Mülheim Theatre Festival 2014
Authors Remain Centre Stage

Criticism of young authors has recently been booming. Not so at the Mülheim Theatre Festival. At this year’s competition for the Dramatist and Children’s Play Prizes, the debutants came out on top.

Award ceremony of the Mülheim Theatre Festival 2014: Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel / Rimini Protocol, Wolfram Höll and Milena Baisch with Dagmar Mühlenfeld, Lord Mayor of the city of Mülheim an der Ruhr Award ceremony of the Mülheim Theatre Festival 2014: Helgard Haug, Daniel Wetzel / Rimini Protocol, Wolfram Höll and Milena Baisch with Dagmar Mühlenfeld, Lord Mayor of the city of Mülheim an der Ruhr | Photo: Michael Kneffel It was not a good season for playwrights. The Play Market of the Berlin Theatre Meeting, one of the largest platforms for promoting authors, completely discontinued its playwrights’ competition and instead had three artists each choose a young author “who has distinguished his or herself through the exceptional use of dramatic language and pioneering forms of dramatic development”. Nor could playwrights submit texts this year to the Authors’ Festival of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin: the festival took a “break” and had one of its jurors, Till Briegleb, select five plays from the past nineteen festival editions. While the Theatre Meeting holds the traditional promotion of authors to be superfluous, the Authors’ Festival wants to decelerate the whirling of the theatre scene carousel. Yet Briegleb too did not spare the present generation of German playwrights criticism: he diagnosed a “state of burnout”; the market, instead of conducing to “greater diversity, density and originality”, has led instead to a “higher degree of dilution”.

The Mülheim Theatre Festival, still the main competition for German-language drama, is thus, along with the Heidelberg Play Market, the only festival in Germany that has refrained from joining in the fashionable criticism of theatre authors. In its 39th year, it continued to present the best premieres of the season.

New festival director and new moderator

Nevertheless, some things have changed in Mulheim. Due to Udo Balzer’s illness, the management of the festival has been taken in hand after 22 years by his long-time dramaturge Stephanie Steinberg. And as the new moderator, Tilman Raabke, head dramaturge in Oberhausen, now guides the audience discussions.

Seven plays were invited, all of which, according to the critic Christine Wahl, spokeswoman of the selection committee, treat the “big picture”, “the social status quo”. The socially critical comedies Du (Normen) (ie. You [Norms]) by Philipp Löhle and Alltag & Ekstase (ie. Everyday Life & Ecstasy) by Rebekka Kricheldorf placed 3 and 2 in the audience ranking; the five-member jury consisting of Stephan Müller, Sebastian Rudolph, Christian Rakow, Eva-Maria Voigtländer and Christine Wahl, however, which determines the winner of the € 15,000 Dramatist Prize in a public discussion, bowled them out of the competition with a 5:0 vote.

Audience favourites contra jury vote

The jury also swiftly dismissed the winner of the Audience Award: Qualitätskontrolle (ie. Quality Control) by Rimini Protokoll describes the life story of the paraplegic Maria-Cristina Hallwachs, who read the text herself from the stage. The juror Sebastian Rudolph: “It was the greatest theatre night I’ve ever seen” – yet the text, in his view, “wasn’t a play”. Although once before, in 2007, Rimini Protokoll gained the palm at Mulheim, the debates about when a documentary play may be considered an artistically independent work are still in full swing.
Helgard Haug & Daniel Wetzel / Rimini Protokoll about „Qualitätskontrolle“ (ie. Quality Control) (Youtube) 

More play-like, on the other hand, were the works by René Pollesch, who was invited fir the sixth time, and Ferdinand Schmalz, a Mulheim newcomer. In his eloquent folk play, am beispiel der butter (ie. Using the example of butter), Schmalz associates as many discourse models as does Pollesch in Gasoline Bill. Pollesch impressed above all the jury: for two jurors he was the absolute favourite.

The debutants come out on top

But the young Wolfram Höll, with his stage poem Und dann (ie. And then) came out on top in the end. Like Laura de Weck’s Archiv des Unvollständigen (ie., Archive of the Incomplete), Höll’s text enigmatically circles round a blank: here the absence of the mother. A child remembers its life in a prefabricated apartment block before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Through the child’s perspective, thought the jury, Höll “released great formal and substantive possibilities, re-opened this supposedly closed and already pickled-like-Spreewald-gherkins theme of the GDR”. Thus, as in 2013, the first work of a Mulheim debutant once again gained the prize.

That the audience obviously judged texts and performances quite differently from the experts, found themselves in Kricheldorf’s and Löhle’s plays and were moved by the great individual fate presented by Rimini Protokoll, may not of course be simply taken as a reliable criterion of quality; yet it must have given many a theory-besotted juror food for thought.

Mülheim Children’s Play Prize

The five texts that were nominated for the Children’s Play Prize also have in common a socially critical approach. Thomas Irmer, spokesman for the selection committee, described them as “realistic problem plays”. Here too the jury had its favourites: they were as impressed by Thilo Reffert’s story of friendship Mein Jahr in Trallalabad (ie. My Year in Trallalabad) as they were by Milena Baisch’s Die Prinzessin und der Pjär (ie. The Princess and the Pjär), a play about performance pressure and failing students. And here again the theatre debutante Baisch prevailed in the end against the experienced Reffert, last year’s winner. The Children’s Play Prize, endowed with € 10,000, was awarded for the fifth time, and Irmer showed himself satisfied with the development: “Compared with the first few years, we had a hard time picking the best five plays out of the shortlist of eight. That’s a good sign”.