50th Berlin Theatertreffen
“A focal point of theatrical developments”

Theatertreffen 2013 | Berliner Festspiele
Theatertreffen 2013 | Berliner Festspiele | Photo (detail): © Piero Chiussi

Founded in 1964, the Berliner Theatertreffen continues to hold its own as the most important showcase of German-language theatre. It is both a meeting place for theatre workers and an audience festival. An interim appraisal to mark the occasion of the fiftieth Theatertreffen.

It’s a fixed ritual. Every year in May, the German-speaking stage world gathers in Berlin to evaluate the season’s ten most outstanding productions from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For just under three weeks, productions selected by an independent jury of critics are presented in guest performances at the Theatertreffen in the German capital. This drama festival has a long tradition. The event, organised by the Berliner Festspiele and funded by the Federal Cultural Foundation, celebrates its fiftieth festival in May 2013. Franz Wille, senior editor of the specialist journal Theater heute, who has been a member of the Theatertreffen jury several times, is not the only one to use the occasion to admit he is a “grateful fan of the event”: “It is here that I gained a major part of my spectator experience,” said Wille in an interview with the daily newspaper taz. Matthias Lilienthal has a similar comment to make: “I, too, owe many of my first spectator experiences to the Theatertreffen,“ said the former head dramaturge at the Berlin Volksbühne and former director of the Theater Hebbel am Ufer in the anniversary publication Fünfzig Theatertreffen (Fifty Theatre Meetings). “Otherwise, I would have missed some early Zadek productions,” he added.

Showcase of the West

This provides a two-fold answer to the question of the meaning, purpose and attractiveness of the Theatertreffen, although the historical context and parameters were different when the festival was launched back in 1964, of course. During the Cold War, the Theatertreffen also functioned as a showcase of the West in the divided city of Berlin. A rule of procedure dating back to the year of its establishment reads: “The Berlin theatre competition is intended to endeavour to provide not only an impression of the state of German-speaking theatre through its selection of theatre productions, but also to create the opportunity for comparison that is so necessary on account of the individual theatre cities’ isolation from one another.” Repeated invitations to East German theatres were merely symbolic for a long time. It was not until May 1989, a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, that theatres from the socialist part of the country were allowed to travel to the festival.

New generations of directors assert themselves

Yet even in the different historical context since German reunification in 1990, this showcase has lost none of its relevance, said Theatertreffen Director Yvonne Büdenhölzer in an interview with the Berlin city magazine tip. “Through the many international festival curators, performers, directors and journalists who watch the performances, the festival has for a long time showcased German-language theatre to the world.“ Many international festival-makers invite productions they have seen in Berlin to come to their festivals. The Theatertreffen has also played an important role in enabling new generations of directors to establish themselves on a number of occasions, for example when young directors such as Peter Zadek, Peter Stein and Claus Peymann were asserting themselves against the great post-war directors in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. With 21 invitations for Zadek and 17 invitations each for Stein and Peymann, this trio tops the tables when it comes to Theatertreffen attendance.

New programme segments

The nominations of independent documentary theatre groups such as Rimini Protokoll and international coproductions such as Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes show that the Theatertreffen has continued to reflect new aesthetic and structural developments over the last ten years. But the Berlin Theatertreffen is not only the focal point of theatrical developments, a career boost for the performers and the theatre get-together, but also a veritable talent campus, says Yvonne Büdenhölzer. The festival has grown continually around its centrepiece – the presentation of the ten most remarkable productions of a theatre year. 1965, for example, saw the addition of the International Forum, an opportunity for young stage workers to meet and train, and 1978 saw the launch of the Stückemarkt, a platform for young German-language contemporary drama.

Unique selling point: The jury of critics

Something that has not changed over the decades, however, is the selection procedure involving a travelling jury of professional theatre critics, currently comprising seven members. They stay in office for three consecutive years. This independent selection committee and the procedure resulting from this constellation are regarded as a prime unique selling point of the Berlin Theatertreffen. The jury of the anniversary year 2013, for example, watched a total of 423 productions. On average, each juror attends between 100 and 130 theatre evenings each season. The selection, based on the principle of majority voting, thus has a stable foundation despite the fact that, quite naturally, there are extremely passionate debates about it at the festival (that is another of the fixed rituals of the Berlin Theatertreffen).