Premieres, world premieres…

… European premieres, premieres in the German speaking areas: These etiquettes play a role in programming – depending on the institution (festival or venue) and on local political situations. In a way they are the unwanted flipside of co-production: For festivals co-producing is not necessarily a core duty. You can do a perfect looking festival without co-producing. Actually you can do an even better looking festival without it: Just invite shows which you have seen and are convinced of. No risk except your personal flaws of taste. But for many festivals fortunately co-producing is a cultural political credo: If you don’t invest in new work, where should it come from, especially when other funds for artists are getting less.

steirischer herbst as a festival has an a bit specific situation. For more then forty years it is considered and supposed to be a festival of premieres. That this comes from a very different time, from a different view (since theatre did not use to be a main strand in the festival) and from a certain cluelessness regarding the production reality of international theatre and dance work. It might also be related to a certain minority complex of a rather small city. (I remember a Hamburg paper proudly reporting that Matthias von Hartz brought a show from Avignon to his Summer Festival. That would not happen in Graz. People would rather say: Why wasn’t the premiere here?!).

Maybe we could or should have abandoned this notion of premieres when we re-launched the festival. But on the other hand: Premieres are for politicians, critics but also for a normal audience an argument to co-produce artists from all over the world. They are considered a sign, that the festival is unique, that the programmers are in close touch with artists, that they are part of a process of development of art. We know, that the reality might be different: Sometimes you get a premiere without much effort, another time you are involved from the very beginning but the premiere ends up somewhere else due only to pragmatic (for example calendar) reasons. But that’s not exactly easy to communicate.

So steirischer herbst stuck to the idea that we need a certain amount of premieres. As a visible sign that we are not just a shopping festival. As a sign that the festival is not just exchangeable. As a sign that it is important to produce and co-produce artistic work. For artists this is of course a problem: You can premiere a show only once. The concept of world premieres enhances the economical pressure put on the performing arts. In reaction to that, the notion of the premiere gets more and more playfully undermined: William Forsythe or Nature Theater of Oklahoma just continue working after the premiere as if it was just another rehearsal.  Others agree to pre-premieres, showings, works-in-progress that are totally finished, just to follow or refuse the logic of the label.

Some years ago, I just started being a curator, Nature Theater of Oklahoma was just a rumour among some colleagues at Under The Radar festival in New York. Almost no one had seen their work. They performed “No Dice”, but it was only half official announced as some kind of showing. Happening in a studio somewhere downtown. Not even a sign at the door. In the audience only programmers from Europe. During the break some were still unsure, what this was… but some of us were totally certain that this was the most interesting stuff we had seen in a while. So I thought: If it’s a game, let’s play this. Everybody will want to have this show. So it obviously is a game, who will present it first. The “European Premiere”. I went straight to Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, said that I really loved the show and want to present it. If we could meet early in the morning, since I had other appointments afterwards. Which was half true at best, but gave me the opportunity to meet them before anybody else. I got the European Premiere.

At least for a while.

Annemie Vanackere from the “Internationale Keuze” in Rotterdam wanted to show it in her festival two weeks before us. In the end she won. Of course: How could we have forbidden Nature Theater to perform there as well – since we did not even co-produce the work. Just an anecdote, but telling, I guess. The concept of premieres is still something that is not enough and openly discussed between programmers, curators, artists. There are very different local needs, but actually everybody involved knows, that it is a game that is done for the (political) public, often no in (direct) favour of artistic needs. So: How to play it, that it doesn’t harm?