THOMAS OSTERMEIER (1968) IS ONE OF GERMANY'S FOREMOST DIRECTORS AND HAS BEEN A RESIDENT DIRECTOR AT THE SCHAUBÜHNE IN BERLIN SINCE 1999. HE IS FASCINATED BY THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF OPERATING OUTSIDE THE/ANY SYSTEM.
BUSH MOUKARZEL (1983) IS A THEATRE DIRECTOR FOR IRISH COMPANY DEAD CENTRE AND (SOMETIME) ACTOR.
IN EARLY 2017, THOMAS DIRECTED BUSH IN THE ROLE OF THE DIRECTOR IN RETURNING TO REIMS. THIS IS OSTERMEIER’S LATEST WORK, A RESPONSE TO THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RISE OF THE RIGHT, AND AN ADAPTATION OF DIDIER ERIBON’S 2013 MEMOIR OF THE SAME NAME, WHICH LOOKS AT SEXUALITY, REPRESSION AND THE ROLE OF CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS IN SHAPING IDENTITY.
IN THE SECOND PART OF THIS CONVERSATION, THOMAS AND BUSH DISCUSS WHAT THE ROLE OF THE DIRECTOR IS NOW, HOW TO THINK OF THE AUDIENCE (OR WHETHER TO THINK OF THEM AT ALL), AND HOW THE POLITICAL LEFT CAN EASILY TRANSITION TO THE POLITICAL RIGHT.
T: No. But, I mean, anyway. No, I'm just saying that it's interesting that you have this concept of why you're looking for more formalistic theatre. I don't have this concept, and I’m thinking that the way I'm working now is just because of the passage of time. It's absolutely possible that, after this, I go elsewhere, and that I end up again in formalism, like I started off. I am not so much 'in the thought' about what I should do. In the way I work, it's always been, and more and more, that I follow my instinct, my emotional instinct.
B: Probably though, instinct is a playing out of ... whatever the word is, whether it's education or ... you load up ideas, thoughts. Instinct really is learned. Instinct isn't a pure thing.
T: It's true. Sure.
B: Instinct is all your learning and your ...
T: Of course.
B: ... thinking and reflection, playing out unconsciously. But you don't identify with having a manifesto. I guess you feel that it's ...
T: I cannot have a manifesto, because I'm not only a director, I'm running a theatre.
B: Exactly, that's very different. How different would your work have been if you weren't directing the Schaubühne?
T: Probably I would not direct anymore.
B: Why do you think that?
T: Because, the position of an artistic director gave me constant freedom in the choice of what I wanted to do. And I had … difficult periods, I had moments of crisis, and if I was a freelance director in Germany, especially in Germany, I would've been asked to repeat my style. People would've seen Shopping and Fucking, and they would've asked me to repeat this over and over again. And at a certain point, that would have ended and I might have reinvented another style for myself, which would have worked or not.
B: That's so interesting, because I imagine the complete opposite. If I imagine my trajectory at the moment, the very fact of being an independent company with all the problems that entails – there's other reasons why I think I might not have a long career, because of how hard it might be to sustain an independent structure – but the work, I feel, would be absolutely uncompromised. There's no pressure to do one thing or another, outside of my own feelings being seduced to repeat something, so that people who've liked it before ... Whereas, I would've thought that working in an institution ... In Irish theatres that I know, there would be a pressure to make a certain type of work that the audience at that theatre likes, and then by that, I would be trapped into a style.
T: No. There's a very nice and beautiful and true quote by Luc Bondy, who said, "The most independent director is the permanently employed artistic director for theatre." I do believe that your situation is similar to mine, because you have your company, and you do with your company what you feel like. There's nobody telling you what to do. That's exactly my situation. I'm of course also responsible for people around me, but one thing I can really be happy about, and this is why I praise ... [laughing] the lord ... or outer space or whatever is there, that audiences follow what I do. It's incredible. This is really incredible. And even more, like for you, they follow what I do on a global level. You know? I go to France with one show, Enemy of the People. The same week, I proposed Death in Venice, which is completely different, they like it again. And for me, all of these are truthful experiments. It's like going in one direction ... No, all wrong. And now into this direction ...
