Hebbel am Ufer (HAU)

Bertie Alexander profiles one of Berlin’s leading theatrical institutions…

It’s a wintry Wednesday night in Berlin and I’m people-watching in the Wirtshaus am Ufer (WAU) café-restaurant. Situated on Hallesches Ufer, and directly connected to HAU2 – one of the three venues that make up the collective HAU theatres – the cafe overlooks the Landwehrkanal and is always open whether there are shows running or not.

The crowd tonight is the usual interesting mix of theatrical and literary types as well as those drawn towards the conspicuously bright lights along this quiet stretch of Kreuzberg. After a short while, a tall, slender lady with a mane of mahogany curls walks in; Annemie Vanackere, Artistic Director of HAU Hebbel am Ufer since she took over from her acclaimed predecessor Matthias Lilienthal in 2012.

With a smile and a look around the fairly busy room, Vanackere suggests we move into a side room for a little more peace and quiet. The room is mostly bare save for the animal portraits featured on HAU postcards and posters: a grinning monkey, a suave fox, a tousled looking llama.

“It’s about the perspective of another species,” Vanacker explains, following my eyes, “which is usually not heard about, since it’s not white, male and heterosexual. As Donna Haraway [a professor in Feminist Studies at the University of Santa Cruz] says, it seems that the only ones who can talk about the rainforest are Greenpeace and European and American scientists, but not the ones who actually live in the rainforest.”

Hailing from Belgium and speaking Dutch, French and English but only a little German, Vanackere has spent much of the last three years convincing Berlin’s theatre circles that she can sustain Lilienthal’s legacy and maintain Hau’s place as one of the most important avant-garde theatrical institutions in the city. Fortunately she’d had some experience of such challenges, having worked at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg since the end of 1995, becoming Artistic Director in 2001.

Since taking the reins at Hau, she has orchestrated two successful annual programmes that have deliberately pushed the theatre group in a more international direction; a strategy intended, in her own words, to add “some new accents”. During our conversation, she speaks of Berlin as a “cultural boiling pot”, a city that wears its history like a hair shirt but that is also changing faster than almost any other European city. She explains how it’s this that makes HAU’s work so important, how the theatre’s mission is to engage with the current situation on the streets; not providing answers necessarily but posing yet more questions to its audience in a quest to gain a better comprehension of what’s happening.

In one sense this is a direct continuation of the HAU ethic – a ‘hysterical longing for reality’ as Lilienthal, who was the first to lead the collective HAU (Hebbel am Ufer) theatres back in 2003, once put it. This stretching for a Vernetzung, or interconnectedness, is a form of ‘journalistic’ theatre that cares less for any ‘objective truth’ than in probing curiosity and provocation. Hence HAU’s programmes are packed with an interdisciplinary assortment of plays, dance and music installations, discussion and film, hailing from the far corners of the world. It is a theatre, says Vanackere, “that both fits the time that we live in, but at the same time resists it and brings something to bear on it.”

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Image from Hebbel am Ufer

Before he took over, Lilienthal had already proved himself an innovator. Even in East Berlin, he had moulded the idea of theatre into a more experimental experience, providing space for later big names in German theatre such as Christoph Marthaler and Christoph Schlingensief, and in the early 1990s, was key in re-establishing the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz as a cutting-edge venue.

In 2002 he also served as director of the Theater der Welt festival, the international theatre festival organised by the German arm of the International Theatre Institute, and during his subsequent tenure at HAU, Lilienthal was determined to lead a theatre that was stringently relevant to and for the city of Berlin – in particular immigrant-rich Kreuzberg –by addressing the growing internationalism of the city and focusing on local integrations.

In an interview with Arts Network Japan in 2009, Lilienthal said that because of the huge numbers of Turkish living in the district, HAU would put on “projects involving young Turkish directors, curators, stage artists and actors”, and regarded the theatre as having been “successful in our attempts to treat the immigrant situation in our program through these projects. Opening our doors to this community through our programs dealing with the issues and meaning of the immigrant situation at our theatre is still in itself quite a sensational thing.” He went on to say, ‘by showing the near-sighted German audience something of the things that are happening outside their world, we may have succeeded in opening the possibilities for internationalisation.”

As Berlin’s international community has continued to grow, Vanackere has made a commitment to continue reflecting the multicultural face of the city. HAU’s predisposition and interest towards the role of immigrants to this city helps keep the topic especially relevant in a city where the cultural sphere is becoming less and less exclusively German each year. Even productions sourced from far-flung cultures have a relevance to Berliners, since they are likely to see traces of those cultures each week throughout the city.

