Unforeseen Obstacles – Cultural transfer in theatrical practice

Interculturality as subject and condition of production in theatre

by Henning Bochert

12 April 2014, FAU Erlangen


What is interculturality?

What are we talking about when we speak of interculturality in theatre? I was tempted to expand on that issue, spreading out before you all variations that may come to mind, from guest performances of foreign and foreign language productions abroad, like the Chinese National Theatre that recently performed its production LIVE! with famous actor HuangBo at Deutsches Theater Berlin, or German performances surtitled for potential foreign or otherwise non-German speaking audiences, like schaubühne or now Maxim-Gorki-Theater in Berlin are presenting. Or are we talking about interculturality when a Chinese director stages Ibsen in New York, like Wang Chong did with his most recent production IBSEN IN ONE TAKE? While this question itself is very interesting, I decided to refrain from jumping too deeply into the matter. Really, it’s a can of worms.

For now, let me focus on what we pursued in our own production a few years ago in Erlangen. We felt that we wanted to use this encounter to explore the intercultural aspect on all possible levels of the production.

In summer 2009, our non-profit organisation raum4-netzwerk für künstlerische alltagsbewältigung e. V. was able to win Theater Erlangen to apply for a collaboration with our partner Theatre of Generations – the St. Petersburg Teatr Pokoleniy – in the production SumSum²-eine grenzenlose Liebes- und Sprachverwirrung that had been conceived by raum4. We applied with Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the German Cultural Foundation, for a programme by the name of WANDERLUST, which they had newly advertised to start the following year. After months of apprehensive waiting and immense efforts of preparation, we were very happy to learn in January 2010 that our application had been successful.

1-raum4_Logo_bold_web Pokoleniy_web  logo erlangen



When and where in theatre do we find people of different nationalities and cultures and languages on all production levels collaborating? We will have to admit: never, really. But also: increasingly more often.

A few words about the Wanderlust fund:

With its funding programme, the Cultural Foundation massively intervened in the cultural policy of the federal states, and continues to do so. Its Wanderlust fund, existing from 2010 through 2012, was designed to support the collaboration of German municipal and federal stages with theatre ensembles abroad to form “international theatre partnerships”, throwing the rudder of the theatre landscape sharply towards more internationality on German stages. During these three years, the foundation funded productions with an amount of 5 M euros, of which the so-called mobility portion amounted to anything between a third and half of the production budget, subject to the location of the respective partner theatres, which would be located in France or the Netherlands, but some also came from places as remote as Palestine, India, or even China.

28 German Theatres from 22 German cities as well as their 28 partner theatres from 20 countries worldwide, around 1,300 theatre workers and more than 167,000 people in audiences all over the world were able to profit from the Wanderlust fund during the past five years.

After the programme terminated in 2012, Anita Kerzmann of the Cultural Foundation put the programme to the test in her evaluation, asking:

Did the attitude of theatres’ artistic directors and employees towards international projects change in the course of their collaborations? Were there structural changes within the theatres in the scope of the collaborations? Did the fund reach its goals, and was it able to initiate a cultural policy impulse?

Here are – quite superficially – some of her results:

The evaluation shows that the funding over several years affected most different changes with the vast majority of the theatres involved: 82% of the project managers interviewed mention an “expansion of the horizon“ at their theatres: they described as consequences resulting from the funding: enhanced self-confidence and a more relaxed approach of the directing team regarding international collaborations; enhanced openness of the employees regarding the new orientation of their theatre; and greater motivation for the pertinent increased amount of work. Moreover, the fund was able to initiate impulses in various sectors of the theatre, e.g. creation of the repertory (as with Theater Konstanz), guest performance activities (Puppentheater Halle), usage of available space (Theater Freiburg), or marketing (Theater Heidelberg).

(Source for both quotes: http://www.wanderlust-blog.de/?p=5738 as of 08 April 2014, my own translation)

As you see, these cultural policy investments of the federal government had sustainable effects. Especially in regards to the collaborations with partners from Poland, the programme seemed to have been particularly successful. I may add from my own experience, however, that Poland fulfils the criteria of a common cultural context despite a considerable language barrier, which is also the border towards the Slavonic languages, and secondly maintains an extremely lively theatrical tradition that is structured similar to the German system.