B: But I guess this statement I've heard you say, and I like to say it myself now so we'll talk about it: "I make work for myself.”
< I cannot have a manifesto, because I'm not only a director, I'm running a theatre >
B: Because we have this question: who is the audience, what are they for? I always think, in theatre, it's very strange and unique. Because if I was painting a picture, I think it's logical for me to say “Fuck the audience.” It doesn't matter who sees this or who doesn't, because the event of me painting the picture, and then the object which is the painting, do have a logic and an existence, even if it's never seen by anybody. Theatre –
T: Not true.
B: You don't think so?
T: Not true.
B: It's always a social event.
T: Art does not exist without a spectator, whatever art you do.
B: So there's nothing in the proverb, "The greatest poem is the one we've never read," or something?
T: No, maybe there is something to it, but as soon as we read it and we know it's the greatest poem in the world –
B: That's called art.
T: Then it's art.
B: It's a discussion.
T: As long as we haven’t read it, it's not art, because it's not there.
B: But ... there is something in the difference, though, between it, that –
T: I've just been to Paris, and I did my annual little tour of the small galleries. I went to see an exhibition by Daniel Richter. You know Daniel Richter?
B: I don't think so.
T: Not to confuse him with Gerhard Richter. Daniel Richter was end of the nineties, beginning of the noughties, like… the big new young angry painter, with all this mythology around punk attitude and glamorous lifestyle and great painting with great success, and really selling very well. The only thought I had when I went to see his new show was ... He's desperately trying to please his audience, and repeating himself. Every painting you saw ... “Fuck, he's thinking of his audience”. He thinks about how to stay in the market, how to pretend to be inspired without being inspired. So all the mechanisms we care about, as theatre makers, with the audience, because we have direct communication with the applause, with the laughter and all that, it's also true for all the other fine artists. It's the same. When you look at writers, there's these famous letters between [Siegfried] Unseld and Thomas Bernhard. Did you ever read them?
T: He cares so much about how he's published, the way the books look, when should we bring it out, when is a good time, when is the perfect time, do we go to the Frankfurt Book Fair ... It's all about this. Even though he seems to be in his writing completely free ... he's not.
B: But there is a logic, there is a way I could write a novel, and, again, this is logically consistent, even if emotionally it’s a lie and really in my private letters I’m going, "Fuck, I hope they like it". I could logically say, “This is for people in 100 years”.
T: The audience don't want us to think about them. They don't want to feel that we want to please them, but they also don't want to feel that we neglect them, and that we don't care about them. For example, if you're Proust, you write À la recherche du temps perdu, you pretend to not care at all about audience. Then, audiences, or the readers, like it because, “Ah, this guy is so cool, he doesn't care about us." This is true art, you know? And it’s always been this balance.
B: But isn’t it, still, bourgeois aesthetic judgment, whereas there is something else that really doesn't care: punk. Anarchy.
T: Punk really doesn't care ...
B: It really doesn't care. It's not a game.
T: ... for two minutes.
B: For two minutes. It doesn't last.
T: No, it doesn't last. Vivienne Westwood is, now, you know where she is. It doesn't last. And… that’s fine [laughs]. In a way, it would be ridiculous, who wants to see a granddad pretending to be punk, still, thirty years later.
B: But then, we spoke about people like [Hans-Jürgen] Syberberg, because you guys said okay, he's a fascist, but that deep ostracisation from society, from the social, and the feeling of "I want everyone to love me" seemingly doesn't enter into the conversation. A career-long "Fuck you”.
T: This is ... I can answer to this on a German level. There is this culture of Ernst Jünger, you know Ernst Jünger?
B: I don't know him.
T: Ernst Jünger was a writer, a complete ‘autonom’, anarchistic writer, who wrote a book about the second world war as a soldier, which is called In Stahlgewittern, which would be literally translated Under a Sky of Thunderstorms of Steel. And it praises the experience – and now we're getting close to the futurists – the experience of war as the only truthful experience, of an autonomous artist and anarchist. It's the only experience where we really live independence and revolt. The futurists also praised war and speed and velocity. And this guy, this big hero of Syberberg, is at the beginning of a clear subculture in Germany, which draws a line from Ernst Jünger to Syberberg. Heiner Müller was a big fan of Ernst Jünger's writing. The late Walter Strauss. These people, a lot of them started off as leftists. Then the left loses this feeling of being an outlaw. So they turn to the extreme right.
