Germany is groaning under a third pandemic wave, and the entire cultural industry is in the doldrums. The entire cultural industry? Well, not the , one of the oldest and most renowned theater festivals in Europe held in Recklinghausen in western Germany.
Celebrated in non-pandemic times for its interactive approach and engaged audiences, the festival will go ahead on its 75th anniversary and will feature leading lights of theater across a diverse program.
The team around artistic director Olaf Kröck and chief dramaturge Jan Hein has been unsparing in its effort to create a full schedule for this anniversary year without losing sight of the pandemic. This commitment demands much creativity, openness, courage and, above all, spontaneity.
Dealing with shifting scenarios
A coronavirus officer and innovative hygiene concepts individually tailored to the performances still can’t account for constantly changing government rules and regulations. That’s why Kröck, Hein and their team from the very beginning decided on a mix of live events, digital programming and hybrid concepts.
Hein’s unwavering energy is on display during a telephone interview with DW: “This situation is incomparable and remains incomparable,” he said. “You just have to face it and not give up, but also try to find positives. We try to hold our nerve as long as we can.”
He and his team are aware that they cannot appear to be downplaying the risk. “It’s painful, of course, to look ourselves in the eye and say: What can we actually offer without coming across as dreamers, as unrealistic or as cranks to the public?”
But having decided that the show can go on safely, the organizers engage in a great deal of daily “troubleshooting,” constant rescheduling, and dealing with disappointments — but also positive surprises.
New forms through improvisation
Positive developments include the festival’s collaboration with author, essayist and playwright Enis Maci, who will be giving the opening speech at this year’s Ruhrfestspiele. “We just asked her if she would like to do one more thing for us,” said Hein. Maci then brought together various artists and came up with the idea of creating a walk-through video installation.
Due to the current restrictions, it will be impossible for the public to have access the installation, but at least the film itself is still available for a streaming event on May 3, followed by a discussion with the artists who made it — an additional event that was not planned beforehand.
An ‘international conference’ without CO2 emissions
Another example of ingenuity in pandemic times is the new work by the Rimini Protokoll group, Conference of the Absent, which was co-produced by the Ruhrfestspiele. They came up with a performance concept that was created during the crisis, and reacts to the crisis, explained Hein.
The work tells the story of a conference held during an exceptional global crisis. Experts from all over the world are invited to contribute to the conference. However, they do not travel to physically attend the discussion and don’t join in through Zoom or Skype either, but rather send in their scripts. Members of the audience are then called to represent those experts and present their ideas on stage.
“It creates an exchange between viewers and also leads to questions about experts’ knowledge, and how added value is created from absence — it’s a wonderful theatrical experience,” said Hein.
The minimalist project is also about sustainability in theater, leading to a reflection on the priorities of a theater production: “How many planes and train journeys do we use for a production? Does that still make sense in these times [of climate crisis]?” asked the festival’s chief dramaturge.
A tradition of local participation
“Restlessness and Utopia” is the motto of this year’s Ruhrfestspiele, which sums up well the current mood and longing for change. Both terms are reflected in this year’s program of one of the oldest European theater festivals — one that has always aimed to be close to the people.
The participatory approach of the theater festival and its strong bond with the residents of the Ruhr region has a long tradition, which goes back to the icy winter of 1946/1947. That year, with the country still in ruins from the war, people from theaters in Hamburg drove down to the Ruhr area to get heating coal for their venues.
The miners from the “König Ludwig 4/5” colliery in Recklinghausen helped the freezing artists by smuggling the coal they needed so urgently past the British occupation soldiers. In the summer of 1947, the actors came back to the station and thanked them with theater performances. “Art against Coal”: the Ruhr Festival, celebrating fraternity between artists and miners, was born.
Since then, the Ruhrfestspiele remained committed to staying close to the people of the region and the city of Recklinghausen.
The Ruhrfestspiele 2021 will take place from May 1 to June 20. The combines digital, hybrid and live performances.
This article was translated from German.
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