Why German theatre audiences idolise the director

From Bertolt Brecht to René Pollesch, the German theatre world has often been defined by big-shot directors rather than famous actors. But why is this — and is it necessarily a bad thing?

Once, while interviewing an actress in the ensemble of a high-profile Berlin theatre, I asked her if she considered herself a celebrity of the German stage. It was a lazy question, but I was still fairly new to the “Hauptstadt” and ignorant of the intricate internal politics of the Berlin theatre scene. She simply laughed. Whether out of modesty or genuinely aiming to educate me, she told me that German theatregoers don’t care about celebrity actors (“unless it’s Lars Eidinger”) — instead, they come to see celebrity directors.

With dozens (hundreds?) more trips to German theatres under my belt, I’m still mulling over this theory. When perusing the productions chosen to attend this year’s Theatertreffen, I found both the conversation around the chosen performances — and indeed my own internal narrative — quickly began to refer to them in terms of just one individual, as in: “the Yael Ronen piece;” “the Ulrich Rasche.” OK, it’s just useful shorthand, but it nevertheless goes against what I think theatre should be: collaborative; a team effort; and detached from ego. With this in mind, I want to reflect on whether this peculiarly Teutonic obsession with the the director even exists and — if so — does it matter?

Brecht has a lot to answer for

At first glance, it certainly appears that directors are venerated in a way that is unusual in the Anglosphere. I am always astonished when even the most casual Berlin theatregoers can reel off names like Pollesch, Ostermeier, Kosky, Holzinger — with a real sense of the distinct style of each. To understand this, Brecht — as usual — has a lot to answer for. His ghost haunts every stage in the German-speaking world, and if not is conspicuous by its absence. The result is twofold: firstly, his towering legacy means that the concept of the innovative director-manager is already baked into the public imagination; but more important is the influence of Brecht’s style. The “V-Effekt”causes the fourth wall to come tumbling down and actors are exposed not as superhuman stars but as mere tradesmen and -women at work. At its extreme, actors become little more than props for the auteur — usually a white man — to use to create his magic.

Adding to the godlike aura of the director is the murky figure of the dramaturg. Lessing is usually credited with creating this role and I would argue it has remained a specifically German concept in the centuries that followed. Of course, the job exists around the world, but German-speaking theatres revere dramaturgs in a way that often surprises foreigners. The prominence of the dramaturg further chips away at actors’ apparent autonomy; if audiences know that the director is working with a dedicated researcher, they are more likely to value the unseen powers that reign backstage over what they see on-stage. The perception is that the actors are, after all, simply being told what to do.

The joy of the publicly-funded ensemble model

Finally, there is an economic factor: the existence of the “Staatstheater.” The concept of a dedicated ensemble means, again, that actors are seen more as workers rather than as celebrities; stunt casting of TV and film stars is relatively rare on publicly-funded German stages. My native Scotland has, to my knowledge, one single repertory theatre with a permanent contracted cast (the glorious Dundee Rep); and most Broadway and West End theatres survive only through casting big names in reliably crowd-pleasing shows. The “Staatstheater” model removes pressure from a director to turn a profit: the auteur is freer to hone their craft.

These points are of course, at best, sweeping generalisations. Brecht would have been nothing without his collaborators, most notably his often-ignored wife Helene Weigel. The best directors and dramaturgs are not dictators and will deftly work with the knowledge and skills of everyone in the rehearsal room. And the real joy of the publicly-funded ensemble model is that directors and actors can work together over extended periods of time to build trust and share ideas. I have little doubt that the directors behind this year’s ten remarkable productions would be unanimous in saying that their productions are so remarkable precisely because they are a team effort, not solely the work of individual geniuses.

Mainstream German theatres allow directors to take risks

And yet — and yet — maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to revere the auteur. Volksbühne’s “Ophelia’s Got Talent,” featured at Theatertreffen 2023, is among the most extraordinary pieces of theatre I have ever seen, and I think it is quite right that Florentina Holzinger is credited as a revolutionary disrupter. I love that mainstream German theatres allow directors to take risks and tell stories that would likely be relegated to the fringes in other parts of the world. I want creatives to be able to do extraordinary things; I want people with big ideas not to get stuck in a lowest-common-denominator quagmire. In short, I think it’s fine to sometimes idolise the theatre auteur — while recognising that theatre is always a team sport.


Elliot Douglas

Elliot Douglas (geb. 1995) ist ein in Berlin lebender Journalist und Schriftsteller, der derzeit einen Master in Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaften mit Schwerpunkt auf Dekolonialismus studiert. Er hat hauptsächlich für die Deutsche Welle gearbeitet, wo er Videoinhalte über deutsche Kultur für das Ausland erstellt hat, und war Stage Editor für Berlins englischsprachiges Magazin, ExBerliner. Er hat auch Erfahrung als Theaterregisseur, Dramaturg und Schauspieler. Er ist zunehmend daran interessiert, die Kluft zwischen Theorie und Praxis zu überbrücken. Er versucht, mehr Zeit in der Natur und mit faszinierenden Menschen zu verbringen und weniger Zeit vor dem Bildschirm.

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