For a few Minutes of Eternity

Artistic Director Johan Simons and Chief Dramaturg Vasco Boenisch talk about the new season

An evening at Schauspielhaus Bochum. With the pandemic still raging, terrible news arriving every day from the war in Ukraine and final preparations being made for the performance downstairs, a conversation unfolds about the key themes of our time, our own fears and desires and what it means to make theatre now.

Vasco Boenisch: Let’s talk about next season. About the plays, about changes to the programme and in the world “outside”.

Johan Simons: The impression I get is that we theatre makers don’t need to go looking for themes any more: instead, the themes are coming to find us. A few years ago, it was still true that theatres had to sit down and think carefully about what theme they could build the next season around. Capitalism, perhaps. Neoliberalism. A theme for one season. Now there are all sorts of themes and we know what they are. War, the divisions in society, the politics of power, structural discrimination, incitement and sensationalism in supposedly “social” media. Climate change and climate protection. The arrival of a young generation with a new sense of responsibility and solidarity, new models of taking part in democracy, discussions about participation and equality of opportunity. We can’t move for important topics. All we have to do is decide which plays best fit this turbulent time.  There’s no rest from it.

VB: Yet two years ago during the first Covid lockdown, when the whole world came to a stop, we thought we would …

Announcement by the Stage Manager: It is now 7:15. This is the second call for the Main House. Stage crew please staff the machinery and beginners to your positions please.

VB: … we all thought we were entering a new era of contemplation with plenty of time to reflect seriously about social issues. Now we feel pressured by problems.  

JS: Yes, we’re all pressured by issues and problems. And now I’m going to say something you might not expect to come out of my mouth: that’s why this time calls for comedies.

VB: In the new season there are lots of productions that engage with life through humour.

JS: Give a couple of examples.

VB: One example is Christopher Rüping’s production of Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, which is full of cringingly funny situations from the lives of modern city-dwellers looking for a partner. Or the production that we will premiere in the Kammerspiele in December with the director Robert Gerloff, where we’re currently looking for the right material: he’s a director with a great talent for comedy. And a piece that’s still very new in the repertoire is the Hermannsschlacht – albeit with a different script and a different melody from last season. That might be a good example. Of course, Kleist’s original play is all about war, but it’s also full of humour – in the scenes between the married couple Hermann and Thusnelda or when the Roman General Varus is led around in circles in the Teutoburg Forest. And in our musical adaptation there’s plenty to laugh about – without anyone closing their eyes to what’s going on in the world.

JS: To me at the moment the world seems like a tombola. It’s a bewildering time.

VB: Bewildering und unremitting.

JS: Yes, bewildering and unremitting. Will Ukraine perhaps turn into a second Vietnam? Going on and on for years? At the moment we really can’t tell.  

Announcement: It is now 7:25. This is the third call for the Main House. Lighting and sound operators to your positions please.

VB: With Covid, we also thought: Well, it might last six months. And here we are, two years on.

JS: Everything slips. Along with Francis Fukuyama we believed in the ‘End of History’, we were full of optimism that after 1989 everything would be alright. Here in the West we thought an epidemic would no longer shake our modern health system: and altogether we didn’t think enough about our relationship with the earth.

VB: What have we got available, what do we have to hand?

JS: I’d say: love. That we can still love people and be fond of them is a great asset. But that doesn’t mean that we have it readily to hand.

VB: How vulnerable are we as a theatre?

JS: Very much so! The theatre runs out of breath if premieres and performances have to be cancelled all the time. We keep rehearsing and rehearsing but these rehearsals repeatedly fail to lead to productions. Some premieres have had to be cancelled three or four times. As Artistic Director, that leaves me completely at a loss. I can’t think of any other way to put it. We’re constantly having to cancel premieres, cancel performances: rehearsals are interrupted because someone’s got Covid. It’s difficult for the ensemble too, when it hardly gets any applause, any feedback because so many performances are cancelled. 

Announcement: This is a Wardrobe call. Andrea, go to Marius’s dressing room. Andrea, please go quickly to Marius’s dressing room.

VB: That motivation is also very important to the people backstage. Ultimately, we’re all rehearsing and working to play for an audience.

Announcement: The house is now open!

