Berlin Theatre Meeting
I Was on the Jury – Was I on the Jury?
In 2013 the annual Berlin Theatre Meeting took place for the fiftieth time. The theatre critic Ulrike Kahle has twice been a member of the jury for the selection of the most notable productions in German-language theatre and here affords a look into the tasks and work of a juror.
The Theatre Meeting in Berlin is unique. Seven critics travel through Germany, Austria and Switzerland seeking the “most notable” German-language theatre productions of the year. The productions are then shown in May in Berlin; the invitation is the prize. That is the way it has been for an incredible fifteen years. May 2013 was the Theatre Meeting’s fiftieth anniversary. Twice for three years, with an interval of ten years, I have been in the jury. Once I was one of five jurors; another time, one of seven.
Hard and hotTo be elected to the jury is an honour. But only those who love the theatre will cheerfully survive the hundred or more theatre visits per year. Private life is reduced to a minimum. No theatre critic normally goes so often to the theatre, practically none. The three jury years are hard. For anyone who does not like to travel, does not like lodging in simple hotels – the Official Travel Law! – this is the wrong job. And in any case for anyone who does not like organizing the least expensive theatre dates, flights, trains and hotels. And then there is the matter of one’s profession, for who today is still a full-time theatre critic? We came from radio, television, newspapers, cultural magazines, a publishing house.
The three jury years are marvellous. We could all tell the most amusing travel anecdotes, and sometimes the trip was more exciting than the evening performance. Not only I got carried away – there was not a trace of theatre fatigue in any of us. We had a task, a responsibility. Nothing should be overlooked, no newcomer in the so-called provinces, no new direction; we wanted to see everything. And that the seven of us probably did. The final decision, however, was then hotly disputed even amongst the jurors.
Notable?“Most notable production” – this superlative alone is preposterous; everyone knows it and no one has yet found anything better. And the uproars there have been about the Theatre Meeting over the decades: Abolish it entirely! Get rid of a jury of critics! Only theatre professionals in the jury! Only a single juror, who makes the selections himself! Yet the old model has withstood the criticism; here too there simply is not anything better. The seven jurors are independent; that is, not bound to any theatre or any artist, but only to what we think to be, hmmm, the most notable plays.
The charges and rebukes there have been every year! Always only the big theatres, always the same directors, too few women, why is East Germany underrepresented, why so many plays from Berlin, why Munich twice, isn’t there anything worth seeing in the provinces, why not something new, why not something old, why no established artists. Pro and con, all around. Naturally when critics criticize critics … This can be put down to the various expectations. We travel around and explore. The audience in Berlin is presented with the reputedly ten best productions, for that in the end is what it comes down to. The surprise, sometimes the consternation, is then pretty great. For me too in the non-jury years, and they are in the majority.
I can assure you that we travelled like wild in the provinces, from Esslingen to Ulm to Ingolstadt. We kept our eyes on promising young directors and independent theatre groups; we looked desperately for the New. I was sometimes downright irked by it: the new merely for the sake of the new? Why did we invite a re-enactment like Hate Radio, in which only French and Kinyarwanda are spoken? Because the re-enacted reality of Rwanda is simply staggering and must absolutely be made known: serious incitements to murder by jovial radio presenters, jazzed up with pop music. Because the director, thank goodness, was Swiss and the production African-German-Swiss. Yes, dogmas are out, co-productions and festival productions of every kind are in; fathers join their daughters on stage, children behind glass re-enact an entire life, mentally handicapped people appear as actors, show themselves, get attention. Everything was possible in my three years. I often made a stand against the new, the unusual, productions that for me were sometimes too alien to the theatre and too amateurish, only in the end to change my mind. Persuaded if not by the jury, then by the audience.
GeographyOh, yes, the rules. The jurors are apportioned geographically: north-south, east-west Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Berlin and its environs. Each of the seven jurors explores primarily his own home region, but each can go anywhere he or she likes; after each visit he or she is required only to cast a vote, that is, to give a description, a criticism with a concluding verdict: yes or no. If it is “yes”, then all the other jurors must also see the production. What didn’t we see for the 2013 Theatre Meeting! Four hundred and twenty-three performances in sixty-nine cities. If ten years ago seventy performances sufficed to provide a good overview, today every juror must see at least ninety. Because there are now, believe it or not, 4,000 productions. Who can see all this? Well, the audience at each individual place. Theatre is done at a particular place for the audience at that place, now more than ever. And that’s good. But is it good for the Theatre Meeting? Every jury fears the critical, cosmopolitan Berlin theatre public.
Fortunately, it remains unpredictable. None of us foresaw that Herbert Fritsch’s Nora would become the hit of the 2011 Theatre Meeting, but that his Biberpelz (The Beaver Coat) would fall flat. The space of the Biberpelz, the audience and particularly the acoustics – everything was different. A production that is dazzling in Schwerin can completely go under in Berlin. How unfair!
So unfair!Yes, the Theatre Meeting is unfair, always. One crux is judging theatre. Every jury can err and every jury does err. For let’s be honest: of course there are no universally valid criteria. Every judgement is coloured by the person who delivers it. Our socialization, our character, our preferences, our dislikes all come into play. Every jury looks for the best. But what a jury chooses to be the best is not invariably what each juror thinks is the best. I therefore advocate a confession of unfairness, or better a profession of diversity. So if I could make the rules, every juror would be allowed to invite his favourite production. This need not automatically result in the invitation of seven productions; there would surely be duplications or multiple selections of the same play. In this way, the selections would at all events be more courageous. And quite certainly I would have invited in 2012 Three Kingdoms directed by Sebastian Nübling – the missed opportunity of my three jury years and still my great regret. A truly European production, trilingual, performed by an English, a German and an Estonian theatre, about murder and human trafficking across national borders and enveloped in an enigmatic, surreal atmosphere.
A question of life or deathAnd oh, the atmosphere! If I was lucky, one or two colleagues sympathized with my views; with the rest – incomprehension. Much as we jurors have come to value each other over the years, there was plenty of controversy, bitter controversy. Odd perhaps that the selection of the most notable theatre productions sometimes becomes a question of life or death. A duel over the deepest convictions, faith in the true, the good and the beautiful, what is important and relevant. North or south, pure theatre pleasure or discourse – that was the question. Best of all of course was when both coincided, as in Karin Beier’s Das Werk / Im Bus / Ein Sturz (i.e., The Works / In the Bus / A Collapse), in René Pollesch’s Kill your darlings, or in Nicolas Stemann’s Faust I and II. From Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin. The eternal problem: the actors at the big theatres are simply the best. The directors at the big theatres are simply the best. We looked desperately for the exceptions, as does every jury. A new director, a new style, a theatre revolution! Twelve years ago we discovered Michael Thalheimer; this time we discovered Herbert Fritsch. Not, by the way, with my immediate enthusiasm, but at the decisive moment I changed my mind and voted for Fritsch’s Nora, the sensational success of 2011. Fritsch is now an established director. And I’m a big fan.
The Theatre Meeting is a luxury. The Theatre Meeting is a necessity. May it live forever. In ten years’ time perhaps I would do it again, go to the theatre a hundred times a year, controversy, acrimony, bliss. And always excitement, stimulation.