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Cultural exchange: expanded vision

Keith Gallasch talks to Roland Goll

Roland Goll Roland Goll
photo Heidrun Löhr
Roland Goll is a man with a mission. As Director of the Goethe-Institut Sydney he has eagerly explored the Australian cultural landscape, scheduled numerous exhibitions, performances, forums and masterclasses, created partnerships, fostered artist exchanges and initiated the successful Festival of German Films, now in its fourth year. Nearing the end of his term as director, Goll reflected on his almost 6 years in Australia in a discussion with me at the Institut. His enthusiam, energy and insights, peppered with generous good humour, are tempered with some frustration, a sense perhaps that he could have achieved more during his tenure. The reasons for this are complex and not a little to do with Australian attitudes to art, and to Germany.

Even after its 30 years in Australia, says Goll, the Institut is still often misunderstood as being either a marketer of German art or a funding body for Australian artists or organisations. He is emphatic that "ours is not a mission, like a coloniser, to export a Goethe-Institut vision. The first approach for the Goethe-Institut is to look at the framework of art production in a country, and the levels of operation and development in the different artforms. We have some comparative ideas in terms of what’s happening in Europe, although it’s very difficult to talk about standards. Through discussion we hope to develop ideas in Australia about how the circumstances for the arts can be improved.

"It embarassed me on arriving here that we were only being approached as a kind of sponsor. We don’t have huge budgets. We have different resources, other tools we can use, like sending people to Germany [on language-learning and familiarisation trips]. But the centre-piece of our work here is negotiating partnerships and it can be very hard work."

Goll explains, for example, that the Goethe-Institut has sent Australian arts festival and theatre company artistic directors to Germany, "just to let them know what a broad range of theatre styles there are in German speaking countries." There has however been little in the way of outcomes, although he acknowledges the efforts of Sydney Festival Artistic Director Brett Sheehy. This has not been an attempt by Goll to sell German work to Australia but part of his vision to present an expanded vision of what is possible in theatre, a subject we return to later in a discussion on dramaturgy. Once Australians have seen the range of German theatre, he says, then the discussion about partnerships is much easier.

German-Australian theatre

He recalls, "I arrived in Sydney at the time that Benedict Andrews was commencing his series of productions of German plays at the Sydney Theatre Company. It was the beginning of close cooperation over some years with Stephen Armstrong [then Associate Director at the STC] and together we developed a program of rehearsed readings of new German plays, and later, through Tony MacGregor at the ABC, produced some of them on radio. Later this year we have readings of plays by Falk Richter, probably at the STC in the Blueprints Literary program run by Nick Marchand, and then on the ABC."

The presentation of a handful of German plays on the Australian stage that still looks to the UK for its imports has been a breakthrough if occasional rather than continuous. "My experience," says Goll, "is that if something is happening in the UK, it’s much easier to get it to Australia. The Royal Court Theatre focus on German playwrights doubtless assisted Benedict Andrews’ project. Marius von Mayenburg’s Fireface was an STC program choice, but then I proposed other playwrights like Igor Bauersima ( or Roland Schimmerpfenig (Arabian Nights) for rehearsed readings. We invited David Gieselmann here for a very sophisticated production of his Mr Kolpert by Benedict. We translated several of these new plays to English."

It’s interesting that the directors whose work Goll has most admired in Australia, Barrie Kosky (for his Oedipus) and Andrews (for his STC years), both direct from time to time in Germany. The Goethe-Institut has supported Chris Bendall, Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Theatre@Risk, who has included German plays in his programs. Goll explains, "He did the language course in Germany and then joined the International Forum of Theatre Pratitioners at Theatertreffen 2004 in Berlin, for which you have to speak pretty fluent German. He’s now doing another Roland Schimmelpfennig production in Melbourne (The Woman Before) after doing his Arabian Nights in 2004 (RT60, p39).

Although Goll also thought Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen another theatre highlight, he was less impressed with the recent showing of Democracy: "Some of the figures are still living, and it’s strange, because there is no similarity to them on stage. The play serves an educational purpose, for example about East German spying, but the role of Brandt is not convincing. He was pretty charismatic and very good with rhetoric but in this play his language is limited and repetitive. Australian theatre needs to grow away from this kind of English conversation piece."

Comparison & cooperation

Goll finds the constant focus on developing Australian playwrights wearying and the Australian perception of world literature limited. "There are so many good plays from around the world. The approach to theatre here is often antique: a void, without dramaturgs. Companies don’t really work the text, don’t invent a new story from it, develop a new subtext; they don’t explore the relationship between the play and our society. This common dramaturgical work is just not happening. In the 80s in Germany very good production teams emerged with directors, designers and dramaturgs, and focused together on the play, not fearing to edit the text. If a play here is 157 pages, then it is 157 pages on stage–I couldn’t believe it. What I’ve been missing here is theatre used as a tool to explore society."

Goll admits that he knows the circumstance for these limitations: "the low level of public funding and the search for sponsors. These have a huge influence on productions, but aesthetically you can still explore different ways of working, different styles, but there are not enough directors who meet the challenge. All you can do is ask politicians for more money for the theatre and foster directors who have vision. Generally the artistic conditions for development towards international standards are pretty good with so many gifted actors and designers in Australia."

