A tireless director, on and off the stage
Swiss Grand Award for the Performing Arts / Hans Reinhart Ring 2022
Barbara Frey, who was born in Basel in 1963, has a reputation as an astute director of theatres, and has for many years been a highly regarded stage director as well. She studied German and philosophy at the University of Zurich, began her artistic career as a drummer and songwriter and, in 1988, joined the Theater Basel as a theatre musician under Frank Baumbauer. While there, she also worked as an assistant director. She was responsible for productions at the Theater Neumarkt, Nationaltheater Mannheim and Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg before becoming in-house director of the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin, a position she held from 1999 to 2001; later, from 2005 to 2008, she served in the same role at the Deutsches Theater Berlin. From 2009 to 2019 Barbara Frey was director of the Schauspielhaus Zürich – the first woman to occupy this position. Currently, from 2021 to 2023, she is artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, a major art festival that, each year, invites contemporary artists to occupy the monumental industrial architecture of the Ruhr metropolis. Invited to perform at the Berlin Theatertreffen on a number of occasions, Barbara Frey was also honoured with a Swiss Theatre Award in 2016.
Barbara Frey has been working as a stage director for more than 30 years. Her first production, “Ich kann es besonders schön” after a text by Sylvia Plath, was staged at the Theater Basel in 1993. She has directed at the Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel in Munich, where “Uncle Vanya” made a guest appearance at the Berlin Theatertreffen in 2004, has been invited to work at all the most prestigious institutions in the German-speaking countries, was recruited for the Salzburg Festival, and regularly works at the Burgtheater in Vienna, where “Automatenbüffet” was invited to the Berlin Theatertreffen in 2021 and honoured with the Nestroy Theatre Prize in the “Best Direction” category. In 2009 she made her debut as an opera director at the Bayrische Staatsoper in Munich with Janáček’s “Jenůfa”, and produced “Elektra” at the Semperoper Dresden in 2014. Her time at the Schauspielhaus Zürich saw productions of numerous classics including Büchner’s “Leonce und Lena” (2011), Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” (2014), Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (2018) and, marking the end of her directorship, “The Dead” (2019), after the short story by James Joyce. She reprised the much-admired production at the Ruhrtriennale and was among the selection for the Swiss Theatre Encounter in 2020. Barbara Frey has also promoted contemporary Swiss authors such as Lukas Bärfuss. For the 2021 edition of the Ruhrtriennale she staged Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” in the imposing machine hall of the former Zweckel colliery in Gladbeck, while 2022 has seen a co-production with the Burgtheater in Vienna of “Das weite Land” by Arthur Schnitzler.
Barbara Frey is a role model in many ways. She is a stage director, an artist, exploring the stuff of great literature with intellectual rigour, peering into the abyss and translating the dark sides of our human existence into grand images. Her language is the lavish detail of the figures in orchestrated tableaus. Her productions are never empty constructs of ideas: they are a place of experience for the senses. There are these wonderful “gaps” which I, as viewer, am permitted to occupy, precisely because not everything is spelt out. I am invited into a complicity where there is space for my own imagination. And then there is Barbara Frey, director of institutions. Here too, she emphasises commonalities. Letting them grow takes time, but more than all else it takes attention to every single thing. Anyone who aspires to be the director of a theatre must have a desire to shape things. That this can be achieved without resorting to a crowbar is something Barbara Frey has demonstrated in her ten years as director of a theatre in Zurich, and continues to do as artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale. With this Grand Award for the Performing Arts / Hans Reinhart Ring, the jury recognises the work of an exceptional artist and astute artistic director.
Markus Joss, jury member