Better than Brecht: the theatre of Roland Schimmelpfennig
Artistic Director Ramin Gray, March 2011
A British playwright sitting down to write this play might typically reach for his style from a relatively narrow spectrum on the formal bandwidth. You could try arguing similarly for the German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig and say that his choices reach only back to Brecht and therefore into his own tradition. And there might be something in that: where we tend to be bound to naturalism and social realism by a variety of circumstances – the economy, flexibility and beauty of our language, with its GPS-like ability to place a character on a social and geographic grid being the main – German theatre has thrived on formal invention, an absolute necessity in their highly deconstructed theatre. And Schimmelpfennig is a prime example: a playwright with a background as dramaturg, someone who has therefore spent many years in rehearsal rooms watching actors and directors working on other people’s plays and who understands and wants to challenge those processes. But the result is highly intelligent, a beautifully constructed and playful play. A piece that tackles a topical issue like migration but rather than hitting us over the head with the journalistic, transient rights and wrongs of the situation, takes us by the hand and leads us into a hall of mirrors where, with only our sense of empathy to navigate and distinguish, we piece together a poignant and important story for our global age, looking at the very deepest senses of the word ‘journey’. Perhaps the fact that the play itself is a formal migrant to these shores adds power and piquancy to its impact.
As the incoming Artistic Director of Actors Touring Company, I’m thrilled to be opening my account with this play. I was lucky enough to be the first person to work on one of Roland’s plays in England when I directed PUSH UP at the Royal Court in 2002; the following year Actors Touring Company presented another play of his, ARABIAN NIGHT. But it isn’t only coincidence that makes this an important choice. I feel that this play carries within it the seeds of what Actors Touring Company stands for: it’s a play about the world today in the broadest sense, both in content and form, a play that powerfully restates the argument for theatre, a play that activates an audience and asks them not only to go on the journey with us but to help make that journey up. And it also playfully, wittily and movingly asks us to look at actors as humans and to see all the possibilities, both past, present and future that lie within them, be that age, gender or race. In that full act of seeing lies the chance for all of us to be expanded and humanized in a powerful, collective moment.
It gives me great pleasure to be opening this production in Plymouth where the support of Simon Stokes and his team has allowed us to put together a tour that takes in the Traverse in Edinburgh, the Arcola in London and many other points along the way. I hope that in the years to come Actors Touring Company will become synonymous with a theatre that stretches and rewards you, that brings you strange shapes and forms from other places and that always keeps the focus on the work of the actor and their relationship with you, our audience.
Roland Schimmelpfennig was born in Göttingen in 1967. After a prolonged stay in Istanbul as a journalist, he studied stage direction at the Otto-Falkenberg-School in Munich. Following his studies he became assistant director at the Kammerspiele Munich where from 1995 onwards he was a member of the artistic direction of the theatre. He has been working as a freelance author since 1996. In 1998 he went to the United States for a year and there primarily worked as a translator. Schimmelpfennig worked as dramaturg at the Schaubühne Berlin from 1999 to 2001. In the season of 2001/2002 he was author-in-residence at the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Since 2000 he has been commissioned to write plays for the State Theatres in Stuttgart and Hannover, the Schauspielhaus Hamburg, the Burgtheater Vienna, the Schauspielhaus Zurich, the German Theatre Berlin and others. In 2010, Schimmelpfennig was awarded the Mühlheimer Dramatists Award for The Golden Dragon. Schimmelpfennig also received the highest Playwriting Award in Germany, the Else-Lasker-Schüler-Prize, to honor his entire Oeuvre. He lives in Berlin.
“Roland Schimmelpfennig is the leading German dramatist.” Frankfurter Rundschau
More on Roland Schimmelpfennig:
The Golden Dragon was chosen as play of the year in the 2010 Theater Heute Yearbook critics’ survey.
In The Golden Dragon, Schimmelpfennig applies his short-cut dramaturgy to the genre of social drama – with the pleasing consequence that he succeeds in dragging it out of the musty attic of realism, but never defuses it, in spite of all the play’s alienation and abstraction. In brief, bitterly comic episodes, Schimmelpfennig tells stories about the dark sides of our globalised world, about exploitation, greed, illegality and brutality – about how closely we are all linked together in the short-circuited modernity we inhabit, even if the fate of some anonymous Asian kitchen help seems nothing to do with us. Until one of his hairs lands in our soup, or possibly even his tooth…
(Christine Dössel, 2010 Mülheim Theatertage)
Michael Billington for The Guardian in March 2011 ‘Don’t mention the phwoar: The future of German Theatre’.