Theater without Borders – on the end of the artistic directorship of Matthias Lilienthal at HAU
Under Matthias Lilienthal from 2003 to 2012, the Berlin theater Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) was the most innovative stage in the Germany.
During his time as artistic director of HAU, Matthias Lilienthal re-defined the scope of the theater as an institution. Previously chief dramaturge at Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne for many years, and program director of the festival Theater der Welt (Theater of the World) in 2002, Lilienthal began his directorship by fusing three neighboring Kreuzberg theatres – the Hebbel Theater, the Theater am Halleschen Ufer and the small Theater am Ufer – into HAU 1, HAU 2 and HAU 3. The output was staggering: about 1,000 productions, guest performances and co-productions in nine years, two to three premiers a week. Lilienthal systematically globalized the theater. He was the first German artistic director to set about bringing immigrants and immigrant material to the stage. He continually left the stage and took to urban space. And he confidently ignored all the genre boundaries between theater, rock concert, theory symposium, opera and visual arts.
Principle 1: excessive demands and genre mix
One HAU strategy was always to make excessive demands. Excessive demands on the tiny, humbly funded HAU organization, without its own ensemble, but with a dense network of partners, co-producers, associated festivals and artists around the world. Part of this making excessive demands meant that each member of the audience must decide for himself how he will handle the not always politically correct provocations of HAU productions.
At the end of his directorship of HAU in June 2012, Lilienthal presented projects that exploded all dimensions with deliberate excess. On the grounds of the disused Berlin airport Tempelhof, HAU organized a parody of a World’s Fair: “There were 15 pavilions, 15 small shoe boxes standing about. That of course is a bit of satire on big-mouthed Berlin bragging”, says Lilienthal in high spirits. There, for example, the Lebanese director Rabih Mroué showed his Double Shooting, an eerie documentary installation on the Arab revolution; the Japanese director Toshiki Okada built a miniature Fukushima; and the documentary film-maker Harun Farocki showed a project on the connection between image and animation. As with many HAU projects, the question whether all this was theater, media art, performance or visual art could not be answered, nor was it any longer important.
Principle 2: theater in urban space
The second project for the end of the season at HAU in June 2012 was even a bit more megalomaniacal: associated artists transformed David Foster Wallace’s novel Unendlicher Spass (Infinite Jest) into 12 theater productions. “We brazenly translated the 15,000 pages of the novel into a version that you had to sit up 24 hours for if you wanted to see it all – the excessive demand made by the novel was turned into an excessive demand made by the theater”, says Lilienthal. “I’ve tried to leave my successor in the pleasant situation that everybody is saying this lunacy has now definitely gone too far.” The project was performed at various places in Berlin, including the porter’s lodge of the SPD party headquarters, behind shop windows in the Wrangelstrasse in Kreuzberg, in subway stations, flats in Neukölln and Lichtenberg, and at the Daimler shareholders meeting at the International Congress Center ICC. Infinite Jest also brought the HAU audience to the western outskirts of Berlin. Because a large part of Wallace’s novel takes place at a tennis academy, HAU used a tennis stadium with 7,500 seats as a stage.
Principle 3: globalization
If you attend HAU, you could take a trip around the world in your seat and see Toshiki Okada’s minimalist productions from Tokyo, dance theatre from Brazil, the theatre of the Arab Spring and Alvis Hermani’s plays from Riga. But unlike, for example, the international festival spielzeit europa, which is part of the Berlin Festival, HAU’s globalization of theater does not function as a pure import business. Rimini Protokoll, firmly associated with HAU from the outset, performed on the spot. If the 1990s at the Volksbühne were shaped by the big theme of frictions between East and West, at HAU in the decade after the turn of the millennium it was globalization. “Berlin in 2012 is a totally different city from what it was in 2003, when I started here”, says Lilienthal. “The city has become more international. I think that we at HAU juggle the various media, languages and cultures with a lot more virtuosity than before. It’s very important to me that the concept of ‘globalization’ isn’t surrendered to the investment bankers.”
Above all, Lilienthal tooks seriously that HAU is located in Berlin-Kreuzberg, a district that has been shaped for decades by immigrants. “A key experience was that, at a festival in the old Hebbel Theater, I saw a performance by a group from Ankara, and there wasn’t anyone from the Turkish immigrant population of Kreuzberg in the audience”, recalls the HAU director. Lilienthal began to build contacts to the Turkish community and invited German-Turkish film-makers such as Tamer Yigit oder Neco Çelik. The current boom in post-immigrant theatre began in 2003 at HAU. Ever since then Lilienthal has been interested in the immigrant parallel worlds in Berlin – for example, in the Vietnamese wholesale market in Licthenberg and Vietnamese contract workers in the former GDR, to whom HAU dedicated the Dong Xuan Festival. The various life worlds collided in the liveliest and most entertaining fashion in the dance pieces of Constanza Macras. At HAU you could repeatedly take a look at the other world next door, which you would probably never have known about without the theatre.
Principle 4: reality
HAU was again and again also a place where you could learn something – for instance, from Hans-Werner Kroesinger’s scrupulously researched documentary plays or from Rimini Protokoll’s excursions with their “specialists of everyday life”. Lilienthal calls this his “hysterical longing for reality”. At the same time, HAU was in one respect exemplarily conservative: it was municipal theater in the best sense – theater for a city.
It is consistent that Lilienthal’s successor is the Belgian artistic director Annemie Vanackere, a proponent of the further internationalization of HAU. Lilienthal will go for 10 months to Beirut to teach art school students and then be the director of the 2014 Theater der Welt festival
The author is the Berlin theater critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and a staff writer for the economics magazine brand eins. He works as a freelance writer for various publications, including the Tagesspiegel, Theater heute, tip and taz
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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