A stage for art and social cohesion. The Maxim Gorki Theater connects cultural diversity to creation

The Maxim Gorki Theater is Berlin’s most international and political theatre. In order to have an update coming straight out of the institution, Dominic Hartmann, a Swiss actor that has been working there since autumn 2019, tells me about his experience in a world where performing arts embrace cultural issues and where boundaries are meant to be blasted. A brief but impressive insight about the myths and truths surrounding the Maxim Gorki Theater and about life as a young actor in Berlin.

A big poster at the entrance of the Maxim Gorki Theater, inviting to see Šejla Kamerić’s exhibition Bosnian Girl at the fourth Herbstsalon © Maxim_GORKI_THEATER/INSTAGRAM

When Dominic Hartmann picks up my Skype call, he seems all smiley and peaceful. I am actually having a lot of free time at the moment since I am currently not rehearsing, which is quite unusual for me, regardless of whether I am working at Schauspielhaus Zürich or at the Maxim Gorki Theater. But I am good! he answers, sitting in one of these wide spaces with high ceilings that are so typical for Berlin. Dressed all in black and wearing a black cap, his looks suits the minimalist place. Hartmann is currently part of a play called Herzstück (piece of heart) by Heiner Müller, directed by the German director Sebastian Nübling. The German author, well-known for his non-conventional writing, is a challenge for any director trying to adapt his powerful texts on stage. Herzstück was the opening premiere of the season. It’s a very short play about these two individuals finding themselves and wanting to give each other a piece of their heart, but it turns out their heart has become a brick. Sebastian Nübling and the dramaturge proposed to have the whole show revolve the question of what it means to have a brick instead of a heart? Hartmann tells me enthusiastically. the Maxim Gorki Theater has always been famous for digging deep into the circumstances of the political realities surrounding us. Herzstück is a metaphor for walls and work. They connected the whole essence of the piece to the topic of capitalism and its structures, and to the question of how an individual can fail in these systems. It’s also about never giving up, and work, work, work despite the cruelty of the system. The piece is about wanting to give something in life and not only consume.

“Every show has to be suitable to the actual zeitgeist and be politically accurate”

The Maxim Gorki Theater is deeply committed to promoting social cohesion. The theatre is well-known for its will to establish a place in which political issues will be discussed and artistically respresented. In the very beginning of its existence, its primary focus lied on subjects related to migrants, integration challenges and on the ambivalences and paradoxes of integration policies. Back in the fifties, the post WWII – era, its thematic focus made the theatre an innovative place in Germany, that got called migrant theater. Nowadays, the Maxim Gorki Theater has evolved into a place in which the represented contents are no longer specific to migrant problems only, but offer a broader confrontation of political issues such as capitalism criticism, feminism and postcolonial theories. It has also grown into a more hybrid theatre, embracing experimental performing arts as well as more classical ways of directing, and also including artists from other artistic backgrounds like visual arts or photography, such as Ersan Mondtag or Esra Rotthoff.  I didn’t know it before, but now I do feel and experience that the Maxim Gorki Theater is determined politically, it definitely has a dominating political drive. Every show has to be in a way that makes it suitable to the actual zeitgeist and they have to be politically accurate, so-to-speak. There has to be something about the plays that shows a contemporary issue, that mirrors a current fight in politics or in the world in general, comments Hartmann.

The collective gathering of ideas is valued more than the classical hierachical role of a male director guiding his crew

Not only are the subjects of the selected plays different than in other German theatres, but the whole structure of the employees is unusual too: there are way less hiearchies within the directors, dramaturges, actors, scenographers, etc. The spirit of the theatre is more drawn to collective working and to the collective gathering of ideas rather than emphasizing the traditional hierarchical role of a male director commanding over his crew. For Herzstück, for example, we developed everything together, so the whole crew was constantly present on all days. But this is a play based on real collective kind of working. For me, basically, I have a routine outside of my work routine, which gives me enough stability to be free and open-minded within my work at the theatre. I give myself a bigger frame so I can stay free and spontaneous and not feel to dependent when I am at work. This bigger frame gives me freedom of moving in any other frame. Another particularity of the theatre is that it launched the Exile Ensemble, with the idea of ​​designing a theatre where disadvantaged people from other countries, who are no longer able to work in their homeland due to political persecution, have access to the Maxim Gorki Theater and find a new purpose. The Exile Ensemble, which is now a regular part of the theatre, is for sure an indicator for their openess and for their internationality, says Hartmann.

A scene from Herzstück by Heiner Müller, directed by Sebastian Nübling © Annette Riedl

“Having a different cultural background isn’t even questionned. It’s the norm.”

Part of the Maxim Gorki Theater’s fame lies in the creation of its Berliner Herbstsalon (eng. Berlin Autumn Salon), a festival that invites artists from abroad, to show their work. Especially young curators from all over the world, for example people from Myanmar with the ambition to create an open a queer library café. They manage to gather people who probably wouldn’t ever find each other in such a context – But this philosophy of the Maxim Gorki Theater is very contemporary in my point of view, open. Sometimes a bit radical, but nevertheless very warmhearted. It’s a nice place to be. People are really kind, explains Hartmann, smiling softly. It’s also this mindset of co-thinking, co-creating, co-designing the space that relies on sympathy and participation. The multicultural side of the place is felt when entering the canteen and hearing any kinds of languages. You’ll find different perceptions, different politics, different ways of living instead of a bunch of people with a homogenic background.Having a different cultural background isn’t even questionned. It’s the norm.The living and thinking vocabulary, so-to-speak, isn’t the same for all members, so there are are lots of so-called vocabularies, language-wise, culture-wise, thinking-wise and even behaving-wise which I think is quite nice because it widens your repertoire as a human being, which is fabulous. The actual directors and dramaturges all happen to come from or have studied in different places –  Israel for Yeal Ronen, Croatia for Oliver Frjilic, Turkey for Nurkan Erpulat and Hakan Savas Mican, Argentina for Lola Arias, etc.

Ali tries to leave gender, language, countries behind, until she understands: there’s no moving on if she doesn’t know what came before. ©Maxim_GORKI_THEATER/INSTAGRAM

“There are just too many opportunities.”

Dominic Hartmann praises the openmindness of the teams he’d been working with, emphasizing his own ability to contribute to the set up of the show. When I had to rehearse for Die Verlobung in St-Domingo, I had found this long red dress and I told the crew: I’m gonna play in that dress, no matter what comes. And everybody was like “sure, go and take that dress!” But this mindset is actually not only typical for the Maxim Gorki Theater; it also seems to apply to living in Berlin in general: One huge advantage as a young artist in Berlin is that you have plenty of possibilities, a lot to do, it is so easy to meet and connect with people in so many different places. But this is also the disadvantage: there are just too many opportunities, I sometimes feel similar to a little kid you let in the candy store; you tell that kid : you can go and have it all !! Berlin has always been known for being a very accessible place for young artists. The question is whether these opportunities go further than simply celebrating a place where having fun and many connections is considered normal. However, in order to succeed – there like everywhere else – one still has to be outstanding, lucky and perseverant; and it seems more than obvious that meeting many people will never be enough. The city has become so utterly overhyped during the last decades, that it may also be hard to find its own place in life and this society constantly embracing new ideas, people and emerging artists. Questioned about his future plans, Dominic Hartmann does not hesitate for a second; Not losing myself. Trying to be open enough for whatever might come. Of course I could tell you: I want to be financially safe in 2021, but this is not what counts the most to me. So zeitgeistlich!

Interview by Chloé Laure

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