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Nicolas Stemann

Nicolas Stemann

‘I rarely make ‘well-made’ plays’

by Evelien Lindeboom

The German theatre director Nicolas Stemann is an associate artist at this year’s Holland Festival, together with singer Angélique Kidjo. Works of his to be featured at the festival in June include Kein Licht, Contre-enquêtes and Der Besuch der Alten Dame. A conversation about his work and motivations.

You began your career with music. What did you play, and how does this continue to influence your work?

That is correct, artistically music is my home base. I started playing instruments and writing songs at a very young age. I started with piano, keyboards and guitar. I sang, and I also played drums and bass. In the early nineties, I was in a band called Musik für Alle. We played trashy punk and experimental pop with German lyrics. But we were not very well known and it was before the digital era, so none of it survived. Apart from that, I acted in and directed theatre in secondary school, which somehow helped me survive an unpleasant, mostly dull and boring school time that led to a serious depression when I was in my late teens. 

After I graduated from high school, I was quite lost, did all kinds of jobs - also as a musician, playing in bars and hotels. I studied literature and philosophy, but I had no clue what to do with it. It became serious when I was able to do an internship at a theatre. I was twenty. I had lots of half-developed talents, and I discovered that for me everything came together in theatre: music, philosophy, literature. That all those interests of mine could form something new. It felt like a revelation, and it was a proper way out of a pretty dark phase in my life.

You have a special bond with Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek. The Austrian playwright/novelist is praised for ‘her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.’ How did this bond come about?

It is true we have a special relationship, and I was the first to stage many of her texts. She sometimes even writes with me as the director in mind.

It started quite unexpectedly. She was famous already when I was asked to stage a text of hers. She had written a piece commissioned by the Viennese Burgtheater for legendary German director Einar Schleef, but he died while she was writing it. So the theatre went looking for someone else to direct it. They decided to ask a young and relatively unknown director with a rather different aesthetic from Schleef’s. He was known for his grand gestures, while I’m the opposite. I felt flattered, but I had no idea what to do with the text. I decided to decline the offer, but I did agree to meet Jelinek. She turned out to be extremely kind and funny, and she fully understood that I did not want to do the piece, adding she would have declined herself. It was not an easy text. But she told me that, if I chose to do it anyway, I would have all the freedom I needed and that I could cut up or rewrite the entire text if I felt like it. She also said: you can even make jokes about me! This was all so generous and funny that I decided to give it a try.

How did you then get to work on her text?

That first text, Das Werk (2002), was one I only began to understand during rehearsal. And I do not mean understand in a cerebral way. I even used my confusion and incomprehension regarding the text as a starting point. The first breakthrough was when I asked an actor to read a long monologue out loud so fast he would be unable to think about what it meant. In this way, the energy and language of theatre took on a mind of its own! This was the key to this literature: you do not have to decode or explain it, you can experience it.

I often say I want to understand the text ‘with my knee.’ This is a reference to the German artist Joseph Beuys (‘Ich denke sowieso mit dem Knie’) - it shows understanding is not just in the head. We found much pleasure and depth in the work this way. Apart from being highly intelligent, Jelinek’s texts are often satirical and outright funny. You often fail to notice this straight away because it is quite complex, for example often referring to philosophers like Heidegger and Greek mythology. This makes it seem as if it is all entirely serious while she actually has a great sense of humour.

So I did everything she told me: I changed a lot and made the piece my own. But when she came to attend a rehearsal, I was nervous - would she really be on board? Luckily, she said she had never felt understood this well afterwards. We have worked together regularly ever since. And still I never ask her anything substantive about her texts. I do not want her to explain her work to me. I think she appreciates this. She says: ‘I know what I wrote, but I want to see what other people read into it on stage.’ So it may occur that I misunderstand the text, or that we go against the text on stage. This only makes it interesting!

Besides working with texts Jelinek wrote, you also make quite different works - from existing classic pieces to contemporary novel adaptations. How do you start a new project?

The most important thing for me is that it has depth to it. I rarely make ‘well-made plays.’ Though as a spectator I have a weakness for boulevard and musical theatre, and when I write plays myself I like to use this form. I have written proper dialogue plays as well as musicals (based on Atlas shrugged by Ayn Rand). But if I take a classic piece, I do this in order to discover new things there; I always look for what I do not know or understand yet. Entering a new project is comparable to the start of a new relationship: you intuitively trust it will develop in unpredictable and interesting directions. It is like falling in love.

For example, when I decided to make Faust I - II, this was not because of any particular subject. It was the challenge of Goethe’s famous work in its totality that appealed to me. It is a grand and classic work from the 18th/19th century, but in the process I discovered how topical it is. It is about contemporary issues, like speed as the cause of problems, for starters, or the invention of paper money: the onset of modern capitalism. And it ends with an ecological catastrophe: everything gets polluted. Goethe saw all this coming.

You say you look for ‘other things’ that you do not yet understand. How do you go about finding these things? And when do you know you have found it?

