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Interview with Holger Schultze and Jürgen Popig

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Interview with Holger Schultze and Jürgen Popig
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Differences First Become Clear When You Move Together

Berlin, April 2009. Theatre manager Holger Schultze and his scenario editor Jürgen Popig are in Berlin for the afternoon especially for an interview in Kreuzberg's "Textetage", where the editor Simone Kaempf has her office. Schultze, who has been managing the Osnabrück theatre since 2005 and was chief producer in Augsburg and Bremerhaven, was born in Berlin. Friendly and casually dressed in a T-shirt (black of course, like his trousers), he tends to speak more quietly and quickly towards the end of his sentences. Perhaps because his mind has already jumped forward to the next topic, or maybe because he prefers an impulsive answer to a meticulous one. In any case he appears to be quite at ease. Popig seems just as relaxed and really prefers asking questions himself, rather than giving answers. Like Schultze he was born in 1961 and comes from Swabia, and was at the Stuttgart National Theatre for 12 years before going to Osnabrück in 2005. There are some biscuits on the table, and water is preferred to coffee on this hot day in Berlin on May 1st. Micro on. (peko) This September you're beginning your season with a show concerning German premieres. What makes European drama so important to Osnabrück?

Holger Schultze: We want to raise the awareness of the problems with contemporary theatre in a programmatic way with the Spieltriebe festival. Four years ago the problems concerned premieres, two years ago second performances, and now we realise that the German theatre and feature pages hardly deal with foreign theatre literature at all.

Jürgen Popig: There are many good authors in Germany who finish their writing workshops and are quickly discovered by theatres and bound to them. Rebekka Kricheldorf and Dirk Laucke are our own writers.

The result of this is that theatres loose their capacity to look around for new plays abroad. This becomes clear if you take a look at the statistics of the German Stage Association: The amount of German premieres has gone up as it does every year, but proportionally the amount of premieres has gone down. So has the flourishing of German performances lead to an unawareness of European productions?

Jürgen Popig: Not generally speaking. There are still regular festivals which feature productions from across Europe, such as the biannual film festival in Wiesbaden or the "Theatre of the World" festival. The German Endowment for Culture explicitly supports the exchange between European stages with their Wanderlust fund. We're taking part in it with the Drama Theatre in the Bulgarian town Russe. But in our opinion more needs to be done than a mere visit and a guest performance for a proper exchange between countries. We think one a closer look should be taken at the plays that are performed, translate them and consider if they would be interesting for German stages. This way of dealing with foreign literature has clearly decreased. Is the German theatre the only one which tends towards such self- sufficiency?

Holger Schultze: No, similar things are being said about the theatres in the Netherlands. They currently don't have any translation funds. This probably has to do with the reorganisation. So at present they're not taking any action. When did you first notice the deficiency in German theatres?

Holger Schultze: I realised it when we traveled to Bulgaria for the first time as part of the Wanderlust project at the beginning of last year. We and many of the journalists who travelled with us noticed that there are plenty of Bulgarian plays, but not any are translated into German. It seems that certain countries are ignored by us. Their plays don't even reach us here. How come?

Jürgen Popig: The most important negotiators are of course the publishing companies. They in turn only have people on the lookout in certain countries. Specific foreign literature is then not passed on to Germany due to a lack of negotiation.

Holger Schultze: Yes, there should be a contact person in each particular country who can speak either German or English and who is also familiar with theatre. We were fortunate enough to meet a lady in Hungary who knew a lot about Finnish theatre, as well as about the theatre in her own country. It seems there are people who act as scouts without pay and give you an insight into their country. There is no other way of becoming familiar with plays that aren't translated. Would you accuse the publishing companies of not dealing enough with these sort of matters? Or would you say that the anticipation of European interaction has sunk and as a result we don't look around much any more?

Holger Schultze: No, no-one is to be blamed. After all, theatre is a market too. At the moment it is all about premieres in one’s own country. Even second performances are struggling to gain attention. Of course, premieres from an unknown foreign author hardly stand a chance. That’s why we've decided to focus our whole forthcoming season on this issue. In fact we aren't only bringing direct attention to drama from a particular country like others (Konstanz is concentrating on Russian drama, Rostock on Finnish drama), but also want to show a variety.

Jürgen Popig: However, even the plays of well-known foreign playwrights are only partially translated. Those of Sam Shephard for example. The publishing companies have grown more cautious: They can't risk working in advance. A play is translated only when they have a request from a theatre who wishes to perform it. Otherwise not. It's one thing that we don't notice other countries. But what do they in turn do to get noticed? After all, the Goethe-Institute is very intent on bringing German plays to other countries.

