Opening the Castle Gates

The Burgtheater's new director Martin Kušej wants to reflect contemporary Vienna on stage with a broader palette of languages and culture

With high culture such an integral part of the Austrian identity, there are few positions as coveted and prestigious as director of Vienna’s Burgtheater, the country’s premier stage. One of the oldest and largest theaters in Europe, it has been considered a “national theater” akin to the Comédie-Française ever since Emperor Joseph II elevated its status in 1776, giving it an important place in German-language theater – one it has held ever since. It’s a considerable point of pride for this small nation – Germany may be more powerful and Switzerland richer, but the arts call Austria home.

Yet that notion of a national theater is something that the Burgtheater’s new director Martin Kušej would like to adapt, moving the tradionalist house into a more international, culturally diverse direction.“ The cosmopolitan quality that makes Vienna – this city in the center of Europe – what it is, must be found in the theater, especially in the Burgtheater!” he proudly announced during a press conference in June.

With his inaugural season kicking off in September, Martin Kušej wants the Burgtheater’s program to reflect cosmopolitan Vienna more closely.

Born and raised as part of Carinthia’s Slovenian minority, Kušej has lived diversity, and sees this new direction as an antidote to the current isolationism in Austria and Europe.

“I come from a bilingual area. [Growing up,] the second language was persecuted – you couldn’t admit in public that you spoke another language – and that experience sits deep in me,” Kušej said. “ Thank God things are different now – that was the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. But it’s interesting to connect it to migration. You can speak German perfectly, yet you remain something else – just not Austrian!”

He developed his interest in the theatrical as an altar boy, fascinated by the opulence of Catholic pageantry. His first experiences on stage were thanks to his teacher parents, who – much to his chagrin at the time – regularly placed him in school plays. As an adult and self-conscious about his dialect, he turned to directing, hoping to act once he got through the door. “Which turned out to be a mistake,” he laughs, “I’m really the worst actor you could imagine.”

It may have been a blessing in disguise, astoday, Kušej is one of Austria’s most prolific theater directors, winning two Nestroy awards in 2006 and 2009 and the German theater award Der Faust in 2012. All that has come alongside several invitations to the prestigious Berliner Theatertreffen, a stint as director of drama at the Salzburger Festspiele and a long run as artistic director of Munich’s Residenztheater, from 2011 until now, leaving to take over the Burgtheater.

 

A MIRROR OF VIENNA

His first season reflects those intentions, with guest directors from 13 different countries on the Burgtheater’s four stages; he has also added actors from Iceland, Hungary and Israel to the ensemble, alongside returning favorites (and long time collaborators) like Tobias Moretti and Birgit Minichmayer.

For Kušej, all this is less about multilingualism for its own sake and more about a program that reflects Viennese society. “It’s not so much about speaking many languages on stage, but a certain spirit,” he said. “An attitude toward the foreign, the unknown, the unfamiliar. My impression is that the city has been waiting for this. I was surprised that so many people welcome this and approve.”

The multilingual paradigm is also extended to the Burgtheaterstudio (formerly “Offene Burg”), an initiative that sees the company going out into the city to reach new audiences of all ages, playing in schools, offering workshops and encouraging participation.

A good example of his new program is the season opener at the Akademietheater, Vögel (Birds) by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad. Directed by the Israeli actor (and newly appointed ensemble member) Itay Tiran, it will be performed in English, German, Hebrew and Arabic and subtitled in German.

“It’s such a powerful play, it became a flagship for me, encompassing everything that’s important to me and my team,” Kušej explains, “…how the new Burgtheater deals with multilingualism and questions of identity and origin.” Still, the production is not without challenges, with two actors currently learning Hebrew, assisted by Tiran, who has performed the play in Stuttgart.

 

NEW HORIZONS

The shift plays out in unexpected ways. For example, Kušej despises the Burgtheater’s nickname “die Burg” (which also means “the castle”). He finds this overly martial and defensive, and gives €10 fines to anyone who dares call it that in his presence. He is also exploring the possibility of having non-German passages in selected productions like Dies Irae, Kay Voges’ collaboration with American composer Paul Wallfisch, or This is Venice, a mash-up of Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice.

One of his dreams is to include non-German speaking actors in otherwise German-language productions, citing John Malkovich playing Arthur Schnitzler as an example: “Something with John (Malkovich) would be ideal – when John performs, the house is full. And nobody asks if he just spoke English or German.”

With the influx of international talent, the season is reminiscent of the Wiener Festwochen, a similarity that Kušej recognizes: “It’s not wrong, as we’re orienting ourselves in the international section toward artists that do a lot of festival theater. Let’s see it positively: the Festwochen now occur year-round!”

He’s particularly interested in seeing the audience’s reaction to German director Ulrich Rasche’s version of Euripides’ Die Bakchen (The Bacchai), the season opener, and to his own take on Heinrich von Kleist’s Die Herrmannschlacht. Another highlight is the German-language premiere of Belgian writer/director Anne-Cécile Vandalem’s Tristesses, which she personally reworked with the ensemble. He reserves some special praise for next year’s 2020 oder das Ende (Arbeitstitel) (2020 or the End (working title)), a new piece by playwright Alice Birch directed by Katie Mitchell. Written for the Burgtheater and co-produced by the Wiener Festwochen, he calls the British duo “the hottest and most sought-after dream team in the theater scene right now.”

 

A EUROPEAN THEATER

Still, it’s not always easy to implement major change in such a large and traditional house, which Kušej is the first to admit, fully expecting some blowback from the audience. While the overall reception of his new direction has been quite positive, comments on the internet have been less enthusiastic. “If you look at various blogs, you see a certain fascistoid sediment within society coming to the surface, offended by exactly this sort of thing – which is precisely my intention.”

He also believes the ensemble’s dynamic will change with the new additions. “Not long ago, this would have been unthinkable,” Kušej admitted. “ There was a clique of actors that rejected all things foreign that really only ended about 50 years ago. We’re simply taking the next step. I think that the actors here above all value quality – the art, the craft – and not criteria such as how accent-free is your German.”

However, Kušej stresses that in spite of the changes, German language theater will remain the focus: “You can’t just throw everything overboard. That’s not my intention. It’s more about small beginnings, illustrating something, changing something, setting a new tone.”

The goal is something quintessentially Austrian, yet outward looking and reflective of the city. “It will be a European theater that happens to be in Vienna, and therefore, Austria. I’d prefer the address “Burgtheater, Vienna, Europe.”

Kušej smiles: “How does the saying go? Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

 

Binu Starnegg
Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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