The Hebbel-Theater

"When we started here, it was rare to see pedestrians on Stresemannstrasse”, Nele Hertling says, reminiscing on the early years. Sitting in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, the Hebbel-Theater was located in a fairly lifeless part of West Berlin. The long-abandoned Hebbel-Theater, previously only used as a part-time venue, was renovated and modernised in 1986/87 by the Berlin Senate for the 750th jubilee celebrations, and reopened in 1987. This was a stroke of luck for Berlin’s programme as the European Capital of Culture, which took place a year later and needed a theatre for its international productions and guest performances. In addition to theatre and musical theatre productions, a number of guest performances by the TanzWerkstatt were staged in the Hebbel-Theater in June 1988, laying the foundations for the theatre’s later focus. 

  • Original sound Nele Hertling

    “When we were appointed to create the city of culture programme in the summer of ’86, there were no locations left for us. They were all booked out. One of the main objectives of E88 was finding new locations. But that was difficult, and for dance, which requires indoor spaces, it was almost impossible. Because of this, the state decided to hand over the Hebbel, which was still being restored at the time. Though we had our offices in the theatre’s basement, the building was by no means finished. That meant that in planning our programme we were also very dependent on the spaces (or the lack thereof) that were available, and so for the ‘TanzWerkstatt’ we rented the old Ballhaus in Kreuzberg so the people could work there. That was a difficult logistical aspect. At the same time though, we had started pestering the Senator for Culture about how the Hebbel-Theater could provide a location for presenting a new concept. It was based a little on Tom Stromberg and the Theater am Turm in Frankfurt. He was really the first person in Germany to invite and produce international productions, and we had worked closely with him. The concept was also based on, or built upon, the experience that we gained through the international ‘Programm 88’. We met colleagues in Amsterdam, Brussels, Salzburg and Paris, and became increasingly convinced that Berlin was also going to need a place where people would finally have the chance to do international work in a totally different way to in a traditional repertoire theatre. This kind of space had never existed in Berlin, because a repertoire theatre cannot and need not put on such work, and so we increasingly tried to influence the senator to bring him round to the idea that the theatre should be kept as it is and not simply turned into a German repertoire theatre.”

Despite significant resistance, we were able to convince Senator for Culture Volker Hassemer. At the end of 1988, he handed over the management and artistic direction of the state-owned Hebbel-Theater Berlin GmbH to Nele Hertling, who happily moved into the “theatre near the wall”. 

Extracts from " HEBBEL“ (2000)
Extracts from " HEBBEL“ (2000)
Extracts from " HEBBEL“ (2000)

When the small team of the Hebbel-Theater launched their programme in January 1989, their theatre without an ensemble, without a standard repertoire, and without state administration caused confusion in Germany. What kind of a theatre was this supposed to be? A cut-rate version of the customary state and city theatres? In such conditions, Hertling instead saw an opportunity. Over the years, the Hebbel-Theater evolved into a venue for international co-productions of contemporary theatre, modern dance, and new musical theatre. A flexible network of partnerships with similar institutions and festivals provided ambitious and innovative artists with ideal working and presentational formats through a range of cooperative models.  

Maria Magdalena Schwaegermann, who joined forces with Nele Hertling in 1987, (and was her deputy at Hebbel-Theater until 2003) witnessed the opportunities produced by such a model, such as collaborating with Robert Wilson on “Dr Faustus Lights the Lights":

  • “He was already somebody back then, but naturally not the international star that he is today. He came to us and wanted to work with students – he wanted to try things out. And our theatre had absolutely no qualms about trying things out. I think that to him it was very clear that our little theatre pushed things to the limits, without ever complaining, really pulled out all the stops to cater for all of his experimentation. I think that was the real achievement of the Hebbel-Theater. There was no-one in the accounting department saying ‘no, that’s impossible'. We started out from the idea that everything was possible, and then came the limits, but these could also potentially be discussed. The setup offered him something completely different: direct decision-making channels. It wasn’t some giant behemoth that you had to grapple with. Back then, though he did have personal assistants by that time, he didn’t have a huge, unwieldy entourage. In fact, we were the entourage. That meant there was a very intimate working relationship, and that was really nothing but positive. There was the odd stressful moment, but there was never a point where he felt hamstrung, and I think that is what stuck in his head."

Robert Wilson: „Dr. Faustus light the Lights“, Premiere am 15.4.1992.
Robert Wilson: „Dr. Faustus light the Lights“, Premiere am 15.4.1992.
Zuschauerraum des Hebbel-Theaters

Auditorium of the Hebbel-Theater | Credit: HAU Hebbel am Ufer

With the appointment of Matthias Lilienthal as artistic director and manager of Hebbel–Theater GmbH in September 2003, the Hebbel-Theater became HAU1, one of the three venues that make up the HAU Hebbel am Ufer theatre group. In his essay ‘The Enforcement of Context and the State of Inter-dependence: Dense Milieu and Live Feuilleton – a Promo Text’, Diedrich Diedrichsen analyses this “re-foundation”:

“With the forming of the HAU Hebbel am Ufer it was the first time an institution responded to this complex situation; not only in terms of content, but primarily at an institutional level. As a multi-part chain of three event spaces suitable for very different forms of performing arts in the broadest sense, the HAU articulates that everything happening in these spaces belongs together, without there having to be an obvious reason: it developed a form.” (

This inter-dependence of discursive and artistic formats had ramifications for which Diedrichsen has a particular fondness: 

“…of course, not everything that happens at the HAU is to do with everything and if I were to or could meet my cultural scene every evening I went there I would have left the city a long time ago. Far more often I’m there alone and wondering in the foyer of HAU2, lost in contemplation of the passing U1 train, why such and such a person hasn’t come to an event.” 

This question also applies to audiences every August at Tanz im August. The festival, which until 2012 was a collaboration with TanzWerkstatt Berlin (based at Podewil), has been run entirely by HAU Hebbel am Ufer since Annemarie Vanackere took over the reins. Her energy and commitment has secured increased funding for the festival, and who would want to doubt that today? The festival has established itself as an integral feature of the Berlin cultural calendar, and just as it has since 1988, Hebbel-Theater plays a vital role as a festival venue. Every August, the dancers, choreographers and audiences come from right across the world to a theatre that was originally built neither for discussions nor for experiments in theatre or dance. Many people are often surprised when they first visit HAU1. They arrive to the sight of an imposing stone castle, before entering to take their seat in the mahogany-panelled Jugendstil auditorium, or, sometimes, to peer out into the auditorium from the stage itself.

Willem de Rooij , “Bouquet V”. Sammlung Haubrok: "Die Erde, zur gleichen Zeit halb so klein und doppelt so groß", Tanz im August 2015.