Jürgen Popig: The guideline of foreign cultural policies would be of great interest to me. Why is it, for example, that I don't know any Italian contemporary plays? How come they don't seem to want to share their drama with other countries? I'm sure we'll make this a subject at the panel discussion. In comparison there are plays that suddenly appear and are then subsequently performed 30 times…

Holger Schultze: that of Yasmina Reza for example. This clearly has to do with the trend. Reza's play answers the question of where to find a boulevard play. In turn Bulgaria produces many of Neil Simon's plays, and he is completely unknown here. How did you make your choices? Where were you on the lookout and what criteria did the plays have to meet?

Jürgen Popig: Nina Gühlstorff, Dorothea Schroeder and the dramaturgy of the theatre, my colleagues and I, divided the countries amongst us. It quickly became clear that we were most interested in the literature of those countries we knew the least about. As countries such as England and the Netherlands are our neighbours, they didn't arouse our interest at all, whereas the Balkans strongly did. However, we didn't want to bring all the attention to the Balkans, so we spread out in all possible directions. We then read many plays and talked to those people who knew the countries, like the Hungarian lady who recommended the Finnish author Kristian Smeds to us Why is it that you didn't choose a Hungarian play?

Holger Schultze: We checked-out Hungary a lot as my wife is Hungarian. But there doesn't appear to be anything there that meets our needs and requirements. Every play that we bring to Germany has to offer something that we find relevant. We chose "Fragile!" because its topic is migration. "Orangenhaut" was chosen because it was supposed to be a great political form of theatre, as it was taken very seriously in Serbia. In spite of what it had been expected to be, it still follows the mid- European mainstream. "Shakespeare is dead" shows how people circulate in a globalised Europe. We've tried covering all kinds of different aspects and have discussed hundreds of plays – and, of course, read a considerable amount.

Jürgen Popig: We dealt differently with the musical theatre. We asked the publishing houses to send us what they had and then decided on what we found interesting. You said that Maja Pelevic's "Orangenhaut" was very mainstream. Isn't it likely that their perception of women is different from ours? Is the aggressiveness that is displayed in the play seen as progressive? Here it appears kind of awkward. Or do people overlook the irony? And if people believe they have spotted irony – do they reflect it onto themselves?

Holger Schultze: You've reached our goal by asking those questions. After all, as a German woman you aren't meant to relate to yourself in this Serbian play. Instead you're supposed to realise that there is something known as well as unknown in the play. The exciting thing is that cultural differences are only noticable by moving closer to one another. We experienced this strongly with our Bulgarian partner theatre. For example, when it comes to the perception of women, or when defining a director. Or when figuring out the meaning of particular pictures. Although people pretend that due to globalistion everything is the same no matter where you are, it is not. It doesn't just start with the Balkan countries. When talking to our dance leader Nanine Linning who is from the Netherlands, I noticed that their understanding of theatre is in parts quite different from ours. So the observation of European plays is on one hand a process of getting to know other cultures and on the other a way of distinguishing differences?

Holger Schultze: Yes, and of course a method of enriching theatre literature. There is also a completely different aspect: We Germans are always saying that the migrants could be the audience of tomorrow. Now that we are producing plays from their own countries we can introduce them to our theatre. When we performed the first guest performance from Bulgaria, it felt like there were at least two-hundred (I didn't count) Bulgarians in the audience. One could sense that they had never been to our theatre before. We talked to them and soon found out that they had travelled from Münster because they had heard about what was being shown. You've announced the play "Fragile!" by Tena Stivicic to be a German premiere. However, it was staged by the theatre TKO in Cologne in October 2007. When does a play count as a premiere?

Holger Schultze: When it is performed with an authorised translation. If you look for the production from Cologne on the Internet you'll find that no translator is named. The Kaiser publishing company states that an actress from the Cologne ensemble translated the English text herself. Her version doesn't exist for either the publishing company, or the author. How is the translation of the plays paid? Is it profitable?

Holger Schultze: No, not at all. It's a disaster in Germany!

Jürgen Popig: There is no obligatory rate. There are few translators who demand a large sum and want their name printed as large as the author's. Most of them don't get a lot of money. The average pay is 1.000 Euros. We've had two plays translated for our festival, the one from the Netherlands ("Fahrradfahren für Malawi"), and the one from Serbia ("Orangenhaut"). We then realised how strong the decline is in this area. A few of the productions are going to be put in the repertoire. Aren't you risking taking away topics from the German market with your short-term presentations which still count as premieres?

Holger Schultze: In previous festivals we've managed to put all the plays in the repertoire in the end. Of course we're going to try to do that again. But we too naturally have limits. We have twenty, if you count our guests twenty-two actors, and have to keep up our other repertoire. We aren't "taking away" topics from the German market simply because we make a production of them.

Interview: Wolfgang Behrens, Simone Kaempf, Petra Kohse

Details on the creators of the festival.

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