< The audience don't want us to think about them >
B: They are all men as well.
T: They're all men, yes. There's one thing to be added here that’s very important. When they shift to the extreme right, they are supported by these groups. So, when you’re saying Syberberg is extremely independent, he also has people to pay him in the background. He owns, or he bought back, a whole village in East Germany. Where does the money come from? Sadly enough, very sadly, I know some of these extreme right intellectuals because they were friends of mine, they were extreme left before, and now they have shifted, and I have stopped contacting them completely. Every now and then, I go online and watch what they do. Wow, it's frightening. It's conspiracy theory stuff. It's really Illuminati. It's a group of people who have money, and they have places where they gather, like The Library of Conservatism in Berlin. They have an immense house in the heart of Berlin, very expensive, and they put up a library where they gather all the writing that is not politically correct, and they have money, and they have support, and they function as this think tank. They're really preparing the next –
B: It's not public, this place.
T: No. You only can get in when you're part of that scene ... But why am I saying this, because you brought Syberberg up, and just to tell you that he's not 100% ...
B: Yeah, exactly.
T: Because he has people in the background paying him.
B: Exactly. I suppose let's finish with a cliché then, because we talked about fascists just now. About the cliché of the director as the fascist, haha. The cliché of the controlling director. So what's the future of directing? Should it disappear in the long-term?
T: There is not any how directing ‘should’ be developed, but I'm sure that there should be a thousand ways of directing. That's what I would always defend, diversity in aesthetics and content. Everybody should take the way he or she has to. And it's all beautiful, and if it's boring and I hate it, I walk out, and I don't follow it. If it's nice, I don't care if it's formalistic, post-romantic, dramatic, performative, story-telling or not, I don't care at all. As you can see in my programme, I like to gather all different forms of theatre. I love all of them, as long as they are a true voice, or a true new voice, actually. A lot of people, when I was promoting new writing a lot, when I did a lot of new writers, they were asking me, "How should I write in order that you produce one of my plays?" I always replied “Well, try to write completely different to all the others before. Then I might consider it."
B: That's a good start. Yeah.
T: That might also be true for directing.
< the left loses this feeling of being an outlaw. So they turn to the extreme right >
B: Yeah. But this is not what you've called Regietheater, because the Regietheatre becomes too obsessed with its own stamp, its own voice, perhaps. Is that what you've meant when ... I’ve heard you say Regietheatre in a tone of voice that suggests that you’re slightly critical ...
T: What I'm criticising when I'm critical about Regietheater, is ... mmm ... that is all these bad directors in Germany, who try to pretend that they are doing Regietheater. But they are just copying a style of other masters of Regietheater. So, this theatre should be called ‘copy-paste theatre’, and not Regietheater.
B: I was speaking with Nina Wetzel about Schlingensief and she was saying, "There's so many people who are trying to imitate him now, and who announce themselves: I'm the new Schlingensief." But so many of these people, they've never asked her about his work and the process of her work with him ... so it’s not a serious relationship to, let's say, the work of Schlingensief in this case, but more a narcissistic desire to be known as ...
T: Of course, of course. Again, they want to have the role Schlingensief had as soon as he announced that he was going to die. That was a moment where he became everybody's darling. Up to the moment where he had not published that he had cancer, he wasn't everybody's darling. He was not. They treated him a little bit like they treat me now. If I was to announce I'm going to die, things would ...
B: No, dying is a good career move. It's well known to be historically a good career move. [Thomas laughs] I find though for me adversely, or conversely, that dying for me really helps me not care about my career, which I find helpful. There’s obviously major problems with nihilism and despair, though I have it very massively in my thoughts all the time, but the opportunity given through dying and despair is that I'm only interested in ideas, rather ... Because my career, I can't see how it matters if I'm, let's say, successful or unsuccessful. It would be wonderful if I’m successful, and that'd be kind of interesting. But it's not important. What's important is ideas and what's going on and understanding the world. In the case of, let's say with Schlingensief, the inspiration is not “Fuck, I want a career where everyone thinks I'm dynamic.“ It's more like, what is going on, what is the meaning. It's chasing meaning, which comes, I think, from studying philosophy. Ideas are the point.
