Theatre of the World
On the art of doing festivals

Matthias Lilienthal
Matthias Lilienthal | Photo (detail): © Christian Kleiner

Matthias Lilienthal is curator of the Theatre of the World Festival organized by the International Theatre Institute. It will take place from 23 May to 8 2014 June in Mannheim and present more than 30 theatre and dance evenings, performances and public space projects from around the world.

You bring theatre from around the world to the industrial city of Mannheim in Baden-Württemberg. From Germany there will be Elfriede Jelinek’s „Die Schutzbefohlenen“ [i.e., The Wards] in the production by Nicolas Stemann. What awaits us in this world premiere at the festival opening?

A chorus of complaints on the great theme of current politics, the refugee drama off Lampedusa. There will also be other “refugees” such as Snowden’s and Assange’s close associate Jacob Appelbaum, who will hold a talk on information directly before the premiere of Schutzbefohlenen. In German the word for information or intelligence, „Aufklärung”, has a nice ambiguity, meaning both the Enlightenment in the sense of the German classics but also surveillance in the sense of the Federal Intelligence Service. What you should know is that in Berlin there is now a large North American-Australian hacker scene in asylum. It looks as if Germany, because of its historical experience with the Gestapo and Stasi, has shown a somewhat greater liberality in granting stays for the NSA exile scene. Appelbaum is a central figure in this scene and, by the way, the son of a theatre director in San Francisco.

Otherwise you've emphasized countries such as Japan, Brazil, Chile and Lebanon. Why are there so many remarkable productions from these countries?

This came about through a mixture of research, biographical coincidences and a sense of where the most exciting cultural clusters are at present. Matthias Pees is curator of the plays from South America and there it’s the case that a younger generation of directors are now treating the two central themes of the continent: the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s and the treatment of the indigenous populations. Lebanon interests me because, after taking my school leaving exam, I spent a couple of months in Israel and have ever since been intensely occupied with the Middle East. And in Japan there’s the director Toshiki Okada, who takes up the subject of Tokyo convenience shops in his Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich. These are extremely democratic places because 90 per cent of all Tokyoites use the underground and these shops are located directly at the underground exits. There the CEO of a big company meets the homeless man who is warming himself for a few hours to survive the night. The Japanese can shop around the clock in these places, but are still suffering under Fukushima. Toshiki will also tell us something about wasting energy and break into an extreme choreographic theatre.

Few of the invited productions are designated “theatre”; most are called “performances”. What has changed there in recent years and do such generic terms still make sense?

The focus has strongly shifted from the idea of theatre in the direction of that of performance. I think, however, that the actor continues to play a role and is busy trying to be an other on stage. A performer, on the other hand, will always play himself and perhaps, in this manner of playing himself, deal with a role: but he’ll chase the role through the being of his person. This is also true, by the way, of the eight to eleven year-old children in Philippe Quesne’s Next Day, who come on stage with their musical instruments and horror stories.

Why is everything pushing in the direction of performance at present?

Because artists, among others, are distancing themselves more and more from the closed nature of a work and the theatre is taking the same route. Johan Simons, for example, has succeeded in saying good-bye to the form of the play at the Munich Kammerspiele. Along with productions of play texts, the Kammerspiele now has a steady flow of adaptations of novels, projects, thematic evenings and performances. At the municipal theatres and in the international scene productions are becoming increasingly project-like and the acting of actors increasingly performative. Of course, you can ask whether the term “theatre” still makes any sense in these circumstances.

Could “theatre” be the umbrella term for the performing arts?

It’s more that performance has incorporated theatre. I think it would nice if, after a festival like Theatre of the World, you couldn’t tell which was being incorporated by the other.

Aren’t there are also many overlappings of theatre and performance?

And of dance. Eisa Jocson, for instance, dancer and choreographer from Manila, observed men dancing in nightclubs. Now she’ll re-enact what she saw in Macho Dancer with her slim, female body, which she styles somewhat more martially in boots and leather. In the first the minutes you hear so many trivial pop songs that you want to shoot yourself. Then, suddenly, there emerges a difference between the observed choreography and the body of the dancer that makes the whole evening. We live in a highly developed culture in which we define ourselves through films, rituals and entertainment media. It’s been a long time now since we defined ourselves only through literature and literary theatre texts. The concept of theatre and performance is constantly changing, including when during the festival we drive up eight cars with loudspeakers at full blast for a subwoofer concert. I see dance similarly, which for me is a discourse production about certain subjects. In a pleasantly unpleasant way, I can’t see in dance a discourse purely about body movements.

In addition to Jelinek’s Die Schutzbefohlenen and Okada’s „Die Schutzbefohlenen“ und Okadas „Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich” and Markus Öhrn’s „Next Day“ und Markus Öhrns „Bis zum Tod“ (i.e., Unto Death). Must the Theatre of the World be a production festival?

The festival has a decent amount of money and ought to co-produce some productions. If I produce premiers, I’d naturally like other festival makers and journalists to see them, and I’m glad if I can help bring such productions about.

Would the ego of the festival maker suffer if that weren’t possible?

I’m not an ego; I’m a patchwork.

Theatre of the World
From 23 May to 8 June 2014 in Mannheim
A festival of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), organized by the Mannheim National Theatre and sponsored by the city of Mannheim, the Baden-Württemberg Foundation and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media.