In Germany, theatre stands in the tradition of being an aesthetic tool for societal critique and a playground for re-thinking society and reflecting on political ideas. Especially during the last years, according to the worldwide political developments affecting the present this understanding of theatre became even more important. But how much of the ideas performed on stage is transferred into the world behind the scenes?
Jakob Weiss is a stage director, based in Berlin, who has had quite a journey through different theatres all over Germany – working as a stage designer before he became a director. In gathering all these insights and experiences, he developed his own understanding of working in a theatre and now pursues another approach to a political practice. Jakob holds a cooperation fellowship between Akademie Schloss Solitude and Württembergische Landesbühne and released two plays in the beginning of 2017: Eine Sommernacht und Die Frau, die gegen Türen rannte. During our interview, we sat in the small atrium at Württembergische Landesbühne in Esslingen, a town close to Stuttgart. Here, everybody knows Jakob, so we stop several times for a chat – where I start to understand Jakob’s strategy not only by listening, but also by witnessing his way of encountering people.
»The beautiful thing about theatre is exactly this notion of cooperation. It is not about searching for a genius idea while sitting alone in a studio, theatre is a social kind of art.«
Judith Engel: Translated into an image, what does your work as a theatre director look like?
Jakob Weiss: It is like driving a car. I know my destination, but I don’t know the way. That’s why the dramaturg sits next to the driver with a map trying to navigate. That’s extremely important because the driver can’t look at the map and drive simultaneously without taking the risk of causing an accident.
JE: Just for clarification, you are the driver?
JW: Yes, the stage director is the driver and the process of developing a play on stage is like going on a journey.
Imagine the time of preparing the rehearsal process like planning a holiday. Let’s say, just hypothetically, that the theatre commissioned me to go to Norway.
I will have a look at the map and think about places worth visiting. To reach these places I need somebody to tell me the way while I’m busy with driving. That’s the task of the dramaturg. On the backseat, the actors are whining and constantly asking »Where are we going to«, »Have we reached the spot yet«? Plus, all technical departments demand to choose the fastest way, because they’re all very busy.
JE: Sounds more like a bus.
JW: Right, it is a bus, a huge bus. At some point the theatre director and the chief dramaturg also join the bus asking »Where are you actually driving to?«, »That’s the wrong way«, »You were supposed to go somewhere else, drive left here«, and then it is up to you to decide if you drive left or right or if you stick with your direction. In the end, if everybody tries to be cooperative, it is usually a very pleasant road trip. The beautiful thing about theatre is exactly this notion of cooperation. It is not about searching for a genius idea while sitting alone in a studio, theatre is a social kind of art. It is, furthermore, not about placing great ideas in a space, but about thinking how to mediate them and meanwhile still being able to consider everything you come across as possibly valuable content. That’s also like traveling: you constantly should be open minded.
»…the process of developing a play on stage is like going on a journey.«
JE: Do you reach your initial aim or is the destination negotiable?
JW: No. That may sound astonishing, but I already have a feeling for the outcome of the play when I read it for the first time. Until now, it never happened that something came out different than I’ve thought of it in the very beginning. I’m always overly well prepared for the phase of rehearsing. That creates a feeling of safety for everybody else. If you manage to convince people of what you are planning to do, it works quite well. During my time as an assistant I was involved in many productions where the aim was completely missing and this created a very tensed atmosphere including a lot of pressure for the actors. Flexibility isn’t wrong, though, I learned during a huge project called »11 Dokumente«, a 24 hour long, collectively produced play with non-professional actors at Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe. The scenes were written during the rehearsals by an author and director and had to be rehearsed immediately. There was no time for preparation. It was more like assembly-line work. A very valuable experience for me to learn, as I said, to be a bit more flexible.