Martin Kušej

© Arno Declair
Born in Wolfsberg/Carinthia on 14 May 1961. 1979-1982 Studied German Language, Literature and Sport Sciences at Graz University. He moved to Graz University for Music and the Performing Arts and concluded his directorial studies in 1984 as a Master with a production of David Brett’s “Ultramarine” and, in 1985, with a thesis on Robert Wilson. In 1986, after his alternative civil service, he became assistant director at Salzburg Landestheater and moved to the Slovenian National Theatre in Ljubljana in the same function.

Since 1990 he has been working as a freelance director in Slovenia, Austria, Italy and Germany. He founded the independent group “my friend martin” together with the set designer Martin Zehetgruber and the literary manager Sylvia Brandl. In the 1993/1994 season he became in-house director at Stuttgart’s Staatstheater and received the Gertrud Eysoldt Prize for young directors for his production of Schiller’s “Cabal and Love”.

In 1996 he debuted as an opera director in Stuttgart with Henry Purcell/John Dryden’s “King Arthur”. Since then he has produced operas in Stuttgart, Verona, Zurich and at the Salzburg Festival. Towards the end of his time as in-house director in Stuttgart he also produced plays at Vienna’s Burgtheater and at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre.

In 1999 he was invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen with his Hamburg production of Horváth’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods”. Since the 2000/2001 season he has been working as a freelance director at Vienna’s Burgtheater and at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre.

From 2004 to 2006, he was the head of drama at the Salzburg Festival for two seasons, then moved on to start working as a freelance opera and theatre director again in the 2006/2007 season, primarily at the Vienna Burgtheater and the Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel, which he inherits as director in 2011.

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Portrait: Martin Kušej

There is hardly any director who is so associated with one writer and one landscape. Martin Kušej’s productions are like the Alps: towering steeply up, and icy cold at the top, whereas the mood down in the valley can be dark and desperate. Ödön von Horváth, who reports on the “pointless struggle and bestial acts of the individual” (Horváth), has probably become Kušej’s most important writer because he set people’s determination in sentences that are both simple and monolithic. At the start of his career, Kušej put “Faith, Hope and Charity” on the stage at the Slovenian National Theatre, and in 2002 once again at the Vienna Burgtheater. In the interim he produced “The Stranger from the Seine” in Stuttgart and in 1999 was invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen with his Hamburg production of Horváth’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods”.

He is an extreme sportsman among directors and enters into icy cold or burning hot regions with his material. When he produced Wilhelmine von Hillern’s “Vulture Maiden” in Stuttgart, he had designed such a powerful set with his set designer of many years, Martin Zehetgruber, that the audience feared for the actors at first. The curtain rose and revealed a skeleton-like ruin of a tower block. The Alps appeared as a cold and dangerous falling landscape upon which the actors climbed and walked somnambulantly, whereas Kušej used the example of the Vulture Maiden to show that even in the loneliness of Alpine concrete gorges, the relationship between men and women is only a power struggle.

At this time Kušej was already in-house director at the Stuttgart Staatstheater and with Henry Purcell/John Dryden’s dramatic opera “King Arthur” he had already designed a cross-discipline theatre evening and thus taken his first steps towards directing operas. Today he is in demand as a director of operas and mainly produces at the Stuttgart Staatsoper and the Salzburg Festival.

There, too, he is a pioneer who interprets opera material with the instruments of a theatre director. This is reminiscent of the Carinthian’s time immediately after his studies. There, too, he crossed boundaries, produced in Austria and Slovenia and brought his own projects, such as “Mobile Skies” onto the stage as well as plays. That was in 1990 at the steirischer herbst in Graz. He had realised the project with his independent group “my friend martin”.

He has no longer carried out his own projects since he was hired by Stuttgarter Staatsschauspiel. But if we look carefully at his directorial CV, it is noticeable that, unlike other directors, he does not set great store by collecting the usual cross-section of productions of the classics. He his attracted to tricky material, such as Franz Grillparzer’s “Woe to Him Who Lies!” – or, in the case of Karl Schöner’s “Faith and Homeland” to plays in which the questions of origin and religion, blood and soil are tackled. This also includes Christian Dietrich Grabbe’s “Duke Theodore of Gothland”. This play be the “drunken Shakespeare” (Heine), which is practically never acted, deals with a fictitious war between Finland and Sweden. Kušej collaged the plot around the central sentence “And nothing other than just desperation can save us”, by setting the Grabbe characters like exclamation marks in the sentence.

