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11/09/2022 | Portraits and stories

"Theater is a wonderful melting pot."

Mira Birkenbach, director of the university theater, in an interview about her enthusiasm for theater and "The Last Days of Mankind" as a challenge.

Image: Andreas Fischer
Director Mira Birkenbach in September during first rehearsals with the ensemble

Mira Birkenbach (23) completed a voluntary social year in culture at Schauspiel Frankfurt after graduating from high school and is now studying philosophy and mathematics in the 3rd semester. Since this year, she has been directing the newly founded Theater der Universität, or Uni-Theater for short. The twelve-member ensemble is currently rehearsing for its first performance in the fall. The program includes one of the most extensive dramas ever written: "The Last Days of Mankind" by Karl Kraus.

Where does your enthusiasm for theater come from?
It was already clear to me at school that I wanted to do something with theater. Not as a performer, though, but as a director, that was decided pretty early on. In Frankfurt, I was already able to assist directors and look over their shoulders. I benefit from this experience. You study philosophy and mathematics.

Given your affinity for theater, wouldn't it be more appropriate for you to study German?
For me, theater is more than the faithful implementation of a text. It is something of its own with a special quality. If you only orient yourself to the written original, you don't do it justice. Text and authorship are of course important, but I don't want to give them authority over all other aspects. Theater is a wonderful melting pot in which many areas come together: Performance, visual arts, music, language. Philosophy helps to give thoughts a physical manifestation in theater.

And mathematics?
I study math for fun. I need a balance to all the words.

That's why interdisciplinarity is so important in Kassel.
That's right. Right from the start, I wanted to address students from all disciplines. I'm all about lively exchange. Our theater should be a place of encounter, and that also applies to the ensemble. This networking of the courses of study is not only desired by the university management, but also promoted and lived. It's not something that just sounds pretty in brochures.

Image: Andreas Fischer

Your predecessors, Volker Hänel and Ulrike Birgmeier, led the STUK, the university's student theater, very successfully for 20 years until its dissolution in 2020. You are thus taking on a great legacy.
You could say that. I wrote to both of them two years ago to ask them what they wanted to do with the theater. I didn't know then that they had already retired. We met and they liked my concept. They practically gave me their blessing, and with that I approached the presidency, which is now promoting my work. The plan is that the new university theater will also exist for at least 20 years. I would like to start by initiating structures, staging, passing on advice and knowledge so that it can be continued later - by whomever.

Let's move on to Karl Kraus. "The Last Days of Mankind" is a gigantic work of about seven hundred pages, the performance of which, according to Kraus, "would take about ten evenings according to earthly time." The drama has never been staged in its entirety. How do you proceed?
We are radically limiting ourselves, concentrating on the epilogue and also including the preface, in other words setting a bracket. Our performance will be a little over an hour long. We'd rather have it really intense and with a wow effect than have the audience say "that's enough" afterwards.

Haven't you and the ensemble set the bar very high with this first piece?
I tend to have delusions of grandeur (laughs). After all, anyone can do something simple. I and the ensemble were fascinated by this nightmare about war and the downfall of humanity. The thematic transfer of the play to the present is important to us, since it is timeless and still very topical.

Kraus says that whoever witnessed the horror of World War I, whoever survived that time without going insane, was already guilty. Is it not the same today? According to Kraus, whoever watches the play should put the "right to laugh behind the duty to cry." That's a general critique of human beings and incredibly powerful and timely. Because it ultimately raises the question of how much responsibility we have for each other.

Karl Kraus

From 1899 until his death, the Viennese writer and journalist Karl Kraus (1874-1936) published the magazine "Die Fackel," all of whose articles, with a few exceptions, he wrote himself. His World War II drama "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit," on which he had been working since 1915, was also published here in 1918/19. In 1922, exactly 100 years ago, the final edition was published, consisting of five acts with 220 scenes and an epilogue. Several hundred fictional as well as real persons appear in this gigantic collage of newspaper reports, feuilletons, quotations, noted conversations. Kraus thus anticipated the modern documentary theater. Satire, madness and wordplay go hand in hand: "Phrases stand on two legs - people kept only one," Kraus said in the preface.

Interview: Andreas Gebhardt
This text appeared in the university magazine publik 3/2022, October 10, 2022.