5 Legendary European Theater Directors You Should Know

Max Reinhardt, Peter Brook, Bertolt Brecht, Joan Littlewood, and Jerzy Grotowski are five legendary European theater directors who revolutionized dramatic arts.

Apr 2, 2024By Agnes Theresa Oberauer, BA Drama & Philosophy
european theater directors


When we hear the word theater we usually think of playwrights like Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, or Tennessee Williams. We might also think of famous actors like Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ian McKellen. But while both playwrights and actors have done their part in keeping this ancient art form alive and thriving, the theater would not be as colorful, provocative, or revolutionary without the visionary work of theater directors. Here are five innovative European theater directors you should know.


What Does a Theater Director Do? 

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Big Theatre, by Dieter Roth. 1972. Source: Tate Modern, London


Theater directors are the driving force behind a theater production. They are the artists responsible for the overall vision and execution of a performance. It is a director’s job to come up with a vision and interpretation of the text and lead a team of actors, designers, and technicians toward creating a performance that is in line with that vision.


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Gutai Exhibition on the Stage, by Kiyoji Otsuji,1957, printed 2012. Source: Tate Modern, London


Directors will usually spend their days leading rehearsals with the actors. They are also the ones who work closely with the designers of the set, costume, sound, and lights. It is therefore a job that requires creativity, leadership skills, and a deep understanding of human nature. But while a director’s tasks will include almost everything from editing the text to dealing with an actor’s meltdown, no two directors are the same.


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Buehnenbild: Wolkenpalast, by Lorenzo Zachetti, 1813 Source: Theatermuseum, Vienna


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While some directors like to pre-decide every single detail of a new production well before the first day of rehearsal, others like to allow the performance to emerge through improvisation and exploration. On top of that, many of the world’s most famous directors are also active as acting teachers or theater theorists and playwrights. In this article, you will meet five extraordinary directors who have revolutionized the art of performance.


1. Max Reinhardt (1873-1943)

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Max Reinhardt, photographed by Nicola Perscheid, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Austrian theater director Max Reinhardt is credited with turning directing into an officially recognized artistic position, giving rise to what Germans call Regietheater (Director’s theater). Born in Austria, this extraordinary artist started out as a professional actor but only made a name for himself when he started directing. He revolutionized the theater of his time by moving away from naturalism and opting for a more joyful and magical performance style.


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Jedermann-Szene Scene in Salzburg, 1926. Source: Theatermuseum, Vienna


But despite his belief that theater should be festive, playful, and uplifting, he considered acting to be a very serious form of art. In his view, even the most outwardly magical performances were not about make-up and make-believe. Quite to the contrary—he kept reminding his acting students that the task of the actor was to strip himself of societal falsity and lay bare the truth of the soul. After spending the majority of his life creating groundbreaking performances and running various theaters and festivals in Germany and Austria, the rise of the Nazi regime caused him to flee to the United States. He died in 1943, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most influential directors, artistic managers, and acting teachers of his time.


2. Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

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Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel during rehearsals for Mother Courage And Her Children, photographed by Hainer Hill. Source: Die Deutsche Buehne


Like Max Reinhardt, the theater director and playwright Bertolt Brecht had to flee Germany when Hitler took over power in Germany. But while Reinhardt had to flee because of his Jewish heritage, Bertolt Brecht himself was blacklisted by the Nazis because of his political beliefs. Brecht never hid the fact that he was a socialist. He also believed that theater should play a role in bringing about political change. By writing plays that were critical of the status quo and implementing a directing style that broke theatrical illusions, he aimed to get the audience to question the reality they saw on stage and in the world around them. This was in stark contrast to the prevalent theatrical style, which aimed to entertain rather than provoke critical thinking. His best-known plays are The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children.


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The Threepenny Opera, 1929. Source: Theatermuseum, Vienna


Throughout his life, Bertolt Brecht’s politics got him in trouble on several occasions. When Hitler took over power in Germany, the Nazis burned his books and interrupted his performances. Once he had established his life in the USA, he quickly became a target of yet another regime. This time, he had to face the Committee Of Un-American Activities on the charge of being a communist, leading him to travel back to Europe. At the end of World War II, Brecht returned to East Germany, where his wife Helene Weigel and he founded the Berliner Ensemble. As a socialist and renowned artist, Brecht quickly gained the support of the ruling communist government.


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The Three Penny Opera at the Theater Am Schiffbauerdamm Berlin, 1928. Source: Theatermuseum Wien


Up to this day, his relationship with the political leadership of East Germany has remained a subject of debate and controversy. Some sources say that he quickly became disillusioned with the corruption and dictatorial rulership of the East German regime, and only supported it because he had no other choice. Others criticize him for openly supporting a dictatorial regime that censored and oppressed its citizens. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.