There are a few other programmes supporting international collaborations, but their number is limited. The intervention of the German Cultural Foundation has been responsible for a tangible change in the German theatrical landscape towards more interculturality since 2010. Since 2013, the Robert Bosch Foundation also installed a theatrical exchange programme called Szenenwechsel (Change of Scene), collaborating with the International Theatre Institute, ITI Germany; they only provide mobility funds of up to 15k EUR per project, however.

The projects should promise an intensive cultural exchange and be geared towards a comprehensive collaboration. A thematic as well as practical encounter with the partner country must be visible in the artistic work. The funded projects should develop new realms of experience and reflect other living environments. (…)

In the framework of CHANGE OF SCENE, the funding recognizes costs related to meetings, exchanges and collaborations, as well as the fees for translations and interpreters, the development of productions and projects, rehearsals, traveling costs and accommodations for mutual visits.

(Source: website of the Change of Scene programme under  http://www.szenenwechsel.org/en/forderungausschreibung/directives-du-programme/, as of 08 April 2014)

During its past (and first) year, the Bosch programme supported 10 projects, so the funds disposes of a budget of roughly 150,000 EUR.

In addition to these two, another institution to turn to is the European Cultural Fund, ECF, which offers funding for EU oriented collaborations, and similar to the Bosch Foundation, it focuses on the empowerment of cultural communication within the European context, in the form of a mobility fund from Western to Eastern Europe, or support for collaborations of the Western European countries with those of the Balkan region.



After having roughly sketched the political framework, I will report on our experience with this work in detail. We decided to base our Russian-German production on Laura de Weck’s play SumSum, because a) it is an apparently simple story explicitly not referencing any locations and excluding more complex, superior or even political questions. We b) counted on the text’s applicability both to Russian and German conditions. On the other hand, the short play tells a kind of a love story across national borders (and implicitly across continents), which also made it suitable for our needs. We adapted it to the Russian and German conditions and told it double and at the same time and from each perspective.

SumSum² was a very ambitious project whereas our interests focused on the encounters of the artists within the two production halves on the one hand and between the two parts in the final production on the other. Anita Kerzmann confirmed that, in this respect, our production was the most ambitious in the entire Wanderlust set (at that time).

For the entire collaboration, we had a budget of around 250,000 EUR to spend over the course of three years. This included three phases:

  1. The large production itself,
  2. An exchange of staff for one month each, and
  3. One guest performance of each partner visiting the other.

What was our goal?

We aimed at exposing both our audiences AND all participants of the production to the experience of the other language and culture as intensively as possible.

How did we achieve that?

We mixed both cultures on all production levels:

  • We adapted the original German story, where the non-communication between the characters remains a theatrical assumption, into a real situation where the actors of the Russian and German characters who did not speak each other's language in the play, would in reality not understand each other. That took away from the original comical effect and added both comedy and seriousness on other levels.
  • We developed two versions to reflect the story from both the Russian and the German perspective.
  • Both versions were bilingual and complementary.
  • These two versions were rehearsed with a mixed cast of Russian and German actors and one German director in St. Petersburg in Russia and a Russian director in Erlangen in Germany.
  • We planned to combine these two parts in the final rehearsal stage to make them into one single theatrical event that would tell both stories simultaneously. Since we also had plans for the way this show would be built for the German and the Russian audience respectively, we soon found out that we would need to turn the show around when it would be on stage in Russia. The space there, the Baltiskiy Dom, was also very different from the Erlangen studio stage, so a new stage had to be built, too.

  • We had no idea, what the final show would look like.

What were our expectations?

We counted on the effect of the respective different culture to render a different interpretation of the play, and we also expected these interpretations, together with the differences in the theatrical traditions, to lead to distinctly different presentations on stage.

What were the results?

We were surprised a number of times in the course of the productions. I will relate only four aspects and incidents. While this account may sound more than difficult, I’d like to emphasize that the project was a thrilling, memorable, and educative experience for me. So much so that I felt I needed to follow up with a new raum4 project involving three countries and languages later on.

