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Ulrich Khuon’s finale: Deutsches Theater intendant says goodbye

After 14 years at the held of Berlin's Deutsches Theater, Ulrich Khuon is putting on one last festival: Finale.

Photo: Maria Sturm

Ulrich Khuon, 72, is stepping down in July after decades as one of Germany’s greatest theatre intendants. He has directed Berlin’s Deutsches Theater since 2009 – an extraordinarily long reign – and before that served as intendant at theatres in Konstanz, Hannover and Hamburg.

Our conversation spanned his life and career, the role of theatre in politics, his favourite plays and Finale, the event marking the end of the season at which Deutsches Theater will perform 30 works from his long tenure for the last time. Though Khuon will leave his position in July, he still believes as passionately as ever in theatre’s power, both as a public forum that can nurture democracy and as a live performance that reminds us of time’s inevitable passing.

That is the essential idea of the theatre, in opposition to poetry or novels— it is radically social.

What first interested you in theatre?

I came to theatre in the same way as, I believe, is often the case today: you take part in a theatre club at school. I actually studied something else at university. I first did Law, and during this time I founded a theatre group and basically got a sense of how it worked. Then I decided to study German Language and Literature. And it was through this axis that I became a dramaturg.

At the beginning with the theatre group, I had always thought that I would become a director – I was more interested in that. I had even begun as one. However, in Konstanz am Bodensee I was, rather, a dramaturg who also directed – and I continued to do that when later, I became intendant. An artistic intendant – neither a managerial intendant nor a director-intendant, but an artistically-thinking intendant.

What was your experience when you came to Berlin in 2009?

Berlin is, of course, unique in Germany. And Berlin is a very restless, active city. I would say that all the discourse that marks our present moment takes on an especially intense form here. And because I’m in this experimental field, which is both a great pleasure and very demanding, I had to get used to it.

Someone from some other exciting city like Amsterdam or Tel Aviv – which I find to have a very similar atmosphere to Berlin – has to get used to it. I came from Hamburg, which is a big but “bürgerlich” city, where everyone knows everyone else. Berlin has this huge divide, the East-West divide in Germany and also Eastern Europe-Western Europe. And I find that highly interesting. Indeed, I believe that one must always look in the direction of Eastern Europe to understand Germany’s own East-West divide. And that, we have done.

Earlier this year, you put on the Radar Ost festival, which brought Ukrainian productions, among others, to Deutsches Theater. Why is the relationship with Eastern Europe so important for the theatre?

How responsible are you to the world… what can you do – or what do you think that you must do?

We didn’t necessarily have this conscious Eastern European emphasis from the beginning. It is a result of experience that the Deutsches Theater is a meeting place of East and West. This is also the case for Berlin, but for the Deutsches Theater more than, for example, the Schaubühne.

Before reunification, the Deutsches Theater was the most important theatre in East Germany. After reunification, for 10 years under Thomas Langhoff, the theatre did have a great interest in East and West. And now it does again, 30 years later. But it would be a great mistake to say that this subject has been all ‘talked out’, because this history is in the body, and in people, and in biographies. And so even now it’s important to not only say “where do we stand now” and “where do we want to go” but also “where do we come from?”

We said, something like five, six, seven years ago, that we had to take another step. We are now part of a European theatre organisation and we have consciously said, our interest is in Eastern Europe. There were collaborations with theatre groups from Russia, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. And now with this war, our interest presents itself again with a new light and urgency.

Does theatre have a political role to play?

Art helps to open up political discourse. It offers a reservoir of cultural knowledge. And cultural knowledge has, naturally, a political dimension, because there is always cultural knowledge in how people behave, how they interact with each other, what unwritten rules there are, how tolerant people are. There is a cultural memory, which of course one must always work to change. We saw that with the refugee question in 2015, which became so vehemently discussed. And we had to rethink our own sense of ourselves as a nation. How responsible are you to the world, or to this movement, and what can you do – or what do you think that you must do?

But is there something special about the space of the theatre?

I believe that, in democracy, all of us have to constantly negotiate with each other. That is very demanding and it becomes easier – we feel freer in this – when we have analogue encounters. As we famously know about small towns, when there are no more communal spaces, they disintegrate. The marketplace, the club, the theatre, the sports fields, the campfire circle – these are all important.

Theatre offers a place where directly after people watch a performance, they can meet with each other and sit and talk for hours. You can say that this is not original, but I would claim that democracy requires practice – and this practice demands that we encounter and consider other opinions and ways of seeing the world.

Are there any plays that, after your long career, are particularly important to you?

I would say that it would be a piece by Heinar Kipphardt, called März. It’s about pain and, actually, a psychological deformation.

März is a poet, but he lives in an institution because he is schizophrenic. It is a piece that really moves me. All the psychological extremities, how people’s lives get out of hand, I find totally interesting. It’s a long time ago, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a film that I thought about in this way. It too had humour but was also brutal. And then, if you’d like a piece out of the classic canon, Death of a Salesman. It is for me a key text about appearance and actuality, what we say about ourselves and what we are. And, of course, the two aren’t so separate – it’s simply a terribly tricky terrain.

I’d also recommend Wild Duck by Ibsen or The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood, which really captures the strength and threat of this big group of women involved in a case of child murder.

Berlin is, of course, unique in Germany… a very restless, active city.

Will we see any of these plays at the Finale?

The pieces in the Finale are very important to me – for example, Thieves by Dea Loher, a piece which we premiered 13 years ago. We will say goodbye to 30 pieces in June. And that is how it should be; we’re so used to being able to conjure up digitally anything that we didn’t get to experience. This creates this feeling that we can’t actually miss anything anymore. But that’s not the case. We can still miss out on experiences.

As is the case with sports – there’s a huge difference if a game is recorded or live. And with theatre is that also the case. So I would say that the farewell to Thieves is very important to me, as is Long Night of the Playwrights. I would also say 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, which we’ll perform in June one last time, and The Welkin, which I have already named. You must see them, because after June you won’t be able to anymore.

So how would you describe the state of Deutsches Theater as you leave it?

What we’ve done with the Junges Deutsches Theater, our youth theatre group, is of great significance.

When you watch Nathan or The Robbers or In the Hall of Mirrors, you can see how this work has really broadened, quite explosively, what we do here. Even as more and more theatres have a youth theatre group, for us the youth theatre is essential. I also think very highly of the Long Night of the Playwrights, as new plays are given a prominent platform there. And I would say that Radar Ost is also essential – obviously, you can’t have 100 main things, but you can have a handful of essential elements. I would also say that our ensemble is essential. You can always tell when there is an ensemble, a group that’s worked together.

This is also the case in sports. If you watch a team play, you can immediately tell if (to use football as an example) it is 11 outstanding individual players or if they really play together in harmony. And that sense of togetherness, I hope, is what you can see in every work of ours. Because that is the essential idea of the theatre, in opposition to poetry or novels— it is radically social.

What’s next for you?

For me, of course, theatre is more than a profession. There are people, for example actors, who can go on performing forever. Or there are directors who can always direct another piece. But for intendants, it is more difficult. Because you either are one or you aren’t. But I also have family and friends – and I look forward to more time with them. It is not just sad – it is also really nice to have more time for the people in one’s life.