JS: I’m glad that at the moment we can increase the seating capacity again even if we’re careful in Bochum and don’t fill the house completely.  But the time of 30-per cent seating is over for now. For example, we should have been able to perform productions like La Vita Nuova, Oedipus, Tyrant and With Other Eyes in front of 800 or, in the Kammerspiele, in front of 400 people. It wasn’t possible. That’s demoralising and you have to be careful not to lose faith. We started working here at Schauspielhaus Bochum four years ago – and two and a half of them have been in this state of exception. More, actually, if you include the water damage and the renovation work. But we’ll get through it.

VB: We’ve certainly learned to be flexible.

JS: And to hold our nerve!

VB: The way in 2020 we managed to throw on an entire production on stage out of nothing in three weeks after the first lockdown in 2020, The Numbered by Elias Canetti, with nine actors: that’s one experience no one will be able to take away from us. It binds people together.

JS: Or our live streams. That was something new to us, but it brought us a lot of positive feedback. The only thing nicer that thousands of applause emojis is the real thing.

VB: That’s why we try to prevent performances being cancelled if at all possible. The actors from the ensemble will cover for their colleagues – if necessary with script in hand. It’s not always possible: sometimes the roles are too complex and time is too short so the production might come apart. But we’re inventive. And when the audience are very understanding when things like this happen.

Announcement: The performance in the Main House is now running.

JS: You’ve acted as cover!

VB: In antigone. a requiem / The Politicians. We found out an actor was sick ninety minutes before the performance. For me as a dramaturg, it was a crazy but beautiful experience. In The Pillowman, Guy Clemens, who’s actually the director, took over from an actress at short notice. And the ensemble even managed to save a musical production without a Musical Director. We will do anything we can to avoid having to send an audience home. Without sacrificing artistic quality too much.

JS: Every performance that doesn’t happen is like an injury. Actors want to share their souls and their thoughts with the audience.

VB: And at the same time, while we’ve got our internal theatrical crises, there’s a war going on not far away, even while the two of us are talking here now, people are actually dying, being persecuted, suffering, fighting to survive. And they’re doing this in other parts of the world too, not just in Ukraine. What significance do you think theatre has if – for whatever reason – a lot of people here are currently thinking about war?

JS: For me, theatre is a kind of protective space for free thinking. Theatre is needed more than before. Although fewer of the public are allowed to gather than before due to the Covid measures, the theatre is still an important place for society.  Here we can process, discuss and reflect on what we have seen, read about, heard and lived through. And experience new things. And share them.

VB: And because, as you say, what matters are ideas, not nationalities, I find it unacceptable to exclude Russian artists or Russian works per se.

JS: What do Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Shostakovich have to do with Putin’s politics?

VB: When can theatre also be an escape from reality?

JS: Is escape meant negatively? I don’t believe in escape.

VB: I was just thinking of our production Baroque, that’s also not entirely new: there was a 15-month Covid delay before its premiere in May 2022. Here the director Lies Pauwels contrasts a lust for life and a fear of life with a great deal of passion and exuberant images.  She starts from the observation that there are parallels between our time and the Baroque period: people know or they suspect how badly things are going in the world and yet escape through lavish celebrations, hedonism and waste. It does all seem rather familiar. And to me these themes seemed even more relevant in 2022, as a result of the feeling how strongly we engage with existential issues and threats but sometimes just can’t carry on and are simply exhausted.

JS: I can understand that feeling. What I think is great about Lies Pauwels’s productions is that they are always so energizing. She and her performers fill me with energy. This encourages people to engage with other themes too.

VB: At the end of the production, we hear Yoko Ono singing Imagine, while the nine performers pick themselves up as if they’re recovering from fainting and enter a new age. When Lies Pauwels created this moment, in February 2021, we felt it was about the fantasy of creating an alternative world after a collapse. Now of course, it resonates that for many people the song is also an anti-war song.

JS: That’s one of the wonderful things about theatre: over time, a performance can be seen very differently and repeatedly viewed in new ways. Hamlet, for example, also feels contemporary in a different way now to in 2019. At certain points we can’t help being reminded of the war in Ukraine. This is also one of the advantages of the German-speaking theatre system, that productions can remain in repertoire for a long time and a play like this does not lose its relevance.  As a member of the public, you can go to the theatre with certain ideas about a play and suddenly realise:  three years ago, I saw the play very differently from the way I do now…! This is an enormous strength of theatre and literature.

VB: One story which you will return to as director for a second time is Alcestis by Euripides. In 2016 you directed the opera based on it by Gluck at the Ruhrtriennale. Now, so to speak, you’re producing the original. Do you view the story that the play tells differently today?

JS: Yes.

Announcement: Would the stage crew for the table come to the Stage Manager’s desk. Stage crew for the table please come to the Stage Manager’s desk.

