Saturday, October 18, 2008

Report from Thessaloniki: 2008 Europe Theatre Prize

News quickly spread that the husband of German choreographer Sasha Waltz was right outside the auditorium of the Vassiliko Theatre. Since he appeared without advance notice, nobody had expected him to show up and collect his wife's 2008 Europe Theatre Prize for "new theatrical realities," which a multinational jury of European critics, theatre scholars and European Union bureaucrats had agreed to bestow upon her. Due to health problems, Waltz had to be a no-show at the annual award ceremony this past April, held for the second year in a row in the central Macedonian city of Thessaloniki in Greece.

The rules state, unfortunately, that winning artists must personally pick up the European Union Commission-funded prize, if they expect to take home the hefty money (about 20,000 euros) attached to it. Absent her physical presence, Waltz can only cop to having earned the symbolic part of the prize (a certificate plus bragging rights for being recognized as an exemplar of the new avant-garde in Europe). "For statutory and administrative reasons," prize officials stated in a prepared statement, the financial part of Waltz's prize "will be returned to the financing bodies: the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the National Theatre of Northern Greece."

Perhaps "administrative reasons" is the key bureaucratic phrase to take note for those of us who failed to comprehend the rules of a seemingly uncompassionate game. (Wouldn't the prize money be more meaningful to an artist who has recently taken ill?) According to European observers, the organizers of the Europe Theatre Prize are beginning to be strapped for funds; it is not yet clear which ministry of what European city would be able to host and finance next year's five-day event (comprised of a ceremony, a symposium on the winners' works and their performances), if the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki eventually bows out. 

An air of finality and shrugged-off acceptance met this year's edition. Last year the German director Peter Zadek caused an uproad when a letter he wrote was read out, stating that rehearsal commitments had kept him away (one of his actors had cancer and had to drop out). Zadek was subsequently held to have forfeited his share of the top award, worth 60,000 euros, which he shared with the Canadian director and playwright Robert Lepage. This time, no scandal broke out. But irony and disappointment did surround this year's main winner, the French director Patrice Cheareau, feelings of disappointment that grew sharper during the symposia about his work. Celebrated in France, Germany and Italy for his effective use of dramatic spectacle in plays and operas (like Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle at the Bayteurth Festival), Chereau did not present full productions, but was reduced to performing two script-in-hand readings of two plays, the best of which was "La Douleur," a text written by Marguerite Duras, read by Dominique Blanc and Chereau, and directed by Thierry Thieu Niang.

The true excitement of the 2008 Europe Theatre Prize, which was founded in 1986 to recognize individuals and organizations whose work has "contributed to mutual understanding between nations," issued out of the political stances evinced in the assorted other recognitions. The enormously gifted Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who presented his raw, stunning interpretation of Sarah Kane's "Cleansed," generated tremendous heat for his onstage depcitions of violence, sexual identity and taboo subjects. The German theatre collective Rimini Protokoll charmed and intrigued with its "reality-based" brand of theatre (known in Germany as "theater der zeit"), as exemplified by the company's entertaining production of Stefan Kaegi's "Mnemopark," in which four 80-year-old bricoleurs (all regular people and no actors) sketch a portrait of agricultural life in the Swiss alps by means of minimcameroas and an actual 1:87 railway model.

The scene stealers were the members of the Belarus Free Theatre, which was given an honorable mention rather than a real prize, based on a recommendation by Vaclav Havel, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. The award was a recognition of the Minsk-based company's resistance against the oppression of the Belarussian government. Belarus is not a member of the European union, and it is, according to the U.S. State Department, the only dictatorship that still exists in Europe. The Belarusian actors have been harassed, imprisoned and held in constant check by the regime. So this recognition is where the complicated matrix of politics and theatre, dis-united Europe-style, came into clear focus.

Upon receiving their special commendation, the Belarus troupe flashed victory signs on behalf of all their friends still in prison and handed Jack Lang, the former French minister of culture, an EU flag bearing the word "Belarus" on it. Such huge political gestures did not go unnoticed, and they were measured against the artistic qualities of the three shows (the monologue "Generation Jeans," the excerpt-studded tribute "Being Harold Pinter" and the overly long three-acter "Zone of Silence") that the Belarus troupe presented. Many international critics felt that, although the Belarus Free Theatre is being rightly touted as political theatre, not everything they performed at Thessaloniki was of high caliber. Free speech defenders praised the Belarus artists' sincerity and chutzpah in confronting life-and-death matters. 

When Rimini Protokoll suggested that Sasha Waltz's prize money be transferred to the Belarus Free Theater, the British critic and high-ranking Europe Theatre Prize official Ian Herbert retorted that perhaps Rimini Protokoll should considering sharing its winnings with Belarus.

With all this backstage drama and political posturing, aren't you glad there is no such thing as a U.S. Theatre Prize?

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