  • The first situation was of financial nature: the production received its funding from the Cultural Fund in Halle that sent the money in batches to the applying Theater Erlangen. Erlangen is a so-called “Regiebetrieb”, as we learned, meaning that it has no accounting of its own but is a part of Erlangen’s municipal administration. All money going into and out of Theater Erlangen really remains with the city budget and is taken care of by the city treasurer. Whenever money came in from Halle, it just sat on the treasurer’s desk for a few days until it was finally issued and available. Our partner theatre in St. Petersburg also needed money to pay their bills, rent, costumes, actors’ fees, etc. Therefore, they needed to open a bank account that would allow them to receive international funds. The Russian system is even more bureaucratic here. It took more days for the money to arrive in St. Petersburg, and even more until it was available. Now, due to the way our production was structured, the Russian actors working in Erlangen for seven or eight weeks were employed and needed to be paid by Teatr Pokoleniy, but with the money Halle had sent to Erlangen. So their money was actually sent from Erlangen to St. Petersburg and had to be sent back there in order for them to be able to buy food and pay for their living. All of that delayed the process for weeks.
  • The second issue arose from the different theatrical traditions just as we had hoped for, only not always in a good and interesting way. While we in Germany are maybe more familiar with a rehearsal situation where there is an artistic vision on the director’s or the design team's side, this is usually discussed and shaped together with the ensemble. At least there is a basic understanding of the actors sharing a personal and political responsibility for the outcome of the process. Therefore, there may, at times, be a lot of discussion involved in the German rehearsal process. The Russian tradition is, generally speaking, a little more director-oriented and hierarchical. Actors usually do not question or interfere with the artistic concept. Out of these differences, and given the inhibition of communication despite the professional interpreters we hired, a degree of tension and intolerance arose where we had hoped for an encounter nurtured by mutual curiosity.
  • The play includes the role of a priest. It’s not a large role, and the actors Matthias Bernhold and Sergey Mardar had their fun with it. Matthias Bernhold, who also functioned as a musician, tried all sorts of interpretations, used most outrageous costumes and took the part into areas of all confessions that had him at one stage look rather ragged, Shaman-like, performing funny rituals and magic.

  • The artistic director of Teatr Pokoleniy, Danila Korogodsky, eventually pulled the designing team to the side and put into words what many apparently had already thought: we can’t possibly have the Priest appear like a homeless person. If any Russian official got wind of this, it would look like we ridiculed a person representing the church. That will be dangerous for us as a theatre. So we were, for the first time in my career, confronted with the phenomenon of artistic and political censorship. Please bear in mind that this happened in 2010, well before the Pussy Riot incidents, and before Putin and the Orthodox Church took their restorative alliance between church and state to the level it has reached today. We needed to make a decision to cut back on the artistic liberty on the production lest we jeopardize the very existence of our partner theatre. Of course, no secret or political police would have walked in and made arrests. Usually, the fire department closes the place down due to safety issues. Our partner theatre had already lost their previous venue to the fire department in a wave of closing venues in 2009 some of you may recall. We decided that we could not take that risk.
  • The last issue was a very non-political one, a very practical problem. When actors learn their lines, they will also learn the lines of the scene partner and often learn their lines together with them to not only know what they have to say but also memorize when they have to say it. They need to know their cues, be it a light cue, a sound cue, or, most often, a line from the other person on stage. In our case, as with many other Wanderlust productions that involved rather unfamiliar languages, the actors were not able to understand what the other actor said, nor would they initially be able to distinguish even phonetically when the previous line ended and the last cue word was said, so they could deliver their own lines. This small problem proved to be very persistent, and it was only shortly before the final tech rehearsals that the actors did not stop in the middle of the scene and turn to us anymore to ask, Was that it? Is he finished? Did she say my cue already? It took the actors a while until they learned that they must not alter their words one little bit in order for everybody to be able to say their lines right.
  • Our idea of the unconceived, open result backlashed a little bit, because it turned out that, eventually, there were as many expectations in respect to the result as there were participants in the production, and of course, most of them were bound to be disappointed.

