Berlin Festival
Love of Adventure and Urgency of Perspective

The house of Berlin Festival;
The house of Berlin Festival; | © Burkhard Peter

The Berlin Festival has a new head. In an interview, Thomas Oberender formulates his demands on the Festival: it should be open to the world, pose radical questions and present new perspectives.

Mr. Oberender, you were head of the drama division of the Salzburg Festival for five years. So let me ask you first about stagecraft in the narrower sense at the Berlin Festival, that is, about the Theater Meeting (tt) and spielzeit’europa. Will there be a reorientation?

The most significant change will surely affect spielzeit’europa. We want to transform the theater season, which stretches over several months, into a concentrated festival of maximally three weeks. In 2012 the curator will be Frie Leysen and, beginning in 2013, Matthias von Hartz. I’m relying on the love of adventure and urgency of perspective that these director will bring to the festival, and I think it’s never only a matter of well-crafted art but also of extending borders, conversation, and a self-image that needs the wide world as its mirror. The Theater Meeting is the Polaroid of a theater season in the German-speaking countries – controversial in its selection and expandable in its character as a festival – which should convey the particularities of this theater culture in its achievements and, at the same time, integrate an international perspective into this landscape.

In recent years at the tt there has been a significant opening towards the international, including towards “young professionals”. It has gone from being a meeting for the best of German-language productions to being a productive international platform, meeting place and forum especially for makers of theater. Yvonne Büdenhölzer, its new director, previously headed the “Plays Market”, one of the tt’s international cooperations. What do you expect from her directorship?

Yvonne Büdenhölzer was one of the curators of the Biennial in Wiesbaden, that is to say, her view has always gone beyond the German-speaking countries. Beginning in 2012, she will also be taking into account in the Plays Market a development that, from an international view, is also the dominant one, namely to include in the competition the collective processes that lead up to the plays. In coming years the chief task will surely be to define more decisively the three pillars of the Theater Meeting – the public festival, the professional fair and the talent platforms.

Spielzeit’europa had the problem that it could more or less only jump on the international festival carousel World premiers were a rarity; Berlin premiers were rather the third station after Avignon and Vienna. It lost its supra-regional importance. Is that for Berlin, is it for you, irrelevant, or will you now be looking for a greater number of original plays?

Thomas Oberender Thomas Oberender | © Magdalena Lepka This Festival can develop a program for which Berlin would otherwise hardly have any leeway. When you mention Avignon, the Vienna Festival, the Ruhr Biennial or the Salzburg Festival, it has to be clearly said that the federal government has up to now had no intention of playing in this league. We bring a piece of the world to a specialized festival and individual events now that Berlin is increasingly becoming a world city. No longer as glamorous refreshment for a trapped population, but rather as an enzyme of those developments which could begin only with the opening of the city. We want to look into those corners of the world where a different radicality has developed which challenges us.

Frie Leysen has taken over the directorship of spielzeit’europa for a year; she was the founder of the Brussels Art Festival and recently head of the Theater of the World festival. Curators are lauded and decried for the subjective signature they put on a festival; this is also true of Leysen’s successor Matthias von Hartz. What priorities will the two set, what will their focal points be?

To exaggerate for the sake of clarity, let me put it this way: curators create a meta-product that rests on the productions of others. At best, their work in turn creates a structure of original character – through their agenda of topics and favoring of certain aesthetic points of view. To do this, they live half the year in hotel beds, sleep-walk through the airport corridors of this world, and talk to people we never meet. I look upon it as a great honor that, under the comparatively modest conditions of the Berlin Festival, so radical and wise a woman as Frie Leysen has set about searching out for us the exciting productions of our time. She once described her ideal of a festival as a “clash of visions”. And Matthias von Hartz, who has already begun with his preparations for 2013, will surely work further in the same direction that marked the Hamburg Summer Festival.

The Berlin Festival includes prestigious individual events ranging from the Jazz Festival, Music in March and the Literature Festival to the Theater Meeting. In future do you want to strengthen the umbrella brand Berlin Festival or rather the name recognition of the individual brands?

I think we have to strengthen the performances of the individual festivals. We also want to emphasize the substantial resonances of the Festival with the Federal Youth Competitions and with the Martin Gropius Building – here, too, a coherent concept of presentation would be beneficial. Finally, we want to convey that the Berlin Festival brings into being hundreds of concerts, performances, readings, workshops, competitions and exhibitions 365 days of the year, and yet has still developed very special festivals and individual events.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Berlin Festival has lost its function as a display window. Today it’s a national cultural festival that has to do justice both to a capital city’s demands for prestige and glamour and to the new, the innovative and the still-to-be-discovered. How will manage this balancing act?

With a steady hand.