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An Enlightening Journey – Berliner Theatertreffen

Words / Hung Chit WahTranslate / Wei ShiminPhotography / Hung Chit Wah

After wrapping up my performance in Legends of the Southern Arch, I had the urge to venture overseas and recharge myself. Three years ago, I flew to Taipei on the spur of the moment, simply to watch Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir (“The Castaways of Mad Hope”) by French troupe Théâtre du Soleil. The immense satisfaction from the show was well worth braving the chilly winds of December for! Therefore, my obstinate self once again risked being “penniless” to attend the theatre festival that is held every May in Berlin, Germany – Berliner Theatertreffen.

Berliner Theatertreffen started in year 1964, and is an important part of Berliner Festspiele (Berlin Festival of Arts and Culture). This theatre festival integrates all forms of theatre, such as dance, puppetry, musical, theatre installation, etc. The festival jury considers over 400 performances from German-speaking countries internationally, and selects 10 “most notable productions” from the recent theatre season to be presented in Berlin. Besides these shows, the festival also brings together jury members, directors and audiences to participate in dialogues, staged readings, the “Theatertreffen Stückemarkt” – a festival specifically for young directors and as-yet unknown playwrights to present their pieces – and more. The International Forum provides sponsorships for youth practitioners around the world to be able to watch shows at the festival, and also engage in professional networking. The festival blog further provides a platform for aspiring reviewers to submit their writing and reports. The festival also presents three important theatre awards in honour of outstanding theatre groups, directors, productions and young actors: Theatre Award Berlin, Alfred Kerr Acting Prize, and 3sat Prize.

Wait a minute, what are “notable productions”? Der Tagesspiegel’s (“The Daily Mirror”, a German daily newspaper) veteran reporter for culture and theatre reviewer, Dr Peter von Becker, explains:  “The theatre festival does not adhere to any strict criterion, and the pieces selected by jury are not necessarily the best shows, but they are definitely exceptional in a certain aspect, display a unique style, and they serve as a significant reference for the exploration and development of theatre. The piece could present outstanding performance, a variety of styles, or it could resonate with the current state of political, social or cultural affairs – these might well draw the attention of the jury. Theatre is not limited to one format, and multiple opportunities have opened up with each new era and advances in technology. Berliner Theatertreffen serves to raise awareness of the vibrancy of theatre.” In other words, the productions might not be interesting per se, but who knows, I could strike gold as well. And so, I excitedly and nervously embark on my Berlin journey with friends.

The theatre festival’s main venue is at Haus der Berliner Festspiele (House of Berliner Festspiele), where most shows and activities take place. Other venues include Deutsches Theater Belin, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, etc. Every time I step into a theatre, my heart would echo my own name, “Wah, wah! Wah! So beautiful!” The majority of theatres have preserved the classic European architectural style without excessive decorations, featuring photographs on the wall of the troupe’s actors or previous productions, and using simple lighting to casually draw out the contours of the venue. All of these add flavour and intimacy to the entire experience. In addition, each theatre has its own adjoining restaurant or pub, and audiences could enjoy a meal and chat before the production, or revel in post-show drinks and musings!

For my five days in Berlin, I watched five performances, one documentary, and participated in two dialogue sessions. This includes an adaptation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, where a giant staircase is used to depict the layered oppression of society, and how the tortured people would destroy one another in their fight for survival. Another performance is Die Ehe der Maria Braun, based on a 500-page interview with the late famous German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It is a sentimental piece on the past, present and future of Germany, and a mark of respect for the celebrated director. A group of young actors reinterpreted the film Das Fest by Thomas Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov, taking away all elaborate settings, and restricting themselves to the usage of mere tables and chairs, some props and a piano, in order to create a powerful visual effect and touching story. Next is a faithful rendition of the old favourite, Waiting for Godot, and the audience was captivated by the clean, precise directing style and the outstanding acting performance. As these plays are all either classics or based on classic pieces, it is a pity that I did not chance upon new creative texts. Lastly, I ran to Maxim Gorki Theater to watch Zement, which was not as yet selected by the jury. It describes the transition from Communism to Capitalism, the corresponding changes in the lives of the people, and mirrored the turmoil faced by Germany before and after the reunification.  

Looking back at the audiences, the mostly-German crowd has males and females of all ages, and they fill up the theatres. I discover that the audiences are familiar with the scripts, and they seem to anticipate the reinterpretations and renditions of classic pieces by the artists. This reminds me of the Age of Enlightenment, where the spirit of reform in theatre by the common people became a fundamental liberty. The perpetuation of this tradition thus empowers artists of today to dissect classic pieces without reservation, and without dwelling upon whether audiences would understand the performances or not.
My companions are all theatre makers versed in different skills, hence we could very well view the same performance from markedly different angles, and this made for most enriching post-show discussions. They tend to use descriptive phrases such as “extremely subversive” and “shocking and explosive”. I agree with part of it, such as for Zement, an actor painted over a wall that ran across the stage from that of white to red; and my friend watched a play Die lächerliche Finsternis, where the actors used the intermission to take down the set made of wood planks, and convert it all into sawdust. Wah! Oh my god! These are such shocking ways to merge direction style with text! I feel that no one in Singapore or Hong Kong would dare to or even think of doing this. But what about the rest? To use a different style, to integrate the different elements of the stage in presentation – we have all done it before… is it very shocking or explosive? Hence my question of “Where is this explosive effect that you mention?” kick-started an aggressive discussion. Everyone talked about it from the perspectives of directing, design, performing, and arts management, and finally I asked again: “When we are devising or creating, do we lack ideas? Or do we kill these ideas due to various reasons?” Without ideas, I could further enrich myself and work harder. But if external factors inhibit my creation, would that not be simply self-castration?

Through this journey, I have seen and heard a lot, and have been enlightened plenty. Returning to Singapore, I keep asking myself, how I would continue to walk this path…
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arrow  Continue reading on Issue 7 / July 2015:From Finite To Infinity