Space for Theatre

by Jake Witlen

in National Conference

Post image for Space for Theatre

(Photo by Jake Witlen of Exposure Berlin. This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon.)

The air is dusty and you can see your breath inside the room. Cobwebs hang high across the vaulted ceiling, and honest to god, a bat just flew across the stage. Down below, however, the cold air doesn’t stifle our creativity and our modern surrealist opera is slowly taking form. Sitting up in a makeshift video-booth on the first balcony, in a box surely once reserved for royalty, I hear the director call out to the orchestra and actors, “Noch mal, bitte” — Once again, please — and everyone warms their hands and returns to their places. Here in an abandoned silent-film theatre of a bygone era, just north of Prenzlauer Berg deep in Berlin’s former East, we have been working arduously for more than 6 weeks of full tech, putting together a new opera to revive the space that’s sat empty for nearly 70 years. It will reawaken the ghosts of the Weimarer, the Cabarets, and using a long-forgotten text from Apollinaire, we will breathe life into this once great cinema.

Art requires a vessel to carry its message. Whether that vessel is a hyper-modern theatre, an ancient amphitheatre, or an alternative venue, theatrical arts cannot exist without space. Never has this been clearer than in our current times, when funding and venues are drying up like the Sahara, and artists are forced to evolve to find new and unique ways to present their work. The question is, however, whether the vessel needs to exist before the art can be created, or if the art fills any space it happens to chance upon. Recently a group of students from New York visited me in Berlin for a workshop, and the first thing they mentioned on entering the rehearsal studio was, “Wow, look! No columns!” Inherent in their understanding of creating was the intrinsic truth that one must avoid physical obstacles before delving deeper into the work. Finding clever solutions to physical problems is naturally the work of any director, but does the space itself influence the type of work that a society is creating, or are we merely conduits for the spaces that have been created before we were born? The first step in creating a healthy work environment seems to be a two fold process: having a clean and inspiring space to fill with ideas, while existing within a society ready to support the creations both financially and intellectually.

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(Photo by Jake Witlen of Exposure Berlin.)

Several years ago, my understanding of how art is created was overturned during those weeks in that abandoned silent-film theatre in Berlin. The space had sat unused for decades, as many spaces in Berlin do, and when my collaborators chanced upon it one New Year’s Eve, its very existence set off a chain-reaction that would continue to inspire us until we would eventually fill its chamber with this incredible new opera. Had the space not existed, there is no way the work would have been created; its very presence became the inspiration for the work. The show would not have worked in a traditional theatre, nor would it have worked in a completely alternative space — it was only made for this one, dilapidated former glory. It was beautiful.

Along with the space, we were also given the blessing of the state in the form of financial support, but far deeper and more important than the Euros we were given was the spirit of sharing that permeates the still socially-minded society. Projectors that would cost hundreds of dollars a day to rent in New York were given to us for free, set materials and electronics were shared or lent for little or no cost. It was not the artists who weren’t paid, as is often the case in New York, but rather the technology and inanimate objects (sets, costumes etc.) that were the ones without compensation. It was entirely reversed from the method of theatre making I was used to, and as I slowly settled myself into the understanding of what it could mean for the art, I realized at once what a humbling experience it truly was.

Models of art-making vary naturally from land to land, and culture to culture. What is apparent, however, is the divergence of what’s being created between the capitalized theatre world (New York and London) and the more socialized experience of art making (Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark etc.). In an irony of the ages, the scarcer money has become in the States and England, the more our conversations exponentially revolve around it. Whether one works as part of a collective, at a not-for-profit, or in an old-dog producing house, art has somehow slipped through the cracks and the dog-eat-dog world of finding the money has become tantamount to delving deeper into work. It is not to say there is no good art in America or England — far from it — but it seems our model for creating theatre has become so centered around this one tangible fact, that it becomes increasingly difficult to dream big or outside the box. For those brave souls who are exploring alternatives — from new venues to smaller and more flexible models of development — the emotional rewards and accolades can be huge, but supporting a family or paying rent remains a challenge to most.

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(Photo by Jake Witlen of Exposure Berlin.)

