There has been an ongoing debate between theatre artists themselves for decades as to whether or not theatre is a dying art form, but also in the public. There are two things that can’t be avoided when partying with theatre artists; cigarette smoke and a sociopolitical discussion about the future of theatre. Some feel that it is stagnant and fixated on classics, dissociating itself from modern day concerns. To you I say this: The New Plays from Europe festival in Germany would most surely cause you to think twice.
I was invited to attend the festival from June 15th to June 25th, in Wiesbaden, a town that was once a spa for wealthy Romans. The festival had two main functions: showcasing new plays from all over Europe and offering workshops to young playwrights. Being one myself, I was in a workshop with eight other playwrights from Finland, Denmark, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Greece and Spain. On the first day, we were formal and polite. By the fifth day, we had so many private jokes that our group was impenetrable to outsiders. By the end of the festival, we were a small cult. We even had our own midsummer’s night ritual involving fire, The Beatles and synchronised choreography, but that’s another story. Like any other event where young artists get together and exchange ideas, many friendships were made, a lot of alcohol was consumed and an incredible number of cigarettes were smoked.
The workshop was led by Bljana Srbljanovic, a respected playwright from Serbia. Stunningly beautiful and wonderfully quirky, she guided my group through ten intense days of writing and brainstorming. The aim was to write a play together that would be read befor an audience on the second to last night of the festival. This is where things got tricky. Writers are used to working on their own, and we were no exception. Having to come to a mutual conclusion required a lot of discussion, hours of negotiation and truckloads of coffee. Since English is not our first language, feelings and ideas often had to be acted out when the vocabulary came to an end. It was not without pain, but it paid off in the end. The result wasn’t a great play by any means, but that was not the point. On the night of our reading, we proved to the audience, as well as to ourselves, that it’s possible to break the isolation of the playwright by writing something together.
Wiesbaden was scorching and sticky. The locals said it was unusually hot for that time of year. Sweating like pigs but artistically inspired, we walked between different theatres to see new, European plays every night. Sergio from Spain was legally excused on the nights that Spain was playing in the World Cup. Understandably, the atmosphere was heavily influenced by football, since Germany is the hosting the 2006 World Cup. On the nights that the German team was playing, the locals made so much noise that it seeped through the walls and added a new flavour to the theatre performances we attended. Many different genres and approaches were presented during the festival. For example, there was an absurd play from Turkey in which the main character was over 2,000 years old, a modern drama from Macedonia in which the desperate hooker waves a gun at a puppet, and a Hungarian modernisation of the epic Niebelungen, where the audience moved from room to room, sometimes sitting on the floor, sometimes on boxes and sometimes on old tires while watching the performance. Since the plays were acted out in their original languages with simultaneous translation into German, you had to rely on your imagination if you didn’t understand either language. It was the only downside of the festival, thought Simona from Slovenia, a member of my workshop. It’s a great opportunity for plays from smaller languages to reach a wider audience, but it would’ve been better if translations into more languages than just German were available. Having sat through four hour-long performances in which we did not understand the dialogue, the group as a whole agreed. However, a performance involves so much more than just words. “I can’t describe to you what I just saw,” said Milan from Serbia, who saw the performance of Niebelungen and liked it very much despite of the fact that he didn’t understand a word. “It was anarchistic and passionate.”
Every night after the shows were over, the festival participants gathered in a giant tent behind the City Theatre of Wiesbaden to wine and dine. Until the early hours of the morning, actors, directors, playwrights and other theatre artists enjoyed each other’s company and live music. It was where we could talk about the performances and bitch about our hotel rooms that didn’t have a toilet, only a sink. One evening, the idea of pissing in the sink was discussed, but as the night progressed, the mixture of language barriers and alcohol turned it into “sinking in the piss.”
Having struggled with my own doubts about the future of theatre, the New Plays from Europe festival lifted a weight off my shoulders. Witnessing the diversity in new drama, the vibrancy of young playwrights and the way theatre can communicate to an audience that doesn’t even understand the language, my hopes are buoyed. Markus Bothe, artistic director, agreed. When asked whether or not theatre is a dying art form, he answered: “No. For me, this festival proves that.”