Martine Dennewald is currently artistic director of Festival Theaterformen in Germany. She discovered her love of theater as a teenager in Luxembourg. Her interest led her to move to Germany to obtain a degree in dramaturgy and later to London where she received a degree in arts management. She has since worked at theaters and festivals in Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Germany.
Martine enjoys learning new languages, doing yoga and dancing tango. When she isn’t traveling the world to see plays, she divides her time between Frankfurt, Hannover and Braunschweig.
How did you first become interested in theater? What drew you to theater to begin with?
Well, I took music lessons at the conservatory in Luxembourg growing up, and I noticed they had drama classes as well. So I figured I’d try. I found out I was a terrible actress but I loved the cultural medium. My interest developed over the years. At the beginning it was more of a fascination with actors and how they transform themselves. I thought they were really cool – it just takes one look at the media to see how fascinated people are by actors.
Of course that feeling wanes over time and you learn about artistic styles and how directors work. From there I developed an interest in the workings of theater as an institution. I enjoyed learning about where and how theater thrives and where it doesn’t.
Can you tell me a little about what you do and how leadership skills come into play in your everyday life?
I’ve been the artistic director of Festival Theaterformen for almost two years now. It’s an international theater festival that was founded in 1990, a joint project of two German state theaters (Hannover and Braunschweig), so it takes place in both cities alternately: in Hannover in odd years and in Braunschweig in even years. I work with a small team of five people throughout the year. As we near the festival, however, the team grows. Starting in February we’re 10 and then, gradually, there are the people in charge of hospitality, the technicians, box office and front of house staff. So towards the end I’m not even sure how many people there are that I need to manage. The festival, which takes place in June/July, is made possible by a large number of people, not least the artists, who are the last to arrive.
What does a typical work day look like for you? I suppose it changes as you near the festival…
A typical day is difficult to describe. What I sometimes do is describe a typical week, which works quite well. This relates to weeks outside the festival period, not during the festival which lasts eleven days.
So during a typical week I try to spend a few days in Hannover/Braunschweig with the team in the office and I’ll also have a few appointments. Then I travel about once a week. It can be to far-flung places but it can also be to Paris or Berlin. When I travel I go see plays in the evenings of course or there’s an all-day program where I see performances throughout the day. I often meet up with other artists, curators, journalists or the like.
So you divide your time between Frankfurt, Hannover, Braunschweig and other places?
Yes, I’m based in Frankfurt but often travel during the weekend and then of course spend a few days a week with my team. It changes a lot from one week to the other.
So your job consists of seeing plays in various parts of the world and then select some to invite to perform during the festival? Do you determine the festival program?
Exactly. That’s my main task and the most visible part of my job. The other part is running a business in a way. Even though we’re part of the Staatstheater we’re artistically independent. That means our work includes relations with the press, audience, institutions and the urban community in Hannover/Braunschweig. In that context I have to think about how to root the festival in the cultural landscape and how to communicate with these communities. All that needs to be considered.
So you’re also responsible for communicating with the press and audience?
Not quite. I have two team members and an intern who do that but I’m still the face of the festival. So in the grand scheme of things I’m replaceable but, on a smaller scale, sometimes I’m not. During those moments I need to step in and explain why we do things the way we do.
Who else is on your team?
There are two people and an intern in the PR office. In my office there’s another team member and an intern. There are two producers, a business manager, a freelance technical manager and a freelance curator for the concert program. I don’t develop the concert programs because I don’t know anything about pop-music.
How do you function as a team?
Our offices consist of three rooms, basically, so that’s where we work. We have team meetings at least every two weeks – sometimes once a week – that are based on my schedule because I have to travel. Of course 10 people is a small team, so many things are agreed upon in short conversations in the hallway or per email.
All these departments work very independently. I decide on the artistic program and a vision, but they take it from there. They know what to do.
How did you prepare for this job? What other jobs did you have that prepared you to be artistic director of a festival?
That started in college. I studied dramaturgy, an area which deals with the content of theater: what it is and how it works. After that I studied arts management in London. The path then leads you through different stages. First you’re an assistant at a theater, then a dramaturg…
I was lucky to have worked with both festivals and theaters in different countries. These experiences were extremely valuable. In theater, there are rehearsals and performances every day. It’s where the performances come to life and you get a good feel for the requirements of various productions and what it takes for them to work. You also get to experience how your decisions affect the production.
During my time at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt for example, we were responsible, to a certain degree, for shaping the landscape of independent theater and how artists live: how much they get paid and when, which rehearsal and performance facilities the theater provides etc. Even if your part is small, you still contribute to shaping these things and that’s something you become very aware of when you work in a theater.
A festival is more relaxed in some ways because you invite the artists, they perform and they leave. It’s more a short-term, limited responsibility with regards to the artists, but one to be aware of nonetheless.
