‘The uncertainty will stay and we have to find a way to live with it’: Yvonne Budenhölzer

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Last month, 10 major plays from German-speaking countries and works by emerging artists from across the world were staged in Berlin as part of Theatertreffen. The theatre festival started in 1964 aiming to showcase plays that have been selected by an independent jury that watches “around 400 shows within the German-language region and the viewing period”. But, this year was different. The festival was being held in the backdrop of the pandemic, which had devastated the world, with culture being among the sectors to be severely impacted.

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In India, one of the world’s largest theatre festivals, Bharat Rang Mahotsav, organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi, has been cancelled for two years. Across the country, theatre practitioners are grappling with a lack of resources, a financial crunch and absence of performers and support staff who have left in search of other means of earning a living.

Theatertreffen, a prestigious and popular event, responded to the unprecedented realities by becoming flexible. It went online and then, hybrid. The crowds were back this year, in masks, in huge numbers and stayed for long afterwards for interactions with performers. Theatertreffen rolled out its full-stack, from an International forum that comprised young international artists to the Stuckemarkt, which promoted contemporary drama, to an Open Campus for students from schools and universities to network.

The disease made its presence felt — a member of the cast of Die Jungfrau von Orleans, a play about Joan of Arc by Friedrich Schiller, tested positive on the day of the show. The group and the festival responded by presenting a screening of the production was staged, ending with live performances of scenes without the actor. In an email interview, Yvonne Budenhölzer, the outgoing Director of Theatertreffen, which she has helmed since 2012, talks about the challenges of making art in the new normal:

How important is the role of the governments and corporate organisations?

It’s important for the government and corporate organisations to support art and artists – because it is their job. Theatertreffen has been funded by Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) since 2004 and support was the same during the pandemic as before. As a long-term partner, they supported all our decisions regarding a digital programme and how we dealt with the pandemic.

In what ways did Theatretreffen deal with the pandemic?

The pandemic was very challenging for everyone. The Theatertreffen team and I found solutions. Some worked well, and some did not. In 2020 and 2021, we were forced to do two digital festival editions. They were successful in the context of the special situation and time. In May 2020, we were in a lockdown while in May 2021, we were not in a full lockdown. After two digital editions, I was happy and excited to do a festival offline again in May 2022. My team and I had to relearn how to do an analogue festival with the pandemic in the background.

Did you notice changes in the quality of the plays post-pandemic?

The quality was the same but, of course, some performances were in reaction to the pandemic – in case of the set design or the way the actors played with distance. The audience numbers fell and the Theatertreffen was not completely sold out like the years before.

As new variants emerge, there will be cases of actors tests positive at the last hour. How should performers prepare?

The uncertainty will stay and we have to find a way to live with it. For artistic reasons, you have to find individual solutions for every show if you have a positive case. This is not new — if an actor breaks a leg on his way to theatre, you have also to find a solution to save the show.

What comes next for Theatertreffen and for you?

I decided to leave Theatertreffen after 11 successful editions. The future of the festival will be in the hands of my successor. I will start my new job as head of Suhrkamp Theaterverlag in 2023. I look forward to working again with playwrights and new texts.

(The writer was a guest of Theatertreffen Berlin)

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