JS: I still think the King and Queen pay little attention to their children: when I think that this is a man who is condemned to death and his wife wants to go to the underworld in his place, then I am surprised that neither of them thinks very much about their own children. But very well. What I am thinking about differently is the question of sacrifice. Pasolini emphasised that wars are fought mainly by young men, even though they have a lot longer to live than the older generation. From this point of view, the King’s fear of death in Alcestis is rather ridiculous.  This point is then made even sharper by the fact that his father refuses to go to the underworld in place of his son. I think that’s unreasonable. Even though I can sympathise personally. After all, for me this production is also about my own fear of death.

VB: If it were possible, would you wish that someone else could sacrifice themselves for you, so that you could stay on earth for longer?

JS: I think I would.

VB: But Elsie (de Brauw, ed.), your wife, wouldn’t do that for you?

JS: No, and I wouldn’t suggest it, either. – Alcestis is also about us always thinking life is endless. We find it difficult to imagine ourselves dying. Let me put it like this: professionally I have reached a stage where my first contract as Artistic Director of Schauspielhaus Bochum comes to an end in Summer 2023. I could stop there. But for me it would feel as if life was incomplete, because I have yet to achieve my objective with this theatre, these people, this audience. And even though I really have achieved a lot in my professional life, I would be dissatisfied. As long as we are participating in life, it is never complete. I am so attached to life – I think it’s actually rather unhealthy. (laughs)

VB: Why is it that the only thing that counts in life is what we did last?  

JS: Because we can only live in the present and in the future. We are incapable of truly accepting the past and making it a source of strength.  Especially in the theatre. We rehearse, we work, ideally we create a good production, at the premiere everyone is euphoric – and then it’s over. Theatre is always dying. Transient. When my children ask me: “What did you do in your life?” then I might be able to dig out ten videos on more or less decent tv recordings. With film makers, it’s different: it’s the same with visual artists, writers, composers. Their works last. We theatre people live for the moment. When something works, we experience a few minutes of eternity. There is a particular commitment to life, to this one moment. Perhaps, if it is successful, this one moment will deliver such a powerful jolt that it explains why we are making theatre rather than anything else.

VB: I agree. Personally I can already feel an initial difference between sitting in a theatre audience or an audience in a cinema because the atmosphere is different: the way you move around the foyer, how much attention is paid to the act of spectating, I register who else is there and I do that far more consciously than I do at the cinema.    Mainly, though, it is unparalleled to form a community with living people on stage in front of me who tell a story in that moment for me and for the other people sitting next to me. There is an exchange of energy, sometimes also an explicit exchange of words, and the awareness that it might turn out differently at any moment. And if I can then form a thematic and emotional connection with the people on stage and if I can feel the people around me doing the same – then that really does have a much greater emotional charge than if we’re watching a good film together.

JS: That’s true, what matters is this live connection between the stage and the audience. They latch on to each other.

VB: And moments like that are why we do it.

JS: It’s like a drug. Anyone who has ever experienced it is always looking for that moment in the theatre.

VB: What are the other sources of inspiration for your work, what artists, experiences, conversations?

JS: I think I get a lot of inspiration from nature. From the expanse of a landscape that’s not obstructed by building. This can be in the Netherlands, standing on a dyke, it can be on the English coast with cliffs above me and the sea tossing below. The sky is broad there and I feel huge above the Atlantic. In Holland the clouds are lower, and I’m more on the same level with the landscape, smaller, and that’s comforting. And I’m inspired by talking to young people. They give me new ideas, enthusiasm and faith in the future.

Announcment: Sven, please take up your position at the machinery again. In the Main House, stand by for the machinery.

JS: Can I tell you about something that happened today? We were doing the first photo shoot with the ensemble for the brochure for the new season …

VB: The idea is to show the ensemble in everyday locations in Bochum where they start acting with each other.

JS: And in one particular situation, the photographer Julian Röder suggested the photos would be more interesting if the situation wasn’t just relaxed and cheerful. And it made me wonder briefly whether we need more people in the ensemble who clash with each other? Because up until now there has been a great mutual affection in the ensemble. It’s really noticeable how much respect and genuine love they treat each other with.  On a human level, our ensemble is very homogenous.  

VB: Not all theatres are like that.

JS: No, not at all. At it’s actually fantastic. Even if theatre is about conflict, the people who act out those conflicts can treat each other very fondly! They can be honest with each other, not be jealous of each other, that’s how I see our ensemble – and that’s what’s new: they stick together.

