He actually lives in the Deutsche Bahn, says René Heinersdorff, 59, flippantly when you ask the Düsseldorf boulevard theater man where he lives. In fact, the author, actor, director and four-time theater director is constantly on the move: Among other things, with his own play “Complex Fathers”, with which he has been touring Germany for four years – on his own and on other stages. But now he’s sitting relaxed with a tea upstairs in the gallery of the Bayerischer Hof – after all, his appearance in the comedy doesn’t start for three hours.
SZ: Mr. Heinersdorff, let’s talk about money: After theaters in Cologne, Essen and Düsseldorf, you took over the management of the comedy in the Bayerischer Hof last year and next year a house in Neuwied will be added. Is that worth it?
René Heinersdorff: I have to insist that these houses came to me without any strategy on my part. I inherited the Theater am Dom in Cologne from my mother Barbara. Years later my father said to me: “Come on, things are going so well in Cologne, open one in Düsseldorf.” Essen, in turn, should be closed, the alternative was to run it. And you know what happened in the comedy in Munich…. despite the acquittal, my co-owner’s reputation was unsustainable.
Especially since the Munich public prosecutor’s office continues to investigate allegations of abuse.
A solution had to be found, which is why I was approached. I now hold 51 percent of the GmbH as managing director, Thomas Pekny still 49 percent. But he is contractually obligated to stay out of the operative business. He doesn’t appear at premieres, no longer represents the house.
And Neuwied, your latest achievement?
Neuwied is a municipal house and is borne 50 percent by the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The reason why those responsible called me there is probably because they wanted someone who would also talk about money. At a time when local authorities were running out of funds, it made sense to wrap a city house in a network.
As a well-known boulevard theater man, how were you accepted as director of a state theater?
In Neuwied I was welcomed with open arms. But the news that I would become director there also caused resentment in the industry. Oh my gosh, it was said, must brutal cultural capitalism now find its way into the high spheres of art? In Germany in particular there is a very strict separation between art and entertainment.
But that didn’t matter to the newcomers?
This house will also have to struggle hard after the pandemic, so the city officials had to think of something to hold the house and win back the audience.
That’s why tabloid comedies should be played there now?
Of course there are synergy effects if future co-productions take place there in both directions. I recently read the call from the theater critic Simon Strauss: Man, Stadttheater, do comedies so that people can come back into the houses! I would like to point out that you have to be able to do that! Of course, in Neuwied, too, we’ve found that a certain focus on comedy is better suited to attracting people back than saying we’re experimenting aesthetically, we’re bringing drama to the fore, even if I personally think it’s important.
But you obviously succeed well if you look at the comedy “Complex Fathers”, which you wrote specifically for your friends Jochen Busse and Hugo Egon Balder. The two play the father and foster father of a daughter who finds it perfectly fine to be with partners who are several years younger than them. But when their daughter surprises them with a boyfriend who is 25 years their senior, they are outraged.
I knew the subject from my own experience. After many years of having girlfriends who were even a few years older than me, it happened to me that I fell in love with a woman who was 25 years younger. And suddenly I found myself in completely new situations.
The play has been running throughout Germany for four years and has had around 600 performances. A financial success?
There are voices that claim that Heinersdorff only has a theater so that his plays can be performed. But it’s quite different: As an author, I only earn something when plays are not only played in my own houses, but also taken over by other houses. That was and is the case here, it was adopted in Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Even if I still act as an actor or produce as a director. Actually, I live off my author royalties.
How does the actor and director Heinersdorff negotiate his fees with the director Heinersdorff?
As a private theater man, I’m very flexible. Incidentally, as managing director of the comedy in the Bayerischer Hof, I still don’t pay myself a salary, I work on a voluntary basis. I said that if I come here, in the middle of the pandemic, I’ll have to take a look first.
And as an actor?
We can only spend what we take in at the box office. This is an essential difference to the theaters that are subsidized by the city or the state.
That as an actor I sometimes give up part of my fee when I see that a performance was poorly attended. As for me, I’m willing to adjust my fee based on evening earnings. And often I only decide when the last performance has been played.
Is this a common practice in private theater?
Rarely. At least not down. I was often irritated that the very well-earning protagonists, or their agencies, often did not give us a euro during and after the pandemic. I thought a state crisis affects every citizen, you can’t overcome it by maintaining all claims. It’s still not starvation wages if you go down a hundred on a high evening fee of 500 euros. But I’ve already made myself unpopular with this topic.
