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'Translocal' Theatre - An Interview with Dr. Benjamin Fowler

Updated: Feb 20, 2020


The following is a brief interview with Dr. Benjamin Fowler (University of Sussex, UK) , regarding his talk: The « Translocal» Traffic of Guest Directors in Europe’s National Theatres.

Thématiques communes : #théâtreeneurope #frontières

At the occasion of the first conference on European Theatre Studies, Dr. Fowler acutely tackles the notion of how we can talk about European theatre by examining it through the lens of "translocal traffic" - or as he discusses below, the mobility of guest directors across Europe that builds over time common theatrical threads. Dr. Fowler then unpacks the many nuances and implications of such a translocalization, which are further teased apart below.

For more information on Dr. Fowler, we invite you to visit his website:

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Hardy: Within your translocal project you identified a number of key directors: notably Simon Stone, Ivo van Hove and Robert Icke. You also pointed out that a large number of these boundary-crossing directors are in fact white and male. In your research, have you come across any directors that have been “valorisés” by the Institution that come from a non-white racial background?

Dr. Benjamin Fowler: In my talk I chose to focus on practitioners who dominate the state-subsidised 'national' or 'state' theatre in cities across Western Europe. I was testing the 'translocal' as a critical framework for making sense of artistic migration between these elite institutions - a phenomenon which over the last decade has gathered pace. The particular translocal activity I am exploring relates to freelance directors who are invited to work with ensembles in languages often foreign to their core creative teams. This includes directors like Simon Stone, Ivo van Hove, Robert Icke, Katie Mitchell, and Thomas Ostermeier, who move between Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK with some frequency. Two theatres in particular function as hubs in these translocal networks - the Schaubühne in Berlin, and the International Theater Amsterdam (following the merger of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam and the Stadsschouwburg), where surtitled performances in English, French, German and Dutch are now habitual, opening the repertoire to cosmopolitan, multi-lingual communities. These theatres also host guest directors from beyond Europe, but the particular pattern I am observing here relates to reciprocal exchanges - Ivo van Hove is as familiar in London and Berlin as he is in Amsterdam, and Katie Mitchell is as likely to be found premiering work in Germany and France as in the UK. Within this network, the trend is overwhelmingly white and - bar Mitchell - male, and it tends to privilege reworkings or adaptations of classical texts. Theatres that are engaging with and striving to reflect the post-migrant demographics of the urban centres in which they are situated - such as the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin - are making exciting work that is less visible from other locations in the translocal network I am sketching out, certainly from my vantage point in the UK. So I'd suggest that the translocal activity I described in this paper reflects the same kinds of institutional and structural inequities that city and state theatres across Europe are struggling to address (and the same can be said of academia and our own discipline) - it will be interesting to follow developments at the 'City Theatre of the Future' at NT Gent, even though its artistic director also fits the profile you identify. 

SH: With regards to whether a production is translocal, I was curious if you could speak to the following - if we assume that national theatre-going publics are largely similar with regards to race, socioeconomic class, and education level across countries, is a production that travels transnationally truly be able to be considered a production that crosses boundaries? 

BF: I think you are right to point to similarities, although I suspect that there may be nuances that distinguish a typical Schaubühne audience from, say, the National Theatre in London. You can easily discern a kind of cultural homogeneity in the work I'm describing - which reflects critiques of a generic 'festivalising' of European theatre that scholars like Ric Knowles, Nicholas Ridout and Joe Kelleher have identified as a legacy of the major festivals like Avignon and Holland. I'm not really thinking about work that tours, though, in what I'm describing as translocal directors theatre. Rather, I'm thinking about directors who travel to work with ensembles in what are to them foreign countries (and often foreign languages). Perhaps that actually serves to further emphasise the homogeneity of the product that is being valorised through such invitations - despite language differences and the fact that local ensembles mediate the work of a foreign director's mise-en-scene, this 'translocal' directors theatre tends to privilege a familiar European canon (even when it is being 'reworked' or subverted) and a realist tendency that is sometimes obscured by what (on the surface) looks like aesthetic innovation or formal radicalism. The directors who are doing something more extreme (e.g. Castorf) are unlikely to feature at the Barbican or London's National Theatre, unlike van Hove - who has crossover appeal in commercial theatre (e.g. in London's West End and even Broadway). I'm interested in thinking about what this translocal practice includes and excludes, and the values and practices that it asserts.

SH: I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts regarding the Americanization aesthetic that was evoked during the Q&A portion of your talk: is this a real phenomenon? Given the multiplicity of American culture, it is interesting to think of how a culture that is based on diversity could potentially interact with a similarly diverse Europe. 

BF: Indeed - I was grateful for this question from the floor, and van Hove's growing success in North America does indicate that the 'generic Western sensibility' of this theatre might be broadened out to include the US. I am interested in the extent to which mainstream global culture (such as so-called 'complex' or 'quality' TV, which is driven by the USA and disseminated internationally through streaming platforms like Netflix) serves as a reference point for these directors. Icke and Stone talk about the HBO series as formative in terms of their attempts to refresh the vocabulary of theatrical realism. In this sense, it's once again a question of whether this produces homogeneity rather than diversity. I think what's interesting about these younger generations of directors and their interest in TV is their acknowledgement that spectatorial habits and modes of attention are being hugely influenced by digital culture. But I need to think more about how that plays into the 'translocal' theatre I explore, and to what extent it indicates an 'Americanisation'.  

SH: Is theatrical boundary crossing increasingly or decreasingly present in the work of younger artistic collectives? 

BF: GobSquad is an interesting example of a German-UK company that has made inroads in the subsidised sector (they worked regularly at the Volksbühne under Castorf). UK companies like Forced Entertainment enjoy strong ties with Europe, and how these will be sustained is an urgent question right now. From my own location, it's uncertain what the impact of Brexit will be on these European transnational flows. I'd be interested to think more about how the idea of 'translocality' might apply to these experimental collectives - and to younger or emerging artists. Perhaps this is a future direction for the research.

-Sean Hardy

November 14, 2018

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