Portrait Kathrin Hoffmann
Working with Space
Working with the given architecture, reference to the circumstances of the scene, are an essential and continually recurring aspect of Katrin Hoffmann’s stage designs. Hoffmann seeks the relation of human being-stage-audience, a specific spatial structure, a special architectonic quality. This she makes good use of, displaces a little, and thus creates connotations.
For the 1996 production of Gerardjan Rijnder’s Silicone in the Hamburg theatre factory Kampnagel, for instance, Hoffman transformed with a few cleverly placed references the over-sized factory-theatre space into a gigantic flat. A refrigerator lamp that glowed across from the neighbouring factory hall created the illusion of a colossal loft, whose dimensions the actors experienced a little later with mobile chairs. For the German-language premier of Jon Fosse’s Nightsongs (directed by Falk Richter) in the “Box”, the small performance area at the Schiffbau of the Zurich Schauspielhaus, she made use of the sinkable stage floor. She lowered this so as to place the audience and actors in the resultant depression, now surrounded by a wall. The narrow, gloomy space intensified the claustrophobic mood of the play and there emerged, as Hoffmann herself described it, “a box within the Box, an object in which one could walk”. For Nicolas Stemann’s production of Kate of Heilbronn at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, she made the rotating stage into the central object. During the production the action of the drama could be placed on “hold” and played backed. In this way the rotating stage, actually a technical device, was used to affect the content of the play.
Reduction instead of realism
Besides the question about the specific quality of each theatre space, there is the question about reduction. How can the play be concentrated into a statement about space? Into a single space which, without set changes, admits of all changes of place internal to the drama? The result of these questions are spaces that are defined by a few clear, geometrical forms and (often mobile) set pieces. These spaces are wide and open; they offer neither possibilities of retreat, niches nor props. Only by the use of lighting, conceived by the light designer Carsten Sander, and by the mobility of individual set pieces, do changes of scene emerge and new spatial perspectives open.
For Sarah Kane’s psychological hell 4.48 Psychosis, Hoffmann set a sterile platform, entirely tiled in black, in a pitch-black space. On the solitary block, she positioned moveable aluminium frames, partly covered with reflecting foil. Shifting the frames changed correspondingly the spatial impression. In this way the stage could represent both the intimacy of a therapy room and the anonymity of the outside world. In Falk Richter’s production of The Sea Gull, a ten-metre long bar of glass and steel was the sole set piece. Almost imperceptibly, this solitary object pushed itself forward, parallel to the apron of stage. Progressively, it reduced the performing area of the actors until they had only the space before the bar and the cold, exposing light of a fluorescent lamp in which to play Chekhov’s disillusioning last act. Oscar Wilde’s virtuoso comedy Bunbury, on the other hand, demanded two spatial situations and so a change of scene. For the performance at the Vienna Burgtheater, Hoffmann designed a rear wall of rotating doors. For the drawing room scenes, these offered their mirrored sides; for the country house scenes, the rear wall covered with genuine moss.
A question of materials
In Hoffmann’s choice of materials, reduction is likewise a major consideration. Her stage designs consist of maximally two dominating materials. Of ceramic and aluminium, as in 4.48 Psychosis, or of steel and glass, as in The Sea Gull. For the production of Three Sisters at the Berlin Schaubühne (2006), Hoffmann decided on a cold, mirrored glass floor at the rear of the stage and a padded carpet laid out at the front. For the premier of Fosse’s demanding play Shadow, she designed an amorphous carpet landscape which muffled every spoken word, swallowed up every step. The cold, loud sound of steps on ceramic or mirrored glass, or a noise-absorbing carpeted floor – these often awkward materials challenge the actors to come to terms actively with the set. They successfully span reduction and narration, abstraction and psychology. Katrin Hoffmann’s stage designs in turn achieve the not less difficult balance between object-like autonomy and theatrical performability.
By Katrin Ullmann, freelance cultural journalist, works for the "Tagesspiegel", "Stuttgarter Zeitung" and "Theater Heute"
Translated by Jonathan Uhlaner