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Andrea Breth is one of the most acclaimed theatre directors in the German-speaking world. In 1983, her production of García Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba" won her the Director of the Year award given out by Theater heute magazine. After that she became director in residence at the Burgtheater in Vienna, where she is still working today. Andrea Breth received the Fritz-Kortner-Prize in 1987 and, in 2003, the Nestroy-Award for best production. In May of this year her staging of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" won her considerable, if not unanimous praise (see "In Today's Feuilletons" of May 2 for more).


"It's poetry – not prattle"

Stefan Keim and Reinhard Wengierek interview acclaimed theatre director Andrea Breth on Schiller, her new production and the "Michelangelo finger".

Andrea Breth, the much acclaimed theatre director based in Vienna, has a reputation for being difficult. But during the interview she is relaxed and laughs a lot. The RuhrTriennale dance, music and theatre festival in North-Rhine-Westphalia is currently dedicating its "Work" section to Breth, featuring films and guest appearances of her productions "Emilia Galotti" and "Maria Stuart", both originally staged in Vienna's Burg Theatre. Her project "Nights Below Ground" premiered August 25 in the Kokerei Zollverein in Essen.

Scene from Nights Below Ground © Bernd Uhlig

Die Welt: Many people call your productions "theatre magic". Is that silly, or just shorthand for knowing your trade?

Andrea Breth: There's something to the remark, but I can't explain it. I don't know. It has to do with salvation, poetry, beauty. With immediacy, the collective live-act, so to speak. With the sensational possibility of creating a world out of nothing in the twinkling of an eye.

And today's sensibilities, political relevance?

You can find them in Schiller. What got us going is the increasing alienation in Schiller's characters, even from themselves. In "Don Carlos", King Philipp calls out for "a man". Yet he's the one who invented public authorities – historically speaking. The real Philipp invented the system of public authorities. That system was then taken over by the English - that comes in "Maria Stuart". Bureaucracy leads to total alienation, hopelessness, neglect of the individual. For Philipp, there's no "you", but there's also no "I" any more. The joke is, in an ego-centric society we invent the "Ich AG", or "I Inc". Linguistically, we do this on a sub-conscious level. But when I have no consciousness of language I can't think clearly any more. That worries me.

Is directing a physical, bodily activity for you?

Yes. But there's also a lot of intellectual work before I start. And then it speaks in me, it happens to me. If it doesn't it's better to stop. My ambition pushes me to hunt for a play's soul. That's a real undertaking. But then when we rehearse I just have to forget it all again. I've got to be totally permeable to see what's going on, and to go about changing things carefully. But sometimes that doesn't work and I have to find another key, another way in. I run around the world with a huge bunch of keys.

Do you work with the décor from an early stage?

Acoustics are very important. The sounds are there right from the start. We often look at photos, films, paintings, hunting for a certain climate, a certain energy. Actors are vases. You have to keep pouring stuff in to fill them up.

Are the space and props defined right from the start of rehearsals?

The set's finished right down to the smallest details. I can't work without a space. I need it very early on. I also know what plays I want to do long ahead of time, sometimes even ten years before I stage them. I'm slow. I choose a text because I find it contains something we're on the point of losing. Theatre is cultural memory.

Would you be interested in becoming the artistic director of a theatre? In Berlin for example?

The conditions in Vienna are wonderful, and they run until 2009. The time will come when we need a new location. We're a huge troupe, you know, "the family". And of course we want to stay together.

You've called the theatre a "refuge", even an "ideal, monastic state".

It's a wonderful thing when people with the most diverse gifts work together to make something happen. It's a sort of ideal family because everyone is there of their own free will. Theatre can be terrible, if you just stand there like a dumb ox. Then it's hell. But if you can take hold of the poet's hand, it can be awesome.

Scene from
Nights Below Ground © Bernd Uhlig

And the monastic bit?

It's concentrated, and productive. Everyone works together on one thing for a long time. Most performances take about three months. Nevertheless, when things are tough you wish the whole thing would just fall apart. And then a bit later again you're afraid of the smallest flaw. That's what life's like: Fear and euphoria. Often it's not easy.

Which means theatre should try to achieve a better understanding of itself?

It's live interaction between people. With everything else you just spend your time fiddling around after the fact. The language of theatre can be so infinitely poetic, so incredibly hard. And it's alive, it's not being filtered through some or other medium. I also feel a need on the part of audiences for grand, complicated texts. And at the same time people are always saying audiences don't want that any more. If that's the case, it's rather odd that "Don Carlos", "Maria Stuart" and "Emilia Galotti" have been sold out for years now in Vienna.

Has the theatre lost its position as a predominant cultural medium?

The balance has shifted. We ourselves have contributed to the shift. You can't always say other people are to blame. Maybe we don't cook so well these days. No one goes to a restaurant if it doesn't serve good food. Theatre is a public place. We put ourselves 60 centimetres over other people. If we don't have anything to say, we shouldn't put ourselves there in the first place. I'm talking about the presence or absence of God; I'm talking about the presence of Utopia. Everything is absent. We don't have anything else. And in this hollowness, we simply lurch from one event to the next. I need tranquility. I want to go back to the source, to feel the skin, the eyes, that something is there - a sound, a word. The autumn leaf falls. But everything is still loud. We live in the fun society.

But merely complaining about the absence of Utopias isn't enough.

I don't think you can react cynically to a cynical world. That's not our job. A lot of people say my stagings are so sad. I don't think they're sad at all. But other times I laugh myself sick at something and other people don't crack a smile. You can't force them. But there are great things, fantastic thoughts that are so fun to think. I believe it was the cabarettist Wolfgang Neuss who said: let's have thoughts tonight instead of dinner.

Are you religious?

I think so. I don't go to church. But I'm firmly convinced there is an inexplicable God.

Is there something divine in theatre?

Talented people have a gift. That's the famous Michelangelo finger. That's what I mean when I say "it" speaks in the rehearsals. Certain things can't be learned. They're gifts. When someone succeeds in writing something good, a book or a poem, that's a gift. I think we should be careful with the "I". In the theatre the "you" or the "we" sound a lot better. That's why it's not so important for the "I" to appear in a performance. Someone's composed these lines. It's poetry – not prattle.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on August 24, 2005.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european