T: Yeah. When people try to pretend they are the new Schlingensief, it's about fame. It's about fame, and it's about playing the very sexually attractive role of somebody who is an opponent to the system. He is resisting power with his art. And that’s probably the most sexually attractive role a man, probably also a woman, could have in our fame-driven society. Maybe we shouldn't get into this now, but I think fame and celebrity are the biggest curse of our time. I do believe what you were just saying about ideas and what you're interested in, is exactly why you have and will have success. Because, when people go saying, "How can I have a career?" the audience will turn away. When they see this guy is really interested in something, and he does not want to seduce us, to pretend that he's doing interesting stuff, he's really digging deep and getting dirty by digging deep. Then, if you're lucky, people might get interested. I think that it is a very difficult task to stay courageous enough to do what feels the best for you and what feels most right for you in that very moment. You go into territories where you've never been before, which might be a swamp or a desert. That's what I like when you say, yeah, for me it's about ideas. You want to examine ideas and find out what is right about it.
B: It's a bigger question, again, for another time about the difference between philosophy and art, what are they doing ... Do they have different functions and different goals? T: I think why you are interesting is because you come from philosophy. You would also be very interesting as a theatre maker if you came from architecture, or if you came from music, or if you came from farming. Because, bourgeois art is in complete crisis, and we're not aware of it, but we feel it. We're pretending to do art, and to raise the big questions of our times, but at the same time, we're just trying to have a career in an art market.
B: There’s that famous image of the orchestra playing on the Titanic as it sinks … you know …
T: Something like that. I would even say, this orchestra is still hardworking, you know? I would even say it's more about being the producer of the orchestra of the Titanic, and counting the –
B: As you're going down.
T: As it goes down. I truly do believe that there's a major contradiction ...
B: Yes, because actually that's a good supplement to that image, because actually, there's nothing crazy about playing the violin as you sink.
B: That's beautiful, actually. But making money –
T: Making money.
B: – and doing the accounts as you sink is not intelligent. That's a good supplement on the problem.
< THERE's nothing crazy about playing the violin as you sink >
T: Because ... we are really driven apart or torn apart by this contradiction of ... Or, I am torn apart by this contradiction of, “I'm doing theatre, I'm not doing art, I'm doing theatre. I'm paid by the system, and I’m part of the system, and I'm pretending to be completely independent, and I have to make a living, and I have to earn some money. I need to stay in the system, because otherwise, what will I do?” So I care about success, and career, and the next step in the career, and at the same time, I try to completely neglect this.
B: Isn't that, I suppose, where Brecht came out of? Because it's about simplification of course, hiding the mechanisms of production. The curtain opens, you see the stage, it's snowing, whatever. What you repress there is the conditions that made this possible. The Brecht thing is you remove that, and then you see the person with the snow ... it's similar on the level of personality. You want to seem like you’re autonomous, “Hello, I'm just like this. I'm just a confident person because my soul is confident." You need to repress the conditions which led to why this person is confident and this person has shame.
T: Well ... because we are talking of Brecht, there's this beautiful text he wrote about theatre. Der Messingkauf, it's called in German, The Copper Shop or The Buying of Copper. Funnily enough, it's a conversation between a philosopher, a theatre director and an actor. The three of them argue: "You as a philosopher, you want to bring ideas to the theatre, to change the world. And you, actor, you want to make a living, but you also want to have a career." And the theatre director implicates Brecht himself, in a way. It's very clear, he says, "You have to be aware of the system you're in. You are employed by the bourgeois art industry to entertain the people. That's all. As soon as you are aware of this, you can enjoy and relax, because you know it's not more than that." I think this is very important for us to understand, first and foremost.
More on Dead Centre here, and on Schaübuehne here. Images: José Miguel Jiménez