German Theater A New Custodian of Berlin Culture

Oliver Reese is part of a stable of new top brass taking over in the German capital's performance scene. The legendary Berliner Ensemble's new director talks off-stage drama and theater's importance.
Quelle: dpa
Oliver Reese will officially become director of the Berliner Ensemble in summer 2017, but he has already announced some changes.
(Source: dpa)

Oliver Reese has big shoes to fill. Come summer, he will officially take over as the new director of the legendary German theater company, the Berliner Ensemble, ending a 17-year reign by outgoing director Claus Peymann.

But Mr. Reese has already announced some changes at the theater company, which famous playwright and director Bertolt Brecht founded in East Berlin in 1949. Mr. Peymann has not been too pleased by his successor’s opening act.

The 79-year-old theater veteran has criticized Mr. Reese for allegedly letting go of a large number of employees and removing the company’s famous archives from the building. He told the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau in September: “The Berliner Ensemble will be broken down like the Palace of the Republic,” referring to the now demolished East German parliament building. 

You might call these fighting words, but not for Mr. Reese. In an interview with German daily Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global, the incoming director said: “(Mr. Peymann) wouldn’t like to hear it, but he’s actually been very nice. We do talk. He would have treated any successor harshly. We all believe that no one can do as well as we can.”

For someone who has spent his whole career in the theater, Mr. Reese does not care much for melodrama. He is a quiet, polite man who knows only the theater, having worked as the chief dramaturge for Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater from 1992 to 2001, and since 2009, as the director of Frankfurt’s Schauspiel theater. He said much has changed in the capital and its cultural scene since leaving eight years ago.

What happens in Berlin is so lively, so animating, all the people you meet here are so much fun, you think about how and where can you join. I think passion prevails over crap. Oliver Reese, incoming director, Berliner Ensemble theater

“Theater has not only changed in Berlin,” he said. "The times have become more dramatic. My daughter asks me, ‘Where is the Europe that we were sure of?’ I’ve also changed. When I started in Frankfurt, I said, ‘The actor is the focus of the theater.’ I still believe that – but that alone isn’t enough anymore. It’s rightfully expected that the medium of theater complies to this time. There are big, militant debates about theater itself, about the Volksbühne and Staatsballet.”

Mr. Reese is not the only recent cultural appointment in Berlin. Besides two symphony orchestras getting new principal conductors, Belgian art historian and curator Chris Dercon, who currently heads up London’s Tate Modern, is becoming director of Berlin’s Volksbühne theater amid much controversy. Outgoing director Frank Castorf is leaving after 25 years, and many fear Mr. Dercon, who has little experience in theater, will jeopardize tradition and put profits ahead of creativity.

The Berliner Ensemble's new director had pledged to shake things up at the venerable institution, which is known for a repertoire mostly dedicated to its founder, the prolific Bertolt Brecht. However he has managed to step into the new role much more quietly than Mr. Dercon, despite his successor’s reproach.

“I’ve been in different houses in theater production, dramatic adviser, director, director, author, for over 20 years. Theater is absolutely a profession that can and must be learned,” Mr. Reese said.

He makes it clear that being in theater, you have to have a thick skin – against critics, but also colleagues. Over the years, Mr. Reese has seen his fair share of reviews, both good and bad. Theater is not "cozy," but then again neither is Berlin.

“If you go on the subway in Berlin and Frankfurt, then you travel on two essentially different means of transport," he said. "The hardness that Berlin has for its inhabitants is also noticeable in the culture,” he said. “What happens in Berlin is so lively, so animating, all the people you meet here are so much fun, you think about how and where can you join. I think passion prevails over crap.”

Lately, that's increasingly Mr. Reese's motto. As the world stage goes through its own histrionics, from a contentious U.S. President to deep divisions within the E.U., the Berliner Ensemble's incoming director maintains that people need to go to theater “because something is dealt with there that we need for our lives,” he said.

Quelle: dpa
A 2013 Berliner Ensemble performance of Horvath's "Don Juan."
(Source: dpa)

“In the theater, you are so directly confronted with a theme, which is not possible in any other art, because there are actors who undertake something with you, which can also move you to a completely different world.”

He is saddened that “the times when an educated citizen sat with a certain awe in the theater and dutifully watched great art … are over,” but explained theater also has its own crucial responsibility “not to lose the connection to a young generation.”

Still he can’t stand what he calls the "new mainstream" – standing “behind microphones and rapping a novel, the 'Great Gatsby' or something,” he said.

“When I began in theater 30 years ago, there were still Shakespeare performances with 15 actors, large ensembles,” he said. “A lot has flown right past us, or we have blown it off ourselves. Now we have to rebuild something. Some good old virtues could be helpful, actors, dramatists, real pieces…”

He’s looking to usher in a new era of German theater – committed actors, integrity and no cynicism. But if the controversy with Mr. Dercon of the Volksbühne theater proves anything, it’s that these cultural institutions do fear too much change.

Famous ballet choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who created the footwork for “Black Swan," quit as head of the Paris Ballet in June after just two years. Many did not see eye-to-eye with his reforms.

Mr. Reese however is not worried about any backlash.

"These are quite different times," he said. "The Mr. Peymanns needed to murder their fathers when they were young ... you see, I am proud to be supporting young people. That is the difference."

So the Berliner Ensemble's new director might just have the delicate touch needed to bring the company into a future that's in harmony with the past. He has promised to keep two actors from Mr. Peymann's roster, and said the 11 retiring are welcome to come back and perform as guests any time.

“I won’t crap on anyone, it doesn't help,” he said. “I am director and the others know it. Director is a profession that is done with a team, with partners, on the same level.”


This interview was originally conducted for Handelsblatt's sister publication Der Taggespiegel by Rüdiger Schaper. Barbara Woolsey is an editor at Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected]