In the beginning of October a reknowh director and professor at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies Heiner Goebbels visited Moscow with one of his works, that were shown at Territoriya Festival. We talked with Heiner on the importance of live arts in the time of Internet and technologies, the unique culture of the Institute and the way education process is organised there.
Katya Ganyushina (KG): In the era of virtual reality, era of Internet and technology, why do you think people still need to go to the theatre? Why do we need live performances?
Heiner Goebbels (HG): There are certain dimensions of live experience that virtual reality can never offer. It includes all senses and also the body. It includes something that cannot be described in words or with images or the tools of virtual reality. For me the major point is live involvement of the body of the spectator. That is something that virtual reality lacks of.
Another important term for me is imagination. The most important impact to create anything is to open a space for imagination, I’m not talking about the imagination of the artist but of those who attend a performance. It’s not important that the artist has a lot of fantasy – it’s more important that he creates a space, in which imagination of an audience can take place. And as far as I know in virtual reality – and the term already explains it – they try to illustrate imagination. They try to turn it into pictures, and that is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I’m trying not to occupy this imaginative space. And I think it is rather the interest of virtual reality to pretend representation of a space or of an action and at the same moment to extinguish this potential for the spectator, for the user.
KG: Speaking of the Institute and its unique culture, can you speak about the concept of openness. Where does it come from and why is it important? You do have three programs: Applied Theatre Studies (BA and MA) and Choreography and Performance (MA), which means there is still some separation, isn’t it?
HG: I just founded this third program a few years ago. And as soon as the program is now developed further by Prof. Bojana Kunst the differences between two MA programs are about to disappear. There is only one big difference. Choreography and Performance program is an English speaking program. Of course, there is more a focus on contemporary dance but this is not exclusive at all. And as part of the openness between three programs the students of the Choreography program work together in projects with Applied Theatre Studies students. And those students go to international lectures and seminars. So the borders don’t exist. The initial idea of creating this Institute in the early eighties by polish theatre scholar Andrzej Wirth and Hans-Thies Lehmann was to bring theory and practice on an eye level, in a balance. So they succeeded in combining the qualities of the university with its high theoretical scientific level of intelligent reflections with the qualities of an art school where you have to apply as a student with some artworks to prove your creativity and openness and where you also learn a certain number of skills – like working with sound, video, performing or writing texts. It’s very hard to explain the relationship between theory and practice, but there are certain factors responsible for its success. One is the simultaneity of everyday confrontation between theoretical and artistic practices. The second is the ignorance towards the disciplines. And the third important factor is that we don’t separate different years of education, because students have very different biographies and competences already when they come to us. Maybe there comes a dancer who is already thirty five years old and now he wants to understand what he was doing in his career. So he starts with high knowledge of body control, of dancing, repertoire etc, but he starts as a beginner when it comes to theatre history or theory. On the other hand maybe there is a sound engineer who decides to join us or someone who is eighteen years old who comes directly from the school. And my impression is, when they do projects together – and this is another fourth principle of our institute – they learn from each other as much as they learn from us. We also don’t show them ‘how to do it’. We let them participate in a research, we invite them to research on how theatre could be, and not how it had been done so far.
KG: Can you clarify this a little bit, the way your communication with the students works?
HG: For example: every year I do four or five stage projects and some are defined by their format, for example, staging light. And the aim is to create something where the light is the main protagonist. Maybe there is even nobody on stage, or someone makes a performance with candles, or someone works with video, but only using video as a light, maybe somebody writes a text on light, maybe somebody records the sound of light and composes music out of this. So how they work with light is completely free. This is what I call defined by format or by medium – and it is an investigation, a research on the medium light. On the other side we have projects which are defined by a topic. For example, next week we start a stage project on Heiner Muller: we will read discuss and analyse texts by this author, and then the students are completely free what to do with them. Maybe somebody will stage a piece by Heiner Muller, maybe someone will make a photographic work. But they all deal with the topic, with his writing, writing strategies, his political struggle with literature. They are completely free to choose any format but they have to commit themselves to the topic.
I never propose works more in details because I think that ‘finding an approach’ has to be already a part of the individual access. In this process of working artistically in order to avoid that they do what I like and in order to enable the students to develop their own aesthetics, they have to introduce their concepts to each other on the way. Maybe after two weeks somebody explains his ideas to the others and to me, of course. Then we have a collective discussion and we may understand that some idea is a trap and one month later the person may say “I changed my concept”. So it is very open, frank, direct and respectful process of criticizing each other.
KG: But apart from artistic projects they do have seminars where they learn specific skills, don’t they?
HG: Yes, of course. I didn’t speak about all the courses that deliver skills… for example, the students of the first year, they all go to the sound studios and learn how to work with different sound design programs. Then they go to video studios. They all learn how to hang light, how to program light. And they also have to go to many theoretical seminars – seminars on theatre history, on politics of dancing, on French philosophy or art history. It’s quite a demanding program. But obviously they have enough space to see other stuff and do other stuff themselves.
KG: Are the theoretical studies divided between courses?
HG: There is a division between BA and MA, but if you are very advanced you have no problem to go to an MA class. If you come externally to our Institute, just for the MA, and you don’t have a diploma in theatre studies, you might go to BA courses, as well.
KG: I think the main question in such a program where openness is the centre is that anyway you have to judge somehow at the entrance and at the graduation because you do give bachelor’s or master’s degrees. And how does this happen?
