POV Days 7 & 8: A Company of the People

posted 11 May 2018, 16:41 by Unknown user   [ updated 11 May 2018, 23:19 ]
The Schaubühne's production of An Enemy of the People made its Southeast Asian debut at SIFA 2018.

Day 7 Activities:

- Group Seminar

- Dialogue with Tobias Veit

- Dinner party

Day 8 Activities:

- Group Seminar/Closing Dialogues

- In Conversation with Thomas Ostermeier

- SIFA Performance: An Enemy of the People

[This blog post only covers the dialogues with Tobias Veit and Thomas Ostermeier from the Schaubühne, as well as the company's production of An Enemy of the People; all activities were attended by both Performance Writers (P/W) and Makers (P/M). Find out about the discussions that took place at the group seminars and closing dialogues over the last two days from this blog post.]

Tobias Veit was chatting with the POV participants in an exclusive dialogue session at the Centre 42 Black Box yesterday (10 May 2018), and frankly, the numbers that he was casually listing out were hard to visualise. Veit is the executive director of the 56-year-old Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz theatre in Berlin, Germany, and he was telling us that that his company stages about 500 shows in its theatre space, and another 100 shows internationally, each year. That includes a contemporary, edgy adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which debuted in France in 2012 and opened in Singapore today.

We soon found out that those kinds of stats were only possible because almost every aspect of the Schaubühne’s theatre production is done in-house - it hires 240 staff members, including 35 full-time actors who form an ensemble and star in all of its shows. Some of them have been with the company since 1999, when Thomas Ostermeier took over from Peter Stein as the prestigious company’s artistic director.

“Having this structure enables [us] to work on a continuous basis with certain actors, and [we] can develop a certain language, because we don’t have to begin from zero [like] when you have a different cast,” Veit explains.

It quickly became apparent that the Schaubühne’s top priority is its people, and Veit told us that they would constantly check in with their artists to ensure that their views are heard and discussed. When the POV participants heard from Ostermeier at a public SIFA talk before the show today, he reiterated the importance of building the right team and the right culture at the company. And while his primary concern as a director is for the actors to improve their skills, it is also important for everyone to have fun.

“When we were rehearsing here yesterday, instead of talking about the water (a contentious issue in An Enemy of the People), the actors were improvising on stage, [making fun] of the new haircut of the main character,” he recalled with a grin. “Sometimes you have to be precise and nuanced [in rehearsals], but it is sometimes good to give back the freedom to the actors and also challenge them to be fast to react.”

The POV participants heard from Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of Schaubühne, at a SIFA artist talk.

The Schaubühne’s ethos of putting its people first extends to how Ostermeier, Veit, and their team create shows that are first and foremost for their community. Despite the fact that so many of their productions tour all over the world - Ostermeier said that Singapore is the 39th country they have brought An Enemy of the People to - the starting point for their work is always local.

“A lot of people believe that I am a global theatre-maker, which I would always deny,” said Ostermeier. “I am 100% a local theatre-maker, which means I’m trying to talk about issues which I [know about]. I am part of the bourgeoisie guys that you’ll see on stage [at An Enemy of the People].”

Veit had expressed similar sentiments on the importance of creating work based on the "local". “If you want to tell a story, the best [thing] you could talk about is yourself - your surroundings, your city, your society, your country,” he said. “But if you tell a good story, a story that matters to you, it often happens that this story relates to an audience in other countries as well. Maybe [even exactly] because it’s so local.”

The POV participants had found these talks enlightening, as Veit and Ostermeier both gave valuable insight into how a theatre company - especially one that is so large in scale - can be structured and run in Germany.

“I found it very helpful to hear Tobias’ description of how the Schaubühne worked - its structures and processes, the way they tour, the way they make work, and that sense of responsibility to his larger team. That was very, very illuminating and humbling to hear from a producer's perspective,” said Loh An Lin (P/W), who is also a young independent producer herself.

"[The talk with Tobias] was for me the most informative talk so far. His company embodies the type of multilevel/interdisciplinary style of theatre that reminds me of the efficiency and rigour of the Hollywood system, where studios can churn out work because they are fully set on infrastructure," said Nathanial Tan (P/M). "That's wonderful, but I don't think Singapore will have that for now, since we lack.... the audience? The government? The resources? The care? Regardless, it reminded me of the necessity to consider the economics behind the work as performance makers, and the awesome potential of having a theatre company run like a giant conglomerate hiring hundreds of people. That is the dream."

“[Ostermeier] talked about ‘essence’ and ‘spirit’ a few times during the talk, which are abstract terms, but it says a lot about the trusting relationship the team (and even their society) has in each other to allow growth in their craft and carrying out the responsibility to tell meaningful stories to the audience,” shared Lim Si Qi (P/W).

“[The talks] gave me an insight into the cultural landscape in Germany and the rich infrastructure supporting the theatre ecology there,” added Akanksha Raja (P/W). “It was interesting to me how they have a set number of shows with long runs - in Singapore there's a huge pressure to keep producing new work with runs as brief as one weekend, to three weeks at the most. The histories and contexts of Singapore and Germany are vastly different of course, but there's a lot we can learn from each other.”

The POV participants also heard a different perspective of how a theatre company can be run from Tobias Veit, the Schaubühne's executive director.

After hearing so much about the Schaubühne, the POV participants finally watched An Enemy of the People at the Esplanade Theatre tonight. Their responses to the show are mixed.

"I think Billing [the character played by Moritz Gottwald in the production] was 100% gimmick and it felt like he was aware of that. I like that he took it an ran with it. He was the most alive out of everyone on stage. Well, him and the dog - who really didn't need to be there," quipped Irfan Kasban (P/M). "The problem is this gimmick or farce did not pan well in the context of the play. All the other characters felt undecided, and so it did not work. I also had a problem with the surtitles [and its] timing. And all the actors had the same register so the first half was confusing on top of being too draggy."

“I was extra stoked to watch An Enemy of the People after listening to Tobias’ humanistic description of Schaubühne’s internal working processes the day before. The play did not disappoint,” said Ke Weiliang (P/W). “On the one hand, it was empowering to see audience members actively reacting to Dr. Stockmann’s speech, especially given the sense of propriety that is typically associated with with the Esplanade Theatre. On the other hand, I was touched by the amount of trust that Thomas Ostermeier placed in his cast members to improvise that entire scene according to the audience’s reactions. I hope this will not be the last time that I get to watch a Schaubühne play!”

Shannen Tan (P/M), meanwhile, felt that she learnt more about her own country from the participatory segment. "This performance helped me clarify what “Singaporeaness” is - it is the guy downstairs just wanting to talk about the water."

UPDATE (12 MAY 2018, 2.20PM): Minor corrections, and more participant responses to An Enemy of the People were added.