Did you have any mentors who particularly influenced you?
Yes, absolutely. My time in London for example was pivotal in that regard because of the people I met but also because at the time people in London were already addressing questions like: What is arts management? How do you develop management values that foster great work? That discussion was already quite developed at the time but I felt like in the rest of Europe it was less so. That’s also one of the reasons I did my master’s degree in London.
At the time, these questions had led to a greater professionalization of British theater, something I didn’t really see in Germany. This doesn’t mean that German theater isn’t professional. But things like set working hours for all staff existed in London but didn’t – and in some cases still don’t – exist for the core artistic staff in Germany. You’re there until 4am if the director says so.
So it was a great environment to think about things like leadership and management principles.
Are there specific principles that you have internalized and apply?
Sure, I think examples might illustrate this best.
I interned at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill and the artistic director was very young. Probably as old as I am now. Her name was Erica Whyman and she’s now vice-president of the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the time she ran the Gate Theatre, a small theater in Notting Hill. It was a fringe theater that had made an artistic name for itself. It fit about 50 people and there was little money. Like many arts institutions, they applied for grants from the Arts Council every year and sometimes relied on patrons. Their offices were in a cellar across the street. Overall, precarious conditions.
But she managed to make the theater stand out artistically. She was a director herself and kept the team going. The team was underpaid and nobody really knew what was going to happen in the long run. She made it all work by taking every single person seriously, by communicating well, being open and transparent. Communication was essential for her. Even as an intern, I felt valued. I knew that I was contributing to making this whole thing a success.
So that was extremely important.
Then I joined the London International Festival of Theater (LIFT) which left a huge impression on me because when I got there it had existed for 20 years and was being led by two women, Rose Fenton and Lucy Neal. They founded the festival when they were about 20! As young graduates they realized that despite London’s excellent theater scene, very few international productions actually came to London. At the time people didn’t really know what was happening outside of Great Britain in that context. They wanted to change that. So when they were 20 or 21 they decided: let’s start an international festival!
At the beginning, it wasn’t a huge festival of course. Initially it was called Student Theater Festival, I think. It grew over time and they’d been running it for over twenty years when I got there.
One of the principles they adhered to was that every person is equally important. They did a wide variety of projects including community theater, so that a differently abled person from a community theater and a Buddhist monk saying a prayer on opening night as well as the star director from Italy were valued in the same way. That attitude is definitely reflected in the festival.
These things must have shaped you and your work profoundly…
Well, I try to incorporate them but nobody is perfect. Sometimes things go wrong and our presence of mind is limited. When ten people are sitting in front of you and you want to give each one individual attention, that’s not the easiest thing to accomplish.
You mentioned the importance placed on communication at the Gate Theater. How do you communicate with your team?
Some things are very basic: make sure you listen to everyone, make sure you check in with everyone (and don’t forget just because there isn’t a pressing issue you need to discuss with a particular person), be aware of how everyone is doing, what state of mind they’re in. Do they have too much work? Not enough? How much work do I assign to whom? Things like that. Do they still feel good at their job? Are they given enough opportunities to contribute?
The goal is not for me to determine and control everything. Sometimes I tend to want to control too much, but I really try to reign that in because it’s meant to be their project as much as mine.
How do you deal with conflict?
There haven’t been any extreme conflicts. We’ve had differing opinions, which is normal and good. Often I’ll come up with an idea and the technical director will say: well, that’s not really going to work because there are safety guidelines (laughs). Or something will be too expensive etc. There are many practical aspects that need to be discussed and it’s my team’s role to tell me what could or could not work.
I’ve been really lucky with this team because we discuss each problem objectively and then look for solutions.
I’ve been there for almost two years now but some of the team members have been with the festival much longer. It’s typical for festivals in Germany to simply not renew staff contracts when there’s a new artistic director. The new artistic director will put together his or her own team. I made a deliberate choice to keep the same people. Firstly, they’re excellent at what they do and secondly, they are very knowledgeable about this particular festival and the two cities it takes place in, which has turned out to be invaluable.
Did they accept you as new director even though they were there before you?
You’d have to ask them (laughs). But from what I can tell, they’ve accepted me. I knew my predecessor, Anja Dirks, and she was very generous and explained things to me. Her help certainly contributed to making it a smooth transition.
By now one is on parental leave, another got an interesting job offer somewhere else, so it’s not exactly the same team it was at the beginning. Things develop.
From what you said it seems that everyone has different contracts and people are coming and going based on those contracts, so it seems like a very fluid working environment. Is that impression correct?
The five people that make up the core team are all on staff. The others have temporary contracts. Two people are independent contractors and the others are regular employees of the Staatstheater.
What kind of challenges arise in this fluid working environment?
It’s a challenge but at the same time it’s also something people here are used to. They’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s also very enriching.