In this mission HAU shares many of central concerns with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which opened its doors in 1989 and, like HAU, has become a place where contemporary global issues to be explored through artistic and academic discourse. Situated in a city which has been the stage for some of the most violent and revolutionary events of the last 100 years and fuelled by the huge amounts of young international artists that both live here and visit, both HAU and HKW attempt to be places of expression and orientation in an increasingly complex world, with a focus on education and exploration as much as entertainment. Despite their international portfolios, both institutions remain rooted in the city through their partnerships with local schools.

Vanackere believes that the mix of cultures in Berlin coupled with its liberal nature and cheap living costs has led to a furious production of art that has helped secure Berlin as a major cultural European capital. The majority of the artists performing at HAU, like Vanackere herself, do not own a German passport, but many of them (world-renowned artists such as British visual artist and Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins, Japanese visual artist Yukihiro Taguchi and choreographer Meg Stuart from New Orleans) now call Berlin their home, and have all worked with Vanackere’s Treffpunkte series, which “seeks out locations in Berlin’s city space that are located in the grey zone between the public and the private.”

In October 2014, the international collective andcompany&Co addressed the idea of borders and nationality directly with a musical theatre piece (co-produced by HAU) called Orpheus in der Oberwelt: Eine Schlepperoper. Taking as its starting point the river that runs between Greece and Turkey separating Europe and Asia (Evros in Greek, Meriç in Turkish), the river is situated in the ancient land of Thrace. Down this river Orpheus’ head is said to have floated, singing all the way after being decapitated by Clytaemnestra’s furies. The river is now heavily fortified against illegal immigrants. The production looks at the mythical significance of what is now a no-man’s-land border zone.

Image by Marcus Lieberenz

Shows like these manage the impressive and important feat of bringing together the high art of our common ancestry with the political turbulence of the 10 o’clock news. Far from being purely of speculative interest, such productions have a direct relevance in a city where the topic of immigration is rarely out of the local newspapers. “Everyone in Berlin is aware of what happened at Oranienplatz,” says Vanackere. “The boundaries between the local and the international have become blurred. Evros is here.”

These productions aren’t so much about breaking down barriers, as showing the people of Berlin that such frontiers can kill. Berlin scarcely needs reminding of that in some ways, but considering the recent debates over immigrants in Kreuzberg, questions of borders and boundaries and the dangers of resistance are local as well as international. Indeed, as Berlin grows more and more multicultural, these two spheres become inextricably interconnected; the happenings of the wider world and the day-to-day issues of Berlin feed into one another, sustaining this city’s position as a Treffpunkt itself.

In 2014, with the 25th year anniversary of the fall of the wall, HAU looked at not just the fall of the Berlin Wall but also the rise of the Iron Curtain, inviting the National Centre of Dance Bucharest to take up residency temporarily at HAU. The centre put on productions addressing our conceptions of the geopolitical East and West such as the play American Dream by Moldovan writer-director Nicoleta Esinencu, which charted the story of a girl hoping to make it in America, and who ends up working illegally in Moscow. Personal freedom and social conservatism were confronted in Esinencu’s theatre reportage piece Dear Moldova, can we kiss just a little bit?, where six people spoke about their own sexual orientation and that of people they know.

Off-stage, HAU continues to commission alternative pieces, pushing the boundaries of what is even considered art. November 2014 saw the installation The World While You Drink Your Coffee, where the artist Dan Perjovschi would scan local and international newspapers and blogs, and transfer the articles into visual images while an audience (free to come and go as they wished) watched him at work in WAU. The programmes was made of active and ‘static’ parts, Perjovschi explained: “Active is when I draw on the window and static is when I think, read newspapers, and drink coffee.”

More controversial than Perjovschi was an installation in October 2014 by the Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven entitled Wanna Play? Liebe in Zeiten von Grindr (Love in Times of Grindr). For this installation, Verhoeven placed himself in a trailer at Kreuzberg’s Heinrichplatz , one side of which was a glass wall with semi-transparent curtains. The intention was for Verhoeven to remain in this cabin for 15 days, his only contact to the outside world being through meet-up apps, such as Grindr for men.

Verhoeven was to invite men via the app into the cabin to meet Verhoeven’s non-sexual needs such as discuss childhood memories, cooking breakfast and playing chess. The chats Verhoeven conducted were projected into Heinrichplatz and streamed live on the internet. The idea was to explore the way that smartphone apps for sex dates have changed our love life, in particular the gay scene, and to consider the possibility that after the fight for gay rights in the 70s and 80s, these apps have created a new ‘closet’, hiding homosexual life from public space again.

