Theater Der Welt: How Germany’s biggest festival is breaking borders beyond Europe

by Michael Quinn - Jul 13, 2017

Migration, trade and climate change all featured on the agenda of this year’s Theater Der Welt. Michael Quinn finds out how it is expanding to celebrate artists’ stories from home on an international stage.

Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, contains Europe’s second-largest port, is home to the continent’s largest printing and publishing firm and can boast more than 40 theatres, 60 museums and, at the last count, about 100 music venues and clubs – all for a population of fewer than 1.8 million.

It is also where the first Theater Der Welt, or Theatre of the World, festival was founded by the director, critic and scholar Ivan Nagel in 1979, when it appeared under the banner of Theatre of Nations. Shared between German cities, Hamburg is the only city to have staged the triennual event three times.

Over 18 days in May and June, the city’s third term as festival host coincided with the extended celebrations marking the long-delayed opening in January of the Elbphilharmonie. A 2,100-seat concert hall nestling beside the harbour’s busy shipping lane, it was built at a wallet-straining cost of €789 million (£694 million), making it Europe’s most expensive concert hall.

Staging what organisers claimed to be “the biggest festival of its kind ever to have taken place in Germany” drew substantial support from a consortium of local and state government, foundations and sponsors, although exact figures remain undisclosed and box office receipts are as yet unknown.

But if Hamburg considers itself to be a city “under the spell of music” – appropriately enough for the site of Europe’s first public opera house in 1678, the birthplace of Johannes Brahms and on whose infamous Reeperbahn John Lennon claims he “grew up” – above all, it thinks of itself as a theatre city.

As festival director Joachim Lux, director of the city’s Thalia Theater since 2009, explains: “With two prestigious state theatres [the Deutsches Schauspielhaus and Thalia Theater] and a strong free theatre scene, Hamburg has always been not only the German centre of musical theatre, but also a theatre city in general.”

It has, he adds, other claims for hosting a world theatre festival: a diverse population, almost a quarter of whom were born or can claim a heritage outside of Germany, and a thriving port that serves as a hub for international trade. This goes some way towards explaining the core theme of this year’s festival: “think global, act local”.

At the heart of the programme was Hamburg’s vast harbour, pressed into use as both backdrop and platform for many of the 45 productions (12 of which were created for the festival) from five continents that served as headline offerings among almost 300 other events.

"The harbour was a thematic starting point; a place of arrival and departure, a trading centre for an international stream of people, ideas and goods; a poetically charged space for investigating questions about globalisation and trade, about escape and migration."

Those themes were no doubt also discussed during the political circus surrounding the G20 summit in the city last week, although Lux stresses that “the festival, in its original sense, is not a political festival”.

Even so, he admits: “Many of the invited productions involve current political issues, such as flight and migration, or opened up the space for political interpretations and contexts. In times of nationalisation and isolation, of borders and instability, it is important to show counter-models and signs of openness and respect for the diversity of cultures.”

Spectacle was one of the defining signatures of a programme that opened with the premiere of Samoan director Lemi Ponifasio’s Children of Gods, which featured 400 local participants in a piece exploring the lives of children from international war zones.

Spanish iconoclasts La Fura Dels Baus also created new work: a multimedia staging – and the Elbphilharmonie’s first theatre presentation – of Haydn’s The Creation that collided together Old Testament theology and the development of the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) particle accelerator in Geneva with the plight of refugees arriving in Europe, complete with an aspirational happy ending.

For founder and director Carlus Padrissa, the work was less a political statement as another exercise in “theatre paying attention to the adventure of life”. He explains: “Everything is political if you take it from life. Theatre must be about testing our freedoms and trying to mobilise the audience.”

Distracted by the sight of a supersized tanker being guided by tugboats down the River Elbe, Padrissa finds in it a rationale for being involved in an international festival.

“Cooperation provides strength in numbers – the volume of participation here is very big. But it also provides strength in showing the diversity of what we are doing and how the world (and how we respond to it) is shaped by our own perspectives. Culture helps shape and change a city’s morals.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Dorothea Reinicke, co-director of Hamburg’s own Hajusom. Founded in 1999, it describes itself as a “transnational theatre collective” and operates with only one permanent employee. Specialising in working with immigrants and refugees, everything the company does, she says, is about shared experience rather than second-hand commentary.

“We aren’t the experts in many of the issues we have explored – I have no direct experience of war, famine or exile. It’s about people showing themselves with our help. Our model of working is to respond to the experiences of people from other contexts with different visions of theatre and art, or none at all.”

Their latest devised piece, the ‘post-human’ fantasy Silmande, stemmed from a collaboration with an environmental project in Burkina Faso planting trees to inhibit encroaching desertification.

“The idea of climate change came from the ensemble. They didn’t want the piece to be only about themselves. Over two years we looked at how politically and economically the whole global situation is connected and realised how we, as much as they, are part of it all.”

Silmande was one of several productions featured in the festival’s ‘new neighbours on Europe’s outer edges’ strands that drew a swathe of companies from Africa and the Middle East. More distant ‘neighbours’ included Chile’s Teatro Nino Proletario, Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrao, Chinese avant-gardists Paper Tiger Theater Studio and four offerings from Australia, all feeding into what Lux described as a central concern of the festival: “Bringing us closer to unfamiliar worlds, changing or expanding our own view of the global through the lens of the local.”

Lux says he was “less interested in formal, artistic novelties” when planning the programme. “We were interested instead in what was happening across and beyond Europe’s borders and in the different artistic responses to the realities of the artists’ home countries, be it the current political situation in the US, the drug war in Columbia or the suppression of identity and artistic freedom in Belarus.”

That benighted country was represented by the London-based Belarus Free Theatre. Its production of Burning Doors (seen at the Soho Theatre last year) was the only UK presence in the main programme.

When the next Theater Der Welt takes place in 2020, the European Union will have begun to adjust to the departure of the United Kingdom and the US will be embroiled in a presidential election. How the consequences of those events translate into international theatre, regardless of how they influence international affairs, will be fascinating to watch.


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