There’s a moment when the team expands from five to ten people. So that’s a week when work might feel more challenging but people get used to it very quickly. We’ll have a lot of loud discussions for about two days and then things start to settle.
The other thing is that Germany might be a big country within Europe but its theater world is relatively small. Often you’ll already know someone from somewhere or at the very least they’ll have worked with people you already know. So it already feels familiar.
What kind of leadership challenges did you encounter when you started this job?
There are minor things like the technical director saying I should use a mic whenever I speak in public because I have a chirpy voice, apparently!
I’m also younger than most of the others here. I’m younger than the people in my core team, with the exception of my assistant, which is a little unusual. It works well, though. That’s the really great thing about this team. We focus on work, on the festival. None of us wants to create interpersonal or hierarchical conflict. We all care way too much about theater to do that.
Yes, I’m really lucky. One of the challenges was to be new in a city and having to build a certain standing really quickly. The funny thing is that your position partly does that and you don’t have to fight for it, but sometimes it’s like you’re entering a vacuum that you’re expected to fill. Simply because that’s the nature of the situation and related to the expectations people place on the leader. You’re expected to be present, speak up etc. The other side of that coin is that you have to make sure to get in touch with a lot of people and make sure you communicate what it is you want. To the press, the leaders of other cultural organizations, the Cultural Department of the City, people at universities. You have to be in touch with all of them.
What kind of relationship do you, as artistic director, have with these organizations and people? How are they involved in the festival?
The cities of Hannover and Braunschweig as well as the region of Lower Saxony are amongst our main patrons. Many others are occasional contacts. It’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with them. We don’t have to talk all the time. It’s just important to be on the same page. It’s important to know what the Sprengel Museum does for example, the vision of its director, what’s important to him. It’s about establishing and being a part of a creative dialogue within the city. So we need to understand where we, the festival, stand within that conversation.
And that’s different from growing up in a city and then getting a job there. I came in as an outsider knowing I’d have four years and I’d just have to figure it out. Also, since the festival is held in Hannover one year and in Braunschweig the next, there’s really very little time to meet with everyone and develop this conversation.
When you say “where we stand within that conversation”, what does that mean specifically? You said you’re artistically independent as a festival, but are there any expectations or guidelines?
No, there are no guidelines except of course the fact that the festival is quite renowned. But that’s also what I mean with positioning ourselves within that conversation. There is a dance festival Tanztheater International for example and there’s a music festival KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen. The fact that both exist already places mine within a context. I know someone is looking for choreography, but it doesn’t mean that I can never include a dance piece in our festival. It does mean, however, that I talk to my counterpart at the dance festival and coordinate with her. And you also get a sense of the other artistic director’s taste in art. We have different tastes. These are rarely official discussions, we’ll just meet up or talk over the phone and share what we’re working on.
How do you handle conflict in those situations?
Well, the best thing that can happen is to have different tastes, of course. My counterpart at the dance festival has a strong dance background whereas I have a theater/performance background. But choreography has been a leading topic in the conversation on performing arts in the past ten to fifteen years. Ideas on aesthetics, amongst others, led to new developments. That’s why choreography plays such an important role even for theater artists. That’s why I don’t think it should be excluded from a theater festival.
How do you select the artists you invite to perform? Are there any criteria? Or does it just depend on what you like?
They’re not always separate, criteria and taste. Sometimes they intersect. The program is influenced by two things, really. One is the performances I see and the results of my research. Of course I have certain criteria for my research but there are also things I come across by chance. I might travel somewhere to go see a certain play but I also happen see another one while I’m there and end up liking that second one.
An important factor in my decision-making process is the makeup of the festival. What range do you want to show and which genres are represented? Of course every festival is different. With Theaterformen we can’t do a purely avant-garde theater festival but we can include some avant-garde perspectives. So that’s one of the things I have to consider. Also, some performers come from far away like Chile or South Africa, so you think about what’s relevant for the audience in Hannover. Some performances are very much rooted in a local context which makes it difficult for outsiders to relate to. If you invite a production like that, the audience won’t know what to do with it.
It’s a pity because these plays can be great. For example, I recently saw an excellent play from Buenos Aires on video: five performers, one with a guitar. One by one they told their stories at a pretty quick pace. Both the writing and the performances were beautiful. So I thought, OK, if I bring this to Hannover there are going to be surtitles which means the audience has to read them non-stop and the interaction between the performers would be lost. That’s something you can’t do. It just doesn’t work.
So these are some of the things you have to think about.
The question about criteria is difficult because I could give you five criteria right now and you’d still find plays in our program that won’t adhere to those criteria. One thing I’ve noticed repeatedly is that a great work of art makes up its own rules. We’re not there to fulfill our audience’s expectations because their expectations are based on what they have already seen. We have to introduce something new, something different. For me as an audience member, that’s one of the wonderful things about art. You walk into a museum and you see something that wasn’t even possible before it came into existence. That only works because art constantly reinvents or recomposes its own rules. And art is capable of communicating its rules because otherwise it’s inaccessible. That’s the beautiful thing.