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The installation was ultimately cut short five days into the project after complaints from the public that Verhoeven was potentially outing the men he was talking to and that their messages were being broadcast without their consent or awareness. One man, assuming that he was going to a private house and then seeing his messages being broadcast on a big screen, entered the cabin to punch Verhoeven, after which he accused the installation of ‘digital rape’.

Following the incident, Verhoeven later wrote on his Facebook page: “I find it regrettable that people actually feel their privacy has been infringed upon. I find the opposition exemplary in a time in which we, as homosexuals, are once again hiding and choosing to express our sexual feelings in (apparent) anonymity.” But after making adaptions to the installation such as further disguising the profile pictures and ensuring that the men were aware from the outset that they were taking part in a piece of art, HAU and Verhoeven eventually decided to shut down the project. A public discussion was held in the theatre with Verhoeven, Vanackere, sexologist Professor Martin Dannecker and dramaturge Eike Wittrock.

It is hard to judge ‘Wanna Play?’ as a success for HAU, but it did reveal the theatre to be as susceptible to the mistakes, transgression and failures of art and cultural exploration as anyone else in this city. When pushing boundaries, the chances of pressing the wrong buttons are large, and the stakes can be high. Though the installation has been regarded by some as a misguided, cynical and – perhaps – rash attempt to shock, the thought process that led to commissioning the piece can be defended as coming from a necessity to ask probing questions through art, and remain relevant in a city saturated with artists, all vying to be seen and heard.

When first coming to Berlin from Rotterdam, Vanackere noticed the apparent paradox of a city full of people that both seem to have a lot of free time, and yet simultaneously are under “insane pressure”. Made up of hosts of young creative who work freelance or with a collection of mini-jobs and ‘projects’, for many there is no Feierabend, no Early Doors where people can switch off after a day’s work.

Instead, in cafés and bars and parks throughout the day and night, what can at first glance appear like daydreamers whiling away the hours between smoking pot on the banks of the Landwehrkanal, may often actually be the attempt to survive on art, responding to the need to continuously produce more and more, both feeding off and competing with all the other artists, not to mention the sustained energy and work required to promote themselves and their work.

In this environment, this furious creation of art pushes institutions like HAU Hebbel am Ufer to keep trying new things, with the aim of remaining a place of inter-social dialogue, where directors, performers in collaboration with the audience work together to create a dialogue to act as a mast of orientation in a world that continues to confuse and surprise.

Avant-garde or not, perhaps HAU should not be seen so much as something leading the city in engaging with the world around us, but instead a theatre confronting the choppy waves and swift currents alongside it, and while doing so providing some kind of haven where we can try to work out what we think about it all. “I am still learning,” Vanackere says. And of course, so is this city.


Image by Jürgen Fehrmann

Together the three Hau locations make an odd ensemble: the grand HAU1, the windswept HAU2 facing the rush of the traffic and the snug and hidden HAU3. But despite their diverse histories, architecture and aesthetics, there is no conceptual differentiation between them; where a production is put on is purely a matter of practicality and logistics.

HAU1 is situated on Stresemannstraße just a short walk down from Hallesches Ufer. The charcoal-coloured building faces the glistening SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) headquarters, with the capital letters HEBBEL THEATER clinging to one side like those of an old-fashioned picture house. The theatre’s impressive Art Nouveau edifice, designed by Oskar Kaufmann, is one of the architect’s earliest and most idiosyncratic pieces, and is justly regarded today as one of the city’s architectural highlights.

Originally called simply Hebbel-Theater after playwright Friedrich Hebbel, the theatre first opened its doors in 1908, under the direction of Eugen Robert. Shortly after opening, the theatre was jeopardized when Robert was beset with personal financial difficulties, which eventually forced him to leave. After a short period of self-management, the theatre was renamed as Theater in der Königgrätzer Straße and went through a number of successive directors, presenting progressive theatre that reflected the popular tastes of Berlin at the time, from operettas to social satire to farce.

When the National Socialists came to power in the 1930s the theatre was put under the general management of the Volksbühne, its artistic freedom greatly restricted. In 1944 a bomb partially destroyed the foyer, but the building was operational again by spring of the following year. Situated in the American Sector after the war, the theatre returned to its original name (Hebbel-Theater) and became the most active theatre in West Berlin. Due to its optimum position in the bombed out city, it became a sold out venue for Western playwrights and international productions, and for a certain period of time, the entrance fee was measured in coal to sustain the heating for the theatre.

