• 24 Aug 2009 /  Articles 6 Comments

    A colleague sent me this article – which further explains why Barrie Kosky feels more at home in Berlin than here.

    Outrageousness, Herr Director, Is a Tough Act to Follow


    (New York Times, 14 January 2007)

    Frank Castorf's production of Kokain (2004)

    Frank Castorf's 2004 production of Kokain

    WHEN the director Frank Castorf was being considered
    to head Berlin’s second largest state-owned theater in 1991, the cultural powerbroker Ivan Nagel urged the German Senate to take a risk on him and his politically minded troupe, saying, “In three years they will either be dead or famous.” Mr. Castorf got the job, and the following year he opened at the Volksbühne, or People’s Theater, with a series of brash productions. Under his direction, actors ignored huge portions of the classical texts they performed, stripped naked, screamed their lines for the duration of five-hour productions, got drunk onstage, dropped out of character, conducted private fights, tossed paint at their public, saw a third of the audience walk out as they spoke two lines at an excruciatingly slow pace, may or may not have induced a theatergoer to drink urine, threw potato salad, immersed themselves in water, recited newspaper reports of Hitler’s last peacetime birthday party, told bad jokes, called the audience East German sellouts and appeared to but did not kill a mouse. After their first season the prestigious magazine Theaterheute (Theater Today) named the Volksbühne Theater of the Year.

    Mr. Castorf and his troupe were famous.

    Now 55, with gray hair and slight stoop, Mr. Castorf is still the director of the Volksbühne. The new contract he signed in November will keep him in place at least until 2008, and most likely through 2013 under the contract’s automatic extension: a remarkable tenure in a city where five-year contracts are often the norm. His innovative use of video on the stage and his radically personal approach to directing have won numerous prizes and inspired a slew of imitators. The extreme director has become mainstream. Such acceptance can present a problem. After you’ve broken all the rules, what comes next? “In the last years he’s had less success,” said Barbara Burckhardt, an editor at Theaterheute. “His method is exhausted.”


    Frank Castorf

    Rüdiger Schaper, the theater critic for the newspaper Tagesspiegel, said: “We’re tired of nudity. He took it all to the limit.” Carl Hegemann, who formerly worked with Mr. Castorf as a dramaturg, said the only endeavor that made sense for him at this point was to direct a traditional play.

    Mr. Castorf acknowledges that the critics, the public and his own theater are fatigued. “Other themes and forms are necessary,” he said in an e-mail message, noting that next year’s season will open with three comedies. Yet he doesn’t seem particularly worried with the future arc of his career. Sitting in his wood-paneled office in front of a framed poster of Stalin, he said he trusted his “eruptive” inner logic to guide him, just as it had done his whole life. He still finds work consuming. He just returned from directing a play in Brazil. His latest piece at the Volksbühne was a shortened version of Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger” (“Hitler’s favorite,” he noted), which he interspersed with texts from Ernst Toller, a Jewish writer who escaped Nazi Germany and hanged himself in a New York City hotel room in 1939. Instead of an orchestra, he used two pianos and a wind quintet. The choir consisted of theater technicians, stage hands, cashiers and other behind-the-scenes workers who came onstage and sang.

    Mr. Castorf, who works almost exclusively with classics, said he only chose pieces to which he felt a connection. As a result the plays, in addition to being densely political and intellectual, are quasi-autobiographical. Leitmotifs, like difficult relationships between men and women, emerge over and over. “From multitudinous personal catastrophes has arisen a certain radical fantasy,” said Mr. Castorf, whose theater is known for its sexy, aggressive actresses. “Men and women and how they treat each other, how physical that is, who wants what from whom — it’s what you find in any psychotherapy. Then it’s dumped recklessly, with humor and sadism, on the stage.”

    “I don’t have to go to an analyst,” he added. (The suggestion that he should was made by one of his biographers, the theater critic Robin Detje, after one particularly long interview with Mr. Castorf.) “I put certain problems I have in the art I make,” the director said. Dr. Hegemann remembered that “one time he hung a life-size doll of himself in the second act, and people still didn’t get it that it was all about him.”

    Meister und Margarita

    Castorf's stage rendition of Bulgakov's novel Meister und Margarita premiered in Vienna in 2002

    Mr. Castorf was born in East Berlin in 1951. His father ran his own store selling window blinds throughout the Communist period. The young Castorf studied theater at Humboldt University in East Berlin. In 1981 he was put in charge of the theater in a provincial East German city, Anklam: either an exile or an opportunity, depending on who is telling the story.His girlfriend was the actress Gabriele Gysi, the daughter of a high-profile Communist politician and a former culture minister. She guided Mr. Castorf’s early career. “I understood the bureaucracy better,” Ms. Gysi said. “As part of an assimilated Jewish family — my mother was a very clever woman who survived the Holocaust — you learn to think in constellations. Otherwise you don’t survive the next pogrom.”

