“No half-baked solutions”

Venues everywhere have been forced to temporarily close due to the pandemic crisis. Berlin’s Haus der Festspiele has also put its operations on hold – at least where the stage is concerned. BTR talked to artistic director Thomas Oberender about the art experience, learning curves, and his thoughts on improving work in the arts and festival industry.

Bühnentechnische Rundschau

BTR: Mr Oberender, you seem to be busy, despite the enforced break. How are you coping with the lockdown? 

Thomas Oberender: We are a festival theatre, with a different system than a repertoire theatre, and any events of ours that get cancelled, whether exhibitions or festivals, have at least a year’s preparation behind them. And that certainly makes things complicated. In August, there definitely won’t be any shows or concerts in our main halls.

The question is, how do we deal with that, and how will the Berlin orchestras, and the international ones, respond? It raises thousands of questions. 


The crisis is set to last, so long as no vaccine has been found. Have any concepts for adapting to it started to emerge?

Yes, it’ll go on a while yet and a lot of things that seemed natural before we were forced to close due to the virus are being seen in a different light now. By that, I don’t only mean that all the gig workers, the freelancers, are noticing that they are not as independent as they thought but actually very dependent. What we call freelance work suddenly seems quite different. That’s just one aspect. We are also seeing how the economic virus is infecting everything, and becoming aware of the possibilities for approaching things differently: What’s the best way to do our work? Wouldn’t it be better to not stop working from home as soon as the virus is gone but to continue some things learned from it? We are currently working with virtual stage sets. The technological aspects of our work have taken huge leaps and bounds, far more than before. Perhaps we should just accept that it’s better for the environment if people don’t always travel but if some things continue to happen digitally. The crisis has started a learning process that will change everything. Where economics are concerned, I think we will prioritize sustainability far more in the future than we do now. That includes the question of travelling and whether we really need to do so much flying and driving. That would fundamentally affect the festival business, even more than repertoire theatre. 


True, festivals always involve a huge retinue of co-travellers. As well as the artists, there are the people from connected fields, such as the media … 

… the curators, the technical directors, the people involved in the productions, even for exhibitions. Do we want to carry on regarding it as normal to release tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere just so we can see if we like a concert or an exhibition in New York? And to send huge container ships across the globe for exhibitions that will only last two or three months! A lot of habits have started to seem problematic to me. Actually, they did before the Corona crisis but now even more – thinking about the virus economy. 


Covid 19 has made a big impact on questions like that …

Yes, no Greta Thunberg could have done it more effectively – in the light of the Corona deaths and the many people who have been plunged into existential crisis. It’s still a unique situation for the world. Suddenly everyone on every continent is dealing with the same topic – not only where the search for a vaccine is concerned. It has also prompted a general rethink of social and economic systems, political systems – all happening simultaneously! So many people are thinking about all that at the same time. It’s crazy!


We are going through various learning curves. An infrastructure fund for the arts has been proposed. Do you think that kind of support could work?

Basically, we are currently seeing a widening social divide in the theatre world itself. There are the regular employees and there are the freelancers who work with the organizations generating project money – which has now stopped. That means that the shared fund creates winners and losers. The current crisis aggravates the injustice that exists in this system. That’s nothing new. I certainly think the state should provide emergency economic assistance. It should be the job of the individual states and local authorities rather than the federal government. But I think the federal government should act as a motor for considering fundamental questions like that. It’s nothing new to have these “new types of institution” as I call them. 


Due to the crisis and the major economic slump it has caused, tax revenue will fall in the coming years, which in turn will impact on arts funding. Is the culture industry facing major cuts?

That’s what we all fear. Democracy always involves lobbying. But I think it would be wrong to save on our environmental protection plans (our plans? Referring to politics, not the venue?) or to shift the focus away from them again. That would soon get us into other difficulties. At the moment, I am most surprised that there isn’t more discussion of the unconditional basic income. I think it would be timely, and far better than generating a rivalry between freelancers and employees. The debate should be taken to another level and the question of the basic – or citizen’s – income explored.


That’s not on the agenda at all right now …

… but we can put it there!            


How do you, as a festival theatre director, address the issue? 

We have set up a Corona help corner on our website. It aims to show freelancers, the self-employed, and artists, where they can get help. Lots of people are of course already well informed. But we’ve also set up a second platform with information, where staff from various departments have put together links and made essays, articles and initiatives to provide orientation and address the issue of social injustice, which has become more pressing due to Corona. People are invited to join in the discussion on social media. And anyone can write to us with more information to add to ours. We hope to publicize the Corona help website as widely as possible because we are doing it as a festival theatre, to pass on our knowledge. We have also developed online services for holding discussions at the Theatertreffen and take them to another level, and ask: What impetus for social change can Corona give us? And how could it change our arts system? 


What ideas do you have for bringing audiences back to the theatre? Is it feasible to play to only half or quarter-filled auditoriums?        

The auditorium isn’t the only problem; it’s also the stage. There are accumulations everywhere. The inspectors check by the technicians at the hoists, by the lighting technicians. I would say, no half-baked solutions. Rather wait until we can do it properly again. It also depends on which kind of theatre you’re in. Municipal theatres, for instance, work according to the local or regional authorities’ regulations. They don’t have much individual latitude. Independent theatres, meanwhile, have more freedom to develop their own formats than producer theatres that do repertoires. 


Do you think you might have to reduce your staff after the crisis?

No, it’s already short and the freelancers we have contracted don’t have it good. I would like to have more salaried technicians than contract staff. In our case, that is regulated by the Commissioner for Culture and the Media, i.e. the federal government. As a publicly funded limited company, we are bound to staff planning schemes, which we could try to improve for technicians in general – but not enough to help our own technicians, who should really work for us on a different basis. And not under framework contracts that only guarantee a certain number of hours. 


Many aspects need adjusting, and now is the time to do it, before it’s back to business as usual. In the meantime, do we have to make do with digital substitutes for experiencing art?

The crisis has taught us what can’t be replaced. There is no substitute for the real-life encounter, the shared experience of a ritual.


BTR Ausgabe 3 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 158
von Irmgard Berner