Jette Steckel


© Arno Declair
Jette Steckel was born in 1982 in Berlin, the daughter of the stage designer Susanne Raschig and the director Frank-Patrick Steckel. After completing her Abitur (higher education entrance qualification) at a Rudolf Steiner school, she started out doing work experience placements at the Berlin Schaubühne under Christina Paulhofer and Burkhart C. Kosminski in 2001. Subsequently, she was employed as an assistant to Andrea Breth at the Burgtheater in Vienna and Michael Thalheimer at the Hamburg Thalia Theater. In 2002, Jette Steckel directed a play for the first time herself at Bochum (Kreisleriana, codirected with Carolin Mader), before beginning a degree in directing in 2003 at the Hamburg Theatre Academy, from which she graduated in 2007.

During her course, she directed various works, including pieces by Dea Loher, Anton Chekhov and David Gieselmann, and attended the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (GITIS) in Moscow as a guest student. Even before she graduated, the artistic director of the Hamburg Thalia Theater, Ulrich Khuon, invited her to direct Nightblind, a play by the young author Darja Stocker, on the small stage in the Gaußstraße. It was thanks to this production that she was invited to the Stücke Festival in Mülheim and chosen as young director of the year in the 2007 Theater heute critics' survey.

These achievements paved the way for further productions in the Gaußstraße, such as Edward Bond's Saved (2007), for which she received the Gertrud Eysoldt Prize for Young Directors at Bensheim (now the Kurt Hübner Prize), Ulrich Plenzdorf's The New Sufferings of Young W (2008) and The World is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner (2009) after the novel by Ilija Trojanow. In addition to this, she directed Nino Haratischwili's Petit Maître at Kassel in 2007, Camus's Caligula at the Deutsches Theater Berlin in 2008, Philipp Löhle's The Privateers at the Schauspielhaus in Vienna in 2008 and various productions at Cologne, including Juli Zeh's Gaming Instinct in 2009.

Since then, she has been entrusted with a number of the great classics, above all by Ulrich Khuon at the Deutsches Theater and Joachim Lux, his successor at the Thalia Theater. In 2009, Steckel directed Othello in Berlin with Susanne Wolff as the Moor of Venice and stage designs by her regular collaborator Florian Lösche. In 2010, she followed this up at the Thalia with Woyzeck by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Robert Wilson, in which Felix Knopp played the principle role. Then, in 2011, came Schiller's Don Carlos with Mirco Kreibich and Jens Harzer at the same venue, some of the reviews for which were positively ecstatic.

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Portrait: Steckel, Jette

When young people try hard to be assured, it can seem either ultra-cool or rather touching (and sometimes both). But when young people actually display assurance, there is something uncanny about it. Where, for instance, has a woman in her early twenties garnered so much knowledge of the human heart that she not only understands shattered family relationships and extreme emotional reactions, but can translate them into a precisely choreographed staging as well? How has she managed never to hit the wrong tone or lose her way, despite the great rapidity of her rise within the German theatrical world? How has she consolidated the assured touch typical of her style to such an extent that, four years after her first production for a municipal theatre, it is a long time since anyone can have described her as 'promising'?

Jette Steckel was 24 and still a student of directing at the Hamburg Theatre Academy when she made herself famous at a single stroke in November 2006. For her first production on the Hamburg Thalia Theater's small stage in the Gaußstraße, her artistic mentor, Ulrich Khuon, gave her a text to work on by another young newcomer, Darja Stocker's Nightblind. It was thanks to this production that she was voted young director of the year in the 2007 Theater heute critics' survey and invited to Mülheim for the Stücke Festival. She finished her training much in demand as a director – and now works at major venues in Hamburg, Berlin and Cologne.

Stocker's extraordinary drama about an educated middle class nuclear family in which all the members are suffering from some degree of depression stood out so much not least because Steckel rigorously avoided the things that are usually cited when directors are pigeon-holed as 'young talent': no trendy décor and costumes, no wild street dance moves, no video, no quotations from pop culture, no crazy directorial ideas and certainly no typical youthspeak. Instead, she presented a stage set (by Florian Lösche, who has designed her productions ever since) made up of four high jump mats that could be rearranged to assemble ever new performance situations, and exercised her acute powers of observation with true brutality as she led her four actors very believably through their intense wanderings in the emotional wilderness.

Of course, the critics rushed straight away to pin a label on this oppositional way of being young, a label that still adheres firmly to Jette Steckel: She is described as the 'serious' one among the many new and, of late, the many female directors who are conquering the German theatre. This is, of course, a little unfair given that the work of Jorinde Dröse, Christine Eder, Julia Hölscher and Friederike Heller (just to mention a few other successful graduates of the Hamburg course) certainly cannot be taken less than seriously. Even so, this description fits Jette Steckel better than anyone else of her theatrical generation.

