Mira Todorova talks to Karla Mäder, Head Dramaturg of Deutsches Theater Berlin, about the new directions and challenges for this institution in today’s complex social environment.

Deutsches Theater is a national theatre institution. How would you define its role in contemporary German society and within the global context?

The name of our theater, Deutsches Theater (German theatre), suggests it might be THE state theater in the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. But it’s not. In the 19th century the name was chosen by the founders to merely symbolize an aesthetic program. Due to a special historical situation in the 18th century, the German-speaking theatre landscape, which includes Austria, part of Switzerland and even South Tyrol in Italy, is extremely rich and densely filled with theatres: about 150 are subsidised by the state, the region or the cities, many of them with an opera, ballet and / or children’s theatre within.

In Berlin, Deutsches Theater is one of the several large theatres with historical significance and interesting profiles: e.g. Berliner Ensemble, Maxim Gorki Theater, Volksbühne and Schaubühne in West Berlin; some of them are close neighbours. However, Deutsches Theater, where I have the privilege of working, is undoubtedly one of the most historically significant theatres in our culture and for our art form in general. This theatre has written theatre history in many ways that have an impact today, not only in Germany but beyond – from the rediscovery of German classics (Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist) at the end of the 19th century to groundbreaking premieres by controversial authors at the time (Hauptmann) or the assertion of foreign authors with new dramaturgical concepts (Ibsen, Strindberg) so many things have happened here.

Max Reinhardt, who was immensely forward-looking as a stage director in the first half of the 20th century, also had a formative influence. He took the way of theatre-making to a completely different level with technical innovations (turntable, lighting direction). In the GDR, Deutsches Theater was a well-funded state theatre and a place of quiet dissidence. Until 1989 here, in the heart of power, the government could be criticized cleverly and subtly and particularly effectively by artistic means – often untouchable for censorship due to its artistic quality.

However, this large historical backpack does not paralyze us today, but spurs us on to unlock the good things from the past for the present and the future. Central to this is the ensemble with currently 36 members, which forms the heart of the theatre. Together with the actors and all the other employees who run the theatre on a daily basis, we want to be a place that is welcoming to all people, that is diverse aesthetically and content-wise, that excludes no one, but invites people to discuss and be there as a community. Our theatre is a rather modest building from the Biedermeier period, which nestles at the bottom of a large courtyard in front of it. In summer it looks like a little agora. This actually illustrates it quite well: the theatre embraces the people who come to us. And inside, it’s windy, there is plush, it’s cozy, and a bit opulent, but in a very modest way.

What are the innovations in terms of structure and programming that the new leadership is willing to introduce in the institution?

We have three venues and perform almost every night on all three stages. All in all, we have a large number of tickets to sell and a large repertoire as well, currently there are about 50 productions and a large audience. This automatically creates a diversity of aesthetics and content. Our actors have to be decathletes who can – and have to be willing to – do a lot of things, from classics and modern classics on the big stages to performative experiments in smaller venues. We experiment with all kinds of aesthetic means; they all bring openness and self-reflection to the table.

Iris Laufenberg, our intendant, is a dramaturg, and then it’s us – seven house dramaturgs – we all need the openness and fearlessness of the ensemble, since we do not work with a formative director, but with a multitude of strong but very different directing styles. The actors need to be very flexible and giving.

Maybe I can illustrate it better with an experience: the other day we had an evening where we had put on three performances, all of which were sold out and ended coincidentally more or less at the same time. These were “Simply the End of the World” by the French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce, directed by Christopher Rüping, who is one of the most interesting and sought-after young German directors on the big stage, “P*rn”, a work with young people on the subject of porn by the director Lorenz Nolting in the smallest venue Box, and “Ugly Duckling”, an evening based on fairy tales by H.C. Andersen with three international, Berlin-based drag queens and ensemble members by the director Bastian Kraft. Afterwards, the whole house was full of very different spectators: gray-haired gentlemen sat next to colorful figures of Berlin’s nightlife and in between the friends of the young people from the Box and, of course, the actors. One usually can only have such a weird coexistence in the Berlin subway – but people don’t talk to each other there.

What are the main projects and formats you are developing? What themes or issues do you want to engage your audiences with?

We are involved in many different projects that do not necessarily have a result on stage, e.g. a transformation of our way of working and producing towards a more sustainable style; an internationalization of our prestigious playwright’s festival which takes place every June. All this will take years and has just slowly started. We see the whole process more as a marathon than a sprint and also think of the long-term effects that these activities might have in the future when we might not be in the theatre anymore.

In terms of new things, we are trying out at the moment, I would just like to highlight one out of many: At the beginning of the season we founded a new department, a satellite that circles around the main program, so to speak. We call this department and their productions “context”. Two colleagues design and curate a supplementary program to our shows, which is often free of charge and takes place before or after the performances. In addition, there are also special events for the employees during our working hours, a kind of educational offer. The idea is that we can charge the content of a production in a different way and more in-depth – and on the other hand, just as important, we can actively let the audience and employees have their say. In fact, people don’t only want to listen, they also want to talk and exchange! “Context” is already a big success.

