After watching seven remarkable productions of the 2023 Theatertreffen, what is left behind? My head is buzzing not only with words and discourse, but also with images that are still present days after the performances.
A showcase framed by a light box – as if one had turned on the beamer at home and was streaming a series, seven hours long, because the plot drags you in and takes place in different places: a cozy middle-class living room with white upholstered sofas, behind it the skyline of New York. Later, in the countryside: a tree as tall as trees in real life, behind it the facade of a country house, red leaves on the ground. In between, a street on which people not only move but also live, the asphalt peppered with garbage. Philipp Stölzl’s production of „The Legacy“ creates these detailed images.
A day later, Nikola Knezević (stage) and Anne Meeussen (lighting) transform the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz into a staged swimming pool, with two water boxes – placed behind and to the right of the main pool – for the performers to play on. In „Ophelia’s Got Talent“, their bodies and faces are repeatedly projected in close-ups onto the two screens hanging in portrait format to the left and right of the stage. A bright yellow helicopter later floats onto the stage, which the ensemble climbs on. The background keeps changing its colour, conveying moods through modern pastel tones.
In Sebastian Hartmann’s „Der Einzige und sein Eigentum“ at Deutsches Theater, the players run against the permanently rotating, grey, gigantic column – as if caught in a hamster wheel. The effect of the absence of standstill is combined with texts philosophising about the individual and the collective. Comparing to the previous two, this stage design unfolds its effect not through details, but through size and movement.
Houses on stages seem to be the trend
It’s wasn’t just „The Inheritance“ that constructed a house on the stage of the Berliner Festspielhaus, it was also „Nora“ – but here, it is upside-down, and not only a backdrop, but also a venue. The actors climb up to the upper floor, hang between windows, and slide down the construction. The upside-down house – created by set designer Viva Schudt – provides more horizontal playing space, which the ensemble uses, especially Nora, who effortlessly navigates through „her“ house.
While the audience gets a glimpse of a house in „Nora“, in „Der Bus nach Dachau“, stage designer Theun Mosk decided to put a large wooden box on stage, with the inside of the box only shown to the audience in the last scene. One hears conversations and screams from the oversized wooden box, but does not see what happens inside. The theatre collective De Warme Winkel uses the bright wooden walls as a projection surface – performers enter the construction with a camera. Then wooden beds, on which detainees lie with striped pyjamas, are projected onto the outer wall. But are the recordings live at all? Or is the intention here about surfaces? The brain likes patterns and stringency – it fills the blanks that are not shown, and creates connections – regardless of whether these correspond to reality or not. The staging via memory thus opens up a possibility for reflection and interpretation, offering the option to question this individually.
Deconstruction in real-time
Against the giant images of the aforementioned productions, Matthias Koch’s stage set-up in the production „A Midsummer Night’s Dream“ at HAU1 corresponds to what people who have rarely visited theatres, or are used to amateur theatre, would expect: simple, small props, benches, and free floor space. After so much grandiosity, this stage set seems almost minimalist, although it is quite fragmented – and during the performance, it transforms from the teachers‘ classroom to an enchanted forest, creating an effect through shadow and light plays.
In „Die Eingeborenen von Maria Blut,“ there is little left of Jessica Rockstroh’s stage conception at the end of the production. The over five-meter-tall Mary figure in red robe with a halo, which changes its colour depending on the scene, was dismantled by stage technicians and carried away after crying tears of blood. Only the black, smartcar-sized pedestal remains standing. Her blue veil lies on the floor, having been pulled up from one end of the stage to the other by two wooden angels. Beforehand, however, the audience has had enough time to take in this large rigid image, which could just as easily be an album cover, and is wrapped in a different light depending on the scene. Even those who cannot follow the plot of this piece at every moment will remember the figure of silent Mary. The actors – in uniform coral-colored T-shirts and cloth pants with porcelain masks – use the stage space in front of the statue to act out the village life in Austria in 1935, written down by author Maria Lazar, who described a village society tipping into fascism.
Effect versus responsibility
What has been remarkable about this year’s Theatertreffen so far: the versatility of the stage designs of the invited productions. However, outside of the evening theatre performances, different rounds and groups discussed: Is it appropriate for the props and stage parts to be trucked across the country to Berlin – and then back again to the home theatre? Especially when this involves enormous costs, which are also reflected in ticket prices and deny many people access to the festival? Is it responsible in times of climate crisis? What weighs more: the showing of remarkable plays, or the social and ecological aspects outside the theatre?
For me, the images linger. I feel inspired by the many-sided visual impressions. And I can’t solve the mentioned dilemma, but I assume that the decision-makers in institutions and theatres will – and have to – ask themselves these questions in the future. And perhaps this will ultimately lead to even more creative approaches to the question of how stage designs of the future can be simultaneously effective and socially responsible.