For the most part, her worlds are gloomy, barren, empty and threatening, and the people in the darkrooms composed by Florian Lösche are never able to liberate themselves from their isolation. Above all, Steckel's work involves demonstrating how, despite this, the solitary individual rises up again and again in their passionate struggle for happiness – until, inevitably, they fail after all in the end. And as they keep striving in this way, her characters become as concrete as her spaces are abstract.

In Edward Bond's Saved – another play about young people that comes on very grown up –, she conjured up aggression as the twin of boredom with a clinical arrangement of park benches and scarily normal people. In her Woyzeck based on the version by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits, Felix Knopp sang and brooded over the meaning of things in constant combat with a massive net that sought to get the better of this man with the courage to go on living. Sometimes it appeared as a floor that swayed beneath his feet, sometimes it dropped to imprison him in its tangles, sometimes it sank down as an oppressive sky. And in her much praised Don Carlos (2011), the fragile power triangle of Carlos, Posa and Philipp revolved on a stage made up of black rubber cells, which contrasted grief, silence and imprisonment very convincingly with the turbulent yearnings and imperious cravings for power to be found at the Spanish court.

The infrequency with which Jette Steckel resorts to fashionable, contemporary references and the language of youth in her work was especially apparent in Don Carlos because she did deploy these elements explicitly at two points – where they struck every reviewer as out of place. With a quotation from Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange on state systems' unwillingness to learn and the depiction of Don Carlos (Mirco Kreibich) as Kurt Cobain, she drew two clear parallels with conflicts and personalities of the recent past. Yet Steckel's real strength is the organisation of language in relation to tragic constellations in which, more than anything else, it is the personal growth of the actor that creates a unique, and yet generally comprehensible character. Her work with actors bears witness to a sophisticated feel for the right amount of effort, rationed enough to appear natural, yet complex enough to achieve something special: the characters in Jette Steckel's stagings are instructive in the liveliest possible way.

This is far more than sound, but much less than revolutionary. It is text and actor-centred theatre that reaches the standards the critics of excessively iconoclastic director's theatre always demand – a golden mean between German stage traditions and contemporary alertness. An understanding of realism as art that functions more psychologically than emotionally, that is interested more in reasons than associations, that is therefore more indebted to the intellectual terms of her father's generation than the spectacular artistic conceptions generated by her own time. And this brings us to the question with which we started: What is the source of Jette Steckel's precocious dramatic wisdom? Here, the theatrical tradition turns out to be a family tradition: Given that she is the daughter of the director Frank-Patrick Steckel, a former artistic director at Bochum, and the stage designer Susanne Raschig, who were both among the cofounders of the Berlin Schaubühne, the influences to which she has been subject are easily verifiable. Undoubtedly, Jette Steckel is more than just the heir to her parents' artistic ideas. Her view of humanity is much too strongly inspired by the fads, metaphors and mysteries of her contemporaries and their accelerated lifestyles for this to be the case.

But the constant probing for textual messages that can be 'authenticated' in our time, as Jette Steckel puts it, is also indicative of her intellectual affinity with her parental home. The word 'serious' comes up at the very moment when Jette Steckel talks about discussing modern theatre with her father. Stagings backed up with a great deal of meticulous dramaturgical work, a sense of obligation to the author and her meditations on characters' authenticity link Jette Steckel with the spirit of the old Schaubühne even as she starts thinking outside the box with apparently postdramatic innovations – when casting Susanne Wolff as Othello at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, for instance. In fact, the firm foundation of mature theatrical work she has laid so early in her career prompts just one sceptical thought: Will Jette Steckel succeed in finding an oppositional way of growing older as well?
Till Briegleb

Productions - A selection

  • Gerhart Hauptmann "The Rats"
    2014, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Giaccomo Puccini "Tosca"
    2013, Theater Basel
  • Georg Büchner "Dantons Tod"
    2012, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Jean-Paul Sartre "The Dirty Hands"
    2012, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Maxim Gorky "The Petty Bourgeois"
    2011, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
    • After Albert Camus "The Stranger"
      2011, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
    • Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos
      2011, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
    • Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Robert Wilson (after Georg Büchner), Woyzeck
      2010, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
    • Juli Zeh, Spieltrieb (Gaming Instinct)
      2009, Schauspiel Köln, Cologne
    • Philipp Löhle, Die Kaperer (The Privateers)
      2008, Schauspielhaus, Vienna
    • William Shakespeare, Othello
      2009, Deutsches Theater Berlin
    • Albert Camus, Caligula
      2008, Deutsches Theater Berlin
    • Ulrich Plenzdorf, Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sufferings of Young W)
      2008, Thalia in der Gaußstraße, Hamburg
    • Nino Haratischwili, Petit Maître
      2007, Staatstheater Kassel
    • Edward Bond, Saved
      2007, Thalia in der Gaußstraße, Hamburg
    • Darja Stocker, Nachtblind(Nightblind)
      2006, Thalia in der Gaußstraße, Hamburg