Why West German Theater Is No. 1 : Try steady funding, permanent troupes, extensive rehearsals--and star directors

Ask American theater makers for a wish list, and at the top they'll put steady, reliable funding, and after that, the things money can buy: a permanent acting company, time to invest in making the play as good as possible, first-class directors, good facilities. No theater in Los Angeles, for instance, has been able to put this kind of package together.

Ask American theater makers for an example of what they'd want, and invariably they'll point to England's Royal Shakespeare Company. But the RSC has been so financially shaken in the Thatcher era that they're resorting to producing musicals like "Carrie." And "Carrie" bombed.

Go to the Continent for a better example: West Germany. Public funding may not be as generous now as in the '70s, but "on a country-by-country basis," said critic/scholar Carlos Tindemans of the University of Anvers in Belgium, "West Germany is generally producing the best work. France is in decline. England isn't what it used to be."

Why Germany, and not, say, Sweden, which is typically awash in subsidies and wonderful actors? The observer summed it up this way: "In Germany, the director is the star." He was referring to the German aesthetic of "visual dramaturgy," which holds that a staging concept commands as much attention as the text.

Even if the text is Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." One wondered if Peter Stein, who personifies the star director, would turn it into his own "statement" at West Berlin's most legendary theater, the Schaubuhne (literally "playstage") am Lehniner Platz.

Instead, Stein's work was as flexible as the theater's superbly adaptable staging area and as humble as the building itself.

It did take 20 minutes for Christophe Schubiger's big sets to get changed. But then the actors took over. There was deep respect for Chekhov, but it was the kind of respect accorded a living playwright. Stein never let you forgot who was conducting, but he always let you hear the notes.

This delicate balance was also visible at one of the fastest rising theaters, the Schauspiel in Bonn, the tiny capital city. Just premiering was "Am Ziel (Achieving The Goal)" by Austrian playwright/novelist Thomas Bernhard, who died in February after years of poor health.

Director Hans Hollmann remembered Bernhard as a "very charming, very sarcastic man with an entertaining and aggressive tongue." He kept his physical condition so well hidden that even friends like Hollmann didn't know how severe it was. His loss, Hollmann said, is a big one for the German-speaking world.

On stage, Hollmann let us detect that a powerful writer was being spoken, and beautifully, by actress Carmen-Renate Koper. She plays a mother awaiting a seaside holiday with her subservient daughter (Ulrike Jackwerth). The mother's wishes--for the deaths of her husband and her deformed child--have been met. Now, she wants a man in the house. Enter (after an hour-long monologue as Jackwerth packs the bags) a handsome playwright. . . .

It's a subtle play about domination and imagination, one that Hollmann admits is hard to put across in German: "Unlike other German playwrights, Bernhard keeps interpretations open."

Hollmann therefore didn't feel bound to Bernhard's scene description. His longtime designer, Hans Hoffer, came up with a room that seems to change in space and time between acts, within a proscenium arch in the shape of two cameos facing each other. Beautiful, and open to meanings--like Bernhard.

Where the director is star, the star can also occasionally go a little out of orbit.

In Cologne, the Schauspielhaus had moved into a huge tent while its regular building underwent an asbestos-removal project. Lying in the shadow of Cologne Cathedral, the tent looked kooky on the outside. But not as kooky as what was going on inside: Frank Castorf's staging of a Heiner Muller version of "Hamlet."

Both Castorf and Muller are East Germans who spend much time in West Germany, a practice so widespread here that the Berlin Wall simply does not exist for these artists. But Muller, we were told, had little to do with Castorf's "Hamlet." In the best and worst senses, it showed.

Lights up. Hamlet (Ulrich Noethen) and the Ghost (Henry Hubchen, doubling as Claudius) have a shooting match involving a small refrigerator. The Ghost sings (in English) the Beatles' "Blackbird." He falls off the stage into an audience member's lap.

Castorf's actors present a Danish court mad (literally) with wealth and the power it can buy. It is a world somewhere between Visconti and Jerry Lewis--the women all dressed up with no place to go, and every sight gag pushed beyond the limit. Castorf's taut company reached the level of great silent film comedy. What, though, does this have to do with "Hamlet"?

Dirk H. Frose, the Schauspielhaus' chief dramaturg, acknowledged that this "Hamlet" has been one of the year's most controversial productions. The critic in the daily Die Welt noted that "it begins as a farce, and ends up in a pigsty." Fully one-third of the house walked out at the performance we attended. What was Muller's opinion of the show? Frose could only say that Muller and Castorf admire each other.

Frose's boss is Intendant (artistic director) Klaus Pierwoss. He commands a ship funded by the city (60%) and the North-Rhine Westphalia state (40%). 1988's healthy box office was 4 million marks (about $2 million).

A few dozen actors are under contract, renewed annually unless the theater drops the actor by Oct. 31. There are 13 to 16 new shows a year, rotated so that a show isn't seen more than three or four times per month, but may stay in the repertory a year or more. The average rehearsal time is nine weeks. These figures typify the country's top-funded theaters.

As in the United States, West German theater has no center; if it did, the prosperous burg of Dusseldorf, with the equally prosperous Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus, would be a likely candidate.

