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Stefanie Carp: on women who disturb

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I first met dramaturge Stefanie Carp in 2019 at the Ruhrtriennale of Germany, where she was the Artistic Director. She was the first female Artistic Director after six male terms. I met her again in Athens where she is Artistic Advisor on foreign productions for the Athens-Epidaurus Festival. One can find her almost every night at Peiraios 260.1Block of theatre stages, in industrial aeria in Athens: http://aefestival.gr/venues/peiraios-260/?lang=en Many times she has just come back from Epidaurus or is about to go there in a matter of hours. She will watch every show, both Greek and foreign, and wait for the artists at the end, trying to know how they felt with the audience and what their thoughts are for the next day. She converses with them in Greek. She reads Greek newspapers, wants to stay updated on the country’s cultural and political affairs. She often startles me with questions I have to admit I am unfit to answer. A love for Exarchia and Astypalea is what connects us. Stefanie Carp is apparently twenty years older than me, yet each time I meet her I can’t help but think she is younger than me.

This interview was recorded during the Athenian heatwave. We sat together outside the Archaeological Museum, in the company of Io -who was the one to start this column and this discussion-, my mother, my daughter, Barbara waiting for us on Kallidromiou to talk about solidarity, Vango, Katerina, Dimitra, Nada, and Angeliki who is expecting. Women with a combined age difference of more than fifty years and yet still talking about the same things. Self-evident things. The editorial board of ACT II dedicates today’s column to Ariadni and Alkis, Io’s and Dimitris’s children, born 58 days ago. We imagine their grown-up world as one where the discussion about women will look like a history lesson rather than a cause for street protest.

 

Stefanie Carp: Feminism today seems to be opening a new chapter, compared to the one of my generation, that started in the ’80s. The difference with today, which I like a lot, is that feminism can be seen as part of a larger unification, reflecting the human need for emancipation. It is part of the demand for a bigger change in society. We don’t need to see it strictly as the reinforcement of women. I think it is part of a generic societal change, including the economic system in which we live. I cannot think of feminism without thinking of the economy and of post-colonial structures. Sometimes, though, I observe the use of language and grammar dominating so much the ideas of feminism, which tends to become more important than the social struggle itself. And then I get a bit nervous. And impatient. Because then the neo-liberals can be very happy when we spend our time with problems that don’t really hurt them.

Ioanna Valsamidou: You mean, we are consumed with dealing with the politically correct language?

Stefanie: Yes. Also, with dividing ourselves. I always think in this context what the great thinker Achille Mbembe said about identity politics. He thinks that it is more important to work on the question of what brings us together, of what we have in common, instead of working on the question of what separates us. Of course, there are many things that divide us, women, men, transgender people. But this division is maybe not the most important. What makes me happy today is that for the first time there is so much power on a universal level. All women in all countries in all cultures seem to rise up. They make an important step. They take positions in professions that were not accessible to them until today. It seems easier for a woman today to say ‘I am a theatre director’ or ‘I will be the artistic director of a theatre’. It tends to become normal. When I started to work in theatre, it was not normal at all. We were very few women widely known as dramaturges. Women that were not only working as assistants but had a kind of a larger vision. We were not so many back then. This has changed a lot and it is beautiful. I must confess that I feel here a bit jealous of the possibilities of the younger generations.

Ioanna: Do you believe that the challenge and fight of your generation was the professional acknowledgement of women?

Stefanie: Not so much. In my generation I personally have never been such an activist feminist myself. I was a member of the 4th International (the Trotskyists). The vision of hardcore feminism was to build a society without men. The question was how to keep men out of their lives, how to have children without men. It was this apodictic way of thinking. Then there was the need to reread and rewrite history. I think women made a big step to change our perspectives. Of course there were in the seventies great women filmmakers and writers. But back in the end of the ’70s and in the early ’80s women were not so keen on making a career, career was in general not that important. The concept of being an outsider was stronger. The leftists wanted to step out of the system, they didn’t want to be part of established structures. Maybe, in the long run, many of them took part in the system, but the utopia remained always outside. If somebody had said ‘you can be a director of a festival in the future’ I would not have liked it. Then, after a certain age, you understand that you cannot reject your whole life, you cannot reject everything. Back then, we did not have the word empowerment, which is so important for feminism now and for all social movements of today. Those who are not in power today say: ‘We want to come into power’. The former generations had the illusion of the hippie influence: to create a world without power, nobody should have power. We did not want to have power ourselves. I think younger generations are different, they want to have power, they want to make a career.

Βack in the end of the ’70s and in the early ’80s women were not so keen on making a career.  The concept of being an outsider was stronger. The leftists wanted to step out of the system. Maybe, in the long run, many of them took part in the system, but the utopia remained always outside. I think younger generations are different, they want to have power.

