“I came to Berlin in 2011 on a three-month scholarship – that was enough to decide that I wanted to stay.”
Panni Néder is a theater director in Berlin, Germany. We asked her about theater and her life in Berlin and Budapest.
Q: When did you decide to stay in Berlin?
A: I came to Berlin in 2011 on a three-month scholarship. People kept asking whether I would stay. And I saw no opportunities in Budapest so I decided to stay in Berlin. Of course, once I made up my mind to stay in Berlin, I was immediately invited to direct a play in Budapest. Since then, Berlin is my basis and I go when I’m needed.
Q: What do you do?
A: I’m a theater director, I studied in Budapest and Berlin. When I moved here I had to leave some of my credentials behind, so my career in Berlin is still behind of what I already had in Budapest. At home, my graduation work is still running in Vígszínház. In Berlin, I am building up my career, applying for opportunities and my efforts are slowly starting to pay off.
Q: When do you think you will achieve comparable success in Berlin?
A: The two is not comparable. It took me a while to understand that I’m nostalgic about something that I had in Budapest – that doesn’t even exist in Berlin. In Budapest, there is only one university, with five people graduating ever four years. Everyone knows everyone, and there is such a thing as “the theater professionals”. In Berlin, it is not that homogeneous. Just because you are working in theater doesn’t mean you belong to a narrowly defined group – the profession is less inbred. A closed and small group where everyone knows everyone else is the side effect of the small size of the Hungarian theater market. The profession in Berlin, on the other hand, is much freer, diverse – and lonelier. It is not unusual that someone works in the arts – quite the contrary. The warmth of the barn is simply not there in Berlin. But when I realized that, it wasn’t scary – it was liberating.
My aim is now to get my work financed. Within the next two years I would like to be able to apply for funding – have enough reviews, a solid network and connections. I already received great opportunities, I was selected into a personal theater mentorship program with someone who can oversee my development. I also got selected into a talent campus workshop at Theatertreffen, Germany’s biggest theater festival. Both are very exciting and priceless opportunities. Altogether, my mood changes every day. Some days I am very hopeful and see the advancements I made – other days I’m less confident.
A: Fortunately, they are not the kind of people who are nagging me to come home. On the contrary, they keep asking when they can come and visit me. In fact, fifteen members of my family come and visit me in Berlin on my birthday in May. They understand why I found my happiness here.
Q: Does theater run in the family?
A: Not at all. I’m the only one. It all started at 18 when I attended a theater-themed summer camp. It struck me there and then that I have to work in the theater, that I have to become a director. It was decisive. The only other time such a thing happened to me was when I first visited Berlin and I knew that I have to live here. It only happened twice in my life.
Q: What is the difference between theater in Budapest and Berlin?
A: There are many things I like about theater in Hungary, but it is very traditional and classical. What is considered alternative theater in Budapest is considered rather traditional in Berlin. Hungarian theater is still mostly based on classical methods, respects tradition and the traditional formats and genres. As opposed to German theater, where the discourse is constant and more nuanced – even regarding new genres on stage. Experimentation is constant and never ending. Many more genres are born and try to flourish in Berlin. Some German trends as old as 15 years can appear new at home. Even definitions are hard to match with their Hungarian counterparts. ‘Performance’, for instance, has a specific definition in German theater. In Hungary, they simply call ‘performance’ whatever looks a bit chaotic and unlike classical theater. My own genre, autobiographical theater is also new and unheard of in Hungary – but it’s nothing new in Berlin.
Q: What kind of theater do you make? What does it stand for?
A: Autobiographical theater is about personal experiences: participants are not necessarily actors, and they deal with their own, autobiographical stories through theater. The genre, however, is not limited to the public expression of personal stories – it can handle social, political, communal and family influences. It is honest and confrontational, and this is what interests me. I touch upon contemporary issues and current affairs in my plays, whenever there is an opportunity. I believe that real social change starts with the individual, by improving self-respect and internalizing individual social responsibility. And that can be achieved through theater and the communal experience of theater. In personal quality, I am also politically active, organizing protests and demonstrations in Budapest and Berlin. This way I am also still attached to Hungary.
Q: Are people different in Berlin?
A: Absolutely. People are nicer, everyday interactions are smooth, civilized, more enlightened, and well-organized. People take things less personally, their tone is more straightforward, confrontational – but not in an offensive way. People play fewer emotional games and they don’t confuse their roles in situations. Take the example of a public transport ticket inspector. In Berlin, they will check your ticket – nothing personal. In Budapest, they are more likely to step in and out of their roles. They are present as ticket inspectors, but also as a man and an authority. Whereas you are not only a passenger but also a woman and exposed to them. They are more likely to make sexist remarks, and of course, they are more likely to abuse their positions. In Berlin I can’t recall a single situation in which a person of authority would have abused their role. You are free to express your opinions and pursue your rights and interests. This is liberating.
In my own life, I had to face my own lack of self-confidence and insecurities. I still regarded myself with a dose of inferiority complex. Not just as Eastern European but as a Hungarian. Even in theater situations I often catch myself thinking that the Germans are more intelligent, and I project some limitations on myself. But I had to realize it’s just me. People don’t regard me as inferior here, I do that myself. And as a consequence, I limit myself and what I can achieve. And all this comes from the fact that I was brought up in Hungary. In a sense this inferiority complex is hindering my own career and making it in the theater. Then I decided to use it as an artistic tool. I directed a play about my own family – Aschenmutter -, on how we unlearn parental patterns. I also used my own lack of confidence as an artistic question – in my play Wann hast du das letzte Mal auf der Spitze eines Berges Sex gehabt?
The interview has been translated from Hungarian and edited for brevity.
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