HG: The entrance application is very important. It has three steps. First of all the applicants send us some works, some music or texts or videos or drawings. Then we invite those who are the most promising for the second step: We show them a video of something they haven’t possibly seen or something they have difficulties judging with. This can be a Chinese opera or it can be a performance of Xavier le Roy or some weird performance just with objects. We want to test especially one quality – we want to test the openness for the artistic process. So the possible student sees something he doesn’t know, something strange or something of “the other” that really might irritate him. If he only refers to his stereotypes while saying “oh the music is horrible, I prefer the music of the Lion King” or he says “I hate performers, this is not real theatre!”, when he describes his disgust when something doesn’t fit to his stereotype of what the theatre should be, then we probably will not accept him. So we try to test the openness and after this we have the third step for those who succeed with the second one. We invite him/her for a personal interview for half an hour and we try to find out why he/she wants to study here. And we take about twenty-five people every year.
KG: How does the graduation happen? How does the thesis look like?
HG: Historically they just wrote the thesis; but since I teach at the Institute, since fifteen years, I changed the way of graduation to the possibility to finish with a master work or choreography or a performance. Now a lot of students prefer to do that, but they have to write a documentation, in which they theoretically reflect their work. They can’t skip the theory, they have to do both. It doesn’t mean that they all will become artists. Some of them might continue their university career with a PhD or they work as a curator of a festival, as a dramaturge, critic; and some become artists and even make their living with it. Some don’t, some start to work at a Radio or TV station or in theatres. There is really wide range because we don’t offer a specifically qualified education for certain professions. They have to find their own way, we don’t promise it. Some students find that even before they graduation, because they have many practical experiences and make contacts with the guest professors and work with each other in a team or in other institutions – they are quite lucky with getting a job.
KG: Talking about job for your graduates. I think there is still a classical hierarchy in the theatres. So how do your graduates manage with it after years of rather different environment? And another question is when you started it fifteen years ago I guess it was rather radical and controversial with how the theatre was organized and still is, how you managed with it? As I know there are still people in Germany who says about your graduates “well, they are not qualified enough”.
HG: Yes, of course. When I came to the Institute there was a big pit between our Institute and theatre institutions, and though I have strong critics of the institutional theatre (I could never work there…), I thought this is not good for the students because of the reasons you mentioned before. So together with Hans-Thies Lehmann and Hans Hollmann, a director, we founded the Theatre Academy of Hesse -our region. This is a union of all the theatre related programs in the universities and art schools of our region on one side and all the theatres of the region on the other, so there are about nine or ten theatres and four educational institutions. We got extra money from the Ministery; so now we have nearly half a million euro every year for an early contact between the students and the institutions. The students have early chance to get inside with an internship, and even with a production. And the theatres are more and more interested because they notice that – with their idea of repertoire – they end up in foreseeable artistic dead-end-street. So very often they invite students of Giessen to create projects in their house. It’s always a difficult but important clash between an uncompromisable artistic process and the possibilities of an institution; often the theatre promise everything and in the end it’s very difficult to get it: Time, money and space. But still many students have invitations from these theatres before graduation. So we try to make this pit between the institution and us less and less.
KG: If someone wants to launch such an institution in a very conservative environment which is, for instance, Russia…
HG: Which in these terms is everywhere. Russia is not an exception. I’m travelling with my projects and lectures all over the world and there are probably only two more examples of an Institute like ours. And I also see that the separation between theory and practice, between research and craft regarding theatre, is a worldwide problem and they all know it. It’s an institutionalized separation.
KG: So you think it’s so sustainable because there are institutions that are divided for a long period of time, I mean theoretical and practical?
HG: Since hundred years. I believe they are all nervous now of how this could develop. Some of them were founded already two hundred years ago to produce people who work on the repertoire. If you want to perform a repertoire you need an actress, a singer, a dancer, and instrumentalists who can do that. And you need set designers who can illustrate with a décor a castle or a forest. So the whole idea of founding these institutions was already conservative because it was re-producing staff for the theatre market.
KG: If someone wants to make such an institution as yours where does this person have to start?
HG: Probably you have to convince politicians that the performing arts is an aspect of our life which has to be developed as economy or ecology. And not just repeat it forever as it has been. The state has the responsibility to invest in the future of this artform. We have such a rich theatre landscape in Germany – we have 80 Opera houses, we have nearly 200 theatres, but nevertheless I have to say this to the politicians. I propose to turn at least one of these opera houses in every region into music theatre laboratories. Laboratories that have no ensemble, no tradition of playing every night a piece. Until I say it without success. There is more artistic freedom in dance because there is less money. And this is a double freedom. It’s a freedom of sources but also freedom of obligations. We have less and less dance companies in the state theatres which means the dancers and the choreographers are all thrown on the street which gives them the chance to reinvent their structure. To build their own structures. And that’s why I personally think that contemporary dance is much more advanced than our theatre.
Heiner Goebbels – composer and director. From April 1999 on, Heiner Goebbels works as a professor (and from 2003 until 2011 as a managing director) at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen (Germany). He is in charge of several seminars and artistic projects, as well as cooperative projects with the students of international institutions (in Italy, France, Austria, Denmark, Netherlands etc). The institute is as well dedicated to scientific research as to artistic practice (contemporary theatre and performance) and especially to the possibilities of linking both.