Ioanna: I don’t know if it is about career, but women today demand equal chances, equal possibilities on all levels.

Stefanie: Yes, exactly. And they are right. Today we measure how many women are active in what profession, on what level of hierarchy and so on. Through numbers we understood that Germany is not such a progressive society, I was impressed. In other European countries women are much more in the forefront. And moreover, this discussion is fortunately not taking place on a European level, but globally. The discussion about women in power is for example at the moment vivid in Latin America, in Argentinian and Chilean theatres, in Iran, in African and Arab countries, everywhere.

Ioanna: It is an ecumenical issue.

Stefanie: Yes, also because in several countries there is still a lot of violence, there is everyday crime against women. Men cannot get away with it so easily anymore. 

Ioanna: Lately, in Greece, crime against women has been a very serious theme. Women try to gain space and speak out loud about violence. Women’s murders are one level of the problem, the final step. But violence exists on many levels. 

Stefanie: In several dimensions. 

Ioanna: Often undercover. 

Stefanie: Αs I try to remember, it is also something that we did not pay enough attention to in the past. Recently, a woman friend and collaborator asked me: ‘Do you remember anything that happened against you in your theatre life?’. In the beginning I said: ‘No, nothing’. But if I face it with a more critical eye, there were many moments that a theatre director would bring a woman into a difficult situation. Back then, we thought that these things happen aside, on your way through theatre. That was the problem, that we just accepted it. Today, sometimes there is a slight exaggeration, we face every move, every little thing, with a critical and suspicious eye. Every new idea has an exaggeration in the beginning. Afterwards, we can make peace, and bring things to a more balanced state. 

Ioanna: We can smoothen the edges afterwards. But exactly this is the reason that the younger generation of women places such importance in expression through language. They demand the change of everyday vocabulary in the first place.

Stefanie: Well, maybe. It is the same thing with racism. We have to clear our everyday language from racist expressions. And it is awkward, how people over 50 show such a resistance. They defend their culture, they defend the power of the white man, I think. Sometimes people ask: ‘Why, why can we not use this word any more?’. They do not understand. Or they don’t want to understand. If somebody feels offended we have to change it. It is like blackfacing. Of course we cannot do it anymore in the theatre. But I remember it was not so long ago that we used blackfacing. We saw it in theatre performances and we did not even think about it. This is micro-racism. And I think, beyond crime and murder, what disturbs us, the women, is this micro-racism. I think we all have experienced it, already as young girls. We have understood that we are second-class persons.

Ioanna: This is true. And this micro-racism does not only refer to sexual harassment, but also to everyday little things. 

Stefanie: Even when a woman gives birth to a boy, the family is sometimes a little bit happier, compared to the birth of a girl.

Ioanna: Wow, is this still a family theme in Germany nowadays? 

Stefanie: I think yes. It is never outspoken. But you can feel it.

Ioanna: Lately, I had a discussion with a woman theatre director of my generation. I claimed that when I was working as a stage manager, at the age of 28, I never faced problems with collaborating, and in a way leading, a group of men theatre technicians. And she answered: ‘Ioanna, it is not the same to be a woman of 180cm and to be a woman of 150cm’. 

Stefanie: Ah… so! Yes, this is possible. 

Ioanna: And she recalled speaking louder sometimes, because, being a short woman herself, everyone in the theatre thought she was a ‘little girl’, who could not give directions. She tried to be heard. And, as a ‘little girl’, she did not have by default the right to have an artistic vision. She received comments on her size like: ‘How is it possible to give birth to so many ideas from such a little brain?’

Stefanie: Possibly. This is something I never liked. Especially when women took former men’s positions and then started to behave like men. Or even adopted the same power rules as men. I’ve always tried to set up another culture of behaviour. But this drives very often to the thought: ‘Oh, she can’t lead’. Many people have unfortunately very authoritarian minds, and need somebody who gives orders, or shows that is capable of giving orders. And when you don’t do it, it makes them nervous.

Ioanna: So, here we come across a social stereotype. That if you are soft and gentle, if you show your sensitivity, then you cannot lead. 

Stefanie: This is something that is changing at the moment. Because, besides feminism, we have this big discussion about hierarchies beside colour and gender. People do not accept any behaviour, not only towards a woman, but any behaviour of power humiliating others. It is not allowed any more. All these men in their positions have to be really careful. They cannot do what they did in the past with the excuse: ‘I am an artist’ or ‘I am a director of a theatre’ or ‘I am famous’. For a long time a stage director was allowed to shout, but not any more. Why do you have to shout to actors or to technicians? For a long time there was the excuse, when somebody behaved ridiculously, or terribly, or sadistically, that ‘he is a genius’. That ‘actors may act better when humiliated’. All this bullshit. It’s over. And I believe this is a good thing.

