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The Sophiensæle building: Renovated and back!

Interview: artistic director Franziska Werner. Fifteen years after its founding, the Sophiensæle celebrated with a partial, much-needed renovation and a new leadership structure. Tanztage 12 opens today, so it's a perfect chance to check it out!

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Photo by Markus Heine

With the success of dance groups like Sasha Waltz & Guests, the Sophiensæle, a theatre complex in a former worker’s organization, became a hub for the booming Berlin dance scene of the late 1990s.

Fifteen years after its founding, the Sophiensæle celebrated with a partial, much-needed renovation and a new leadership structure.

Franziska Werner, former house dramaturg and new artistic director, discusses free-production theatres, the incestuous art scene and creative dialogue.

What’s the philosophy behind the process of creating a work at the Sophiensæle?

The Sophiensæle were founded out of the spirit of the creative work of artists. So it’s a different kind of system: there were artistic projects, works, ideas and processes; then a system that would support these ideas was created around it. Quite often it’s the other way around: the system’s there first, and then there are the ideas or the artistic work, and you need to fit the art into the system.

On a practical level, how does the money work?

We have structural funding from the senate for four years, so until the end of 2014 we have this concept funding that “covers” our expenses for running the house and staff – then we have to apply again.

But each project we present needs to bring its own budget, because that’s the point – we don’t have a budget to produce. It limits us a lot, but we still manage!

We have this nice house and this infrastructure and now even on a higher level, but of course it would help a lot to have a fixed budget for artistic production. Even for annual festivals such as Tanztage and Freischwimmer, our platforms for the new generation of artists, we have to apply for funding again each year.

And that’s a pity, because it’s a lot of work that keeps us from focusing on other ideas and projects.

How do you balance taking care of a new generation as well as groups like Nico and the Navigators, or Sasha Waltz & Guests, that started with the house 15 years ago?

You need both. I think for us it’s really important to support this young generation because it fosters artistic inventions with forms and formats as well. We are working on a theatre for tomorrow with the younger generation.

But we are still working with the established artists, because it’s also important that they have a künstlerische Heimat (artistic home). It makes no sense to kick them out, to say, “Now that you are established, please go away, or please go to the state theatres.” Because lots of them don’t want to work in the state theatre systems. They really love this free structure with this flexibility, where they can just create the work in the way it needs to be created.

These artists who grew up in the Off- Szene, free-production scene, or however you want to translate it…

I call it the “On Scene.” [laughs]

These artists are establishing their own institutions outside the state theatre systems. What’s the current relationship between the two worlds?

It’s two modes of production process and working process. Each system has its own qualities: it’s not like the free-production scene is the first step and then you move on to the state system. For me, that’s the wrong point of view. They are two systems of equal value: it’s not that one creates better quality work.

What’s the Sophiensæle’s place within the Berlin free-production scene?

We really have one of the most beautiful rooms in Berlin Mitte. The Sophiensæle’s other advantage is this scope of performance, music theatre, dance and interdisciplinary works, and that means that we have a wide range of audience. Inner-scene dialogue is interesting in a way for this kind of self-understanding; that’s one form of dialogue you need.

But then the dialogue with the ‘normal’ audience is important as well. The rooms were built as a space for meetings and for talks, and I think that’s one of the spirits of the house as well: you can show and present artistic work, but at the same time you are in this atmosphere of a meeting place. It’s not some gallery white cube.

I’ve always enjoyed Sophiensæle’s open dialogues with artists after performances. How do you see them from the production side?

We sit in on these talks as well, and for us it’s interesting to see what the audience has experienced, seen and understood. For the artists, it’s one of the rare moments when they’re really getting feedback from the people they do the work for. They can do art for themselves, but it still remains this thing of ‘sender and receiver’.

The audience reactions sometimes touch on points the artist had just in the corner of their mind, and for them it’s really important that the audience took notice of these corners. Sometimes they are really touched and pleasantly surprised.

Audiences can also feel intimidated or excluded by artists, because sometimes this kind of experimental work can be difficult for even an in-crowd audience. Do the discussions affect this relationship to the public?

The artists see that it’s not only an elevated thing that they are doing. Suddenly it becomes inclusive, welcoming.