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Schaubühne: Theatre as a way of life, a reality larger than life

Conversation with German Theatre Director, Thomas Ostermeier

“The idea in my plays often becomes the truth in my own life.” Thomas Ostermeier

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.

The first ticket I ever bought as a graduate student in Europe was for a German production of Henrik Ibsen’s play, The Doll’s House entitled Nora at the Holland Festival in 2003. Considering what I heard from people in Amsterdam that the play was staged by one of Germany’s foremost theatre directors, whose name I cannot pronounce nor remember at that time, I convinced roughly ten friends to join me. I didn’t want to be alone in the experience of watching a three-act play performed in German, a language I didn’t understand; with Dutch surtitles, I could not read.

Schaubühne Photo: Siegfried Büker

When we entered the theatre, I was totally awed by the grandiose set whilst thinking how such spatial construct might represent a realisation of the director’s dream and the producer’s nightmare. The set resembled a chic-yuppie penthouse apartment with a huge aquarium in the middle.  It looked so real that I started calculating the approximate cost of building and transporting the whole thing for a touring production.  If theatre is indeed a slice of life, this was a slice of high-end and costly reality.

It was one of those performances that one ought to see: excellent actors with impeccable direction. From where I was seated, the main character, Nora looked like a mannequin with perfect bronze porcelain skin.  Without having to go into details, whatever budget was invested into this production was utterly visible in the quality of staging.   Despite the language barrier, the resonance of the performance achieved to communicate the essence of reality they were trying to portray.  Suffice to say, it left quite a strong imprint in my mind, taking into account that I am recalling all these from a performance I’ve seen seven years ago.

Since living in Berlin, I eventually came across the name of the director and the company of the above-noted production. Schaubühne, originally founded in 1962, as a private theatre with a politically and socially motivated artistic programme, is the home of the actor’s ensemble that performed Nora, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Under Ostermeier’s artistic leadership, Schaubühne is considerably the last great theater in West Berlin – after the closing of the Freie Volksbühne, the Schillertheater and the Schlossparktheater.  It stands for experimental, contemporary writer’s theater, alongside its continuance of the centuries-old repertory theater tradition, informed by a critical, analytical and often political view of current trends in society.

Dämone by Lars Norén, Direction: Thomas Ostermeier Lars Eidinger, Photo: Arno Declair

Although Schaubühne is quite a trek from where most of the happenings are in the East part of the city, I’ve followed some of the German theatre production’s directed by Ostermeier. such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and John Gabriel Borkmann; Lars Noren’s Demons; as well as the choreographic masterpieces of Sasha Waltz’ Koerper, No Body; and Constanza Macras’ Megalopolis among others. Generally, one can expect to see grand theatre and dance productions in the former cinema converted performance space, originally designed by one of Germany’s most important architect in the 20th century, Erich Mendelsohn.

As a spectator, I’ve often felt when watching productions at Schaubühne, specifically the German spoken theatre directed by Ostermeier, there is the experience of being transported as a voyeur in someone else’s life. Apart from the seemingly regular presence of huge glass partitions and revolving stage, the composition of theatre elements comes across as a vernacular language of the mind and one’s heart, sort of a personal occurrence in life. Then there is often the strong presence of an infinitely beautiful actress, like a muse, amongst all the characters in the play. What captures one is the fascination not limited to the physical presence of the female heroine but rather representation of the character’s being. It’s as if the play was written for them and words are uttered as in real life. They move in the space as one would in his/her normal environment.

So what should one ask the veteran German theatre director whose works have seized the theatre world for over a decade? In my interview with the 41-year director of Schaubühne, he responded to my first question on how he became a director with another question. After a momentary pause the self-confident theatre maker minced words, Where did that question come from?” Then he continues, “By chance, by accident.   I was trained as an actor and I was not happy with the system of educating theatre students. Then I heard about the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch. A friend of mine was studying there and so I thought that if she can do it. I can do it, too.  So I auditioned and passed the tests.  It was pretty easy. It all seemed natural to me. They chose 5-8 out of 300-500 applicants. Directing seemed quite obvious to me. When I was an actor, I was always interested in the production.  In my hometown, we were engaged in a collective process.  Thus, I consider myself a theatre maker rather than an actor or director.”

Ostermeier whose stage career has been exceptional, taking a big leap from drama school, to management of a small cult theatre in Berlin called Baracke from 1996-1999, right up to artistic responsibility for one of the most important venues of German-language theatre affirms, “Working as a director is great. Although at times it can be depressing since after you’ve reached a certain level, people start to talk about cultural politics. I do not like the mechanisms and rituals of public opinion particularly how the theatre milieu makes stars in the “regie” tradition.”

Thomas Ostermeier, Artistic Director of Schaubühne

When enquired about the his role and the boundary that exists for him as theatre director and Artistic Director of Schaubühne at the same time, Ostermeier retorts, “I have been reflecting on this quite recently.  A lot of the work I’m doing is linked to Schaubühne. In the first couple of years, I was initially directing at least 4 productions a year.  Later on, I shifted to doing only 2-3 productions in a season. Although I have a lot of offers to work for different theatres, just the same, what I do is only possible here. There is no other theatre that will give me this freedom. As Schaubühne’s Artistic Director, I have a certain freedom, which play, which actors I wish to work with, for instance.”

The Schaubühne director since 1999 articulates, “I strive for more artistic freedom: less productions and focus on the international market. The idea is to get a lot of partners and produce very well thought of productions. Since touring generates income, we are focusing on selling the existing repertoire, by which Schaubühne has about thirty-five.   We perform until there is no more audience. For example, the play, which I directed “Shopping and Fucking” has been running for 12 years.”