I enjoy visiting places where I no longer entirely understand things and where I am no longer fully in control. To get there, I make sure there is tension between different elements. Der Besuch der alten Dame, for example, is an existing piece written for a cast of over thirty actors. I decided to make an adaptation of it with a cast of only two actors, opting deliberately not to follow the concept. What happens on stage is not an illustration of the text but something else. This friction between two things that do not quite fit with each other results in tension and an interesting energy. It forces me and the actors to find solutions beyond the conventional and the text to reveal aspects that probably even the author was not aware of. For me, this is what makes theatre interesting and valuable today.

How much room is there in your work for improvisation and real events?

There is always a lot of improvisation during rehearsals. I do not like forcing actors to follow my ideas and prefer to give them plenty of space. This would cause some confusion, especially in the beginning of my career. Older, or more conventional actors wanted me to tell them what to do, and I kept saying: ‘I do not know what you can do, but I can help you find out.’ I also think it is great when an actor does not know himself where his acts lead. In this respect, the way I work is quite the opposite of the more traditional Stanislavski method that I was trained in at theatre school, which requires actors to always have a clear goal in mind. I prefer the theatrical process to be uncertain and surprising.

Whether and to what extent there is improvisation during the performance as well very much depends on the piece. Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns, for example, which was also written by Jelinek, is about a financial scandal in Austria. Around the time we performed it, the Lehman Brothers investment bank failed: the ‘Lehman crash.’ People were looking for answers to the question of how to deal with the problems surrounding capitalism. I had already directed the piece but decided to break it open again to allow current events in. Thus, it turned into a three to five-hour improvisation that was different every time.

Other pieces are far more structured and pre-rehearsed. But even then there is still room for improvisation. Because theatre is a living thing, and unexpected things can always happen. I feel it is in the combination of these two things that the power of theatre lies: the composition and the live element, the ability to improvise. There is wisdom in theatre. What takes place there and, in that moment, really is a utopian moment in time.

Kein Licht (2011/2012/2017), the opera you made together with composer Philippe Manoury, based on a text by Jelinek, is based on the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Can you explain what this is about?

The first two parts of Kein Licht were inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but the story is highly abstract. There are lots of metaphors that refer to music. This is why I decided to make an opera out of it. Philippe, the composer, went on to call it a ‘Thinkspiel,’ a variation on the opera genre ‘Singspiel’ to indicate it has a deeper layer, beyond emotions and music - something to think about. It starts with Fukushima but then expands into the theme of exploitation and the destruction of nature and the planet in general. Ironically just now in January 2022, the European Commission declared nuclear power to be a ‘green technology’ - leading right to the unresolved paradox of the classical ecological movement: there will be no solution without profound changes to the economic system and our way of living. There is no easy way out, and considering the urgent existential conflict this is highly problematic.

In 2017 it mainly addressed the rise of Donald Trump, but we are planning an update for the 2022 Holland Festival.

Your work is often highly socially engaged and political. For example, Kein Licht has a clear message about man-made climate change. Do you strive to bring about political or social change through your work?

Not just Kein Licht, but Der Besuch der Alten Dame and Faust in some sense are all about the destructive power of capitalism and the ecological catastrophe we are facing. Clearly this is a burning issue and I feel artists have a part to play in generating awareness about this. And apart from that, I feel the theatre industry has to reflect on how it can become more sustainable artistically itself. Because live performances require a lot of energy.

Can you tell something about Contre-enquêtes?

Contre-enquêtes is about post-colonial themes, namely the French-Algerian history. This is a delicate subject, long time highly suppressed in French society for a long time. The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud took a monumental novel, L'Étranger (The Stranger), written by a monumental writer and thinker, Albert Camus, and asked the question: why does the Arab who is killed in the novel not have a name? And he tells the story from the other side: not from the ‘absurd’ perspective of the assassin but from that of the victim’s brother. With this plain and simple artistic decision, it highlights the scandal of colonialism: some people are not considered human beings, simply ignored and forgotten, even by leftwing thinkers and so-called humanists!

While I was busy with this project, the question arose: who are we to tell this story? Who can play these characters? This is part of an important and highly current debate about identity politics. I wanted to consider these questions not as problems but as productive subjects for theatre. We play with the actors’ real and enacted identities, until you no longer know what is real and what is acted (both of their family backgrounds are related to this history, but from different sides). I feel this is an important work at this moment because it deals with these real and pressing matters.

And do you wish to answer these questions as well? Do you have an ideology yourself? Do you see yourself as an activist trying to achieve something in society?

I have to admit that I am suspicious of ideology. Ideology is important for political action but dangerous if it is mistaken for the ultimate truth - and as a guiding principle for art it is useless. We are now living in an age that is becoming more ideological, which often means putting simple ideas above the complexity of life. This tends towards totalitarian thinking, and I have always aimed at deconstructing this in my work as an artist.

So I would consider my work to be political but not activistic - though I sometimes lend my work to activist causes We once performed Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns when the Occupy movement was camping right outside the theatre, so we invited the protestors in and did a performance with them on stage. But there are far more activistic theatre makers than me. I feel art loses its potency when it becomes too political. Currently art is at great risk of being hijacked by political agendas, so I seek to defend art’s autonomy. I like to keep up with current events and political subjects and make statements, but in the form of art.