Tilmann Köhler

© Matthias Horn
Tilmann Köhler was born in Weimar in 1979. He grew up in Gera. From 1996 to 2001, he worked at the TheaterFABRIK at Altenburg/Gera Theatre. From 2001 to 2005 he studied Theatre Directing at the Ernst Busch Theatre Academy in Berlin. He became head director at the German National Theatre in Weimar in 2005, and has been head director at the Staatsschauspiel Dresden since 2009. He was invited to stage Ferdinand Bruckner’s Krankheit der Jugend (Pains of Youth) at the Berlin Theatertreffen 2007 and Shakespeare’s Othello at the Munich festival Radikal jung in 2007. He was awarded the Kurt Hübners Prize for Young Directors 2009 for his Dresden production of Brecht’s Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Slaughterhouses) (2009). He has also worked as a director at the Schauspiel Hanover and at the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin as well as directing a number of projects in Brazil. Currently together with Jens Groß, dramatic advisor, Director of the Schauspielstudio Dresden, which educates students of the Leipziger Hochschule für Musik und Theater "Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy" in practice.
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Portrait: Tilmann Köhler

Tilmann Köhler likes clear images and unpretentious metaphors. The more obvious they are, the stronger and more disturbing they are. In his Dresden production of Saint Joan of the Stockyards, for example, Chicago’s competing meat dealers and meat factory owners are like children taking part in a race. The aim of the game is to trade on the stock exchange and maximise profits, and they have to try to hit a wall made of aluminium meat trays with the palm of their hands faster and higher than the others. Just one, who is old and slower than he should be, always arrives last and hits nowhere in particular. It is Lennox, who undercut the other meat magnates and is now bankrupt. So the others beat him up, pull down his trousers and relish slapping their competitor’s flabby flesh. Done by another director, such a scene could be trite and distasteful. But Köhler and his linguistically and physically sensitive actors make it great – abstract in its simplicity and complex in its dynamism.

In many ways, Tilmann Köhler is an unusual director. He was 17 when he put himself to the test as an actor and assistant director at the TheaterFABRIK at Altenburg/Gera Theatre. At 20, he won the Thuringian Youth Theatre Award for his first own production, summer.Neid.dreams (after A Midsummer Night’s Dream) in 1999. He won the award a second time the following year for Lila dit ça – Sagt Lila (Lila Says). For artistic director Stephan Märki, Köhler’s production of Penthesilea for his diploma at the Ernst Busch Academy in Berlin was reason enough to invite him to become head director at the German National Theatre in Weimar. Köhler was allowed to bring along his crack troop of five former fellow drama students. Four of them have accompanied him to Dresden, where he now has a permanent job, preferring a commitment to a particular theatre to freelance work.

It was also unusual that in 2007, when Köhler was just 27 years old, he was invited to attend the Berlin Theatertreffen. The fascinating aspect of his Weimar interpretation of Ferdinand Bruckner’s Krankheit der Jugend (Pains of Youth) is his sober observation of the dangerously hot-blooded, emotionally charged game of a group of insecure medicine students. They play psychological mind games with each other in a way that is not entirely uncalculated. Then, one of them commits suicide and ends up on a gleaming dissection table in his underwear, the only prop in an empty space among the audience. The actors use songs by Tocotronic to reinforce the young peoples’ seductively threatening search for their place in the world.

These examples enable us to identify a feature common to most of Köhler’s productions, from Jewgeni Schwarz’ dark political tale Der Drache (The Dragon) to Horváth’s analysis of society Italienische Nacht (Italian Night). It is that the music is created during the performance and is not just a playback. Karoly Risz designed the set to be as empty as possible, multifunctional, yet characteristic. This is the emphasis of the ensemble, which often performs as a group, calling on the characters that are prominent at any given time to take up a position. Props are limited to what is absolutely essential. Finally, there is steadfast trust in the language of the text and the bodies of the actors through which cool analysis becomes charged with formidable performative energy. But in using these elements, Köhler does not always impose the same concept on the pieces. Rather, he uses them as tools to work his way deep down into the dramas’ content and to get the maximum out of them. And sometimes, as in his cooperation with playwright Thomas Freyer, he even stages a premiere, thereby manifesting the play’s relevance himself.

