I’ve got a confession: I’m not sure about theater festivals. I mean, I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do, and I’m definitely not sure if they’re any good at it. I’ve participated in a good handful of them from small to big, and in a lot of different capacities from artist to audience member to critic, and I still don’t feel like I know.
Hypothesis: Festivals are machines that add value to productions, playwrights, directors, and actors. An invitation to a festival is a stamp of approval, a badge on your website, a line in your CV.
Hypothesis: A theater festival, like any other festival, is a celebration. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re gathered here today to celebrate theater, no justification needed, obviously. (The celebration of the 50th Theatertreffen by extension is a celebration of a celebration. Adding value to a value-adder. A feedback loop.)
Hypothesis: We’re extending theater’s reach and grounding a(n) (inter)national conversation about the art. It’s important for the most relevant/groundbreaking/noteworthy work in contemporary performance—such a highly local thing!—to reach a wider audience if we want to talk about trends and development in performance as a field.
I don’t know. It all seems pretty navel-gazing to me, sometimes. It all seems like we’re patting our own backs for making something that’s good because we say it’s good. There’s another hypothesis I’d be more interested in:
Hypothesis: A festival is (or could be?) a kind of trial, with audience as plaintiff and the festival curator as defense attorney. And what’s on trial is art itself.
An expert jury performs the curatorial function for the Theatertreffen, and yes, to my American imagination, the word “jury” conjures up images of court trials and hotly contested verdicts of innocent or guilty. But there’s something else that has me thinking about this.
In January, The Curators’ Piece (A Trial Against Art) came to Performance Space 122 in New York City, where I live now. Six curators—actual curators of the international performance festivals at which The Curators’ Piece is performed, from NYC’s COIL and Noorderzon in the Netherlands to Homo Novus in Latvia and Queer Zagreb—take turns “on the bench of the accused and get to speak in defense of art and try to prove what it is capable of—that a world without art is a dead world”.
In the view of The Curators’ Piece, art stands accused by society at large. “You have failed us“, says society. “You promised to give us meaning and to save us, and you have not done so. You have a responsibility to us and it has not been fulfilled.” The curators are called on to defend art as its supposed foremost advocates and friends.
I like what The Curators’ Piece is asking us to do: Be active in our consumption and curation of art. An audience should expect something of art, expect it to fulfill its responsibility, and press charges when it does not. Curators aren’t doing their job if they’re just collecting “the best” (because what good is the best theater if theater itself is guilty, is failing society?). The curator’s job is to build a case for art, with the full awareness that art could well be found guilty in the end. (Where is the artist in this equation?)
It’s great in theory: festival as trial rather than as self-justifying verdict. But if we take The Curators’ Piece as an example, adopting this trial-by-jury model isn’t easy. Sure, where the piece sets the curators in (largely extemporaneous) dialogue with one another, there are hard, provocative questions asked. But when the piece gives the curators the space to deliver pre-written speeches as evidence in support of art, it all comes off clichéd and tired. The performance asks the festival curators to defend art, but as I watched, it felt a lot more like I was watching them defend themselves. Their curatorial choices. Their taste in art.
As artists, audiences, and jury alike gear up in Berlin for the 2013 Theatertreffen, I’m interested in what we can do to be active members of the community that has curated, and is consuming, this year’s invited productions. To give German-speaking theater a fair but stern trial without falling into the trap of defending it for the sake of defending ourselves.
The finale of The Curators’ Piece heightens the feeling that it’s the curators and not the art that’s on trial. One by one, each curator takes the stage to sit, alone in a bright, invasive light, and answer questions spoken by a vaguely robotic, disembodied voice: “What kind of art do you like? What kind of art would you die for? What would you die for?”
Most would die for family or love or freedom, but would not die for art. Not of any kind. Some friends they are.