In the ’60s the theatre underwent an extensive redesign at the hands of the architect Sigrid Kressmann, who re-cast the interior of the building in pastoral colours and added large glass windows and doors to allow more light into the lobby. Rudolf Külüs led the theatre at this time, bringing in some of the big names of German cinema such as Hans Epskamp, Klaus Schwarzkopf, Harald Juhnke and Rudolf Platte. When Külüs died, the theatre fell under the direction of his wife, the actress Hela Gerber. Though a star on the stage, Gerber proved unable to quell the financial problems that beset the theatre and it was closed in 1978.

In 1988 it was re-opened under the jurisdiction of the German theatre director Nele Hertling. A drama graduate from Berlin’s Humboldt-Universität, Hertling was already a well-respected name in the industry when she began at the Hebbel Theatre. In the same year that West Berlin was to reunify with its other half, Hertling carved Hebbel Theater into an internationales Haus für Koproduktionen und Gastspiele – an international focus that HAU continues to hold dear today.

Hertling’s tenure at Hebbel Theater is also marked by her initiation of Tanz im August in the summer of ‘89. Vanackere describes this moment as an example of Hertling’s “infallible flair for recognizing the right moment.” The festival has become a platform for showcasing the best and most innovative dance each year, and is today the biggest contemporary dance festival in Germany. Hertling is now regarded as one of the founders of modern theatre in Germany, and is the vice president of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. Despite celebrating her 80th birthday earlier this year, Hertling can still be spotted regularly at big opening nights throughout the city.



Perhaps infected by the taste for dance spreading across the city, the Theater am Halleschen Ufer, which would later become HAU2, reopened in May 1992 under the directorship of Hartmut Henne who transformed it into the primary hub for contemporary dance in Berlin. Like Hertling’s Hebbel Theater, in addition to dance Theater am Halleschen Ufer was known for welcoming guest and free theatre groups, with the under title, ‘zentrale Spielstätte der freien Gruppen Berlins’. Over the preceding decades the theatre has become as well-known as its future partner just around the corner. It had been founded in 1962 as Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer.

In 1970 the famous director and playwright Peter Stein took over the theatre. Stein was a prominent member of the 68er Bewegung, the disparate global movement that formed in opposition to – amongst other things – the Vietnam War and in sympathy with the civil rights movement gaining velocity in the USA. Stein, who has now been honoured with a Bundesverdienstkreuz, a Federal Cross of Merit, had reached notoriety two years before in 1968 when he used his production of Peter Weiss’ Vietnam-Diskurs in Munich to raise money for the Vietnamese Liberation Front (the Viet Cong).

Stein was Berlin born and bred having grown up in a Nazi defined world. After the Second World War his father was sentenced to two years hard labour for collaborating with the Nazis. This defined the young Stein and his theatre was to always have a sharply political edge; the team he brought with him to Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer were as much activists as actors. Stein’s placement at the theatre caused stirrings in conservative quarters and after the opening night of Brecht’s Die Mutter, the Süddeutsche Zeitung ran the headline, ‘Zuviel Freiheit für das Theater?’ (‘Too much freedom for the theatre?’).

Theatrical excellence soon squashed such doubts, however, and Stein’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s satirical play Peer Gynt the next year received an ecstatic critical reception. Stein’s expertise and the controversial ‘flat hierarchy’ that Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer practised, with everyone working there having a hand in both the artistic and business management, soon made the theatre group famous beyond the boundaries of the city. However as the theatre became more famous and popular, critics (inevitably) lambasted Stein’s leadership for having become counter-revolutionary.

Stein’s group, under new direction, decamped to Lehniner Platz in 1981, though not before a swansong performance of the Oresti by Aeschylus. In their place arrived a new troupe called Theatermanufaktur Berlin, a small group who principally put on original political pieces. They remained in charge for a decade before Henne reopened the theatre as Theater am Halleschen Ufer, and dance took the place of political debate. In 2003, Theater am Halleschen Ufer joined the Hebbel-Theater (by then re-christened HAU1) as HAU2, part of the newly formed HAU triple whammy.


Image by Jürgen Fehrmann

The smaller Theater am Ufer, a loft in a building over the other side of the canal, was also brought into the group. With little of the dramatic history of the other two theatres, it also was the smallest of the three with space for just 100 people (in comparison with HAU1’s 500 capacity).

Hidden behind the first row of Altbau buildings along Tempelhofer Ufer, the theatre is accessed by following the HAU sign, passing through a second archway towards a charming little cobbled Hinterhof sprouting weeds and packed with bicycles and, usually, empty bottles of Pilsner. The space is at the top of this building, and comes with a bright bar in one corner and some colourful poofs. Its cosiness and the fact it has rehearsal spaces in the same building make it an ideal spot for small scale shows and introducing alternative theatre forms.


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