Ensemble Theatre
Predetermined breaking points during operation?

Ensemble Theater
Ensemble Theater | Photo: Kathrin Schäfer

German-language theatre operates as an ensemble and repertory stage. Is this a model for the future?

They were founded as stages for princes, and in the nineteenth century were taken over as a matter-of-course by the middle class. We are talking about German state, municipal and regional theatres, which treat themselves, from Kiel to Freiburg, to ensembles of a permanently engaged orchestra, actors, singers and dancers. It is a unique model of theatre, but one that has been repeatedly put into question.
The most recent debate about the future of German-language ensemble theatre occurred in early 2015 and was triggered by the appointment of a new artistic director of the Berlin Volksbühne. Berlin’s State Secretary of Culture, Tim Renner, announced that the highly successful director and theatre revolutionary Frank Castorf had to vacate the Volksbühne’s executive chair in 2017 (after twenty-five years tenure). His successor is to be Chris Dercon, not a theatre-maker but a museum director.
Reactions to the decision were violent. Theatre colleagues and parts of the media feared that this was the beginning of the end of the internationally esteemed ensemble theatre. Dercon, it was argued, would not engage a permanent ensemble of actors at the Volksbühne. This could then become a precedent for the shift to a theatre system in which there was no longer a repertoire with a daily changing programme. There will be a preliminary answer to the question whether the idea of an ensemble and a repertoire will play a role in the future of the Volksbühne only once Dercon presents his first season’s programme in the spring of 2017. At the Munich Kammerspiele, on the other hand, we can already observe what happens when the structures of the international independent scene meet an ensemble theatre.

International theatre-makers

In September 2015 Matthias Lilienthal took up his position as new artistic director at the Kammerspiele. As artistic director and executive director of the Berlin Hebel Theater GmbH (HAU) from 2003 to 2012, the dramaturge and theatre director saw to an internationalization of the venues on the Hallesches Ufer. The HAU has no ensemble of its own; the impresario therefore relied on the independent scene, including internationally operating theatre-makers such as the German-Swiss directors collective Rimini Protokoll and the Lebanese film and theatre artist Rabih Mroué. This proved to be a success. In 2012 the HAU was voted Theatre of the Year. When Lilienthal’s appointment as artistic director of the Munich Kammerspiele was then made known, it was clear that the main figures of the HAU would also be playing an important role in Munich and would ensure there further internationalization.
This could have made everybody happy. After all, a successful artistic director, who went his very own way and, among other things, took socio-political stands on current issues with urban space projects, had come to Munich. On the other hand, the Kammerspiele has one of the best actors ensembles in the German-speaking world. The question since then has been how this can work together. Do independent groups such as She She Pop want, and are they able, to work together with ensemble actors such Brigitte Hobmeier, Wiebke Puls, Steven Scharf and Thomas Schmauser? Or in other words, will the latter still appear on stage? After all, many of the announced theatre-makers do not work with classically trained actors.

Crash test

At the start in October 2015 the Kammerspiele team pointed the way. Nicolas Stemann’s probing new interpretation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was still performed by permanently engaged ensemble members. Thomas Schmauser, for example, showed once again what a fine interpreter of character he is. With Rabih Mroué‘s Ode to Joy and Rimini Protokoll’s Adolf Hitler: Mein Kampf, Vols 1 & 2, then, there was conceptual research and performance theatre – entirely without ensemble members. In Alexander Giesche’s virtual reality performance Yesterday You Said Tomorrow and Simon Stone’s stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s film classic Rocco and His Brothers, members of the ensemble were on stage; they were not, however, as present or numerous as, for instance, would have been possible in a production of a Schiller classic or a Chekhov text.
The programme mix of the start stands for the entire first season of the Lilienthal directorship and makes the inference reasonable that, although ensemble theatre is not fundamentally endangered, it is being subjected to a crash test. One of the predetermined breaking points can occur where permanent ensemble members are on stage with colleagues from the independent scene and hold back, out of solidarity with a view to the smoothness of the production, from showing their full ability. Another weak point during operation can reveal itself when a visual magician like the French stage designer Philippe Quesne hotwires, in Caspar Western Friedrich, German Romanticism and Wild West myths of North American pioneer days, focusing more on the mythical images than on the actors on stage.

Modified theatre

The visible breaking points indicate that new concepts like Lilienthal’s do not put an ensemble theatre such as the Kammerspiele fundamentally in question, but that they do basically change the structure of the ensemble and the themes treated in the theatre. A key issue is whether classically trained actors will still work at such modified theatres. And we may ask ourselves whether directors are still willing to come to grips with already existing theatre texts or with new ones.