In what way?
I’ve been chairman of the private theater group in the German Theater Association for four years, now in my second term. I once said that we always talk about minimum fees. Let’s talk about maximum fees! Must be two and a half to three thousand euros Gage in the evening for a guest at subsidized houses? My suggestion that all directors with a 13th month’s salary should do without it during lockdown, as a gesture to the outside world and as a contribution to society, was not approved either. The situation is similar with discussions about the budget.
What do you mean by that?
During the pandemic, some funding was not spent because productions were not implemented, there were no guests, and no travel expenses were incurred. In the meetings, I only heard city or state-run theaters consider how this money could be saved and kept for the next financial year. So it wasn’t about existential survival. As a taxpayer, I then asked quite provocatively: How about simply giving this money back, after all it is tax money? There was great outrage.
Do you have any other savings suggestions for the theater companies?
For ten years I have been committed to the topic of sustainability in the stage association. I say to the people, come on, don’t let the trucks run empty, if a truck drives from Berlin to Munich, make sure that you at least take something with you to Frankfurt on the way back. Fixed transport budgets do not take this into account. If I have 100,000 euros there, it doesn’t matter, even if it’s not ecological. Also in other ways.
What are you thinking about?
I have often staged at municipal theaters and experienced that a usable rehearsal decoration is discarded and a completely new one was built at the same time for the premiere. That would never happen to private theater makers. There has been a trend towards “sustainability” for a long time. You sometimes say to your colleague, come and pick it up if you can use it for your piece.
How many private theaters do you represent?
There are just over a hundred, about fifteen of which are boulevard theater stages with 200 to 700 seats. This is a very inhomogeneous landscape. On the one hand there is the Schaubühne Berlin, a state theater-like operation with a huge funding of 16.5 million a year, which has to represent its interests to the city-state of Berlin. On the other hand, you have to settle between two private theaters in Cologne-Süd, who are annoyed that they have the same play on the schedule.
You yourself come from a theater dynasty: your grandfather owned a concert hall, the Ibach Hall in Düsseldorf, and your parents ran a renowned concert agency. Did you discuss ticket prices at the kitchen table?
In fact, one of my defining childhood memories is of my mother, sitting at the box office, putting the phone down by her side so that, in the absence of a babysitter, we kids could hear her as we drifted off to sleep. “There are still tickets for twelve, 18, 23 and 28 marks.” Always announce from the bottom up. This motivates people to buy the more expensive cards. So much for “let’s talk about money”!
You have four children yourself. Do you wish that you would later continue the tradition of becoming theater directors yourself?
I’ll say it very brutally: I don’t wish that on the children. Even if I wouldn’t prevent it. It’s too stressful, the successes are too imponderable. Sometimes you worked like a fool and it all fizzles out. Then you take a leap forward and you don’t know why. As a theater director, I live on the edge of self-exploitation. There are no evenings off, no weekends. You can only keep it up if theater is your passion.
Speaking of persevering: How are you reacting to the dwindling number of viewers in your venues?
If we had an occupancy rate of 65 to 75 percent before the pandemic, now it’s only 25 to 30 percent, with some exceptions. That’s why not only I, but all private theaters are facing an economically difficult autumn. There is a plan for each house that says: With this pre-sale situation, with the reserves and subscription money, with the support that can still be expected, this is the end of the day. My house in Essen, for example, can last until next March, and the one in Munich a little longer.
No hope from the Christmas business?
Normally in September we sell the performances in November and December very well. You could work with the money. But that won’t happen this year. Instead, we have a booking behavior that is based on international conditions.
People make spontaneous decisions, often on the same day. Just as it has been abroad for much longer. People in New York, in London, in Paris go shopping and see: Oh, Maggie Smith is playing tonight and they buy a ticket. The other day I checked the journal for the Sunday night show in the middle of the week and only 45 tickets were sold. We were already considering canceling.
Luckily we don’t have that. By Sunday, 350 more tickets were sold – and we played in front of almost 400 spectators. There is currently no longer any planning security.
And how do you react in terms of the schedule to bring the audience back? What makes a good tabloid comedy?
There are two things I think are essential in a comedy: Is its theme contemporary? Is it presented in a humorous way? I don’t believe in telling people it’s their duty to go to the theater so they can support the culture. We have set ourselves the goal of not playing “old camels” because they were “pretty” 20 or 30 years ago. And we are challenged not to place form, playing with aesthetics, above history. That would leave our audience perplexed.