That was at the start of his time at the Stuttgart Staatstheater, during which he has developed into one of the most important directors in the German-speaking world. Towards the end Martin Kušej brought his as yet most radical production onto the stage with “Cleansed” and made Sarah Kane’s characters into archetypes of a collective nightmare.

In the summer of 2005, Martin Kušej succeeded Jürgen Flimm, taking charge of the drama schedule at the Salzburg Festival, where he made a good impression with both his programming and his own productions. He attracted directors like Stephan Kimmig and René Pollesch to Salzburg, while his own biggest success came with Grillparzer’s “King Ottokar, His Rise and Fall” (2005), a very convincing production in which he read the Austrian historical material consistently as a European political allegory.

Following his executive role at the Salzburg Festival, which was limited to two years, Martin Kušej has been working freelance again in the opera and the theatre since the 2005/2006 season. He is staging Büchner’s “Woyzeck” at the Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel towards the end of the 2006/2007 season. In 2011 he will follow there Dieter Dorn as director.

Jürgen Berger

Productions - A selection

  • Giuseppe Verdi "La forza del destino"
    2013, Bavarian State Opera, Munich
  • Miroslav Krleža "In Agonie" (i.e. "In Agony")
    2013, Volkstheater Vienna, Residenztheater, Munich
  • Henrik Ibsen "Hedda Gabler"
    2012, Residenztheater, Munich
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant"
    2012, Residenztheater, Munich UL>
  • Arthur Schnitzler "The Vast Domain"
    2011, Residenztheater, Munich
  • Roland Schimmelpfennig "Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God"
    2010, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Henrik Ibsen "The Master Builder"
    2009, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg
  • Nach Theo van Gogh "Das Interview" (i.e. "The Interview")
    2009, Theater am Neumarkt, Zurich
  • Giuseppe Verdi "Macbeth"
    2008, Bayerische Staatsoper, München
  • Karl Schönherr "The SheDevil"
    2008, Burgtheater, Wien
    Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Georg Büchner "Woyzeck"
    2007, Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel (Residenztheater), München L>
  • Ödön von Horvath "To the Nice View"
    2006, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg
  • Franz Grillparzer "King Ottokar, His Rise and Fall"
    2005, Salzburg Festival
  • Giuseppe Verdi "Otello"
    2005, Staatsoper, Stuttgart
  • Georges Feydeau “A Flea in Her Ear”
    2004, Thalia Theater Hamburg
  • Albert Ostermeier “On Sand”
    premiere 2003, Thalia Theatre Hamburg
  • Ödön von Horváth “Faith, Hope and Charity”
    2002, Burgtheater Vienna
  • Christopher Marlowe “Edward II”
    2001, Thalia Theater Hamburg
  • Karl Schönherr “Faith and Homeland”
    2001, Burgtheater Vienna, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • William Shakespeare “Hamlet”
    2000, Salzburg Festival/Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Franz Grillparzer “Woe to Him Who Lies!”
    1999, Burgtheater Vienna
  • Sarah Kane “Cleansed”
    1999, Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Ödön von Horváth “Tales from the Vienna Woods”
    1998, Thalia Theatre Hamburg, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Wilhelmine von Hillern “The Vulture Maiden”
    1997, Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Henry Purcell/John Dryden “King Arthur”
    1996, Staaatstheater Stuttgart
  • Ödön von Horváth “The Stranger from the Seine”
    1995, Staatstheater Stuttgart
    premiere 1994 Vienna Dance Weeks/Vereinigte Bühnen Graz
  • Christian Dietrich Grabbe “Duke Theodore of Gothland”
    1993, Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Friedrich Schiller “Cabal and Love”
    1993, Stadttheater Klagenfurt/Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Thomas Strittmatter “Jack o’ Lanterns – Pacemaker”
    premiere 1992, Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel Munich im Marstall
    1992, Cividale/Italy
  • Peter Rosei “Days of the King”
    premiere 1991, Schauspielhaus Graz
  • my friend martin “Mobile Skies”
    premiere 1990, steirischer herbst Graz
  • Ödön von Horváth “Faith, Hope and Charity”
    1990, Slovenian National Theatre Ljubljana
  • Hans Magnus Enzensberger “The Sinking of the Titanic”
    1988, Schauspielhaus Graz
  • Martin Kušej “Language/Time/Encounter”
    premiere 1987, Kongresshaus Villach
  • Karl Schönherr “It”
    1987, Schauspielhaus Graz