So my criteria are very much based on where theater is headed and how it develops.
Are there aspects of your work you find frustrating? How do you deal with those?
One of the things I find incredibly frustrating is that I can’t see every play out there. It’s awful! I have this craving to find out as much as I can. I think that compared to other festivals we do a lot of research, request a lot of videos, watch a lot of videos, read a lot of reviews, delve into sometimes odd theater scenes where we can’t read the language, nothing is translated, we’re trying to figure out things with Google translate, maybe commission a translation etc. So we make huge efforts in that sense and it still feels like there is never enough time to really dig into it.
It’s frustrating to see the pile of things you want to watch sitting on your desk and you just don’t have time. Our brain capacity is terribly limited. You can’t watch an endless number of Polish videos when you don’t speak Polish. It leaves you with the feeling that you don’t do justice to the stage director. So that’s difficult but I have to accept that I can’t do everything. I always try to learn new languages but of course it’s never enough.
The other thing is that I’m never in one place for very long. I travel to go see plays, often in countries I don’t know and I feel like I’d need at least two weeks to get a sense of the place. Two weeks isn’t much. But even that is rarely possible.
You have to organize these things way in advance. Last fall for example I got a grant from the Saison Foundation to be in Tokyo for one month. But that’s something I can do once every two years, maybe.
So you were in Tokyo for one month to go see plays? Knowing you, I’m sure you tried learning Japanese before going, right?
Yes and yes. I took and still take individual classes with a teacher in Frankfurt.
Did you learn to write and speak? Or just basic communication?
Both writing and speaking. The beautiful writing is one of the wonderful things about the Japanese language. And I’m a visual learner, it helps me to write things down and know what they look like.
So you learned the language with the goal to go to the theater in Japan and understand a play?
Rudimentary understanding, yes. The basics.
That’s pretty cool! Whether it worked or not. The effort and goal must have been stimulating, interesting and exciting. Especially learning a language that works so differently from the languages you know.
Definitely, it opens new doors and horizons. And it seemed not to be too complicated, grammatically speaking. But that’s just a beginner’s point of view!
Maybe it’s similar to Mandarin in that regard.
You use words one after the other and add particles in between or at the end.
Yes, exactly. Does having a goal motivate you, then? Did the plays in Tokyo motivate you to learn Japanese?
Yes, absolutely. I suppose the opposite would be process-oriented. I’m definitely goal-oriented. I don’t think one’s better than the other.
They’re just different.
So how do you set goals? Do you have long-term goals, short-term goals? Or is it more an inner process you don’t really verbalize?
Well, my work determines that partially because I need to know now what we’re going to do next year.
So I need to set certain long-term goals. Last year for example I knew that our 2016 festival was going to have an East-Asian emphasis.
Hence your trip to Japan…
It’s all planned out. So we’ll have guests from Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. It’ll be expensive because they come from far away and the Singaporean production is already expensive in itself. We need to apply for external funding which takes about a year and half. So you have to plan ahead. It’s a lengthy process but if you don’t do it, it doesn’t work.
How did you decide on East-Asia?
Many factors come into play. My predecessor, Anja Dirks, invited performances from many African countries and it’s the festival’s tradition to invite artists from other continents. So you think about what you’re interested in. I know a little about South American theater but I didn’t know much about Asia. So I started watching things, finding out which artists work where, figuring out what I like, what’s translatable. That’s how I started finding out about artists I thought would be a good fit. And then one day you wake up and think: oh, that’s right, East-Asian focus!
And then it’s really a lot of work to put everything together in a way that makes sense to an outsider. That requires a lot of content-related work, reading, talking with people…so that the internal structure of the festival makes sense.
We’re also thinking about framing the whole thing academically by adding a symposium in collaboration with a university institute.
What kind of symposium would that be?
I’m meeting with a professor who focuses on contemporary East-Asian theater. Many focus on traditional culture, so it’s important to find someone who specializes in contemporary theater. Together we’ll think about what academics to invite, what subjects to talk about etc.
What tips do you have for young people interested in theater?
Keep your eyes open and don’t stop looking until you’ve found something that’s important to you. And don’t expect things to happen immediately. It takes a long time. Because once you’re done with your studies, there’s a big hole. It’s important that you believe in yourself. And talk to people. That helped me early on. Ask yourself, where are the people who do what I want to do (or who do something similar) and then get yourself there. At the beginning it doesn’t matter in what capacity as long as you get an internship with the right people. Those are the people who will notice your interests, give good advice, put you in touch with the right people. That’s essential. And then you take it step by step. It always takes more time than we’d like.
Header photo ©Katrin Ribbe