    Meister und Margarita

    Meister und Margarita

    Ms. Gysi invited her father to Mr. Castorf’s politically questionable premieres; when Mr. Castorf was fired from his position as director in Brandenburg in 1979, her brother, Gregor Gysi, a laywer at the time and now a well-known politician, defended Mr. Castorf in a lawsuit. They won the case. While Mr. Castorf wasn’t allowed to work for political reasons for a period, he was never jailed. “I read my Stasi files,” said Mr. Castorf, shrugging. “They were always excusing me. Sort of, ‘Yeah, he’s a nut case, but he’s not really political.’ ” He made ends meet with odd jobs and freelance directing. Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he was back directing plays in Munich and Cologne with the government’s consent.

    Now Mr. Castorf creates one or two new plays each year. The state subsidizes 80 percent of the theater budget, so he does not need to concern himself with making a profit. If the source is a novel, he brings the book to rehearsals and goes through it, chapter by chapter, with his actors. Together they improvise, coming up with what to use and what to strike from the text. At the end of this grueling process the group runs through the improvisations that Mr. Castorf liked best, adding music, other texts, video and more. Mr. Castorf calls this process “piratery — marauding for aesthetic snapshots.” In the end less than a 10th of the original text might remain, something that has led detractors to dub Mr. Castorf the “text wrecker.”

    Castord with artist Jonathan Meese who designed the set for 2006 Meistersinger)

    Castorf with artist Jonathan Meese who designed the set for the 2006 Meistersinger

    His troupe of actors is as unconventional as he is. The core group has been together for more than a decade; some have been with him for 25 years or more. “They’re people other houses don’t take,” Mr. Castorf said of the people he hires. “Other directors say, ‘Oh, they’re too alcoholic,’ or, ‘Oh, he’s a psychopath.’ ” Milan Peschel, one of the actors, said, “Working with Frank, you always learn something new.” Mr. Peschel played Razumihin, Raskolnikov’s friend, in last year’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” At one point during rehearsals Mr. Castorf wanted to find a way to introduce a particular passage from the novel. “We tried for a long time,” Mr. Peschel said. “Frank said: ‘Do this, go over there, come on, help him! O.K., no!’ ”

    The solution? Mr. Castorf had the actor playing Raskolnikov attempt to copulate with a sofa, then had Mr. Peschel pitch in and manually stimulate the Raskolnikov character. “Then we had it,” Mr. Peschel said. So in the production, the characters did just that. Mr. Schaper, of Tagesspiegel, said of Mr. Castorf’s work, “Either it’s really O.K. and fantastic or really stupid.”

    Castorf with Meese and cast of Meistersinger

    Castorf with Meese and cast of Meistersinger

    Of the acting troupe Mr. Schaper said: “The biggest difference is they don’t pretend. They are what they are. They’re drunk or naked or loud — they’re very vulnerable, very much exposed. It has a family feel to it. Everybody knows each other, it’s angry, it’s aggressive, it’s boring.” “When it works,” Mr. Schaper added, “you get this Castorf feeling. You feel free.” He paused a moment. “It’s also a family — a growing family — of Castorf girlfriends.” There is more than one former girlfriend in his ensemble, and they often star (sometimes side by side) in his plays. And Ms. Gysi recently joined the Volksbühne as the artistic director.

    Thomas Aurin's Kean

    Castorf's 2008 production of Thomas Aurin's Kean

    In an e-mail message, Mr. Castorf commented on his reputation as a womanizer: “I like women. A life without women would be atrocious. Eroticism is stimulating — I’m not the only one who knows that.” Ms. Gysi, said she was eager to see what this next stage of life brought for Mr. Castorf. “He’s at an age where you become more reflective,” she said. “I’m very interested to see how he gets older.”

    PS: if you are curious about Jonathan Meese’s work take a look here: some fantastic images.

    PPS: And here’s a review of Castorf’s production of Streetcar

    Williams’ Streetcar Way Off the Tracks—

    Frank Castorf’s Bizarre Endstation Sehnsucht

    from Glenn Loney’s Show Notes (2000)

    AT HOME WITH STAN & STELLA KOWALSKI!–Blanche Dubois tries out the mattress in Salzburg Festival “Streetcar.” Photo: ©Sebastian Hoppe/Salzburg Festival 2000.

    The Berlin Wall began to come down in late November 1989. The German Democratic Republic came tumbling down soon after. Followed by German re-unification, which has been seen as no great blessing by extremists on both sides of the former barrier.