VB: This idea of a collective is reflected in a number of our new productions. Toneelgroep Amsterdam (previously known as De Warme Winkel) is a theatre collective, and the acronym BVDS stands for the surnames of Suzan Boogaerdt and Bianca van der Schoot, who have made theatre together as a duo for several years now. Now they are both going to encounter our ensemble. Artistically, they’re very different: how would you describe their work?

JS: Let me put it like this, maybe: in their productions, which always shift in between theatre and installations, Suzan Boogaerdt and Bianca van der Schoot show me how sad the plastic world is that we live in.

VB: They often work with realistic yet puppet-like masks that make the actors seem like they’re living in the wrong film. Underworlds is intended to be a sensory experience on the threshold between the earth and – here it comes again! – the underworld.

JS: As a member of the audience, I always feel challenged by BVDS to accept their world. To immerse myself in it, to a certain extent. With the body they are looking for a certain objectivity, a point of equilibrium where you do nothing – which is actually impossible, because you exist, so you’re doing things: living, breathing. I find that tension really interesting.

VB: BVDS have subtitled their new production A Gateway Experience. This immediately makes me think of the production that Florian Fischer is planning at the beginning of the season in the Kammerspiele: To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Hervé Guibert, who experienced the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and who describes his own fear of dying and in particular of the effect that had on his love of other people. And of himself. It’s very touching and of course there are faint parallels with the dynamics of the current viral pandemics. – But let’s come back to De Warme Winkel. Who are no longer officially called that, but Toneelgroep Amsterdam. They acquired the disused and, it seems, unprotected name of Ivo van Hove‘s prestigious company, after he renamed it Internationaal Theater Amsterdam. That coup is rather revealing about them in itself.

JS: Oh, yes. De Warme Winkel – I’ll stick with their old name – are exciting in lots of ways. There’s an irony about them, definitely. And at the same time an intellectual power. Their wealth of ideas. And they’re always talking about the medium of theatre itself, for example by quoting the works of other artists and playing with them.

VB: They also explore issues of identity and representation – which have become increasingly prevalent in theatre in recent years. De Warme Winkel have been doing this for longer and in a very clever way. The Bus to Dachau, which is based on a unproduced film script, is about former inmates of the concentration camp from the Netherlands taking a trip to the memorial site at Dachau. In the production these Dutch characters will be played by German actors and the German Nazis by the Dutch company members of De Warme Winkel, sorry: Toneelgroep Amsterdam. This immediately raises the questions: are we allowed to do this, is it appropriate?

JS: Yes. Because that’s the irony for me: You Germans, with your terrible past and responsibility are allowed to play the Dutch and we will play the Nazis who are now allowed to give you orders.

VB: Your argument is from a perspective where “being allowed” to do something represents an opportunity, while I associate “being allowed” with preventing things. Maybe that’s also symptomatic.

JS: In any event this casting is going to provoke some discussions. That will be exciting. And funny too.

VB: What kind of jokes make you laugh the most?

JS: Harsh ones. I’m very fond of mockery.

VB: And you also enjoy discussing how much humour “the Germans” have. We’ll see how it works out with The Bus to Dachau. But I’m very happy to be a standard bearer for “German humour” – if you look, you’ll see that our audiences here laugh at both the gentle Finnish humour of Saara Turunen in The Phantom of Normality as well as the British black humour of Martin McDonagh in The Pillowman. Both productions are very popular with the audience. You really can’t criticise us now.

JS: Of course, the Germans have a sense of humour. I find the Bochum audience fascinating. And I keep learning more and more.

VB: You have set your production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck in a circus ring. Is there anything to laugh about in Woyzeck?

JS: I show a very run-down circus. And in it, Woyzeck is a bit like a failed circus boy. Lots of things in his life go wrong, which is why he is quickly categorized as stupid. For me, he is a sad and funny character. There are times when he doesn’t know what to do with his body. And his mind produces ideas that others find hard to understand. I wonder if he’s aware of this.

VB: Your approach to this play, which is now finally being premiered in Bochum after a series of postponements, is not just as a social drama about the maltreated creature Woyzeck, but you also give the character – a performance for which Steven Scharf won the Nestroy Prize – a great deal of inner dignity.

JS: Woyzeck is a born loser. But he is also a king in the world of his own thoughts. Somehow he’s also a great mind. And he says very interesting things about nature. I’m excited to see what new things we can find in those lines when we re-rehearse the piece now. Woyzeck talks about landscapes that hardly exist any more. One immediately associates them with climate change.

