The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Matthias Lilienthal
Matthias Lilienthal
Artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU)

Hebbel am Ufer (HAU)
Hebbel am Ufer
Presenter Interview
Berlin’s HAU as an epicenter of the performing arts — What’s the ideas behind its aim to “Create friction in the world?” 
Berlin’s HAU as an epicenter of the performing arts — What’s the ideas behind its aim to “Create friction in the world?” 
Matthias Lilienthal is a vibrant “warrior” of the German performing arts world who re-established the former East Berlin’s Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz as an experimental theater after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in 2003 took the post of artistic director of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU), an organization with three performance spaces in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which is home to a large immigrant population today. Working with performance groups like Rimini Protokoll in the pursuit of reality and documentary theater, Lilienthal has given birth to chain of performing arts projects unapologetically aimed at creating “friction” in the world. These activities have made him one of the most talked about figures in his profession. With 2009 marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is now in the midst of a rush of commemorative events and festivals. Lilienthal is also involved in the planning of a “Japan Festival” scheduled to take place in Berlin this October. In this interview we talked with Lilienthal about his stance of always presenting projects that look at contemporary society with a sharp and insightful eye, HAU’s activities and his outlook on culture generated by cities like Berlin or Tokyo.
(Interview: Makiko Yamaguchi)

Early in the 1990s you worked with director Frank Castorf in founding and leading the re-established Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. This theater is considered one of the theaters in Berlin that presents more experimental and more political productions. Could you tell us about some of the important re-orientation and changes that went on during that time?
That was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and one of our important themes was how this theater in the former East Berlin be re-positioned amidst the dramatic social changes of the day. At the time, the people of the former East Germany were trying desperately to get closer to the standards of West German society, while on the other hand, within the process of re-unification, there was a tendency to ignore the former East’s own unique issues. In light of that situation, what we tried to do was to say that the people of the former East Germany had problems that shouldn’t be ignored and pose the question of whether the re-unification of Germany wasn’t actually a colonization of the East by the West instead of liberalization based on democratic principles as one nation. For that purpose we employed metaphors to induce debate concerning the issues of East Germans. One of those was to use the retro-design style that was used in East Germany in the past. Using visuals of that type we tried to promote interest in the problems of former East Germans who were suddenly unemployed and the other social conditions they were subjected to.

Can you tell us about some of the specific theater works that dealt with the problems of the people of East Germany?
The most successful work in that sense was Murx den Europaer (“Bump Off the European!”). It was written and directed by Christoph Marthaler and developed around songs that were often sung in Germany’s Nazi era. The surrealistic stage art was designed by Anna Viebrock, creating a strange sort of waiting room, like a Salvation Army waiting room, or it also had the appearance of something in a home for the aged. On stage there were ten actors, each sitting at their own desk and each in their own world, not speaking to each other. And the concept was that their only consolation came when they sang together. The perception was that within this surrealistic setting Utopia could only be attained through coral singing, as a kind of negative consequence that could only be born in the context of German re-unification. Marthaler achieved his first big success with this work and it has been performed regularly in the 14 years since its premiere. This is an exceptionally long run that surely can be considered a record in the German theater world. Also, Castorf brought King Lear to the stage during that period. As a story about power struggle and holding power, he used it to explore his thoughts about the East German regime.

You served as director for the 2002 Theater der Welt festival. It’s an international theater festival organized by the German center of ITI (International Theater Institute) since 1981 and, as the name suggests, every holding invites theater works from around the world. It is held once every three years in different German cities, and in 2002 it was held in the four cities of Cologne, Duisburg, Bonn and Dusseldorf. We would like to hear about that festival. In particular, we hear that you had an “X-Wohnungen” (X-Residences) project where artists did installations at private homes and unused buildings and audience members went in twos to visit different residences.
This festival is basically one that invites foreign works that meet certain international standards, and in 2002 we invited productions like theater company ZT Hollandia’s Euripides’ Bacchae directed by Johan Simons. At the same time we wanted to make it a festival with local orientation, and we did a numerous of projects with that aim. One of the projects that we started at that festival is the “X-Wohnungen” project, which is still continued today. We did this in Duisburg, which used to be an area where poorer Ruhr valley coal miners lived and today has a large immigrant population.
 We made private homes in this area the sites for installation works, and when members of the audience visit these homes they are confronted with realities that are very different from the preconceptions they brought to it. What I like most in this projects was the installation by the Polish artist Krzysztof Warlikowski. He used an abandoned building that had been a grocery store for coal miners in the 1950s and ’60s and later housed a Mosque for Turkish laborer in the 1970s and ’80s and did an installation based on Sarah Kane’s play Phaedra’s Love. In this installation a naked man lay on a bed and a woman walked around the room, which had a Polish Catholic shrine, reminiscent of the large numbers of Polish immigrants who came to this region in the era of the industrial revolution. At the same time it revealed potential interest in homosexuality and sex in the subconscious due to the presence of around twenty Turkish children who were always gathered outside trying to get a look at the naked man.
 We asked not only directors but also painters and video artists to do installations, which not only inspired their imagination but also asked whether or not the audience would be encountering unexpected realities in the works.
 The audience departed in twos at 10-minute intervals and spent three to four hours visiting eight different houses. There were also measures taken to provide encounters on the streets in between, and there were surprises prepared, too. It also provided a good opportunity for encounters between German directors and foreign directors. As the directors worked on their installations in neighboring houses, there were opportunities for exchanges to develop. Unlike a 100% protected theater space, the houses created situations where a performer would be alone in the same room with one or two audience members, which led to a situation where you could not anticipate what was going to happen. In some cases erotic situations developed as well. After that Theater der Welt the same project was conducted three times in Berlin, and once in Caracas and in Switzerland. We also have plans to do it in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Waiting in 2010 are Johannesburg and Warsaw.

Do you think you could do it in Japan, too?
Aren’t people in Japan reluctant to let other people enter their houses? Also the houses are small, so it might be difficult to get adequate conditions. However, Tokyo has very modern areas and other areas that are small village-like neighborhoods. I think it would be very interesting to do the project in a place with such marked inconsistencies. My impression of Japan is that of a rather closed society with a strange sort of insular mindset common to islands. In other words it seems distant. And it is strange, because it is just a 10-hour flight from Berlin to Tokyo and the only country you have to cross is Russia. These kinds of discrepancies it fitting for the project and I think a truly Tokyo-specific project could be held that doesn’t lose Tokyo’s uniqueness.
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