    Nonetheless, there is still one bastion of pro-Socialist & anti-Capitalist theory surviving in the former East Berlin. It is director Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne am Rosa Luxemburg-Platz.

    This was once Erwin Piscator’s theatre, but, avant-gardist though he was, he’d certainly be astonished to see what Castorf customarily does to the classics. The Castorf Method is to deconstruct the texts to the level of often hysterical absurdity.

    Although the Salzburg Festival has customarily mounted its own productions of operas and plays—with guest visits only of orchestras and dance-ensembles—mounting staging-costs and subsiding subsidies have now encouraged co-productions.

    This past summer, Castorf and the Volksbühne shared their antic vision of Tennessee Williams’ Endstation Sehnsucht, as “Streetcar Named Desire” is known in Germanic lands.

    What shocked—and even offended—some conservatives in Salzburg could be savored by Berlin audiences as well. And much less expensively than in Salzburg.

    An indication of what was to come—later in the evening at Salzburg’s neo-baroque Landestheater—was hinted in the pocket-book-like official program. It contained a series of essays on the theme: “Capitalism and Depression.”

    Nowhere was there a cast-list or roster of credits to be found. Only on the last page was there anything immediately relevant: a short bio of Tennessee Williams!

    The list of actors was inserted on a cheap sheet of Xerox paper. So, before the wind blows it away, here’s the list: Stella Kowalski—Kathrin Angerer, Stanley Kowalski—Henry Hübchen, Blanche DuBois—Silvia Rieger, Harold Mitchell—Bernhard Schütz, Eunice Hubbel—Brigitte Cuvelier, and Steve Hubbel—Matthias Matschke.

    As this list suggests, the infamous Poker Night has to be played by three men, not four. Castorf has stripped the play way down, even beyond the essentials.

    As the poker game progresses, the actors flip cards out into the audience. This is mild stuff. In Castorf’s Berlin staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull, some of the cast threw chunks of watermelon and hunks of red meat into the audience—who threw it all back at them.

    The card-players also form a mean combo. Stan plays guitar; Mitch blows a funky trombone, and Steve backs up on bass.

    As Blanche recalls the tragedy of her marriage and the young man’s suicide, she and Stella goose-step, but not to the Varsoviana.

    MITCH SEES RED!–Drugstore Cowboy Mitch pays a call on Blanche in Salzburg updating of Tennessee Williams’ “Endstation Sehnsucht.” Photo: ©Sebastian Hoppe/Salzburg Festival 2000.

    Set & costume-designer Bert Neumann has abetted Castorf’s contemporary vision by devising a modern kitchen—with all the labor-saving appliances—for Stella. Paneled in knotty-pine, it occupies most of the large room—or studio-apartment—that the Kowalskis call home.

    Fortunately, an oversize mattress stage-right is large enough for everyone to sleep on. Including the Hubbells, when they drop in for group-grope sex.

    As has been noted by one critic, the Volksbühne folks like to think “a little bit around the corner.”

    As for “Capitalism and Depression”—the generic title of Castorf’s current series of productions, programs, and exhibitions in his home-theatre—the enfant terrible director admits that Williams’ play is not exactly a theatre-critique of the capitalist system.

    But, he insists, it does focus attention on the effects of that system on individuals: their obsessions, fears, insecurities, lies, self-deceptions, frustrations, and their flights into desire, seeking respite from unhappiness.

    Americans who believe they know the play—and the film—very well would be very surprised to see this production. Stanley makes an unusual entrance, climbing over the wall of their one-room apartment in an ape-suit. He is carrying a yard-long package of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum.

    This image may reinforce Blanche’s view of him as an animal, a primitive. But she would be wrong. He is no vulgar, ignorant Proletarian Polack!

    Castorf has promoted him to a rising advertising executive in his company. He also now has a Significant Past. In Poland, he was a courageous activist in Solidarinocz!

    Maybe it’s Stella who is taste-deficient? She has one of those big-eyed-child Keane portraits on black velvet on the wall.

    At the opening, she’s bare-bosomed, but then she’s at home. Not entirely alone, however, for neighbor Eunice is often at hand. Frequently, Eunice speaks her lines in French, the actress’s native tongue.

    The women enjoy a good sing now and then. “American Pie” is a favorite.

    Blanche arrives with two smart Samsonite suitcases, but no wardrobe trunk. This makes it difficult to Stanley to ransack them for lavish stores of jewels and finery.

    Stanley is as gadget-obsessed as the next upwardly mobile young American man. He has a video-camera mounted in the bathroom, so every detail of activities in that small chamber can be shared with the theatre audience on the TV monitor in the big room.

