“Someone decided to combine the luxury of culture with the luxury of remorse and invited me to Düsseldorf to direct a Ravenhill text.”
– Jan Klata talks about the experience of working in a German theatre
OANNA WICHOWSKA: You recently did a show in Düsseldorf, Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat by Mark Ravenhill, which is a story, basically, about the anxieties of the Western man. Are these also our anxieties?
JAN KLATA: No, because we aren’t a Western nation, are we? And I don’t even mean the pathetically simplistic political opposition of “old Europe vs. new Europe.” Although there must be something to it when we compare the audience in Poland and in most German theatres. When you look at the audience there from above, from the balcony, you see that the average age is about sixty. Germans call this a “silver sea”. And young people… well, you can’t say they flock there in the thousands. In this regard, the situation in Poland is preferable and in this sense the old Europe/new Europe division makes sense.
And other differences?
Without elaborating on the subject, I think that the main difference is in the level of the sense of guilt. Ravenhill’s text speaks very clearly about a society in which this level is very high. We haven’t developed such a sense yet. Not because we don’t have reasons to feel guilty – though we probably have fewer of them than the Germans – but because we’re not at that level of social and, above all, economic development yet. Guilt is a comfort of the wealthy. It’s something that functions as part of the culture of wellness. Düsseldorf is one place where the difference can be felt very acutely. This isn’t Berlin, which, for German standards, is a relatively poor city. You only need to look at the cars, the shops, the theater building with its incredible infrastructure to know that Düsseldorf is home to a very wealthy community that can afford all kinds of luxuries, including the luxury of culture and the luxury of a guilt. You could say that I found myself there for that very reason. Someone decided to combine the luxury of culture with the luxury of remorse and invited me to Düsseldorf to direct a Ravenhill text, which is exactly about this phenomenon.
And what about the legend of Düsseldorf as a city of progressive art?
Well, yes – when we think of Düsseldorf, we think Beuys or Kraftwerk, or the fantastic Kunstakademie. Hard to believe, but it’s also the cradle of German punk. Die Toten Hosen are from Düsseldorf. But I guess it’s a thing of the past now: neither the tradition nor the community are particularly noticeable there. What is noticeable is the fact that Düsseldorf is home to the largest Japanese community in continental Europe. Dusseldorf is perceived by Germans today as an obscenely rich city, boasting about its wealth and rather non-problematic. The perfect place to stage a Ravenhill text; in Bochum or Berlin it would make much less sense.
You worked at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, a theatre that for some time now has been pursuing a kind of mission of bringing the East closer to the West, inviting authors such as Stasiuk, Topol or Andrukhovych…
Stasiuk wrote a text for them, staged as a Polish-German co-production by Mikołaj Grabowski. It was reportedly received enthusiastically. I had actors from that cast, they remembered it as a fantastic experience.
So you found there a prepared ground and an audience accustomed to a different, “Eastern” perspective?
Not necessarily, especially that the idea of a Pole staging Ravenhill didn’t fit at all with the mission of revising the mutual prejudices between the East and West. Rather, the idea was that a first-world playwright tells the story of a kind of confrontation between the first and third worlds and all this is interpreted by a director from the second world. In fact, this is exactly how I feel: as someone in-between, especially in Düsseldorf. So it wasn’t, unlike in Stasiuk’s Night, about analyzing the mutual neighborly stereotypes. My work had nothing to do with the fact that Germans perceive Poles as car thieves. Neither is there room for this in this text, nor have I encountered this kind of resentment in Germany. In Austria, for instance, such feelings seem much stronger. When we worked in Graz, for instance, it happened that older people looked at us with absolute indignation in the street. Hearing us talk they’d give us a “Go back home, you damn Slavs” look. In Düsseldorf, this doesn’t happen. People there, you could say, have been trained in a kind of ostentatious, politically correct tolerance.
Like in Ravenhill?
Exactly: we drink fair-trade coffee, we’re super-ecological, sensitive to human suffering, we donate to various noble causes, devote one day a month to working with the excluded, so why are they bombing us and not someone else? A society like this views the world as something we’re responsible for, but their sense of responsibility is general, superficial and often declarative. Even if it’s practiced, it’s in such a way so as not to sacrifice too much. And I can’t imagine these being our dilemmas. They have nothing to do with the Polish reality at all. Of course, I wouldn’t like Polish society to become like in the Ravenhill text but I’m afraid it’s inevitable. Still, it’ll take some time. For now, these aren’t really our problems.
Does this mean that in order to discuss them you had to put yourself in somebody else’s position?
No, I didn’t. Some things are much easier to notice from the outside. Someone who doesn’t see anything weird in the five or six waste bins standing everywhere would probably create a different show. But I did look at the text, which was being adapted in this and not another place, a bit from the perspective of an immigrant, one of those they could be afraid of – it would have been enough for me to be swarthy and have less blue eyes. And I think this is precisely what it was about: for a group of “aliens”– because the choreography and scenography was done by Poles too – to approach the subject precisely from the position of their alterity, their being outsiders.