On the other hand, we have to be really careful to not be captured in the bureaucracy of ‘allowed behaviour’. That could be something dangerous for the arts, especially for the art of theatre. If you get too bureaucratic and controlled all the time, if the standard of appropriate behaviour is more important than the artwork, then this might also become a problem.

Ioanna: I also believe we are in danger of being captured in a hypocritical correct behavioural system. We are in danger of believing more in respectful words, instead of respectful actions, of dealing more with the surface instead of the substance. And maybe in the danger of neglecting, even forgiving, the unspoken, undercover violence, only because it is hidden behind correct words or political texts or feministic artworks. 

Stefanie: It is really tricky to find the way. Creation is often unpredictable, it sometimes has painful sides. But some people in the past had the feeling that they could do whatever they wanted, they practiced their sadistic fantasies, under the headline of ‘it’s art’…

Ioanna: Yes, what a wonderful alibi… 

Stefanie: And it’s good that you are not allowed to do it anymore. I don’t know how it is here, but in Germany some theatre directors lost their jobs recently because people, artists and employees of the theatre said ‘we don’t take that any more’. And that’s ok. But on the other hand, we have to be careful that this is not exploited from the other side. For example, at the moment, theatre directors who want to keep their job need to prove how many women they have as stage directors in their program. We could be trapped in a situation where the sex or the ethnicity of an artist is more important than the artwork. I think this is problematic, namely to categorize the quality of people, instead of looking at the quality of their art. I understand, for the moment it is important that e.g. people of colour are not ignored and not pushed aside. But we have to find a way to the real qualities of art, I think. To find a balance, between men, women, transgender people, people of colour, on the first place. And then to think about what art is.

Ioanna: You suggest that we take more care of the object than of the subject.

Stefanie: The artwork itself. And whether an artwork is good or not should not depend on sex or age or the sexual preferences of the artist. At the moment all these things seem to be more important criteria than the quality of the artwork. They even create the artwork.

Ioanna: I would like to ask a provocative question. You are curating the international programme of the Athens-Εpidaurus Festival. Did you invite more men theatre directors than women this year? 

Stefanie: In the international programme there are as many women as men. We discussed a lot about it, however. I cannot deny an exceptional and innovative artist, because he is a man. I cannot rule out a theatre play directed e.g. by Kornél Mundruczó, because he is a man, and, instead, invite a woman’s direction, even if it is not that good.

We must not forget, women have been pushed aside for ages. How is it possible to have all of a sudden so many women who make fantastic artwork? We need some time, it’s a process.

Ioanna: Women were kind of expelled from the arts for years. For example, in painting, they did not have many chances. A collaborator in the magazine explained to us that collectors did not buy women’s paintings, because their value was supposed to go down, as soon as they got pregnant. What is your experience in theatre?

Stefanie: Women were not expelled. But I would say from my personal experience, that they didn’t feel very invited. Women were always invited to work as organisers, producers, and assistants. But for a long time women had to struggle to make themselves really visible as directors. I think women were not expelled from theatre, but men of my generation thought they should be there, they should work, but they shouldn’t speak. All the ‘genius’ part was reserved for men only. And of course there are always exceptions, like Hannah Ahrendt, who was not in favour of feminism. They write books, but, of course, not as good as the books men write. They write essays, but the real intellectual ideas come from men. For a long time that was the major narrative. That is what I call micro-racism. Women had to fight a lot in the theatres as institutions, which are patriarchally constructed. I remember, when I was announced as the artistic director of a big Festival, the Ruhrtriennale, I had to face these questioning eyes: What is she doing here? I remember there was a corridor with photos of all former artistic directors -there were six artistic directors of the Festival before me- and they were all the same type of Alpha men. All the employees, mostly women, were used to being told what they should and what they should not do. These men acted as ‘big daddies’. And then I arrived. And it was like ‘What?’. They were sceptical and astonished. I believe it is the same for women stage directors, who are confronted with stage technicians and actors. People must first accept that ‘woman fact’. It is not only the politicians who would not like women to direct theatres, I think they don’t care. The artistic community was not ready for that. This has changed extremely within the last three years.

Ioanna: And then, women, when they take a leading position, they have to prove themselves. Sometimes they have to prove they are not elephants.

Stefanie: In every little thing. Let’s say: ‘I will not be ready on time for the premiere, I need two more days of rehearsals for sound and light’. Then if this question is posed by a man, the artistic director of the theatre will say: ‘Let’s see what we can do’. But if a woman questions the same, then the artistic director might say: ‘She is chaotic, she cannot be ready on time’. This is gender disrespect.