On one occasion, Köhler and his team put their artistic standpoint into writing. In a piece entitled Wo ist die Herdplatte – wir suchen einen Platz, um uns zu verbrennen! (Where is the hotplate — we are looking for somewhere to burn ourselves!) we read the following: “We are not aiming for ironic theatre!” and “The text is the focus.” Köhler appears to be ablaze for these ideals, for language and bodies, for energy and analysis to set each other alight and to reinforce each others’ effect. But sometimes, when Köhler uncompromisingly aims to do justice to all the elements, as in the second part of St. Joan of the Stockyards or in Italian Night with its bleeding-heart attitude, when he is unwilling to abridge and condense, the contrasts become numb, and his productions temporarily lose their edge, force and brilliance. Then Köhler burns himself a little. But that is what he wanted, and the audience evidently wants it too.
Christine Diller

Productions - A selection

  • William Shakespeare "Macbeth"
    2015, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • After Christa Wolf "They Divided the Sky"
    2013, Staatsschauspiel Dresden
  • Wajdi Mouawad "Scorched (aka Incendies)"
    2012, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • William Shakespeare "The Merchant of Venice"
    2011, Staatsschauspiel Dresden ul>
  • Sophocles "Oedipus the King"2010, Staatsschauspiel Dresden
  • Anton Tschechow „The Cherry Orchard“
    2010 Staatsschauspiel Dresden
  • Ödön von Horváth „Italian Night“
    2010 Staatsschauspiel Dresden
  • Bertolt Brecht „St. Joan of the Stockyards“
    2009 Staatsschauspiel Dresden
  • Georg Büchner „Woyzeck“
    2009 Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin
  • Alexandre Dal Farra/Tine Rahel Völcker „Haut aus Gold“(i.e. Skin Made of Gold")
    2009 Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin (2008 São Paulo)
  • William Shakespeare „Hamlet“
    2008 Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin
  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe „Faust. The First Part of the Tragedy“
    2008 Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar
  • Thomas Freyer „Und in den Nächten liegen wir stumm“ (UA) (i.e., "And at Night We Lie Silently").
    2008 Schauspielhaus Hannover
  • Tine Rahel Völcker „Die Höhle vor der Stadt in einem Land mit Nazis und Bäumen“ (UA) (i.e. "The Cave Before the City In a Land With Trees And Nazis
    2007 Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar/Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin
  • Thomas Freyer „Separatisten“ (i.e. "Separatists") (UA)
    2007 Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin
  • William Shakespeare „Othello“
    2006 Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar
  • Ferdinand Bruckner „Krankheit der Jugend“ (i.e. "Ilness of Youth")
    2006 Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar
  • Thomas Freyer „Amoklauf mein Kinderspiel“ (UA) (i.e. "“Running Amok My Childrens' Game”)
    2006 Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar/Theater an der Parkaue Berlin
  • Jewgeni Schwarz „Der Drache“ (i.e. "The Dragon")
    2006 Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar
  • Fritz Kater „Mach die Augen zu und fliege oder Krieg, böse 5“ (i.e. "Close Your Eyes and Fly or War Bad 5")
    2005 Campinas, São Paulo/Goethe-Institut São Paulo
  • Heinrich von Kleist „Penthesilea“
    2005 bat-Studiotheater Berlin/Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar
  • Aischylos „Choephores“
    2005 bat-Studiotheater Berlin
  • Chimo „Lila dit ça – Sagt Lila“ (i.e. "„Lila dit ça – Says Lila")
    2000 TheaterFABRIK des Theaters Altenburg/Gera
  • Free after William Shakespeare "Summer.Envy.Dreams
    1999 TheaterFABRIK des Theaters Altenburg/Gera