Among the other "deficits" (as he calls them) in Australian theatre that Goll elaborates on are: the delegation of challenging productions to the secondary programs of large companies; "young directors losing focus, doing what they like"; and the loss of Bogdan Koca’s Sydney Art Theatre which provided "a lot more inventive work than many big productions." He has also been horrified by the casual attitude towards the translation of plays, where the adaptor of the work does not speak the language in which the play was written! At the 2005 Australian National Playwrights’ Conference (ANPC), courtesy of the Goethe-Institut, playwright-director Roland Schimmelpfennig will present a reading of his play Before/After in English and participate in a discussion dealing with the challenges of "Translation, Transliteration and Adaption" (Newcastle, June 29,

Geoffrey Milne in Theatre Australia Unlimited (Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York 2004) has detailed the diminution of Australian theatre over recent decades, and Julian Meyrick has described the erasure of the theatrical middleground in Trapped by the Past (Platform Paper No 3, Currency Press, 2004). Roland Goll argues that, "You create a theatre culture only where there’s a lot of work and competition. The flagships can’t do that." He is loathe to compare Sydney and Berlin, but does Sydney and Munich as capitals of NSW and Bavaria. The latter has a population of 1.5 million, less than half of Sydney’s, but has "a state theatre, a music theatre, the ballet, 4 or 5 other theatre stages and 15 supported small theatres. This generates a lot of competition, a lot of employment, work on new theatre styles and developing aesthetics. Munich is smaller than Sydney but the differences are unbelievable." And this despite cuts in arts funding in Germany since reunification.

One of Goll’s contributions towards developing an expanded vision of theatre in Australia has emerged from his discussions with the ANPC, and again it’s based on partnership and cultural exchange. He explains, "I’ve talked with the ANPC about creating relationships between theatres in Germany and Australia through dramaturgs. But this will not be with the Schaubuehne as the point of reference, because it is not the equivalent of a state theatre company here. What you have to look for is a kind of well-run city theatre in Frankfurt, Cologne or Munich, and start creating awareness of the different production systems involving dramaturgs. This is what we will do next year, send an Australian to Germany on a language course and a work visit at a theatre and, vice versa, send a German dramaturg to Australia to work on a production over a long period, using the Australian National Playwrights Conference as a focal point for their visit." Schimmelpfennig’s visit signals a starting point.

Visual connections

The Goethe-Institut’s visual art program includes its own projects, like ArtconneXions, German artist tours and masterclasses, and involvement in a range of exhibitions and major events like the Sydney Biennale. Through the work of 9 of its centres in Australia, Asia and New Zealand, 18 individual artists and subsidised and commercial galleries, the Goethe-Institut has created ArtconneXions, a major regional photomedia event. ArtconneXions, bringing together Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam in an exhibition later this year at ACP and including Australian artists Leah King-Smith (see p38) and Shaun Gladwell.

The Goethe-Institut has assisted Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in inviting an artist network in Germany (outside public funding) to be involved in a forthcoming show Situation: Collaborations, collectives & artist networks from Sydney, Singapore and Berlin (June 6-Aug 21), curated by Russell Storer.

Exhibitions by German artists are toured on the participation and exchange model. Goll explains that their works are shown, new works made here and talks and masterclasses held. "Günther Uecker produced a work for Sculpture by the Sea (2002), delivered lectures and ran master-classes, and the same will happen with Wolfgang Laib who will be shown at AGNSW in August and Peter Pommerer who has been invited to be Artist-in-Residence at the College of Fine Arts, to create a new work and to give a presentation at the Sydney Festival of Drawing in July.

"Herlinde Koelbl is a very politically engaged photographer who did a long term study of our Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, other politicians and businessmen over 8 years. She did interviews, photographed the men and made videos, tracking their development, from tennis shoes to black tie in the case of Fischer. At Sydney College of the Arts she conducted a master class, came back after a year and student works were presented with hers in a show about multiculturalism and immigration (me & you–them & us, SCA Gallery [2002]). Some of the SCA students objected to having to be politically engaged. And we displayed her work Writers’ Portraits–At home with writing at the STC during the Sydney Writers Festival 2002. There was a floor talk with Herlinde and Andrea Stretton about all the famous German, Austrian and Swiss writers she interviewed and photographed. Our main focus is to create contexts with universities and colleges, who are very willing to participate, to give students the chance to have a more international view."

Another positive dimension to the visual arts exchange has been the contribution of Margaret Hamilton, who until recently worked for the Australia Council from the Australian Embassy office in Berlin where the Council has been committed to a significant long term cultural program. Goll says that the outcome is "a strong visual arts and literature connection between the 2 countries, a great network with big projects. But you cannot manage to continue this without an Australian representative in Germany."

In music, as with visual art, the Institut offers masterclasses when German musicians tour Australia, sometimes in collaboration with Musica Viva. As well, Goll says, "We’ve presented a French-German hip-hop collaboration, jazz groups and sound artists at Electrofringe. We are involved in the German Operatic Award (provided by the Australian Opera Foundation) giving Australian opera singers the chance to work for one year with the Opera in Cologne and offering a language course in Germany in one of the Goethe-Instituts."

