Anyone with a passing interest in German Theatre knows Theatertreffen (‘Theatre Meeting’), the biggest event on the German theatre calendar. For those who don’t, here’s a brief intro: a judging panel (the composition of which is often politically contested) select the German language’s best productions for the past year, the selection of which is discussed and dissected ad nauseam when it is announced in March, which are then staged in Berlin over the course of 16 days in early May. The plays themselves are often political in nature, and they are staged together with several events focusing on, inevitably, theatre and politics.
Spot the theme? If you sensed that German theatre was experiencing a sort of mini-golden age at the moment, you’re probably right – something, perhaps, to do with the increasing global synergy of art and politics, and German theatre’s ability to seemingly find a place for both at the same time, within a heavily aestheticised frame that allows for plenty of minimalist showmanship. This purple patch, coupled with the Internationales Forum’s last year in its current form before giving way to a more open approach, meant there was probably no better time to be at Theatertreffen than 2014.
Only one ticket was allocated to this correspondent, and another came courtesy of circumstance and generosity, so I saw a total of two of the thirteen works on offer: one of the Stückemarkt (‘play market’) and one of the main pieces.
I did, however, try to do everything I could that was free. And this year there was quite a lot, because after 50 years, the format of Theatertreffen’s exclusive club, the Internationales Forum, is changing. For 50 years, a small selection of elite theatre-makers have been gathering behind closed doors, gifted a bunch of tickets and basically discussed theatre for two weeks. The dismantling of this programme was the elephant in the room for much of the festival – along with similar about-face in the structure of the Stückemarkt, and one can only speculate about the motivations behind retiring a format that has served German theatre for so long and equipped many of its finest practitioners I hesitate to suggest the reasons were motivated by a desire to capitalise more on Theatertreffen’s potential as a global theatre event, but I won’t be the only one keeping a close eye on what happens next year.
This year, the Forum began this transition process by adopting an additional strand, somewhat nostalgically entitled ‘CAMP’, consisting of a series of forums and workshops (and now looking a hell of a lot like other festivals). These were a mixed bag; two sessions saw a series of speakers giving small provocations followed by workshops, Chris Thorpe led what I felt was an fairly well-targeted devising workshop prior to his performance in There Has Possibly Been An Incident, and there was also a hybrid theatre workshop which strangely morphed into speed dating.
Both of the works I saw were great – the UK was ably represented by Thorpe’s work mentioned above, a political diatribe which exists on the fine line between terrorist and hero, which was largely well-received. Die letzten Zeugen from Vienna was the kind of spectacle you only get in German language theatre – six holocaust survivors on an extremely barren stage having their stories read by actors, their bodies now a stark reminder of the horrors of the past, if one is needed. Other notable highlights (spies tell me) included dance piece Tauberbach and Zement from Heiner Müller. The competition – for it is a competition – was won by Munich Kammerspiele’s hellish Fegefeuer in Ingolstadt (Purgatory in Ingolstadt).
The future of Theatertreffen will be interesting to watch. It remains the bow of the German theatre battleship, a vast mechanism that has, until now at least, remained largely submerged in the collective psyche of its people. It’s just not clear where it’s steering.