To nurture anything is to give time to the problems and to luxuriate in the unknown. Financial security helps us to realize these dreams, but the deeper truth that I often forgot in New York was how the audience was going to be challenged by our work, and not simply how I could get more audience paying to see it. Having a trusting audience ready to jump into the abyss of the unknown, taking a risk on the art they are willing to experience, is what inspires the artist to push the boundaries of theatre and not be afraid of alienation and bad reviews. Everyone during our “Exposure Berlin” opera was fully invested in the work at hand, not only because we were financially supported by the state and city, but more importantly, because the audience came expecting to be challenged, and not simply entertained. The vessel became not only the space itself, but the entire society to which it belonged.

In New York and London, we have been set out on a path where spaces in which work has historically taken place are going away to make room for banks and pharmacies. While there is a growing movement to explore alternative spaces and the very nature of how theatre is presented to an audience — be it on the internet or in a taxi cab — many of the changes are a result of our temples being destroyed for the sake of profit. As a society we have chosen to ignore the calamity as a given, while in fact, the treasures of the American Theatre scene should be held in the highest regards for what they have imparted on the society as a whole. With the vessels becoming harder to find, and more expensive to inhabit, our rehearsal periods have become truncated versions of their former selves, and “development” has become a dead-end path for playwrights and directors to endlessly work on a script without ever having the benefit of production. This perfect storm is demanding a fundamental reimagining of the model to dream outside of the box, which is in fact beginning, but it is one that also requires a societal shift in our understanding of what art is and can be.

As an American living in Germany for the past four years, my understanding of healthy working models has changed dramatically. My move was precipitated by the desire for the new and unknown, but it also grew out of a need for opportunities that were quickly being eroded in America as what little government support for the arts dried up, and the private donor base grew weary of monthly calls for more capital. After having been a founding member of an international collective of directors (The Internationalists), I had spent years discussing and creating in the hopes of reaching some Arcadia where all artwork would thrive without the mortal coils of money or time. The dream of a collective where work and resources could be shared not only across diverse talents, but also cultures and lands, was alas, a dream too big; but, the root of our discussions were pure — to create a model of work where cultural diplomacy and exchange could be nurtured through art, performance and the emerging technologies of connected media.

During our years of explorations and creation of new work, the question was often raised of what models work best for this “connected art” — many of our works happened simultaneously in multiple countries, connected by the Internet and bridging audiences from around the world. Our meetings were held in real time in New York, London, Munich, den Hague, Berlin, Sydney, Rio, and Paris, and we fought religiously through time differences and shoddy internet connections to meet once a week to discuss not only current projects, but intellectually deeper questions about how and why we make art. As many of our core members were based in America, most often our model of theatre-making revolved around what we knew — grant writing, donor appeals, and kickstarters. Frequently our European colleagues looked at us as if we were crazy, for why else would we spend so much of our weekly meetings discussing money, when we could be discussing the art? The very nature of the question led us into debate about what comes first — the proverbial chicken or the egg — and often late into the night we would retire without having gotten far in either side of the debate.

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(Photo by Jake Witlen of Exposure Berlin.)

Upon leaving New York, one of the most striking things I experienced as a director was the response of an audience to my work — there were no more false accolades or pats on the back, but instead I received from audience members long and intense discussions, describing in detail what they found worked or didn’t work in my creations. Sometimes it was almost too much, or too aggressive, but it was always precise (as only Germans can be), and productively helpful in moving my own artistic conversation forward. Without the burden of needing to pay for space, and having an abundance of resources available at my fingertips, I began to notice a fundamental shift in the work that I was making. Suddenly I was inspired to move deeper and farther with the work I was willing to investigate, and had the time to do so. The actors and designers with whom I was working understood this too, and educated by a society used to artists pushing back against the norms, we were able to stand on the shoulders of the past and look towards the future. I was working in a society influenced by artists from Goethe, Brecht and Tukolvsky in the past, to Ostermeier, Pollesch, and Castorf in the present, all of whom had systematically conditioned the society to view art as a conduit for questions and not one for answers and entertainment. The societal influences of the past were now permeating my own personal styles and directorial choices.

