The Wiener Festwochen bring the bleeding edge in theater

by Michael Bernstein & Dardis McNamee


Vienna is a city of theaters – there are 104 active stages for drama, music theater and cabaret currently listed on the city’s website, not counting the opera houses and concert halls. It’s a centuries long love affair, ever since the Jesuits first staged morality plays in the 15th century to win the faithful back from the Protestants. As Vienna-born journalist Paul Hofmann wrote in The Viennese, through the years, “stage action in any form [has] satisfied the Viennese craving for make-believe, dream life, façade, intrigue and Schmäh.”

In search of Relevance
But even in a city overflowing with cultural attractions, the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival), holds pride of place, showcasing at the highest level new plays by leading Austrian dramatists, new approaches to traditional work, and guest performances from across Europe and beyond, providing a window on the international theater world.

The festival spans six weeks in May and June each year, an explosion of fresh creative energy at the end of a long winter season of opera, theater, concerts and gala balls and wrapping up before the open air summer festivals start. It’s a miracle in a way that the festival can grab anyone’s attention at all. Yet throughout its long history, the Festwochen have consistently presented the year’s most innovative selection of music, drama, and performance. And the public notices.

First launched in the 1920s under socialist Red Vienna – including a 1929 staging by Max Reinhardt of Dantons Tod in the Arkadenhof of the Rathaus – it was in 1951 during the Allies’ post-war occupation that Wiener Festwochen were reestablished in their current form. With the city still badly scarred from WWII (the Staatsoper didn’t reopen until 1955), the Festival was an important statement of Vienna’s commitment to reclaiming international cultural relevance.



Since then, the festival has continued to look outward across its borders, finding the pulse of the present. Today it stages new Austrian and international works in a wide range of contemporary and traditional artistic forms, attracting some 180,000 visitors each year.

The Festival took on the new millennium with provocative Swiss director Luc Bondy as Intendant, (director), who spent 11 years drawing mixed reactions from the city’s cultural elite. Now, though, most look back with appreciation and pride at Bondy’s innovative programming, which combined new productions of popular classics with premieres of contemporary works.

The current Intendant, respected pianist Markus Hinterhäuser, will be leaving after this season to take over the Salzburg Festival, to be succeeded by Tomas Zierhofer-Kin, director of the Donaufestival in Krems.

Eroeffnung2014_4879_02©WF-MikeRanzAll the city’s a stage
The festival traditionally opens with a free outdoor concert on Rathausplatz (The 2015 Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Vienna preempted this event last year). This year’s televised concert (May 13), titled “Blech.Blas.Musik.Tanz” (Brass.Band.Music.Dance), promises a mash-up of traditional and modern folk and classical music. The theatrical puppetry of Nikolaus Habjan (who also happens to be a world-class whistler) will stitch together the evening’s musical performances.

36 productions originating from 25 countries follow, including 4 world premieres and 2 new productions, including the festival’s top bill: Beethoven’s Fidelio, freed from the prison of its traditional staging by acclaimed Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov in his Vienna debut (premiering on June 14th at the Theater an der Wien).

The Passenger (photo: Oper Frankfurt/Barbara Aumüller)

Another opera dealing with the theme of liberation, The Passenger by Polish-Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg, tells the story of a holocaust survivor as she emigrates to Brazil in the 1950’s. Its Vienna premiere will be on May 19th at the Theater an der Wien.

The drama program, curated by Russian theater scholar and critic Marina Davydova, consists almost entirely of foreign productions in their original languages, including Romanian, Farsi, Croatian, and Italian; however Gorky’s Dugne will be performed in Lithuanian, Wilde’s Ideal Husband in Russian, and Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Russian sign language. (Most shows will have German supertitles.)



The most innovative events of this festival transcend genre, medium and even language. There are too many to list here (so check the festival’s website for listings, as well as Metropole online’s recommendations), but a few bear mentioning for their sheer audacity (or simply because German fluency is not required):

Mount Olympus. To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy, a marathon dramatic dance performance conceived, choreographed and directed by multidisciplinary artist Jan Fabre, will begin on May 21st at 19:30 and end 24 hours later! Spectators can come and go at will and bring in food, drink – perhaps a pillow and pajamas.


Another test of endurance takes place at the Künstlerhaus on Karlsplatz (which also serves as the festival’s gathering point, event space and ticket office). From May 14 to 22, the Russian-Brazilian performance artist Fyodor Pavlov-­Andreevich and eight other artists will take turns creating “performative” events inside their individual area on Fyodor’s Performance Carousel, a round stage rotated by spectators on stationary bikes.

Fyodor's Performance Carousel (photo: Guta Galli)
Fyodor’s Performance Carousel (photo: Guta Galli)


Both of these events are restricted to audiences 16 and older, but kids might enjoy Dark Circus, an avant-garde shadow-puppet play (wordless) staged by Jean-Baptiste Maillet and Romain Bermond, musicians and stage designers known as STEREOPTIK (June 4-6, brut).


Recently appointed the Director of Lisbon’s National Theater, Portuguese playwright and actor Tiago Rodrigues performs a monologue By heart (in English) at the Schauspielhaus from June 17-19, where he’ll invite 10 volunteers on stage to learn Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 together (in German).


British actor/director Simon McBurney, co-founder of the Complicite Theater Company, will transport his audience on a storytelling “trip” down the Amazon in his solo show, The Encounter, which premiered at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival and will play at the MQ from June 2 -5.


While the Festwochen can now claim the laurels of time-honored institutions, these weeks continue to offer fresh perspectives and challenging ideas. The festival remains true to its beginnings, relevant and open to the world of international theater.