We were very much surprised to find that in the resulting production, the differences between to two parts that resulted from different cultural backgrounds were much less visible than we had hoped for. We had counted on this to happen somehow automatically or inevitably due to the two different directors, etc. In retrospect, it seems obvious that precisely the part we were counting on so much should have been prepared much more thoroughly to make it more visible. We had hoped to depict miscommunication by miscommunication – a thrilling thought, but clearly misconceived.

Again: although I focus on the difficulties that came unexpected, this production meant a lot to me. It was rewarding, very satisfying, and lots of fun, too. E more precise report of the production can be found here: Production report SumSum² by dramaturg Henning Bochert in English.



This FAU workshop is also about Chinese theatre, so let me try to also bridge into the realm of Chinese involvements as far as I am familiar with them, which is admittedly very little.

7.0-das_weisse_zimmerAnother production in the Wanderlust framework avoided this trap much more efficiently. DAS WEISSE ZIMMER (The White Chamber) was a collaboration of Theater Paderborn with the Huajuyuan Theatre in Qingdao in 2011. Playwright Andreas Sauter wrote the piece specifically for the occasion, director Maya Fanke won the highest theatrical award in China with it – which was given to a non-Chinese production for the first time. According to his own words, Andreas Sauter had no previous knowledge or experience concerning China at the time, and he wrote the play from that perspective, too. He focused on fairy-tale material. Stefan Keim wrote:

Swiss playwright Andreas Sauter tells the story of a great love torn apart by war. Many movies from the Asian region share that motif. To the western eye, they mostly appear slightly corny, because the actors dive into their emotions unrestrained, violins playing away like there were no tomorrow. None of that on stage. The actors approach the big emotions calmly, softly, almost modestly.

And later:

Many questions remain unanswered in this play, and that is a good thing. Which director Maya Fanke was aware of. She finds a middle-path through stylized and psychological acting. The actors change their roles often, dialogues and narrative texts alternate very naturally. The play almost seems like a particularly well-done prose adaptation, but it was created straight for the stage, more precisely: For this collaboration of the Huajuyuan Theatre in Qingdao with Theater Paderborn.

(Both quotes: http://www.wanderlust-blog.de/?p=4465; my own translations)

They tried to take much of the responsibility for the cultural exchange within this programme off the shoulders of the theatre production itself and offered lectures at the Qingdao University instead, exchanged more staff than we did in SUMSUM², offered workshops and presented a photo exhibition in Paderborn and Qingdao. As a basis for Sauter's play, they used fairy-tale material introduced by the Chinese ensemble about a stolen dragon tooth. According to what the production dramaturg, Maren Simoneit, told me, they also adapted certain parts in the structure of the play, once it was written, to meet Chinese narrative demands and viewing habits. Upon request of the Chinese colleagues, they also changed the behaviour of the main female character in one scene because it would have been unthinkable for her to ask the male character for a kiss in the 1930ies or 1940ies, when that scene was playing.


All this leads us to the crucial question: is theatre transferable at all? Are the contents that theatre produces and the artistic language it chooses intelligible in different cultural contexts? The answer is very clear: it depends.

Theatre that aims to ask socially and politically relevant questions will often be bound to local, regional, or national circumstances. Theatre makers deal with topics that will address the audience at that place and therefore need to relate to their specific environment. This is especially true for political or historical plays in the broadest sense. The spoken word transports social, emotional, or political contexts, or all of these. The audience can decipher these contexts only if it shares them.

The Chinese artists I was able to interview during my first and only visit in the People's Republic in 2010 assume different positions on this grid.