What are your strategies for attracting audiences? Do you have special formats for audience development? 

We have a large department called DTJung* (DT young). The asterisk is used in the German language to indicate that “everyone is included” in terms of gender. In this case we want to attract all those who feel young at heart. DTJung* also employs theatre pedagogues who offer educational services especially for schools and young people, but also for adults. They go to schools, offer workshops, audience warm-ups before performances, interactive follow-up discussions, they run acting clubs, etc. Since the 1970s there has been a lot of expertise in Germany in this type of work.

And now we can’t complain about the lack of spectators. Berlin has about 4 million inhabitants and many tourists. Informing and inviting them is a constant challenge for our communications department, because there are now just so many different channels – from classic media to social media – and each target group seems to need its own approach. The great challenge is to open up the Deutsches Theater to the so-called educationally disadvantaged groups, to take away the elitist image of the theater, which we do not maintain as an institution at all, but apparently still radiates in the minds of some people.

Our redefinition of the logo reflects the question of what “Deutsch” (German) means today. The adjective “Deutsches / German” stands in a kind of input field that could be filled with anything – because Berlin is an international metropolis where many cultures come together and live together for a long time now. By the way, on the portal of the theatre building you can still see the old logo from the 1950s, beloved to many, which accompanied the house throughout the GDR period. It should not disappear, because this period of our history is part of the theatre’s identity and of the identity of some of the employees.

For the last several years we have been experiencing a general socio-political crisis – health, economic, migrant’s, ecological, etc. How did these crises affect German society and in what way do you think your institution responds to these challenges? How do they inform your curatorial policies?

The present always seeps into the theatre. In our understanding, our noblest task is to foresee or sense the tremors that may still be ahead of us. In my opinion, especially contemporary authors can play an important role in this. The DT has always been an author’s theatre. Like I already said, we have a large festival dedicated to contemporary drama, called “Autorentheatertage” (playwright’s days), we have four studio playwrights who are with us for a season, who work together with the ensemble and the house dramaturgs on specific projects of their own. We experiment with audio formats, writing for disabled people etc. There is a big curiosity for many things that can be put into words for an audience.

A large part of our program, which includes about 30 premieres this season and 20 premieres next season, consists of contemporary drama. Personally, I think it’s important that we don’t become didactic – others can do that better – but that we keep different perspectives on subjects in order to raise our and the audience’s tolerance for ambiguity and also in order to be able to remain sensually concrete on stage and interesting from a literary point of view, because literature is what remains of the theatre. Schiller said: “The afterworld does not weave wreaths for the mime,” and thus emphasizes the ephemeral character of theatre art. And the dramaturg in me says that in this sense we are all but midwives for the classics of the future – hopefully.

Do you perceive theatre as a political art and if yes, in what way? What role could it play in contemporary society?

Of course! All public speaking is a political act. Isn’t that the whole point of stage fright that the actor feels his/her responsibility when he/she goes on stage? I think there is, of course, the content level of the pieces that, in the best case, triggers the audience. In addition, there is also the energy that is transmitted from the stage down into the auditorium. It can prove that people, however different they might be, can create something together by fighting for it. And then there is the togetherness in the auditorium and in the foyers, in the bar and the canteen before and after the performances.

Ideally, an evening at the theatre has a lasting effect, you talk, perhaps discuss, come to common insights or strengthen your own convictions. To my mind, this also applies to the production process itself: in rehearsals and in everyday work contexts. In that way, I perceive theatre as a site of democratic experience, as a training ground for productive debate – that is perhaps the most valuable thing about theatre at the moment.

Presently we are witnessing serious cultural wars, rise of populism, right-wing conservatisms, surging nationalisms, xenophobic or ‘national’ rhetoric (especially against immigrants, seen as a threat to the identity and the prosperity of the nation) in the heart of Europe and throughout the world. Do you think theatre could contribute to formulating an aesthetic of resistance and contribute to sustaining the progressive political agenda

That’s a very large question. Let me answer with a short anecdote. Last summer I was just around the corner from you, in Greece. Because I was born in GDR, I have been in Bulgaria many times in my childhood and youth, but never in Greece. And I saw a performance there in Epidaurus. I had studied Ancient Greek theatre at the university, but I didn’t think much about it since then. And here, in Epidaurus, in one fell swoop I understood how and why theatres were conceived as healing places in Ancient Greece. They were always built next to the temple of Asclepios, which was kind of an early hospital.

After around 300 years running those temples as clinics, the Greeks thought that healing the body might not be enough. So, they built amphitheatres with thousands of seats next to their clinic-temples. The idea was to treat people’s minds, heal their spirits and strengthen their souls with performances. Undoubtedly, 2500 years is a long time. And even though our theatre buildings look very different from the amphitheaters of the Ancient Greeks and we certainly perform completely differently, I am convinced that we still are connected with that original energy. It is deeply rooted in our theatre DNA.

Mira Todorova is Head Dramaturg of Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia. She holds a PhD in Theatre Studies and is also a theatre critic and researcher.

The publication is supported by National Culture Fund through Criticism' 2023 Programme.