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The crowned queen of Gorki

INTERVIEW. Maxim Gorki's new season opens up fresh with a new vision, a new programme and two brand new heads: one being Shermin Langhoff. With Herbstsalon, Gorki seeks to start off by bridging local with international and art with theatre.

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Photo by Esra Rotthoff

Under the guidance of Shermin Langhoff, the Maxim Gorki relaunches with an eye for diversity… and English accessibility.

Developing a vision for post-migrant theatre in Berlin, Langhoff established her reputation as a curator at HAU and as the artistic director at Ballhaus Naunynstaße. Now she and ex-Schaubühne dramaturg Jens Hillje are rebooting the state-funded Maxim Gorki Theater with new perspectives and a new intercultural ensemble – the first of its kind in Germany. As part of their new season in November, the team is inaugurating Go Gorki – a project that supports English surtitles for all in-house productions after their premieres, marking an unprecedented level of accessibility in Berlin theatre.

And don’t forget to check out our profile on the theatre queen.

How important was it to make the theatre accessible to non-German speakers?

First we considered what it meant to take over a theatre that is a public institution. It should respond to the city. You don’t have to be a Berlin expert to know that this city is so international that not everyone is fluent enough in German to understand theatre. And that applies to two clientèle that interest us: those who live in Berlin – and not just native speakers, but also those who speak English as a second language – and people who are here to visit.

So it’s an attempt to capitalise on the boom in tourism?

It’s not about exploiting a certain market. Many people come to Berlin for our world-class theatre. There’s not much that Germany stands for in a cultural context, but Germany is and always has been an orientation point for the theatre world. I’ve been at so many performances at the Berliner Ensemble where you hear such a variety of languages in the audience. But there are no surtitles, they go even though they don’t understand because they’ve heard of the Berliner Ensemble and Brecht. This potential for new audience members is one reason, but it’s not just about the pragmatic aspect. It’s a sign for dissolving old barriers.

What kind of ‘barriers’ are you trying to dissolve?

We don’t want a dichotomy between cosmopolitan international thinking and community-oriented local thinking. It’s extremely important to allow for different concepts, approaches and target groups, because that also incorporates the multifaceted quality of transculturalism and interculturalism. On a basic level, these terms, and multiculturalism and post-migration, mean that thinking on a local level without the global, or vice versa, isn’t possible anymore. At first glance it’s pretty simple: Think Global, Act Local. But in Germany, we have a bit of this engineer-like thinking, so you’re always searching for solutions, the right solutions. I think we need to explode this kind of thinking.

Looking back at 15 years of experience, what’s your take on Berlin theatre?

As I started out in the culture industry in Berlin at the end of the 1990s, I perceived two concepts at work. One was the cosmopolitan concept that was symbolised in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt – we bring exciting things from around the world and show them here. But you had the feeling that Berlin’s international character wasn’t really there, in the audience or in the protagonists. And then there was the concept of the Werkstatt der Kulturen – where ethnic communities produced mostly for themselves. And I didn’t feel at home in either space. I was more interested in the Volksbühne, because they were taking a critical look at Germany and its identity. I had an opportunity at HAU and then in Ballhaus Nauynstraße to create a third space. The key for me was recognising the complexity in Berlin. The 168 nations present here have very concrete ways of life and needs for culture as well. There shouldn’t be an either/or, rather a simultaneity. And there can be these diverse approaches in one theatre. It’s not about a Gemischtwarenladen; it’s about recognising the diversity of this city.

What about your experience with fellow members of the cultural establishment?

There were two colleagues who came to talk to me in their first weeks in Berlin, both international and of Jewish ancestry. Pamela Rosenberg came from San Francisco to the Philharmonic, and contacted me while I was still a curator at HAU. I was one of the few people from a different background who was visible in the culture industry. And Barrie Kosky also sought me out when he started to prepare to take over the Komische Oper. And neither institution was designed to be something like Ballhaus Naunynstraße, but you noticed that they had an interest in a real cosmopolitanism for this city.

Why do you think that is?

That might come from an awareness of history that you bring with you when you come to Berlin. We’re talking about a long-term history, not only from the monocultural streamlining of the Berlin Enlightenment, but also from the centuries of immigration that make this city what it is, and I think that’s exciting. But there’s been other European colleagues who’ve come to the city and then immediately questioned intercultural concepts, and say that they’ve had bad experiences with them in their countries. So I’ve realised that the more international people are, the more they seem to have an interest in diversity. They’re curious about making conflict zones into dramatic material and a productive use of the friction that always makes art so exciting.

It all sounds very idealistic. How do you balance that with practicalities?

Being open to intellectual complexity does not mean advancing discourse until you’re convinced that we’ve reached a post-ethnic society. The ideological reality of [Thilo] Sarrazin, the everyday realities do not disappear through intellectual postulations or through isolation from the mainstream. I do not believe that, I read Gramsci and learned about cultural hegemony too early. That sounds a bit lofty, but if we take a public stage and public funds, then there’s a responsibility that goes with it. I still understand artistic practice as a critical practice that guides society, in the best-case scenario.

What’s the concept behind “upheaval” as the theme for the first season?

We didn’t want to work with a ‘motto’; we wanted to work with ideas. We also wanted to look back at 1913 and 1989 and other turning points, like when one of the first national assemblies met here after the March revolution in 1848. Interestingly enough, they were kicked out again on November 9 of that year.

The German day of destiny…

One doesn’t have to overstate that. Germany already makes itself out to be a fated nation more than enough. We don’t have to overestimate coincidences. At the same time we open on the day before November 9, so the Herbstsalon and the opening refer to the 75th anniversary of the November pogroms. The idea of the Stadttheater in Germany was always attached to an obligation to educate – with an understanding of a classical canon – that also made it an instrument for nation building. And at the Maxim Gorki the ideas of nation, freedom, justice, democracy, brotherhood and belonging have been questioned since 1848. We want to ask these questions from today’s perspective: “How did we become who we are?” and “Who do we want to be tomorrow?” But we don’t fear the future; instead we’re asking these questions with a real longing for this future and this complexity.

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.