Portrait Olaf Altmann

Shortly the two will be celebrating their "Silver" anniversary. Aeschylus's Oresteia, which will be premiered in September 2006 at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, will be, if they have counted correctly, the 25th collaboration between the director Michael Thalheimer and the stage designer Olaf Altmann. 25 spaces. Every space simple, every one completely different, every one linked to an idea that can be remembered as an idea specifically for the stage and the director, that is, as an idea for a play. Alone 25 stages at ten German theatres designed for Thalheimer; altogether, it is at least double so many. And that seems so many above all because each of these sets may be said to be a space that stands on its own. A space like a (dramaturgical) idea. Because each of these sets harbours in itself a specific technical possibility that brings about what the theatre is about: transformation. Altmann has invented 25 possibilities of transformation for Thalheimer, each his own patent. And Altmann, born in a city named after Karl Marx, which has now again long borne its old name of Chemnitz, is no older than 40. He began early.
Not as a stage designer, but as a plaster of Paris worker. That was one of the few opportunities open to him after he had been expelled from school. Although it embarrasses him to say so, the reason for his expulsion must be described as "political" grounds. Plaster of Paris workers were then sought-after; major cultural sites in East Berlin, as, for instance, the Deutsches Theatre (on the occasion of its one hundredth anniversary in 1983), were being expensively restored with international financial assistance. Altmann became acquainted with Berlin and the ceiling of the Deutsches Theatre "at the construction site" and worked with the building materials which he already knew well from the studio of an artist uncle. Then he became a stage technician in his hometown because the milieu there suited him better and because the theatre was the only place in Karl-Marx-Stadt, at the end of the 1980's, where one could sit up together undisturbed until the wee hours with a drink. The material with which he worked there were the same as those out of which his sets are now made: exclusively the basic materials of the theatre. Plywood, steel sheet, muslin, molleton, velvet. And the stage itself, in its basic dimensions and characteristics.
Designer of empty stages
He formulated for his work as a stage designer the most beautiful conceivable motto. In response to the question which commentary had understood his work best, he replied with a very definitive answer: "It is hard to build a better set than the empty stage". In this consists his work: to make out of an empty stage a better empty stage, or at least another empty stage. When he began, at the time of the "Wende" in Karl-Marx-Stadt, there were, if Frank Castorf and kindred spirit Hartmut Meyer didn't happen to look in, only "furniture sets". Altmann's first set consisted of a rocking chair, but only one. Later there was not even furniture any more.
Taking measurements - the designs of Olaf Altmann
Perhaps this is already giving away too much, but because it is so characteristic it has to be said: Altmann does not make sketches. He, who never has anything with him, carries only the play with or in him, until he has an idea. Then he goes into his studio, which it would be an exaggeration to call even a broom closet, and pulls out one of the seven basic models of the theatres for which he is currently working and clips the model stage with a cutting knife. There is black modelling cardboard, white modelling cardboard and, should it come to plywood (for a time Altmann was looked upon as a plywood stage designer), he uses balsa wood. He packs up the model and makes a date with Thalheimer for the "sacred moment". They talk themselves towards the revelation, sometimes the whole night long, until at last the model is unveiled. His dream, says Altmann, would be if nothing needed any longer to be built but only described: I imagine it so-and-so. The rest would then be done by the theatre's technical designer.

In an image, Altmann's approach with a new set could be compared to the work of a tailor. First, he takes the measurements. Then he reads the play (but really, with a precision that can put dramaturges to shame). Then he makes the appropriate stage dress for the occasion. Then the stage can show itself, the play be produced and acted. And round midnight, whenever that is in the play, there is usually a transformation. Altmann makes Cinderella sets. What was before beautiful is afterwards ugly; what was before outside is afterwards inside; what was before above is now below. Even if, as in Lulu or Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß (i.e., The Bewilderments of the Schoolboy Törleß) the change is an imperceptible one, it is in the end total. The world is upside down, where it is anyway in Thalheimer's opinion, and perhaps it is exactly right so.

The impossibility of concealment
Asked how he would describe his role in the collaboration with Thalheimer, Altmann replied: "I'm responsible for the space and the lighting". One could also say that Altmann is responsible for the visibility. He creates stages that make it impossible for the actors to hide. Once an actor has put a foot in the door, he is already on stage completely. Whoever slips away to the side or the edge of the stage is fully in view, just as he is standing there at the edge, and hey presto! it is already a part of the scene. And because Altmann does not only the stage but also often the costumes and always also the lighting, there are no dark spots, only the whole space, with people inside. And because there is no furniture, the people cannot only not hide themselves but also not even find a seat. If they have luck, there are slits which open, but often there are only walls, against which the actors must run until blood sprays. This has made the firm Thalheimer & Altmann famous with its Liliom who beats out his brains and also everything else - which provoked a former Lord Mayor of Hamburg to call out from the front stalls: "But this is a respectable play!".

It is part of the essence of respectability, however, that things are kept concealed. That is not Olaf Altmann's way.

Roland Koberg

The author was born in 1967 in Linz, has worked as a feature editor and theatre critic, and published books on Claus Peymann (Berlin 1999) and, together with Verena Mayer, on Elfriede Jelinek (Reinbek 2006). He was dramaturge at the Deutsches Theater Berlin from 2001 until 2009. Since the season 2009/2010 he works, again as dramaturge, at the Schauspielhaus Zürich.

Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner