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Hebbel am Ufer: Crossing boundaries between social reality and performance

“We try to do what others don’t do.”[i] Matthias Lilienthal

This article was commissioned by the  Korean Arts Management Services and originally published in Korean  for – a database website for the global exchange of performing arts, a project supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Republic of Korea.

X-Schulen, a Hebbel am Ufer production, July 2010© Doro Tuch

Arriving an hour and half earlier for my scheduled appointment with Matthias Lilienthal, the Director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU), I sat at the packed WAU Café[ii] on a Berlin summer day. Whilst carefully studying my interview notes, I immediately spotted the unassuming head of this theatre fully occupied on his mobile phone.  Dressed in jeans and yellow T-shirt, Lilienthal was to be seen walking about bear footed in front of his office. At the end of his phone conversation, he greets a number of people having lunch and notices me on my corner.  He looks at his watch inquisitively as I confirm the actual time of our meeting. He excused himself and proceeded with his intended business inside the restaurant.  Within a couple of minutes, he came back and said that we could have the interview earlier and would like to have something to eat if this does not bother me too much. Having been fairly warned by those who are familiar with Lilienthal’s hectic timetable that I’d be lucky if I manage to get him for half an hour, I was more than pleased to grab my notebook and pen over lunch.

My first question could have been better rephrased to what is keeping him busy these days instead of enquiring if it was a busy time for him. Nonetheless, Lilienthal promptly responds, “Yes, today the email and telephone systems in the theatre went down and so no one can contact us including the box office. It’s actually not so nice. Alongside, we just opened the X-Schulen (X-schools) project [iii] with 21 installations at a Hauptschule in Kreuzberg.” This project aims to initiate artistic debates about aspects of educational institution. Together with Hector-Peterson-School, HAU invited artists and artistic groups to discover and play at the school premises.  This means exploring the classrooms, main auditorium, corridors, principal’s office, toilets, gym and basement with its pupils, teachers, janitors, parents, canteen cooks and cleaning personnel. Three theatre tracks with 10-minute productions and spatial installations guide the spectator across the animated school building. Plots and stories are closely linked to the rooms in which they are being presented.

He explains, “Hauptschule is a school attended primarily by those with migrant backgrounds.  Upon finishing this school, attendees are likely to be ‘arbeitslose’ [iv]or on ‘Hartz4’[v]. They go this type of school because they have difficulties passing the exams for better schools.  Since they speak their mother tongue at home and parents can’t help them either with the German tests. And in this case, the German school system does not have the way to help socially weak people.”

Hailed as the “Best Theatre in the German-Speaking World” (2004) by Theatre Heute, X-Schulen is just one of the many stimulating projects of HAU. Under the artistic and executive leadership of Lilienthal, this cultural institution has gained prominence for its cutting-edge, no nonsense, socially and politically engaged artistic programming.  A conglomerate of three theatre spaces: Hebbel-Theater (HAU 1)[vi], Theater am Halleschen Ufer (HAU 2) [vii]and the small Theater am Ufer (HAU 3)[viii], the HAU is located in the densely populated Turkish migrant district of Kreuzberg[ix]. When I raised the question whether it is a part of HAU’s policy to work within the school systems, Lilienthal answers,  “Our general policy is to try to work with social deficits considering that the three venues of HAU is situated in the socially weakest part of Berlin.  Thus, we confront ourselves with these issues.”

The 51-year old dramaturg is no stranger in pioneering confrontational artistic actions. Prior to joining HAU, he worked with Frank Castrof[x] on the re–establishment of the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz[xi] following the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Lilienthal has openly spoken about his position on works that are purely art for art sake, which he fondly refers to as “kunstscheiße” (art-shit). As a result, he has geared the HAU towards an experimental dimension elusive of the conventional stagings or predictable formats. This has reverberated to the artistic community, critics and audiences alike, having the HAU characterised even in guidebooks and online portals as ‘different.’  And in a city abundant of variety, the rhetorical question would be ‘how different is different? ‘

HAU’s director remarks, “We try to do what others don’t do. When we started with issues on migrants, no one was doing it.  The same is true with the mixture of performance and visual arts. We try to be surprising.”  Looking closely into the current production and another trademark production at the HAU, he elaborates,X-Schulen is a sequel of X-Wohnungen (X-Apartments). The difference is that X-Wohnungen has a more voyeuristic approach, considering that the performances and installations take place in private apartments, compared to X-Schulen, which happens within the school premises. The artists play for 10-minutes whilst the students are provided with a question on “What is education?”

He comments that for the programming at the HAU, “The works need to have a strong connection to social reality. We usually commission works with a few co-productions.”  From the 4.5 million annual budget provided by the city of Berlin, HAU manages to raise approximately another 2 million for its programmes through an array of partnerships as well as support from Bundeskulturstiftung[xii] and Hauptstadkulturfonds (HKF) [xiii]. To illustrate the arduous task involved in augmenting the financial structure of HAU for the realisation its programmes, like the rest of the institutional bodies and independent art scene in Berlin, it regularly competes for the open call grants.  He shares, “From HKF, we submit between 15-18 applications together with the artists (partners). Out of these projects, 2-3 proposals come directly from us.  Of course, like all the other applicants, we don’t know which of the projects the jury would approve. On average, we secure funding for half of what we propose.”

The three venues, which also extends and transforms undesignated performances spaces in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg to areas of social exploration, reflection, reality orientation or reorientation, produces about 182 productions each year.  Lilienthal adeptly manages the 500-seater HAU 1, 200-seater HAU 2 and 100-seater HAU 3, together with a committed 24 full-time, multi-tasking professional staff. He is clear in saying, “We can’t imitate the city theatre.” Although HAU employs an alternative approach in comparison to the traditional city-funded theatre whose financial budget accounts roughly 3 or even 4 times more, it delivers a significant contribution in moving forward social realities through its creative prowess within and beyond its immediate environment, evidently reflected in the quality of 350-400 performances it offers each year. Its spill-off runs through continuous questioning, re-thinking and reformation pragmatically (perhaps strategically) moving with a good combination of international multipliers. “For every production, we try to build the audiences which group of society can be drawn into the theatre, i.e. by invention of a project or artistic idea,” explains Lilienthal when asked how HAU’s programming is influenced by concerns on audience development. It has been noted in recent years that HAU attracts 70,000 audiences annually[xiv]. With this he continues, “We, likewise, have a policy of cheap entrance. Our audience is between 18-35 years old, many of which are students and they keep coming back. Our tickets cost between 7 and 14 Euro. With regards to the number of shows, we take into account that with independent productions, we cannot have more than 3-4 performances.”

As far as the influence of artists and the influence of the HAU with those that they work with, Lilienthal says, “There are artists that we influence a lot by asking them which theme they are confronting themselves.  On the other hand, there are also those more established groups supported by the City of Berlin such as She She Pop [xv]and Gob Squad[xvi], who usually do what they want. We don’t know what exactly they are going to present. And for those artists who wish to work with us, we first need to have a talk.”

Rimini Protokoll’s production “Black Tie”, © BarbaraBraun/DRAMA

Apart from having regular guests, HAU has the Routes Princess Margariet awardee, Rimini Protokoll as its artist in residence since 2004. Brainchild of Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel, this collective is rapidly gaining recognition as leaders and creators of the theatre movement known as “Reality Trend,” crossing the grey zone between reality and fiction, involving non-professional actors in a concrete situation and specific place. [xvii] The most recent performance at the HAU was Vùng biên giới, which about the stories of first and second-generation Vietnamese immigrants in Germany and Czech Republic. This production brought the real actors of the life experiences on stage. 

We do very limited works with artists from abroad.  Normally, we invite them to show their work 2 or 3 times and then later on develop some collaboration,” explains Lilienthal.  Though one needs to redefine the standards set by the trend-setting director when referring to what he calls limited.  The impressive list of artists from A-Z, coming from different parts of the world, genres of artistic practices ranging from spoken drama, new opera, documentary theatre, installation, video art, contemporary dance, dance theatre, hip-hop, trance, house or electronic music, proves that Lilienthal has set the bar a few notches higher. [xviii] In the past years, dance audience alone savoured the works of internationally renowned choreographers like Tricia Brown, Rosas, Sidi Larbi, Akram Khan, Jerome Bel, Yasmeen Godder, and Constanza Macras among others.  It also hosts/co-hosts festivals such as 100 degrees Berlin, Tanz Im August, Brazil Move Berlim, Polski Express Festival, Performing South Africa and Asia Pacific Weeks. Looking closely, there are relatively ample international programmes at the HAU. Furthermore HAU’s presence abroad can be felt through the tours undertaken by artists who frequently present their work in the house, its resident company, not to mention art projects they have initiated. As an example, Lilienthal shares, “X-Wohnungen continues to tour. We recently had a performance in Warsaw and another one in Johannesburg before the World Cup finals. This time, we have a mix of European artists travelling the cities and then some local artists.”

With such an approach to artistic projects, be it in Berlin or overseas, one can instantaneously recognise the value that HAU invests in real-life and real-time encounters.  The works generally don’t arrogantly place themselves on stage or mark the demarcation line between the audiences and performers.  Nor does detach itself from players in the local environment and instead welcoming confrontations with artists and members of the community in jumpstarting conversations through the artistic actions. 

Before hitting a quarter of an hour mark for my interview, I asked about the future plans for HAU and he says, “We are looking for the next theme.  This year, we are working on Vietnamese migration.  We are also looking into the new philosophy of oneself in connection with society.” Another fresh intervention to look forward to in the crossing of social reality and performance at Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer.

About the Writer:

Vanini Belarmino is a Berlin-based producer and curator specialising in interdisciplinary exchange and cross-border collaborations. She is the Founder and Managing Director of Belarmino&Partners, an international project management and promotions consultancy for arts and culture  <


[i] Interview with Mathhias Lilienthal at the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, Germany on 29 June 2010,

[ii] WAU (Wirst am Ufer, literally translates to ) is the café situated at the premises of HAU 2 (Hebbel am Ufer 2)<

[iii] List of artists who’ve performed at HAU, from A-Z<

[iv] Arbeitslose is the German word for unemployed.

[v] ‘Hartz4 pertains to the reform system addressing terms of unemployment in Germany.  To read more, click on <


[vi] Hebbel-Theater (HAU 1), originally built in 1907-1908,

[vii] Theater am Halleschen Ufer (HAU 2) is a 1950s building. It was the venue of the legendary Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer (now Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz< under the artistic direction of Peter Stein.   It witnessed the first stage triumphs of German theatre icons like Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Edith Clever, Jutta Lampe or Michael König.

[viii] HAU 3 was formerly the Theater am Ufer, home to the Teatr Kreatur run by Andrej Woron<

[ix] Kreuzberg is a borough in Berlin known for its very large percentage of immigrants and second-generation immigrants, many of whom are of Turkish ancestry <

[x] Frank Castrof is a German theatre director and the Artistic Director of Volksbühne. To read more on Castrof, click on <

[xi] Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz<

[xii] Bundeskulturstiftung<

[xiii] Hauptstadtkulturfonds<

[xiv] Source: Presenters Interview: Berlin’s HAU as the epicentre of the performing arts – What’s the idea behind its aim to “Create friction in the world?” Interview with Matthias Lilienthal by Makiko Yamaguchi, Performing Arts Network Japan, Japan Foundation, 2009.24.06, <,

Accessed on 21 June 2010.

[xv] She She Pop<

[xvi] Gob Squad<

[xvii] Source  Rimini Protokoll website<

[xviii] List of Artists from A-Z <

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