This evolving understanding of theatre making had little to do with money, and everything to do with a society and its educated audience. The theatre I saw in the state system was almost comically accessible to the farthest reaches of society: 3€ for a ticket for those on any of the many forms of welfare, 7€ if you were a student, and a whopping 12-18€, if you were just a normal schlub like me. I work today at an anomaly — a private theatre functioning in a state system (the Schaubühne)  — and our audiences range from 15 to 90 years old. Last year we presented at 94% capacity, showing nearly 450 days of performances (we have 4 venues) plus 165 days out of town from Beijing to Zagreb. When we showed Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People at BAM last fall, Charles Isherwood lambasted the production because it “violently dismantles the fourth wall in the play’s climactic scene, and all but turns the play into a public referendum on the current state of political and social culture… of an evening that runs a punishing 2 hours plus — without an intermission … such nuances are drowned out by the director’s decision to use Ibsen’s drama as an occasion for the audience to indulge its own political views. Most of us prefer to express those at the polls, not the theater.” The damage that a reviewer like Mr. Isherwood does to the American theatrical society by at once implying that theatre should not rouse an audience, should not last too long without a potty-break, and should not be filled with political opinions, is exactly the type of reasoning that makes people stop going to the theatre out of fear of expanding their own personal boundaries. As an artist, one is hyper-aware of such a review hurting their ticket sales, and in turn, we create safer and safer work, even in those alternative spaces, because we cannot risk such alienation of our audiences or doner bases. Brecht employed the Verfremdungseffekt — the alienation effect — as a core of his work and it influenced generations of Germans to never miss the chance to risk making an audience uncomfortable and change social values. It is as present today (if not more so) than ever before, and it is an incredibly profound reality in which to make art.

Without a fundamental reimagining of the American model of theatre-making, we face a generation of new artists who do not have the wherewithal or experience to dream big and outside the box. When I asked that group of students visiting me in Berlin what you need to create theatre, it was the fifth response that mentioned “an idea, or material”.  The four answers before that revolved around money, space, time, and producers. It is clear that Berlin offers something that may only last for a little while longer — a city whose history has left behind huge abandoned factories and hidden treasures just waiting to be filled with art — but it is in fact the society as a whole which allows the work to move on a deeper and more intrinsically intellectual level. In order for us to create healthy working models of creation in the US and Britain, we need to start with the most fundamental asset — our spaces and our audiences. The rest will follow.

Exposure Berlin 5


(Photo by Jake Witlen of Exposure Berlin.)

Jake Witlen is a video and theatre artist based in Berlin. He is currently the Head of the Video department at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, creating new works with Katie Mitchell, Marius von Mayenburg, Falk Richter, Romeo Castellucci, and Thomas Ostermeier. In the states, his work as a director has been seen in New York at 3-Legged Dog, PS122, HERE, the old Ohio, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Humana, among others. Internationally he has made work in Ecuador, India, Romania, Germany, France, Russia, England, and Greece. www.jakewitlen.com

  • Rob Ready

    “Without a fundamental reimagining of the American model of theatre-making, we face a generation of new artists who do not have the wherewithal or experience to dream big and outside the box.”

    This is sentence is bullshit and, frankly, insulting.

  • Frankie Griffen

    “The air is dusty and you can see your breath inside the room. Cobwebs hang high across the vaulted ceiling, and honest to god, a bat just flew across the stage.”

    I think this, in many ways, describes the state of conventional theatre. Stop trying to bring back the dead. Move on with the rest of us.

  • Jake

    I am not actually trying to bring back the dead, but rather imagine old spaces in new ways, or in this case, an old theatre reinvigorated with new life. My fear in New York is watching all the theatres I grew up in (the Ohio, the Zipper etc.) go away to make way for banks and bodegas, whereby in other places there are still ample large venues to work in that don’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce in. There is no need to live in the past — god forbid — rather to look forward to the future and find sustainable ways for artists to create.

  • Jake

    Sorry to have insulted, it was certainly not the intention. As mentioned in the comment above, it is simply about having the ability to produce in large, unique venues without having an investor to shovel money at you, but rather the space and time to grow and create without the pressures of capital. As a young artist in New York at the end of the 90s, I felt I saw the very end of when it was possible to make anything, anywhere, but as the 2000s came and went, those spaces that were often given for free or for low costs were disappearing. I simply want to see the next generation (and mine) have the ability to dream big without needing millions of dollars to do it — and that’s what I see in Berlin as a possibility that I don’t in America. It is not to discount the ingenuity and creativity of the American artist, but a critique of a system that rewards banks over venues.