Regietheater, auf Englisch

We’ve done it again. We’ve borrowed a word from the German and made it our own. After “schadenfreude and “zeitgeist, “Regietheater” has now surpassed the translation “director’s theatre” in common usage.

I first realized how serious this trend had become when Alex Ross used it in his commentary on new opera productions in New York over the past season. Note: of course we don’t exactly use the term correctly, in English, “Regietheater can basically be plastered across any non-historical staging of a work.

I would propose, however, that we haven’t earned the right to use the term all. Because Regietheater really only applies if the director actually means something to begin with. And in the States in general, the director is a glorified medium for the playwright or librettist – he or she is there to bring the author’s text, according to his (or her) intentions, to life. This is one reason why there are endless discussions of what Shakespeare really meant, if he would have objected to women playing Macbeth and who the hell “he” was anyway. Non-historical stagings are then approached with the somewhat mystical question: “How would the author have imagined the piece if he or she were alive now? Would he choose McDonald’s or Burger King? Drive a Chevy or a Toyota? Go to Disneyland or the Playboy Mansion?”

And as soon as our directors stray from this melt-behind-the-text role, we automatically cry “Regietheater and dismiss it as, pardon my British, disrespectful wank. So you can also understand why our most talented directors turn toward film. At least there they have some respect and creative control.

Katie Mitchell's direction intensive production of Night Train, invited to the Theatertreffen this year.
Katie Mitchell’s direction intensive production of Night Train, invited to the Theatertreffen this year. Photo Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

Of course there’s also a couple that have made it to the continent, where directors are the geniuses and celebrities, for better or worse. British director Katie Mitchell‘s description of her first encounter with this status change:

“When I went to Salzburg for the first time, I was sitting in the square and there were three banners with three middle-aged men’s faces on them advertising three shows. I asked, ‘Are those pictures of the playwrights?’ No. ‘Are those pictures of the leading actors?’ No. ‘Who are they of, then?’ The directors. And I thought, this would be impossible in the UK: the directors’ faces on their shows? That would be a travesty.” (From a conversation in 2010)

So my perspective on the discussion “Theatre directing is…” on Sunday was a bit coloured by wonder at the fact that such a discussion would even be held. And most of the conversation revolved around predictable historical reminiscing about the emergence of dance theatre and watered-down descriptions of the craft: i.e. “Directing is making decisions.” But there was one nice moment of drama.

Claus Peymann (artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble, slowly increasing in volume): “Don’t we have the theatre that we deserve today? The minimalisation of pieces, actors turned into slaves, into director’s puppets, a contempt for drama, a disdain for literature, isn’t all of this is the expression of our ahistorical society…? Theatre like that of Rimini Protokoll, which represents the triumph of dilettantism and totally disregards literature, isn’t that what we’ve earned?”

Thomas Oberender (director of the Berliner Festspiele, standing up in the last row, and shouting): “That’s enough! What you’re saying is terrible. You still try to explain the world with Brecht and then you denounce the next generation.”

Peymann: “I’m just saying that I think Rimini is a symptom. I, myself, was one of their subjects: they made a whole production about me. Sure, it has an alleged authenticity, but it has nothing to do with the art and skills of theatre.”

More shouting, accusations – thankfully no guns.

So the director discussion on Sunday took a turn toward a discussion of the direction of theatre and society in general. But that also reflects the relative position of the director in German theatre (and theatre in German society). This is a real Regietheater. It’s the director that decides what subjects and aesthetics the theatre should tackle. And directors define generations, not playwrights. Crazy.

The discussion moderator segued out of the Peymann vs. Oberender conflict by saying, with regard to directorial styles: “We should preserve diversity, that’s clear.” At least it is for Germany.

But who knows, maybe the American theatre zeitgeist really is ready for a little bit more Regietheater.

Questions from an Ausländer

I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. And that’s not poetry, just blatant fact. Here I am, in Berlin, a Japanese theatre journalist with some knowledge of theatre but no in-depth anything of German culture, and I’m supposed to be contributing to the TT-Blog. Don’t get me wrong: The last thing I want to do is grumble, because I am simply overjoyed by the broad-mindedness of the German-speaking blogging team who could accept a Tokyo journalist to join them. Yet, I honestly am also a little afraid, because when I look around there are, unlike in London where I live now, exclusively white faces around me, and I know that some people – no, not you, but some – do yammer “Ausländer raus!” as in the late Christoph Schlingensief’s ironic theatre project.
John Cage might say “Silence” in these circumstances. But the difference between the great composer and I is that I can’t shut up, but rather continue shooting foolish questions: Why is German theatre so politically engaged? Why is Regietheater still so strong in this more fluid modern age? Why are most directors men, and white? And why do many end up directing operas? Is that the ultimate success for directors, or is that already an old-school perspective? And, yes, this is a big one, has most of German theatre become totally post-dramatic, abandoning the power of storytelling? You see, I am full of these horribly biased questioned, and am the least qualified person to provide an insider’s view to this festival. Continue reading Questions from an Ausländer

Rauschen in der Rübe

“Was heißt und zu welchem Ende erdulden wir Regietheater?” lautete der Titel einer Veranstaltung, zu der die Stiftung Schloss Neuhardenberg am gestrigen Sonntag einlud. Auftritt: Gerhard Stadelmaier, Großkritiker der FAZ und seit dem Frankfurter “Spiralblock-Skandal” auch einer breiteren Öffentlichkeit bekannt. Eine Zusammenfassung seiner Rede in Stichpunkten.

Continue reading Rauschen in der Rübe