  • The playwright Guo Shixing, who was invited to the Düsseldorf China Festival on Chinese theatre in 2009, and whose play “Toilet” was discussed there, works with forms and subjects that are very exclusively valid for China. His plays are therefore not transparent enough for a non-Chinese audience.
  • Zhao Chuan, head of the Shanghai Grass Stage, was recently invited to a Chinese-German university exchange at the University of Arts Berlin. His approach is interesting: his amateur theatre only works in the Chinese context, but his ensemble and he are often invited to neighbouring Asian countries like Korea or Japan to conduct workshops. As far as I know, their productions never leave mainland China, and their stories and subjects very strictly deal with Chinese local or regional issues. A true people’s theatre committed to the community level.
  • Wang Chong, a young director, has taken his théâtre du rêve expérimental through many Chinese regions, to a number of European festivals, and was recently for a residency in New York City. “I stand on the shoulders of the masters,” the self-assured, young man told me, since he chose European avant-garde material like Peter Handke or Heiner Müller in the beginning and interpreted it admittedly very freely, partly because the German original was unintelligible for him. Meanwhile, his work is internationally successful, because it combines traditional Chinese motifs and contemporary issues with western material and forms. Most recently, he was able to receive attention with several works on and by Ibsen (Ibsen in one take, Peer Gynt, The Master Builder).
  • Another example in this context may be the Chinese National Theatre production TO LIVE! with famous actor HuangBo in the lead role that was most recently shown in Berlin. The production was perfectly fit for an international exchange – in this case with the Berlin Deutsches Theater. It offers an aesthetic that corresponds to German (or international festival) viewing patterns, its show of more than 3 hours running time is an imposing event, the language barrier was overcome by Stefan Christen’s wonderfully mastered surtitles. The artistic focus lies on its poetic quality. One may argue that those in the audience who don’t know Chinese sufficiently well can only guessed at that. The story is a variation on the biblical story of Job, it is moving and melodramatic. More complex historical and political references to the past decades in China are mentioned only superficially, the pressing issues in China are left aside from the start, or the German audience was unable to decipher them.

Which leads us to an open question: how much interculturality can be stuffed into the final show? How much can you really convey to the audience of the cultural differences, of all the exciting things that happen in the scope of your production? If you are working with a script instead of devising your piece, it really is impossible to include many of the incidents that are so significant for the fundamental misunderstandings or even ignorance between the cultural groups involved. So many of the intercultural productions in the Wanderlust framework decided they would use less controversial material to build a production that “works” and confine their expectations regarding the encounter with the other culture to off-stage experiences. While the show itself will most likely benefit, the downside of this is, of course, that the audience cannot share them.

These differences tend to present themselves not so much in the everyday life (even less in an increasingly globalized world), but much more in how the same contexts, cyphers, and processes are weighed. Classical parameters in society are:

  • The role of the genders, or gender politics
  • The role of religion, or its importance in society;
  • The role of state philosophy/the political system and its values (e.g. freedom of speech, free press, etc.).

Different gender concepts lead to differing interpretations of situations both in a given play and off stage. Differences in the societal setup can make situations in the play or in the working environment undecipherable, when, like in England, class awareness is more widely spread than in Germany, or when old age has a different status in society, like maybe in China. Furthermore, our perception of the other culture is shaped by preconceived images of it that need not necessarily be true. Prejudice and cliché are obstacles that keep us from seeing the facts and from really listening to our colleagues or understanding processes or situations – on- or offstage.

Some are quite pessimistic in general in regards to the ability of theatre to mediate between the cultures. Marc Schaefers and Tobias Philippen of the Cologne artist agency schaefersphilippen said a few years ago: theatre is really too local or regional or national an affair to be transported into s foreign context at all. In other words: what may be interesting in Franken, captivating a certain spirit and surfing on current debates, may be utterly meaningless in, say, Toronto or Seoul or Guangdong.

Generally speaking: an intercultural work that really aims at penetrating conflicting fields or taboos and deal with the respective differences, requires a high level of sensibility, patience, and understanding, particularly in the planning phase – and a very thorough, worked-in team to address these issues.

The question of how suitable theatre is to present cultural encounters and the manifold misunderstandings, conflicts, prejudices, etc. involved remains open and is subject to the specific circumstances of the partners, the budget, and the individual participants involved.

I firmly believe that thanks to the nature of collective work and live physical communication with an audience as well as to its tradition of working with signs, symbols, and cyphers, theatre still offers the best conditions possible to explore differing cultures and bridging the gap between them.


Copyright The White Chamber: Theater Paderborn

Copyright all other images: photomaria.ru

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