Die Kuratorin Chiaki Soma steht lächelnd vor einer Säule an der Treppe eines Backsteingebäudes. Sie trägt ein knielanges schwarzes Kleid, silberne Sandalen und einen auffälligen Ohrring an ihrem rechten Ohr. Durch ihre schulterlangen dunklen Haare ist das linke Ohr verdeckt.

Program Director’s Note

Since I was appointed director of Theater der Welt 2023, I have had many conversations with the program team and participating artists to flesh out the theater festival’s shape. The text below was born from these conversations. It is an attempt to capture the basic thoughts underpinning the festival program and a vision for us to implement.

1. Pluralizing the world  

Theater der Welt means Theater of the World. As the first non-European to solely oversee this festival’s program in its forty-year history, I want to bring different perspectives on the eponymous notions of theater, world, and festival. Rather than as a unified space that can be overviewed and defined from one central perspective, I propose to think about the world in the plural: Theater der Welten.   

Multiple worlds are represented at the festival, and we will give attention to their many voices, their different histories and perspectives, in all their plurality. 

At the same time, we will also respect the fact that individuals inhabit multiple worlds as well. Rather than seeing the world in terms of binaries such as East/West, South/North, men/women, and human/non-human, I consider like many others that in all people, these things already exist on a continuum and intersect with each other. And I want to emphasize that these worlds will by no means center only on humans: they include other living things and non-living things too. I welcome these lines of thinking.    

2. Practicing incubationism  

Next, as an anchor for my curation, I propose the concept of incubationism. The word incubation carries two associations: new life coming into being and the uneasy period leading up to the onset of an illness. During the pandemic, many people have been experiencing states of incubation while waiting in quarantine or self-isolation, not knowing exactly when they will end. Some may reject such periods of waiting as particularly limiting and unproductive. However, I want to believe that there is also something to be learned from experiences of incubation (in both senses of the word). For instance, that we are all potential patients who may need care. Our bodies and lives belong to a greater ecosystem, and so does the virus. We must respect non-human life and nature and urgently form cognitive and social systems based on harmony and coexistence with those things. We have to inhabit a different, uncertain, non-linear temporality. We can embrace incubation time— the states of uncertainty and suspension— as a generative moment, perhaps even as a source of creativity. This stance is what I call incubationism.   

Incubationism is a framework of thought, a starting point for discussions, whereby we can reflect on each individual artistic proposal together with the artist and discover paths to unknown futures. It is also a medium for establishing links between the international program and the sites of the festival, artists and audiences, and between pre- and post-pandemic times.    

The festival will host several performances and projects showing individual artists’ approaches to the concept of incubationism. What’s more, the Museum Angewandte Kunst —one of the festival’s main venues—will be transformed into a large incubation pod where you will be able to experience a host of atmospheric spaces, ceremonies and performances of contemplation, dreaming, healing, and rebirth – during daytime and at night – once even until sunrise (on July 8th). This specially curated artistic program is called Incubation Pod. Dreaming worlds.

3. Expanding theater through virtual realities 

Theater der Welten will be a space of interrogation towards a renewed understanding of the various forms of expression that are theater. We must welcome artistic attempts to explore new relationships with the world, which also introduce critical approaches to drama, text, and visuality—things that traditionally are at the heart of Western theater. To this end, we actively support transdisciplinary work and artistic experimentation that is not bound by conventional notions of theatre.    

For example, there will be a programmatic focus on performances that deploy VR/AR technologies, several of which will be European premieres. What is interrogated here are our bodies and perception. VR and AR are technologies that expand the user’s senses while deceiving them. How can we re-engage with our bodies while experiencing new physical sensations and journeys? These and other questions accompany us as we seek to transcend binaries like digital/analogue and reality/virtuality and work with artists to develop new dramaturgies for the digital age.    

In this sense, we also plan to extend the festival’s space into the metaverse, making it accessible to as many people as possible – at home and across distances. With this, we are exploring new potentials.

4. Joining two cities / following the river course 

Offenbach and Frankfurt, the two host cities for this edition of Theater der Welt, are connected by the Main River. Theater der Welten follows this ancient geography and creatively re-engages with the river and its surroundings. We are working with multiple artists and local students to create projects along the river inviting visitors and participants to experience and practice Incubationism as they move between the two urban spaces. These activities also amount to social practices, carried out through art, that address the issues humanity faces on a global scale, such as climate change, the energy crisis, and migration. They explore ideas and practices that engage local communities and can endure beyond the festival period.    

5. Opening up spaces for contemplation, healing, and recovery  

The coronavirus reminded us that life is fragile and that we all are susceptible to becoming ill. Over the past couple of years, debates about shared vulnerabilities and new ethics of care gained momentum.    

Most cultural spaces and event protocols in modern societies have been standardized for ‘healthy’ and abled-bodied people and they must be re-designed for better accessibility in the post-pandemic age. Theater der Welten will thus take measures so that people with different abilities, disabilities and needs can enjoy the invited artworks.   

Through art’s imaginative and restorative powers, the festival shall also function as a space for mutual care and social-cultural recovery. In particular, Theater der Welten will offer special programs and performances for and with young people whose activities and possibilities of self-realization were drastically limited by the pandemic-related restrictions. Together with this young generation, we must try again to make sense of the future – or, at least, learn to cope with its uncertainty collectively.    

Finally, through several different artistic works that shift attention beyond the centrality of the human figure, Theater der Welten hopes to inspire ethics of care in a more-than-human dimension, where we re-learn to act and exist in solidarity and in harmony with other humans as well as the non-human agents and forces that constitute our worlds and living spaces.   

Over the coming months, as violent conflicts affect communities in many places around the globe and the energy crisis unfolds, the world will face more significant uncertainties and instabilities while the pandemic continues. Theater der Welt is not immune to these circumstances. However, our idea of ‘incubationism’ is precisely this: a resilient attitude that accepts uncertainties and helps us through states of suspension, turning them into generative periods of reflection and creativity.   

I am developing this festival with experiences of uncertainty and incubation in mind, encouraging flexibility and openness towards artistic imagination that might transcend our difficult times. I look forward to inviting you all to an extraordinary international program of pioneering transdisciplinary works of art.   

Chiaki Soma

Programme Director, Theater der Welt 2023