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  • 2020 in stage: When theatre went digital


2020 in stage: When theatre went digital

It’s been a difficult year for theatres, but through ingenuity and determination, Berlin stages still churned out great productions. Stage Editor Sophie Diesselhorst highlights the standout moments.

Image for 2020 in stage: When theatre went digital

Instead of lockdown hibernation, theatres discovered the internet.  Photo: Courtesy Pomegranate Arts / Taylor Mac, Holiday Sauce… Pandemic!

It’s been a difficult year for theatres, but through ingenuity and determination, Berlin stages still churned out great productions. Stage Editor Sophie Diesselhorst highlights the standout moments.

Best venue

The internet

A year without theatre? Far from it. Instead of lockdown hibernation, theatres discovered the internet, a place that many of them previously considered the realm of capitalist mega-players like Google and Facebook (to be criticised on stage in the good old Brechtian tradition) and where creativity was exploited. Theatres quickly adapted when the pandemic hit, digging out archived performance recordings and establishing a streaming programme within a few weeks. Deutsches Theater, Schaubühne and Berliner Ensemble went back to the 1960s and 1970s, while Gorki streamed more recent classics. Theatre artists created YouTube monologues and web-series. Marcel Kohler, an actor from Deutsches Theater, directed the spectacular Zoom performance Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen together with acting students from Munich’s Bayerische Theaterakademie. The group machina eX (well known to the HAU audience) devised two interactive plays with the messenger app Telegram.

Theatres were suddenly looking for coders as “stream operator” became a sought-after profession. Almost everything was for free and theatre became more accessible than ever, as many key venues added subtitles to their streams. You could hop between a livestream at Schauspielhaus Zürich and a livecam-performance at Münchner Kammerspiele, or catch every per- formance at May’s usually sold-out Theatertreffen festival. Last year, Theatertreffen hosted 20,000 people. This year, its combined online audience almost hit 70,000.

Job of the year

Stage designer

Berlin’s theatres reopened in late August with restrictions limiting not only the size of the crowd, but what could happen on stage. Stage designers had to draft new spaces for infection-free interaction, and became theatre’s secret stars. Highlights were Raimund Orfeo Voigt and Leonie Wolf ’s sophisticated cubist stage for Ghosts at the Berliner Ensemble, and Judith Oswald putting the actors of Deutsches Theater’s Maria Stuart in boxes reminiscent of Zoom windows. Janina Audick, a professor of stage design at UdK who often works with René Pollesch, took a more holistic approach by redesigning HAU1’s auditorium and stage, replacing the seats with abstract objects and building a blue, sea-like structure between the required gap between audience and actors.

Frustration of the year

Lockdown light

Despite the interesting ways theatres used online stages, and the ingenuity they showed upon reopening in August, there was plenty of frustration when the second lockdown arrived. On November 9, 23 artists and artistic directors of Berlin theatres sent an open letter to mayor Michael Müller disputing being classified as “leisure activities” (“Freizeitangebote”) by the federal government.

“The democratic society nourishes and forms itself through cultural participation,” they wrote. “The shared experience of artistic performance provides a counterweight to the increasing burden of social isolation.” They asked the mayor to let them reopen as soon as possible and warned of the shutdown’s economic consequences. Many artists working in theatre are freelancers who have been thrust into financial peril. Further ahead, theatres themselves will also have to face budget cuts – private venues primarily funded by ticket sales, like Komödie am Kudamm, are already in big trouble.

Image for 2020 in stage: When theatre went digital

Pan-religious visions met transhumanist dystopia in Volksbühne’s Ultraworld. Photo: Julian Röder

Plays of the year

Ultraworld at Volksbühne

Susanne Kennedy’s plays predicted social distancing long before the pandemic arrived. Kennedy’s stages, built with partner Markus Selg, always seem more virtual than physical. The same went for the compelling Ultraworld, where pan-religious visions met transhumanist dystopia, the protagonist locked in an apocalyptic scenario as he searched for water that he never found

Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen at Bayerische Theaterakademie

This Zoom performance based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth channelled Herbert Fritsch through its costumes, props and the exuberantly artificial acting style by students from Bayerische Theaterakademie. Directed by Marcel Kohler, an actor in Deutsches Theater’s ensemble, and with a great soundtrack by Nils Strunk, Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen premiered as a livestream in April with a genuinely theatrical feel.

Dekalog at Schauspielhaus Zürich / online

At Schauspielhaus Zürich, the director (and Theatertreffen regular) Christopher Rüping made a web-series of 10 livestreams from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog that he’d adapted for the stage a few years earlier. While April’s debut was overshadowed by technical problems, the series became better and more interactive with each episode, letting the audience direct the performers via polls or YouTube. Ultimately, it felt like artistic research into the possibilities of virtual common spaces.

Show Me a Good Time at HAU / online

In June, the British-German collective Gob Squad streamed from HAU, beaming in from different parts of Berlin, Sheffield or wherever the performers were at the time. Over 12 hours, they caught up with the audience and each other, hear- ing reports about their new lives under lockdown. They were looking for a good time and eventually found one in the shared experience of those everyday adventures. After the premiere, Gob Squad produced a shorter, four-hour version that is still touring.

Maria Stuart at Deutsches Theater

Anne Lenk’s Maria Stuart premiered at Deutsches Theater two days before Germany went into its second lockdown. The production anticipated our return to home office and hourly zoom conferences, the actors appearing on stage as though they were in a bookshelf. As they schemed among themselves, they didn’t confront each other, but the audience. This gave Schiller’s royal drama a stand-up feel in spite of its lofty language – a charming contrast. This funny and entertaining play revealed new sides of a classic.