Germany: Theater der Welt

Organised by the International Theatre Institute, Theater der Welt takes places every three years in a different city or region of Germany, with each edition employing a new artistic director and team. Mark Powell chats to Matthias Lilienthal, curator of the 2014 festival

How was the festival perceived in the beginning? What’s so different now?

In the early 80s, international theatre work was not very well known here. The first festival presented companies from Moscow and New York in Germany for the first time, which was of immense importance as it connected our theatre work with an international discourse.

Today, the theatre world is very much globalised and there are a lot of international co-productions. Artists like Toshiki Okada from Japan know work by the French director Philippe Quesne, or the German group Rimini Protokoll. In the ‘80s, there was still something folkloric and exotic about unknown worlds and cultures, but today we have an international discourse and many international theatre festivals. In this context, the current title of the festival seems very ‘80s…to be honest, I felt a bit ashamed when I had to tell people in Japan that I am the director of ‘Theatre of the World 2014’.

How do you programme each festival? Are you tempted to veer away from traditional theatre to works that are quirky and unusual?

It’s important to stress that each edition is programmed by a different artistic director, who’s free to choose a theme or to set a focus. Of course, the personal taste and style of the artistic director also influences the structure and content of the festival. The next edition of the festival will be in 2017. Whoever will be artistic director then will decide the thematic focus.

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For me, it’s always very important to connect a festival to the city and its surrounding area. When I was artistic director of the festival for the first time in 2002, I invented the format X Wohnungen [X Flats] in Duisburg. A combination of theatrical guide, concert and performance art, it’s delivered as a tour through private apartments where intimate performances by different artists take place.

For the 2014 edition in Mannheim, we developed the format a step further and went with X Firmen, taking productions into companies and factories – the city is still industrial. Another project was called HOTEL shabbyshabby. For this, international students and young architects came to Mannheim to build 22 hotel rooms that were installed in public spaces. Mannheim citizens and visitors to the festival could check in for one night and experience their normal surroundings from a different perspective. Each project focussed on showing the familiar as exotic and unfamiliar.

HOTEL shabbyshabby © LYS
HOTEL shabbyshabby © LYS

Besides these two site-specific projects, in 2014 I programmed shows from all over the world. We featured well-known artists alongside artists and companies that were being presented for the first time in Germany. We premiered productions by Nicolas Stemann, Toshiki Okada, Philippe Quesne and Markus Öhrn, to name just a few. Other productions that have toured extensively before – for example works by Bruno Beltrão or Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker – were successfully staged for the first time in Mannheim.

As a peripatetic festival, do you have to take an equally imaginative approach to selecting your venues?

Besides the site-specific projects described above, which were allocated to enterprises and public spaces all over the city and its surroundings, we used an industrial hall for a monumental piece by Russian director Dmitry Krymov with 100 participating actors, and a tennis court for a piece by the British-German collective Gob Squad. Most of the productions, though, were presented in the regular venues and rehearsal spaces of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, and in established institutions like the art spaces zeitraumexit and Alte Feuerwache.

We appreciate the great media and public response: in 2014 we achieved around 26,000 visitors and attracted a capacity attendance rate of over 93 per cent. This was spread across regional, national and international visitors, trade visitors and press representatives have visited more than 100 events.

X Firmen © Christian Kleiner
X Firmen © Christian Kleiner

The audience in Mannheim was very curious and followed the festival with great interest. But there were also many outside visitors from Germany and all over the world coming to the festival; presenters, journalists, theatre fans, and about 100 international students who attended the Performing Arts Campus that was part of the festival.

How do the artistic directors select works for the festival?

Between 2012 and 2014 I travelled a lot, of course. For example, in a showcase in Tel Aviv I saw Yonatan Levy’s performance Saddam Hussein, which was shown at the festival for the first time outside of Israel. A lot of artists like Toshiki Okada, Philippe Quesne, Bruno Beltrão or Rabih Mroué I have known for a long time, and we worked together on a lot of projects. From 2012-13 I lived and worked in Beirut, where I met Joe Namy and Tarek Atoui. So, in 2014 for instance, the programme came together as a mix of established artists who I believe in and appreciate, alongside new discoveries who are part of the next generation.

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It’s often the case that artists who work in countries of latent crisis produce innovative work. I discovered a strong affinity between Japan and Germany, for example, and this made it interesting for us to work together.

The most exciting thing is the international discourse: somehow the theatre world became a global village. Dialogues between Jakarta, Paris and Tallinn are possible. This is a big gain in quality that was not possible in the past.

You’ve spoken about the rise in ‘performances’ rather than ‘theatre productions’ – crossover can be good, but does a global theatre festival have a responsibility to uphold traditions or break boundaries?

The festival is supposed to show contemporary tendencies in the perform- ing arts. This means it reflects the state of the art and looks into the future, rather than upholding traditions. Aside from that, I’m not very interested in boundaries and genres at all.

How do you work with arts companies in countries further afield, such as Japan, Brazil, Chile and Lebanon, to bring their artists over to Germany? Do you support travel and accommodation costs, or pay a generous fee?

The festival covers costs for travel, accommodation, daily allowances and freight, and pays a fee to the artists and companies. On top of that, I co-produce some of the invited projects. Of course this would not be possible without the support of partners like the Goethe-Institut, the Japan Foundation, the Institut Français and all the support of the embassies. We also receive sponsorship from companies and private supporters.

Okada © Christian Kleiner
Okada © Christian Kleiner

The festival budget is normally around €3m. The main funding comes in three parts: from the state, the federal state, and the city where it takes place. In addition to that, we applied for third-party funding. As the festival takes place every three years in a different city or region, with a different artistic director and a new team, the structure of the festival organisation also differs with every edition. When I started preparing the festival in autumn 2012 it was only me and my assistant on board. By summer 2013, our basic team had an additional 10 people, and then 6 months before the festival launched we were housing 12 people in one 30m2 room.

At the beginning of 2014 the team expanded further, and we moved to another office. From then on we had about 25 people working exclusively for the festival, plus hospitality, technicians and permanent employees of the Nationaltheater Mannheim. In 2014 we did not work with volunteers. Everybody who had responsibility was paid for their work.