- Berlin’s Holy of Holies
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Berlin's Theatertreffen is a strange beast. One speaks of it as a festival, and yet, in contrast to BAM's Next Wave or the Festival d'automne or countless other international festivals saturating the theatre calendar, the Theatretreffen has the hubris to place a certain qualitative stamp of approval on the ten or so productions invited—all of which must come from the German-speaking world. The festival is careful not to say these are the best productions of the prior year, but rather the "bemerkenswertesten"—the most noteworthy, and occasionally one encounters someone willing to expound on why this semantic difference actually matters. It doesn't. And because it doesn't, critics launch an ever-recurring line of attack—asking if one or more of the invited productions is truly more "notable" than some other production they feel was neglected.
Other perennial discussions about the Theatretreffen concern certain types of diversity: Are there enough productions from theatres outside the major cities, are the same old directors being invited every year? Then, alas, there's the inevitable question of what this year's festival says about German-speaking society. This year was no exception. A salient feature of the latest Theatretreffen was how lamentably familiar the contours of its debates seemed to American observers: The festival was framed by discussions in the press and in the its own forums regarding so-called shock theatre, directorial disrespect for texts, and the obligation of the taxpayer to subsidize questionable theatre made by artists who often seem to harbor nothing but contempt for most taxpayers. There was even a question at one of the festival press conferences that referred to the shrinking budgets and space allotted to German theatre criticism, a phenomenon so old in the United States that people hardly comment on it anymore.
Two months before the festival began, Der Spiegel published an article by Joachim Lottmann, a writer described as an "occasional theatregoer," which precipitated the so-called "Ekel-Debatte," or "Disgust Debate." It featured the usual litany against anecdotal instances [End Page 54] of pointless nudity, smattered blood and vomit, and it struck a predictable chord with many readers who have tired of going to see such theatre, of which, it must be said, Germany is not in short supply. The debate was conducted on primitive, superficial terms, which neglected two important points, as this debate, wherever it takes place, almost always does. First, many of the directors targeted for using shock tactics don't regard their productions as shocking, and second, the truly offensive aspect of much co-called Regietheatre is that it consists of overblown stylistic habits utterly devoid of the creativity their auteurs think they possess. Some of these stylistic habits perhaps coincidentally involve nudity, smattered blood, and so forth, but many don't. Just as often, they involve video screens or classic rock pumped out of loudspeakers or actors who suddenly start screaming their lines for no apparent reason and to no constructive effect. Whatever their form, such habits are tedious, not shocking.
In conjunction with the misguided debate that preceded the Theatretreffen, festival Intendant Joachim Sartorius and Theatretreffen head Iris Laufenberg mentioned in the festival program's introductory essay that they had organized three discussion sessions to debate "to what extent theatre is bound to contemporary reality" or to "the Good, the True, the Beautiful." The Theatretreffen 2006 chose as its theme, "The Council: . . . or the Battle for the Holy of Holies," evoking ecclesiastical frays. Sartorius and Laufenberg's essay tried to inject some irony into their use of these loaded terms, but instead of sounding sophisticated, they appeared as if they were opportunistically trying to use the preceding year's controversies to stoke interest in the festival.
The festival itself consisted of three Chekhov plays, a Macbeth, a Hedda Gabler, a piece of dance theatre by William Forsythe, two documentary theatre productions, and two lightweight contemporary plays, one of which...