Graz does not figure in the top to-visit places in Austria. Vienna with its artistic legacy and Salzburg’s hills, alive with the sound of music, are the favourites. Innsbruck in the north pulls in ski enthusiasts from the neighbouring countries. And, Hallstatt, a picturesque lakeside village of 800 residents which sees more than a million tourists annually, is close to toppling Graz from its number four spot.
Graz materialises in my consciousness in September 2021 through an email. It is from a theatre company and they are seeking permission to translate my playlet into German. The playlet, Friends for Life, had been commissioned by The Arctic Cycle (now renamed the Arts & Climate Initiative) as a part of their Climate Change Theatre Action programme for 2021. I reply to Karla Mader, head of Dramaturgy at Schauspielhaus Graz, that I would be delighted, asking her to go ahead with the translation. Google reveals that Schauspielhaus Graz is not just ‘a theatre company’; it is the national theatre of Graz and the third-largest spoken theatre stage in the country.
Six months later, Karla reappears in my inbox. They want to perform my playlet at their annual playwrights’ festival in June 2022 and want to host me as a guest playwright. Would I like to come, she asks.
Her email elaborates on the festival. Launched six years ago, the goal of the festival is to “release playwrights from their lonely life at the desks for a few days”. I think of all the time I have been playing hooky from my desk and pledge to pencil in more hours to make up. Her email goes on, “...all we ask of the invited authors is to come here, be with us, take part in discussions, enjoy the company of others—and return home inspired to keep the creative fire burning”. An agenda I can definitely get on board with!
My playlet is a part of their show that was first presented in October 2021. The show consists of 13 plays, all around the theme of climate change. Of the 13 playwrights, they had selected five to attend the festival in Graz. “Why me?”, the question pops up in my head. She preempts it. “We picked the five whose texts were discussed most by the young actors during rehearsal time”, she elaborates. That surprises me. My playlet is set in a village in India. The protagonist is a young woman who decides that she is done waiting for the higher-ups to solve the crisis of potable water in her village and takes matters into her own hands. How does this resonate with a group of people who have drinking water flowing out of pretty much any tap that is within a hand’s reach? I am intrigued.
I read the email a couple more times to ensure that I have read it right. I was in isolation for COVID for five days, so I wanted to make sure that this was not a conjuring-up of a virus-spotted mind. Assured that it was not, I manage to compose a dignified acceptance while my mind is turning acrobat-level somersaults.
And, that’s how I find myself in Graz on June 7, 2022.
Elena from the Schauspielhaus team picks me up from the airport and deposits me at the hotel with an invite to drop by at the office once I had settled in. A welcome bag with the programme, a city map, a bar of Zotter chocolate, Austria’s bean-to-bar chocolate manufacturer, a face mask, and some other bits and pieces appear at the hotel a little later.
The main events start from the next day. The festival is spread across eight venues, all within a radius of 20 walking minutes. There are theatre performances, talks, readings, workshops and installations. The programme describes each event, some of which are in German and others German, with English subtitles. I decide to spend the day getting a sense of the lay of the land.
Graz is pleasant on the eye. The river Mur slices the city in two and the old town is a hop and skip across the pedestrian bridge from the hotel. Cobble-stoned streets connect the squares dotted with high street brands and local boutiques. The old town must have been built on a hilly terrain and a maze of alleys wind up and down as they curl around churches, fairy-tale houses, and museums. It is a sunny day, so cafes and restaurants have emptied out on to the tables clustered on the pavements.
As I turn a corner, I come face to face with the building that houses the Schauspielhaus Graz. Characterised by neo-classical elements, the theatre takes up one length of the square. Fluttering yellow banners announce the festival. A quick tour with Karla reveals the main opera-house style space, two other auditoriums, rooms for meetings and workshops and offices. Other names from the email correspondence over the last few months materialise in their physical forms for a quick hello before hurrying back to the pending to-dos. Trolleys with costumes are being rolled through corridors. Lights being positioned. Last few nails being hammered into the sets. The language is alien to my ears but the buzz is all too familiar and I realise it is best to take myself out of their hair.
I trace my way back down the narrow alleys and across the river to the hotel. Summer has set in, so light lingers well past 9 p.m. A pity, because I can’t wait for the next day to dawn.
Watch this space for my day-to-day diary from the Graz theatre festival.
Author and editor, Himali Kothari is a self-proclaimed nomad at heart. When life gets in the way of her travels, she takes flight through her stories.