    This encourages Stella to make a live commercial for the cleanser she’s just applied to Blanche’s fancy dress. After the two have drenched it in Coke.

    When Stella’s labor-pangs begin, Castorf and the video-camera spare the spectators nothing of her agonies.

    For the benefit of those who did not know the play already—as well as for most who thought they did—Castorf has provided an red electronic zipper-board above the set.

    Not only does this provide some English versions of the text and approximate German translations of the characters’ lines, but it also supplies lines which have been deliberately omitted in performance.

    The zipper-board also shares Williams’ stage-directions and indications of mood and atmosphere. It describes subtle changes in the milieu and lighting which are not seen on stage—which never changes. Everything happens in the big room and, via video, the bathroom.

    Mitch even strips for the camera to take a shower. He is so self-conscious about his excessive sweating.

    He is also a neurotic mama’s boy, in the Norman Bates mode. He even wheels a black mummy of his mother on stage in a wheel-chair, in case fans of Psycho miss the point. Mitch also stabs the shower-curtain.

    He’s first seen in cowboy boots and Levi shorts. Later, courting Blanche, he arrives in black cowboy hat, with dark jacket and tie. When he discovers the truth about her past, he beats her with the bouquet he has brought.

    Unfortunately for Blanche, the sordid truth Stan has discovered from his company’s traveling man is scooted across the stage on the zipper-board. For all to read, including the horrified Blanche.

    Castorf and his technicians have some fun with the board and the message. It is played over and over, backwards and forwards, interrupting itself with other fragments of the disclosures.

    Mitch is so outraged at the deception Blanche has practiced on him that he goes on a rampage in the kitchen, smashing everything.

    Seizing a stack of dishes, he uses the top one as a cutting-edge, demolishing the rest of the stack one by one, as he works his way downward. This is a show-stopper, though not in the Williams vein.

    When Stan prepares to rape Blanche, Mitch is also on the big mattress, so he can hold Blanche in place for the sexual assault.

    And there are many more bizarre surprises not suggested in Tennessee Williams’ original. During a bout of sexual ecstasy, the front edge of the entire stage—mattress and all—rises on pistons, so that the actors have to crawl upwards to the front end of the mattress to be seen.

    They take their curtain-calls that way!

    In Castorf’s Seagull staging, he included the figure of the dying Chekhov, often lying on a pile of his works. From time to time, Chekhov murmured: “Ich sterbe. Ich sterbe.”

    Those were actually his Last Words, uttered in a Badenweiler Spa hospital. He was saying: “I’m dying. I’m dying.”

    If he’d taken a good look at the production Castorf put him in, he’d have died at first glance.

    At least Tennessee Williams was spared taking part in the group sex on Stanley and Stella’s big mattress!

    Posted by James Waites @ 10:46 pm

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6 Responses

  • Sarah Says:

    Castorf has had an enormous influence on many directors over many years. I’ve seen a lot of his productions, including his version of Streetcar. Great theatre, and why wouldn’t it be influential. Benedict Andrews’ productions, for example, are full of Castorf touches – the use of TVs in Season at Sarsaparilla, providing views of internal scenes, is pure Carstof. They were a central feature of that Streetcar, for instance. I don’t think there’s anything with any of this. Influence is driver of creativity.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks for that Sarah – I have to admit I was partly tempted to put this story up because ‘Castorf’ was such a good word (cheap joke) given the ‘current situation’ for both Kosky and Andrews. Personally, I see making art/culture like the growth of coral – one bit builds seemingly at random onto another bit – creating great swaying towers over time..

  • Sarah Says:

    I don’t think there’s anything ‘random’ here. Andrews, in particular, has clearly been heavily influenced by Castorf. It’s just that none of the Australian commentary has noticed the many borrowings.

  • James Waites Says:

    This is a problem. We of the commentariat barely get from Sydney to Melbourne and vice versa. I had imagined there were a whole bunch of directors in Europe inspiring Kosky and – notably here – Andrews. I was not aware I had stumbled on such a big influence.Thankyou for pointing this out.

  • epistemysics Says:

    Damn and blast – I hadn’t even heard of Castorf before this article and already he’s done two ideas of mine (somewhat) that were percolating in the grey matter. (Not that that will stop me.) Actually, make that three ideas. Big influence indeed!

    As for this: “after you’ve broken all the rules, what comes next?” Take a deep breath, wait a year or two, and do it all over again? Although I don’t know how pleased I’d be to have paint splashed over me…

  • James Waites Says:

    I already heard he was copying you! It’s in yesterday’s Theaterheute…

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