Staatstheater Mainz : a conversation

What's so great about international co-production? An interview with Jörg Vorhaben

“international co-producing embeds the work in our own theatre-making. And that way we all grow. Together.”

For a project that’s all about breaking down borders, the Grenzenlos Festival, an annual international celebration of theatre by people with disabilities, seemed a pretty good place to start. So, I came to Mainz where the Staatstheater (publicly-funded city theatre) was hosting the 2017 festival as it has done for three years now, and was introduced to Jörg Vorhaben, the Chief Dramaturg there. Who, by one of those odd quirks of fate, turned out to be talking with a couple of theatres in my home town of Manchester, back in the UK.

Right back to his student days, Jörg has been taken with the idea of intercultural working, using theatre to cross borders, both social and political. After university in Germany, he worked with international festivals in Belgium and Amsterdam, focussing on companies that used movement, sound, images in their work. A more open approach than generally prevailed in German theatre back then. Connecting with lots of new people and new ideas, he was taken with the direct and modern approach of the great German dramatist/director, Heiner Müller and became keen to make work that was both literary and international in its outlook.

“The freedom of working internationally, perhaps in another language as well as with other cultures, is so enriching,” he says, “People question the things you’ve always found totally normal – and open up new insights, a different focus.”

He continues, “One of the great things about being a Staatstheater, is the opportunity, the need even, to offer a really diverse programme. There’s about 140 of them across Germany, but they’re often the only theatre in town, so the local population depends on them for nearly all their performance art.” In Mainz, with the arrival of Markus Müller* the new Intendant (CEO), the programme, and with it the audience base, have opened out a lot in the last three years. The staple offering of plays, opera and dance has been reinvigorated to include comedy, musicals, a couple of regular festivals and experimental theatre. The core audience demographic was always pretty similar to most UK regional theatres, but these days, there’s a lot more young people and the social base has broadened as current and local issues have been brought into the frame.

international co-production
Tanzmainz Festival #2. Photo © Pierre Ballings

Which fits perfectly with Jörg’s ambitions to bring in more international influence. A couple of years ago, he came across UK company, Analogue, at the Edinburgh Festival and together, they came up with a co-production – Sleepless – which was developed in Mainz and then also played London. “What matters is the artistic connection, the way people think” he says. “First you find the people that excite you and then together you work out what you’ll do.” He liked Analogue’s way of telling a story – using text and aesthetics to consider scientific issues. And the story they told. There’s German theatres collaborating on joint shows – Schaubühne’s an obvious one – but hardly anyone in Germany was exploring the connections between science and theatre. “This idea to explore the experience of living with devastating illness really appealed as a direction for theatre, a new story,” explains Jörg, “Providing information whilst still creating empathy. And exchanging ways of thinking about what theatre can be – it offers us new potential, expanding our own theatre landscape.”

Step into someone else’s shoes, abandon your preconceptions and try to understand how another world feels, how it works. Often a world beyond words. Not quite immersive, not quite testimonial. You’re still a spectator, but you’re absorbing something you’ve never imagined before, your horizons stretch – for a moment, a sense of a different life. It could be dealing with illness as here, or maybe life as a Syrian exile trying to build life anew, as in the Maxim Gorki Theater’s Winterreise.

sleepless analogue mainz
Sleepless. Photo © Andreas Etter

Back in Mainz, the model’s working well, adding something from both sides. There’s a new Chris Thorpe project – Status, and Jörg’s also been talking to Unlimited Theatre in Leeds famed for collaborating directly with scientists. And through Chris, another UK company, China Plate, who brought a piece to Grenzenlos, The Shape of PainIt seems that this German-UK exchange is becoming a familiar fixture in the Mainz programme and there is much to be learnt on both sides.

Jörg ponders the different approaches and endorses the oft-cited notion of playwright versus regisseur driven work: “Watching how British authors work with directors on a play is inspiring. Here, there’s the occasional partnership like Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling, and there’s quite a bit of text-based work especially in the smaller towns, but in the UK its really text-based. Starting with a script, the writer’s often in rehearsals throughout and it’s the writer that manages the changes as rehearsals progress. That way the final script stands up for itself on a literary level. The writing’s often more developed. In Germany, the director generally takes a script and works into it, focusing on the emotions, how people and things are, the story that comes back, rather than the language. And then mixing in other genres, so lots of dance, movement, music, song. Bolder design, a different style of acting. Also inspiring work, but the script becomes just one element. And sometimes I think we’d benefit from a more literary approach here.”

So maybe a few more play commissions then? There are of course several established writers here, but not so many coming through the system. And bringing in visiting work or touring out in line with the British model isn’t really practical. Jörg explains: “Our Ensemble system restricts the opportunity for this. In the Staatstheater system, we permanently employ around 20 actors and have around 20 plays in the current repertoire, each running for maybe 2-3 nights before switching to something else. Breaking out of that, logistically and economically, whilst not impossible, is difficult. Festivals have always been a good way to vary the offer, exposing audiences and artists alike to other creative influences. But this model of co-production, whether with Freie Szene (German independents) or international companies, actually embeds the work in the programme and our theatre-making. That way we all grow. Together.”

And with that thought spinning round my head, I go back into the, literally borderless, Grenzenlos, a festival that stands for just this – breaking down the borders between people and finding ways for us all to grow together.

* a brief footnote about a great piece of spontaneous theatre: about a year into Müller’s tenure, a right-wing rally was protesting about asylum being offered to refugees in the square outside the theatre. Müller got everybody inside the theatre to sing an impromptu ‘Ode to Joy’ from the foyer, briefly drowning out the rally speeches. A theatre joining societal debate with echoes of the 1989 Singing Revolution of the Eastern Baltic.

greyspots
Photo credits
Homepage  :  Sleepless. Photo © Andreas Etter
Main photo :  Staatstheater Mainz. Photo © Andreas Etter
(Photos courtesy of  Staatstheater Mainz)

26 September 2017:
Staatstheater Mainz

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