VB: Since you mention it: protecting the climate is becoming increasingly important for us as a theatre – not only because there will be increasing political pressure on cultural institutions to operate more sustainably, but also from our own initiative. Over the last three seasons, with the climate forum How Do We Want to Live Here? we have established an important place where local players and experts on climate protection can exchange ideas and we have working groups looking both internally and externally on how to adapt our working processes and networking regarding sustainability.

JS: It is important to change our behaviour and our ways of working in many respects. No longer taking internal flights within Germany, avoiding poisonous materials and hazardous waste and using recyclable materials instead. But looking ahead we also have to tackle the big issues like energy use and transport – and those changes are ones that can’t be made without financial investment. I still dream of putting solar panels on the roof of the Schauspielhaus. Up until now I’ve always been told it’s structurally impossible.

VB: Climate protection is one of the great issues of the future. However, one often gains the impression that here in the West, in the Global North, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what needs to be done to make the world fairer, more peaceful and healthier without actually doing very much. Possibly because we have yet to feel the effects quite clearly. It’s similar to the basic situation in Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, that Mateja Koležnik will direct here. The elite fails to notice what is happening to the socially disadvantaged and the storm that is brewing outside their own door.

JS: I’m very much looking forward to Mateja Koležnik’s first production in Bochum. Because in her performances, she does something I find very interesting: she seeks out an unfamiliar perspective.  Her Vienna production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie is set in the cook’s room, and it’s from there that we follow the conversations between Julie and Jean. In Munich she set Oedipus the King in the corridor outside the assembly room in which the political decisions were being made. In other words, she changes the angle we look at things from. And that could be very interesting for Children of the Sun too. We’ll see what approach she decides to take. 

VB: We’re hopping around between subjects here, but I don’t have a problem with that. I’d like to go back briefly to Woyzeck. This is a fragment, where the order of scenes is not fixed, and your production shows what an intense story it contains even though you emphasise how fractured it is. Which brings me on to the play that Nora Schlocker will direct next season: [BLANK] by Alice Birch. This play has 100 scenes, it’s 400 pages long and every production can put together its own version. The play was first performed in London in 2019. It revolves around women, children and families who come into contact with the legal and social security systems and try to escape from a cycle of violence and abuse.  The stories and the relationships between the characters vary depending on the scenes that are chosen. What’s exciting about it is that it also means that the roles and responsibilities in our society are very fluid. 

JS: I think it’s going to be a great ensemble piece.  Nora Schlocker is a director with a strong interest in stories and characters. And I think it’s important for us to put contemporary playwriting on the big stage, in the Schauspielhaus.

VB: Having said that about the big Schauspielhaus, maybe now is the right time to mention our smallest venue: the Oval Office. Here there’s something for the audience. For four years this venue in the basement of the Schauspielhaus has been a centre for media art, where there have been fascinating installations. At the same time, though, we’ve felt the lack of somewhere flexible where we could put on smaller scenic projects. That is what the new Oval Office is going to be.

JS: Yes, because our other smaller venue, the Zeche, now belongs to the Junges Schauspielhaus, and it has to stay that way.  Because of Covid, the Theaterrevier had the worst possible start-up conditions to attract children and young people and get them excited about theatre, but we’ve still managed to create some really beautiful work, like Ton for children aged two and over and Weg vom Fenster, another show where there’s a lot to laugh about even though it has a sad subject. I hope the Theaterrevier will be able to accommodate a larger audience next season for all its band projects, open stages, concerts and the new productions that Cathrin Rose is planning here. – But you wanted to talk about the Oval Office.

Announcement: In the Main House, please stand by for the curtain call.

JS: The ensemble has lots of ideas for its own performances, for plays, favourite novels, possibly a late-night format, unexpected things, and I’m looking forward to seeing all that next season in the Oval Office. The assistant directors will also work on their debut productions there.

VB: The advantage is that we can work quickly and simply there. React spontaneously to current events around the world. And literally get closer to the audience, to the city and also dovetailing with the Oval Office Bar.

JS: I would love it if the programme in the Oval Office could also arouse curiosity from some people who don’t otherwise go to the theatre.

VB: That’s one of our aims. To be a place of inspiration, participation and discovery.

Announcement: The performance in the Main House is now over. Good night, everyone and see you tomorrow.  

JS: Right then. I’m going to go to Tana’s, to the canteen, to see if any of the audience are there. Are you coming…?