And asked about his thoughts on international collaboration and exchange, he responds “There is always a possibility to perform or conduct workshops abroad. This March, we are touring “Hamlet” in Taiwan and in September, in Seoul, Korea.  Through the tours, we achieve a lot in terms of getting in touch with the local audiences, organisers, as well as other people. In terms of collaboration, one concrete example is Schaubühne’s working relationship with Wajdi Mouawad, Lebanese born, French-Canadian writer and director who recently presented his work during F.I.N.D.  He will soon be directing the actor’s ensemble here, which was a result of our meeting in Canada in the past years where Schaubühne presented a touring production.  This is really a long-term collaboration.

Furthermore, I am also teaching directing at Ernst Busch.  So it is possible for one-two persons to observe one seminar.  Soon my directing students will be collaborating with acting and directing students from Moscow – another avenue for exchange.

Falk Richter, Benedict Andrews, Sebastian Nübling, Jossi Wieler and Ingo Berk are among the pool of directors who share the Schaubühne stage.   As the leading producer of world premiere theatre events, Schaubühne also serves as a home to contemporary dramatists.  The directors at the Schaubühne are bound by their interest in the steady development of the acting ensemble, contemporisation of classical material, and intensive exploration of contemporary drama. Marius von Mayenburg, Schaubühne’s playwright-in-residence, whose works have been presented around the world, and Falk Richter together constitute the core contemporary repertory with their world premieres. Authors such as Caryl Churchill, Richard Dresser, Jon Fosse, Mark Ravenhill, David Harrower, Lars Norén and Marius von Mayenburg are unmistakably tied to the Schaubühne and its mission.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, Direction: Thomas Ostermeier , Katharina Schüttler, Jörg Hartmann, Photo: Arno Declair

With a budget of 12 Million Euro annually, allocated by the Berlin Senate, the running of this theatre space which employs 250 professional actors, dancers, directors, technical and performing arts personnel; 10 productions year, 35 repertoire, permits access to both the Berlin and international audiences to experience the living theatrical inquiry into forms of contemporary realism in directorial conception, acting style and stage aesthetic. This artistic mission has found great resonance in Berlin and beyond. To date, 674 touring performances have been given by Schaubühne since the year 2000. On the international stage, the Schaubühne is an extraordinarily successful theater. As a cultural ambassador of Berlin, the expanded worldwide touring of the company has reached on average 60,000-70,000 audience members annually.

It can be said that the years 1999-2000 have placed Schaubühne as one of the most important places for the theater and dance avant-garde in the world under the artistic direction of Thomas Ostermeier, Jens Hillje, Sasha Waltz and Jochen Sandig offering an extensive repertoire.  Of its four original founder Jürgen Schitthelm continues his responsibility as Director General of the Schaubühne with Friedrich Barner joining the management in 1991.

Alongside, Schaubühne pursues an ongoing initiative to support young and emerging playwrights through its annual playwright’s competition.  The Festival of International New Drama (F.I.N.D.), on the other hand, has reached its tenth anniversary in presenting pieces from Germany and abroad. F.I.N.D. has become an integral part of the Schaubühne’s dramaturgical work, resulting in significant discoveries for the contemporary repertory plan. With staged readings, guest performances and original forms of performance art organized by theme and country of origin, the theater presents an international network of new discoveries from Germany and abroad,

Since January 2000, Schaubühne has presented the panel discussion series “Streitraum”, inviting internationally renowned leaders in the fields of cultural studies, social sciences and humanities with high-profile guests such as Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Beaudrillard, Naomi Klein, Richard Rorty, Benjamin Barber, Joseph Stiglitz, Judith Butler, Eric Hobsbawn and Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Attracting an audience for new theatrical work is of particular interest to the Schaubühne. Under the direction of Uta Plate, it follows a comprehensive educational activities programme that emphasise practical, hands-on experience for young and old audience members alike. These take the form of open workshops and introductory talks, projects in cooperation with partner schools in and around Berlin, and with the theater group “Die Zwiefachen”, which is composed of youths recruited from low-income housing projects.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Direction: Thomas Ostermeier, Lars Eidinger, Photo: Arno Declair

Reviewing the programming of Schaubuehne from its early days in Hallesches Ufer (today the location of Hebbel am Ufer 2, HAU 3) is like a visit to theatre history class. Peter Stein, Klaus Michael Grüber, Luc Bondy, Robert Wilson, Andrea Breth, Bruno Ganz, Edith Clever and Jutta Lampe are among the prominent actors and directors who have brought it to world renown. Can you imagine the excitement that surrounds an environment where access to brilliant minds producing theatre master pieces that shaped not only that of the German theatre history but also have a resonating effect in the global theatre movement?

When I raised the question to Ostermeier whether it is essential for their programming to include mainly productions or countries that are facing political problems,  he replies, “We are a part of all these problems.” Our conversation ended with his remark on my curious query whether he has a life outside the theatre, “When I direct a show, I take care of the people. The idea in my plays often becomes the truth in my own life, interesting yet terrible at the same time. I am 24/7 Director.”

Some Useful Links:

Schaubuehne <

Goethe Institute: 50 Directors working at German Theatres, Thomas Ostermeier<

Presenters Interview: In pursuit of theatre for the Playwright, Talking with the Artistic Director, Thomas Ostermeier of the Schaubuehne<

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House- Nora

Henrik Ibsen/Thomas Ostermeier – Hedda Gabler<

John Gabriel Borkmann, Regie: Thomas Ostermeier

Hamlet Trailer (Schaubuehne Berlin)

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