Ioanna: I totally agree. We also observe that there is often this phenomenon of the artistic ‘pair’, constructed by a man leader, and a woman supporting him. For example, a man in the position of the stage director, and a woman in the position of the dramaturge. Or when the artistic director of a theatre is a man, then the secretary is often a woman.

Stefanie: The word secretary is not allowed any more. We say assistant.

Ioanna: As far as I know, the word secretary or general secretary is still used in Greece in institutional positions.

Stefanie: This is an absolute no-go. This word disappeared with the invasion of the computer. Because back then, the director would ask his secretary to write letters and answer to his everyday mail. But the younger generation of leaders uses email and answers directly. Nobody needs to write on behalf of them. Secretary is a very conservative word that serves the authority.

I have to admit however, that this pair of man-woman seems to work. As an artistic director myself, for example, I had an assistant who was a man, and that was by far the best collaboration I had.

Ioanna: What do you think about the muse of the director then? 

Stefanie: That’s also a role model. When women were not the secretaries, or the organizers, then sometimes they were the muses. The muse is also very often the dramaturge. And women often decided to be the muse, instead of doing their own artwork. That is our big failure, our mistake and our trap. I am very happy that this mentality is changing.

Sometimes artists think that they have to resolve a problem. But this is not the goal of art. The goal is to challenge emotions, to be courageous to disturb. Art has to matter. Women should not play the role of the good woman.

Ioanna: You speak Greek quite well. Since when have you been visiting Greece?

Stefanie: Constantly since 1976. I lived in Athens for a year, when I was very young, and after that I was coming from time to time to see friends. This year I am often here, due to the Athens-Epidaurus Festival. However, when I say to colleagues in Berlin that I am in Athens, they ask: ‘What are you doing there?’. They think Greece is only a place for holidays, the country of sea and sun and the famous ruins of ancient culture, they don’t understand that this country has a very vivid contemporary society.

Ioanna: Of course, they do not imagine that you are here for work, because they think people in Greece never work. This is one more stereotype. What is your sense of patriarchy in Greece compared to the rest of the world? Do you think patriarchal structures are stronger here? 

Stefanie: No, not at all. I guess it is the same as in other countries. But things are also changing here, I observe. I hear the discussion. Compared to Germany or Austria or Switzerland, countries very much based on patriarchal structures, I don’t get the impression that men in Greece are more dominant. Of course, I did not work in the National Theatre. When you are inside these institutions you have other experiences. But I observe women directors, women artists, they seem to develop. Athens-Epidaurus Festival has a woman artistic director, Katerina Evangelatou, and some other theatres are run by women. 

Ioanna: My few years’ experience in Germany confirms there is not a big difference. Domination of the white man is the same. Women’s needs are the same. Maybe in Greece men are louder sometimes… 

Stefanie: But also women are louder. This is a general habit. (Both laugh.) Maybe in family life, in Greece, there is bigger domination of the man, compared to Germany. I watch on television all these stories of violence. The periphery and countryside in Greece is quite larger than in Germany and the periphery is always more conservative. 

Ioanna: On the other hand, I think in the Mediterranean countries there is also a strong matriarchy. 

Stefanie: Yes, because the mother figure is still important in the South. Maybe women are not so visible in the political or social scene, but they are more visible inside the family. 

Ioanna: In the latest edition of our magazine, our collaborator Io Voulgaraki wrote an article about the difficulties of a mother working in the theatre field. It was very well-recepted.

Stefanie: When you have young children, theatres do not help. In Germany, in this field, we made a bit of progress. When I started to work, the idea was: ‘When you are a woman in theatre you have to choose, either art or family. If you start a family you are out.’ But this has totally changed. Dramaturges who are ten years younger than me often have children. Actresses also. Why not combine art with family? It is too folkloric to have to choose between family and art.

Ioanna: To conclude, what do you think is the key to emancipation for theatre artists?

Stefanie: To make good art. And to make political art, make art that matters and that takes risks. Not to offer to the public something that everyone would like to see, but to have the courage to cause problems. The most important thing for a theatre artist is to highlight a problem that there is no solution for. Sometimes artists think that they have to resolve a problem. But this is not the goal of art. The goal is to challenge emotions, to be courageous to disturb. Art has to matter. Whatever you do, it has to matter.

Ioanna: And the key to emancipation for women theatre artists especially? 

Stefanie: It is the same. Women should not play the role of the good woman. It is better if they are bad women. Bad girls, women, who disturb. In Greece, I watch a lot of nice theatre. Theatre, that wants to please and be beautiful. Comfortable and arty, without being really crazy, black, or anarchic.

 

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