Groping and Trying Things Out – The Grips Theater under New Leadership
The first season under the new artistic director of the Grips Theater, Stefan Fischer-Fels, delivered two veritable bombshells. The most recent, barely faded away, was a cultural-political event: in April 2012 Berlin’s world-famous children’s and young people’s theater let the press know that it stood on the verge of bankruptcy. This alarm bell was followed by a wave of solidarity and a 100,000 Euro increase of the annual subsidies by the Berlin Senate. The increase, however, still makes for a 50,000 Euro shortfall of the sum estimated by the Grips Theater for its structural deficit. In 2014 the theater will again enter into negotiations with the Senate, Grips founder Volker Ludwig has declared; at the start of this season he retired as artistic director of Grips and went into the management.
The season’s prelude: excessive actor-driven theater
The second bombshell was of an aesthetic nature, and this was seen to already in August 2011 by Stefan Fischer-Fels himself, as a prelude to the next season. He staged a successful production from his previous artistic directorship at the Düsseldorf Junges Schauspielhaus: a compelling adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s novel of youth Demian, directed by Daniela Löffner. It was an evening full of the aggressive urge to expression, nudity, will to excess and great histrionic freedom. Löffner, once assistant director to Jürgen Gosch, embodies the measure of innovation and risk with which Fischer-Fels made Düsseldorf one of the most distinguished children’s and young people’s theaters in Germany from 2003 to 2011.
At the traditionally rather clean and neat Grips Theater, schooled in cabaret humor and the drama of types, this form of actor-driven theater certainly had a disturbing effect. Fischer-Fels forthwith made every effort to assure the company that he is on no account planning a cultural revolution, at most only a gentle shifting of accents towards younger directorial signatures. It is to be, in his own words, a “friendly takeover”.
And in fact Fischer-Fels, who grew up with the Grips Theater from 1993 to 2003 as dramaturge, comes on stage as a faithful heir. At the lively theater on the Hansaplatz in West Berlin’s Hansa district, new dramas and, with only minor exceptions, contemporary realistic material will continue to make up the program. The credo of the Grips founding generation – “The world must be described as capable of being changed” – still obtains.
“Mrs. Miller Must Go” saves the evening program
The overture to the season did not run smooth. The big ensemble play Schöner Wohnen (Better Living) (director: Franziska Steiof), a three-hour musical comedy about a house share seeking to resist gentrification, was a flop. It is not exactly easy for a stage such as the Grips Theater, which must earn a large part of its 3.6 million Euro budget (2.7 million Euro of which consists in subsidies) through its program (in which Linie 1 is still the hit), to absorb such a loss.
The coup came in February. The film director Sönke Wortmann staged at the Hansaplatz Lutz Hübner’s Frau Müller muss weg (Mrs. Miller Must Go), a comedy that has been played all over Germany, with marvelous effortlessness and witty, pinpoint dialogue. The fast-paced play about a parents’ evening complete with manically success-obsessed parents and a teacher under pressure to justify herself became the season’s hit.
Comparable results for the children’s and young people’s program failed to materialize. Lutz Hübner’s first children’s play Held Baltus (Baltus, the Hero) was staged by the young director Jörg Schwahlen with musical pep and allusions to silent film, but its story-line wobbled badly. The little Baltus has to come to terms with his single mother’s wish to go out sometimes in the evening to find a friend. He succeeds at this fairly well. But he soon routs the advancing new lover. The disturbing psychological tenor of this problem play was wrong for the original target group (age 6 and up), which is why the Grips Theater has now raised the age threshold of its audience.
The young people’s play Die besseren Wälder (The Better Forests) (for which Martin Baltscheit won the 2010 German Young People’s Theater Prize) was very impressively staged by Robert Neumann, but it is no less problematic in content. Here an orphaned wolf is adopted by sheep, resulting in persistent identity problems in his puberty. The selection of this play apparently overlooked the fact that the basic framework of “hunter amongst victims” is hardly suited to tell the tale of immigration which the accompanying program text would like to suggest.
Delinquent boys in cooking class
The Grips Theater’s narrative qualities are more apparent in Über Jungs (About Boys) by comedy specialist David Gieselmann. We meet four young rowdies and lady killers who have been sentenced to “anti-aggression training” in the form of a cooking course. The four punch each other up verbally with crisp argot, and when finally the female knife attacker Alex joins the troop, even a touch of romance wafts over the cooking pots.
That the young director Mina Salehpour keeps the play cooking less as a story than as the description of a state, and repeatedly loosens it up with exhilarating choreography and allusions to movies and TV, mutes the realism of the character study. Instead of spotlights on precarious lives, we have here trendy decals.
This season there was no so cogently narrated and modernly staged play as So lonely (director: Franziska Steiof, after a novel by Per Nilsson), for which the Grips Theater was awarded the IKARUS Prize in 2011 for the best young people’s theater production for a Berlin stage. Yet the success of So lonley reached into the present season, like a sort of bridge. The director Franziska Steiof has been one of the team around Fischer-Fels for years, and the actors (Robert Neumann and Jennifer Breitrück) are leading figures in the Grips ensemble, which Fischer-Fels has taken over from Ludwig almost in its entirety.
So experiments with new directorial signatures in keeping with the contemporary realistic narrative ambitions of the Grips Theater continued to shape the first season under the new artistic directorship. There were setbacks and rebellions, groping and trying things out: this is part of art. Of vital art, at any rate.
The author is the editor of the Internet portal www.nachtkritik.de and theater critic for “Theater heute”, the “Berliner Zeitung” and the “Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung”.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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