Your shows have often and successfully been staged in Germany. Do you think there’s a demand there for an “outsider” perspective? Or do you have a special key to the German audience?
First of all, playing guest shows is one thing and working there trying to dismantle something from inside is quite another. In Berlin I feel great, we’ll soon be playing at the Hebbel Am Ufer again (the German premiere of The Promised Land), with its very much non-routine audience. But the audience in every German city or land is different. In fact, it’s what’s fascinating about Germany: you only need to ride the train for twenty minutes to find yourself in a completely different reality. Essen or Bochum resemble Düsseldorf in no respect. This also means that before you’ve started working somewhere, you need to scout out the area to know where to use what. And there are no universal keys here. Another important thing, of course, is the question whether there is an audience in the given place for what you’re planning to do.
And how does this look in Düsseldorf?
There’s no tradition of post-premiere rehearsals in Germany so it’s hard to say what’s happening with the show now. The premiere was received well but this is never reliable. What I know is that Düsseldorf is considered to be an extremely demanding city in theatrical terms. On the one hand, their theater is one of Germany’s top ten, and in terms of its financial and technical capabilities – probably the top five. They have what is reportedly the best rehearsal room in the country and more premieres than anyone else. Thirty-five premieres a season – this sounds rather incredible for Polish ears. But it also means that this theater is a powerhouse. A colossus obliged to produce high-brow culture. It is located at Gustaf Gründgens Platz, named after a great actor who managed the company for many years. On this square, in the center of the city, stand two architectonic symbols of power. One is female, somewhat vaginal – it’s the huge theater building with its undulating façade. The other is a phallic symbol – a tall skyscraper, the head office of ThyssenKrupp. The principle is clear: the two symbols of power – soft and hard – are to be complementary. That is to say, money from above, from the skyscraper, finances the theater, and the theater returns the favor by producing culture. And it doesn’t have anything to do with censorship at all. The people of Niederrhein are very proud that the freedom of artistic expression is guaranteed by their land constitution. Which means that the government doesn’t interfere with art. You can do whatever you want and they will defend your right to do it. And no one will say you’re wasting the taxpayers’ money on something that isn’t art.
So you didn’t have to keep up your guard?
No, absolutely not. In fact, the place has its record of scandals. Among those working at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus was the late Jürgen Gosch, one of the most influential German theater directors. His staging of Macbeth was a huge scandal at the premiere, half the audience left. But there was no talk at all that someone is doing scandalous things with our taxes. Such matters are resolved differently here, not on the institutional level. The deciding factor is audience interest or lack thereof. The viewers’ reactions can be followed on the theater website. And what do you learn? People use very interesting arguments in their critical opinions about Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat. I remember one, quite representative statement. Someone writes, “I went to see the show hoping for a relaxing evening and I went back home in a bad mood. This isn’t what theater should be about, is it?” It’s hard to argue with an audience that has such expectations. But they don’t call for me to be imprisoned or the manager fired. No, it’s a kind of civic wisdom: theater is there to make life beautiful, to brighten up a Sunday evening.
Well, it’s often the same over here.
But there you also have the season-ticket system which is – I won’t say a curse because that’d be too much – but a huge obligation, a yoke put on the majority of those theaters. It’s a system that’s very hard to disarm. You often actually inherit the subscription and this means you also inherit aesthetic views and a notion of what high-brow culture is and how it should be presented on stage. And again: it looks different in Düsseldorf, different in Berlin, Hamburg or Bochum. The way theater interacts with the urban and social reality in each of those places is completely different.
Bochum is actually where you’ll be working next season.
I’m directing Kafka’s Amerika there. The management is changing there, the theatre is being taken over by people – the same ones, in fact, who earlier did great in Essen – with a very interesting concept of their term. Drawing conclusions from the fact that over 120 ethnicities live in the Ruhrgebiet, they decided that the great works of German literature would be adapted for stage by foreigners. This means that part of the season will involve giving Faust to a Turkish guy, another German classic to someone from the Ivory Coast, Amerika to a Pole – and we see what these outsiders do with our canon. In fact, this is a general principle of good theater in Germany. The managers don’t assume that there exists some universal repertoire or a single way of how a theater functions in the city because they know that these cities are different and their urban communities are also very much different. And it doesn’t have to mean that if we are in Bochum, we must fly placards and fight together with the unions for Opel not to move its assembly plant elsewhere. It’s rather about giving up the idea that high-brow culture will satisfy any audience, whether it’s Kielce or Białystok, because, after all, values are values.
This post originally appeared on Biweekly.pl in May 2010 and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.