“How to communicate with people who are losing the interest and ability to communicate? Because of social media, because of social despair. So much of Art is communication, especially theatre.”
We’re sitting in the window of an Italian restaurant, deserted before lunch, hiding from the Berlin snow falling all around outside. That slushy sort of snow that’s just not going to stick, but is beautiful to watch. Me and Sven Schlötcke from Theater an der Ruhr in Mülheim. Talking about international perspectives in German theatre.
Sven used to work round these parts. Back when these parts were part of the DDR. Where there were only two places for anything resembling free debate – the church and the theatre. Teaching at the Ernst Busch drama school, he considered the key task of theatre in the face of an oppressive regime, was to ensure that people could still communicate, still think and develop ideas. “The role of Art in such controlled societies where there is no free press, etc is to offer an ‘undercover’ communication” he explains, “all our shows feature symbolism and representation over words. And censors only focus on fixed rules. It’s like in Iran – men and women are forbidden to touch, but how much more does it say if onstage, they don’t touch by only one centimetre…”
Now, there are different pressures. “Our world is changing,” continues Sven, “this Trumpismus, the effects of technology. Now our dictatorship is self-inflicted. Everything becomes superficial in the sheer volume of messages. They’re too short for real meaning and there’s too little time for longer messages. So we think less deeply. Our task is to open up people’s awareness – they need to perceive, not to just consume.”
And so Sven tells me about what drew him to the Theater an der Ruhr, what makes it different from other German theatres. “Back in the early ‘80s, our Artistic Director, Roberto Ciulli, had a vision,” he explains, “A vision for a theatre that would develop intercultural understanding, exploring new philosophies and attitudes from other cultures, taking work across international borders and bringing work back to be seen in Germany. Bringing new ideas and viewpoints, uninfluenced by our western media. His idea was that theatre is about a journey, to travel into new cultures, to be interested in the things you don’t know. Thirty-five years ago. No-one else was doing this in Germany then. To begin with he headed east, to Turkey. And behind the Iron Curtain to Poland and what was then, Yugoslavia. Then came his Silk Road project, connecting with countries along the ancient trading routes. It’s amazing to think that Ciulli negotiated directly with countries like Iran at a time when governmental relations were so strained. A small theatre and a country! And the understanding that flowed from this was wonderful – transcending language. The language of theatre is universal. The Art itself is the opportunity to communicate. And this travelling insight brought a journey through aesthetic thinking too.”