On the schedule this year was everything from Hollmann's staging of "Danton's Death" (part of a series of plays commemorating the French Revolution) to Neil Simon's "Broadway Bound" (here, it's "Broadway, wir kommen").

Other playwrights: Fassbinder, Kleist, Gorky, Ibsen, Muller, Genet, Kleist, Chekhov, Strindberg, Pirandello, Lessing and Sam Shepard ("A Lie of the Mind")--520 performances a year on two stages, plus several regional tours. Fifteen different shows per month. A big, serious theater.

A big budget, too. Thirty-three million marks annually ($17 million), with 6.5 million marks coming from the box office and the rest from the government--a unique 50-50 funding arrangement between the city and North-Rhine Westphalia. The high number of performances, since it jacks up the take at the door, is very attractive to the board that sets the annual budget.

But not to the cool, bearded Intendant Volker Canaris, who plans to do some cutting back. "We do too many shows. Right now, we have five productions in rehearsal. I've been here as intendant long enough now (four years), and the board just gave me a five-year contract extension, so I've got the power now to make changes."

He envies the Schaubuhne for doing only four plays a year: "You can maintain quality that way--not that we've dropped ours."

He's also re-thinking the actor-director relationship. "The director is pre-eminent. But now, we're re-evaluating the actor's role. They're not mere playthings."

That thinking was clear in Dusseldorf's production of Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape," with actor Michael Altmann, alone before his tape recorder.

(Beckett is Germany's third most-frequently-staged playwright, behind Shakespeare and Brecht. Last winter, Dusseldorf did "Waiting for Godot" outside in front of the theater's undulating, white facade on a huge vacant plaza Canaris dubs "the desert.")

Although he has been performing "Krapp" for over a year, Altmann has lost none of his energy. In fact, Gabriele Jakobi's staging reminded us how much energy it takes to play Beckett's reflective piece on anomie and lost love. Altmann stretched out Krapp's preparations for listening to the tape of his younger voice, but always at the service of the words. In another language, Beckett's voice of decay hadn't eroded.

Something different could be heard at Hamburg's heralded Deutsches Schauspielhaus. Willy Russell's 1983 musical "Blood Brothers" had been a hit in its London revival last year, but the magic didn't transfer to Hamburg. Its infantile tale of long-lost twins wasn't helped by British director Glen Walford's stillborn direction (her first in West Germany).

Casting real-life twins Diego and Cuco Wallraff as the brothers only begs the question: Once they reunite, wouldn't they notice their shared resemblance? Tackle that bit of logic, and there's no story.

Maybe forceful directors aren't such a bad thing, then, especially when they're dealing with a forceful playwright. Back at West Berlin's Schaubuhne, Luc Bondy was staging Botho Strauss' "Die Zeit und Das Zimmer (Time and the Room)."

The intensely private Bondy is a Frenchman in the pantheon of German directors, along with Peter Stein, Hans Hollmann, B.K. Tragelehn, Alexander Lang and Hansgunther Heyme. Since recovery from tuberculosis, he's been working at a torrential pace. His successful world premiere at the Schaubuhne last February has sparked a long string of German-language theaters to plan productions of "Time and the Room."

Strauss begins with a terrific idea: Two roommates, who can control the weather, have no control over people storming into their flat--people they don't want to see.

They lose so much control that one of the intruders, a woman, takes over the play. Bondy turns Strauss' comedy into a war between the sexes (complete with a hilarious boxing scene), played out in shifting time and space and memory, without winners.

The boxing match was director Bondy's idea, not author Strauss'. Schaubuhne dramaturg Klaus Metzger cited it as an example of Schaubuhne collaboration, the result of months of rehearsal.

The theme of the futility of the sexes coming to an understanding was echoed in Stein's "Cherry Orchard." This was what a theater gets when it takes the time to think through its season.

The Schaubuhne was founded in 1962 by students of West Berlin's Free University. Stein didn't join the highly political, experimental company until six years later, with Peter Weiss' "Vietnam Discourse." Assisted by dramaturg Dieter Sturm, he channelled the company's mission of a worker's theater upending theater conventions into a disciplined yet radically democratic ensemble.

Berlin east and west remains rich in theaters-- with the flagships the Berliner Ensemble and the Schiller Theatre still vital. But the consistent Schaubuhne holds a special place in the Berlin scene.

Because it's owned by Jurgen Schitthelm, the Schaubuhne is categorized as a "private theater" (though it receives West Berlin funding). A three-person staff serves in lieu of an intendant (Metzger was just elected to fill a third vacancy). The threesome make decisions if they must, but consensus-seeking meetings of actors and staff decide on most business. The next meeting is to pick a new resident designer. They must go outside their ranks, which isn't pleasing everyone.

"These people," noted the young, engaging Metzger, "are very close and have worked with each other a long time. About half of our actors (around 30) have been here since 1970. The ones who have left us come back often. There's a permanent discussion going on."

That wasn't idle talk. Later, Metzger reluctantly cut short a post-performance chat since he had to do a critique of that night's performance of "The Cherry Orchard" with the actors. "Stein's coming back next week, and we'll go into full rehearsals again." No matter that it was Saturday midnight. No matter that the production has been running since June. A director's theater indeed.

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