Wilfried Eckstein, former director of the Goethe-Institut Washington, speaks with Iris Laufenberg, artistic director at the Schauspielhaus Graz, about their Dramatists' Festival and the role of the art in addressing political issues.
Wilfried Eckstein: P3M5 is a project that originated from the political outrage over the limited protection of personal privacy. We at the Goethe-Institut in the USA asked ourselves if we could create a cultural dialogue about this situation. We transferred a political topic into a cultural context. What’s your opinion? Is this the role of art? How does such an approach fit into the cultural field that you manage and contribute to?
Iris Laufenberg: If the approach is contentious and open enough, it is possible. Because we only address what’s already going on – for example, in Hungary, where theater directors are being switched out to make way for purely nationalistic theater. In isolationist political climates where artists’ work is dictated by politics, artist are already willing to ask what is private, what is political, what needs to be openly discussed and depicted. Almost every artist spends his or her time with precisely those topics that are currently virulent, that need to be addressed with passion, where a mirror is held up to politicians and society and another perspective is shown. This lends itself wonderfully to theater, and worked very well in this case.
WE: To a certain extent, the question that we presented to the authors, “What does privacy mean to you in the digital age?,” was an intervention. We put something out there and expected that something would come out of it. The result is amazing. The authors and theaters turned our question into art. Is that a normal experience for you? How do artists typically receive assignments?
IL: I think it has a lot to do with the political situation that we find ourselves in these days. In the past, the author was someone who sat alone at home and created something. Today, the authors are anchored more in theaters. They have become more willing to network. There is a general lack of direction because reality has become so heterogeneous. Now, some theaters are connected with authors who are in turn connected with other authors. Our annual dramatists’ festival in the Schauspielhaus Graz serves to expand and intensify this network, which is what we need if theater is to be heard beyond its walls. Because our very existence, that is the freedom of expression in theater, is at stake, and we know that. A multitude of voices that come together is more valuable than one author who was published somewhere but never read. The P3M5 Project was a chance for us to make use of the experiences we’ve gathered in our daily work with authors in theater over the years, and of the trust that we have built up, to try something new together. And that generates a surprising power. The project also has the potential of growing in the future.
WE: We started the project together a year ago. We also approached other theaters, and these theaters chose their authors. Looking back, were there surprises in the project? Something that we hadn’t counted on which gives us impulses for our future work?
IL: Yes, the Belgian situation with Rachida Lamrabet. From a feminist point of view, her work is a critical take on a clothing ban. The author and theater lend a voice to a controversial political issue, the burqa ban. The perspective of this woman, who didn’t want to appear in public without a burqa, unleashed an immense storm. The voice of the protagonist on the stage was interpreted as the voice of the author. As a result, the author, who is not only a writer but also earns her living as a lawyer, lost her job. For me, this is an alarming incident. It’s terrible for the artist, who was deprived of her livelihood, and a threat to the freedom of art. This incident shows how important it is to keep doing theater in order to bring attention to societal abuses or, as in this situation, how theater needs to give space and a voice to nonconforming opinions.