perform the roles in the “play” alternately. This work premiered in the Ruhr Triennale in 2013 and has been performed at a number of venues in Germany and other parts of Europe through 2015. It is the winner of the Excellence Award in the Arts division of the 17th Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Japan Media Arts Festival.