Dancing partners

As with theatre, dance has also offered challenges in establishing partnerships. "The Goethe-Institut was involved in the Pina Bausch visit before the Olympics, but normally it’s a matter of smaller projects. I’m very happy indeed to see the establishment of Critical Path to develop NSW choreographers and dancers in an international perspective." Critical Path is a distinctive NSW government project that includes excellent workshop space in Drill Hall at Rushcutters Bay, financial support for short-term project development, and visiting international choreographers and others running classes. Goll says that the Institut has assisted with the 5 day visit of leading German choreographer Antje Pfundtner in August. Her workshop is on the use of voice and music in dance. "Later, we’d like to have her here over a longer period with more dancers and to produce a work for the public." Goll says that he is more optimistic about Critical Path than the partnerships attempted with large dance companies, and he’s impressed with director Sophie Travers’ knowledge of European dance.

Radio on

Goll declares, "Radio is still a very important medium that should be fostered." The Goethe-Institut has been engaged with the medium in a number of ways. As well as the broadcast of new German plays in English there has been a collaboration with the National Archives and the ABC’s Radio Eye, on "a topic we pick up once in a while–Germans who migrated to Australia and did some remarkable things. The subject of the radio play was Wolf Klaphake, a German scientist who was kept in detention camps in the 40s for years. There was also an exhibition on Egon Erwin Kisch at the State Library and we hope there will be a radio play about him." A Czech-born, German-Jewish journalist and communist, Kisch came to Australia to speak against fascism in 1934, was incarcerated and deported.

Australians to Germany

I ask Goll about the scholarships that take Australian artists to Germany. He explains, "We have scholarships for artists to learn German, to dig a bit deeper into the German art scene instead of speaking English and not really making enough contact. The language courses start in Australia followed by a 4 or 8 week immersive course in Germany, and then, ideally, we offer the artist the opportunity to join a seminar, for example for the theatre festival–Theatertreffen–in Berlin or the Berlin Film Festival. We do not have huge resources but each year we send 10-20 people. They enjoy it very much. We are offering several programs : a "Visiting Program to Germany" (partly with the German Embassy) and "Key Positions in the Arts"–for people with a special professional interest in Germany. In the last couple of years we invited representatives from different areas: Karilyn Brown, Roger Wilkins, Brett Sheehy, Robyn Nevin, Benedict Andrews, Chris Bendall, Miriam Gordon-Stuart, Kevin Fewster and Scott Millwood. I would like to mention in this context that this year Simone Young received the Goethe-Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany, for her extraordinary engagement in German-Australian relationships.


I ask Goll if he thinks that the cultural distance between Australia and Germany is diminishing. He points to 2 problems: Australian lack of interest in Germany, and the ever-present problem of distance. "Even with the visit of a German politician like Joschka Fischer, who was here last February, or our President Johannes Rau a couple of years ago, nothing happened. The media could have picked it up in terms of our special bilateral relationships, but nothing. Germany is not a main topic in Australian self-understanding and consciousness. When it looks to Europe it’s the UK and, less so, France. It rarely goes beyond Hitler and reunification. My main aim has been to create a relationship: you can get a lot if you’ve got more contact with German artists." And then there’s distance: "The big challenge is distance: it’s a big topic for me. It’s the reason why it is pretty difficult to establish more intense collaborative relations because Australia is so geographically far away from Germany."

Despite these limitations, Goll feels his period here–"just the right amount of time"–has been "very motivating." It is clear that he is very pleased with the Festival of German Films, a labour intensive project that has required much of him and his assistant Claudia Kuehn in a very competitive field. Goll feels that film has a major role to play in fostering intercultural understanding. For the fourth festival, he says, "there was great box office, a 35% bigger audience and the media were very responsive. Downfall [the film about Hitler’s last days] helped but 4 or 5 other movies also sold out. Film is the most important way to create an expanded awareness, and the way that German filmmakers are working allows people to gain insight into our culture. Often these are not big budget pictures." Goll reassures me that the festival will continue after his departure and will hopefully include Adelaide as well as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.


Goll is looking forward to his new post in 2006 as director of the Goethe-Institut regional office in London (which includes the co-ordination of 11 institutes in North-West Europe from Brussels to Helsinki) and "to its density of cultural scenes and subcultures." There is art in Australia that he appreciates very much, there have been successful partnerships, and as a place "Sydney has been like paradise after my postings to Jakarta, Amsterdam and Munich." His son did his HSC here and is now at university, and Goll would like to return here for some time when he retires. Roland Goll’s tenure here will be fondly remembered by many artists, not a few of whom would readily concur with his opinions on the limits of the Australian vision of art and cultural interaction. His practical contributions, like the creation of the Festival of German Films, his push for dramaturgical connections between Australian and German theatre, and the partnerships in dance and in the visual arts are particularly relevant and truly welcome. It is to be hoped that his successor here has the same vision and drive.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 10,

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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