The German government did censor some of his writings, proving that they were not giving him the freedom he craved for. On the other hand, his knowledge of such censorship did not stop him from espousing support for the communist dream. Brecht died in 1959, leaving behind a legacy that spanned some of Europe’s groundbreaking theatrical productions as well as a myriad of playtexts, books, and poems that continue to be read and performed by people around the world today.


3. Joan Littlewood (1914 – 2002)

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Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Royal. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The British theater director Joan Littlewood was just as passionate about lifting the working classes as Bertolt Brecht. But there was one key difference. While Brecht came from a middle-class family, Joan Littlewood was actually from the working class. Littlewood´s social background wasn’t the only aspect that made this theater director a truly revolutionary artist. She was also one of the first female directors to enter the male-dominated theatrical landscape of her time. On top of that, her novel approach to theatre making, which involved deeply physical acting styles and the creation of performance via improvisation, made her one of the most innovative artists of her time.


Her directing was influenced by folk theater styles like comedia dell´arte, agitprop, and European avant-garde movements. By combining elements of popular culture with experimental performance techniques, she managed to create performances that were avant-garde but remained accessible to people of all classes. Her best-known performance is the satirical and politically critical musical Oh What A Lovely War. Littlewood passed away in 2002, but her legacy lives on. She is still referred to as the mother of modern theatre in the UK, while the work of her theater company Theatre Workshop continues to influence artists today.


4. Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999)

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Jerzy Grotowski, Unknown Photographer, n.d. Source: Theatre De La Ville, Paris


Jerzy Grotowski was not only one of the most influential theater directors of the 20th century but also a person who revolutionized actor training and theater theory. Born in Poland in 1933, he developed an innovative approach to theater and acting, which came to be known as Poor Theater. Grotowski believed that acting was a sacred act and that actors had to strive to lay bare their souls. The work of the theater artist was therefore supposed to involve the removal of anything superfluous.


In his view, acting was not about putting a character on top of oneself. It was about finding the character within oneself and cutting away everything that obscured the truth of that character. Grotowski’s minimalist approach also involved the reduction of everything around the actor.  His theater company used minimal sets, costumes, and lights, instead relying on the imagination of the audience and the physical bodies of the actors.


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Grotowski´s Acropolis, by Robert R. Findlay, 1984. Source: Semantic Scholar


Due to the highly innovative nature of his work, Grotowski started getting invited to direct and teach abroad. This led him to immigrate to the USA in 1982. While his years spent in New York inspired a whole generation of American artists, Grotowksi never truly warmed to his new home. In 1985, he moved back to Europe and opened a new theater center in Italy, from where he continued to explore the depths of performance and acting. Jerzy Grotowski played a vital role in returning theater to its essence—the relationship between an actor and an audience. His approach of stripping performance down to essentials continues to influence performance artists and theater practitioners up to this day.


5. Peter Brook (1925- 2022)

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Director Peter Brook with the cast on the set of his production of the Indian legend The Mahabharata, photographed by Martha Swoope, 1987. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections


The British director Peter Brook first gained recognition with his contemporary restagings of Shakespeare, which made the words of the classic author feel fresh and alive. But reviving the classics was not enough for this legendary director. Brook was interested in breaking theater down to its essence. Taking inspiration from theater practitioners like Joan Littlewood, Jerzy Grotowski, and Antonin Artaud, he opened the Theatre Of Cruelty—a workshop where he investigated the very essence of the theatrical act.


In 1968, he published his seminal book The Empty Space, in which he shared his conclusion that theater needed nothing more than an empty space, a single actor and an audience member. It was by reducing theater to its very essence that Brook managed to create performances that struck audience members at their core. After spending the first part of his career in the United Kingdom, Brook opened a center of theatrical investigation in Paris, where he continued his exploration of theater and performance with an international group of actors. Peter Brook died in 2022, but his legacy, which includes the groundbreaking performance of Marat Sade and his staging of the Indian epic Mahabharata, continues to live on.


The Age of Theater Directors Has Only Just Begun

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A Theater Performance, photographed by Eric McLean, 2020. Source: Unsplash


Many other names could be mentioned in this list. Whether it is the French artist André Antoine (1858-1943), Brecht´s collaborator Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), the controversial interdisciplinary artist Jan Fabre (born 1958), or the French stage director Ariane Mnouchkine (born 1939). All of these directors have left their mark on the theatrical landscape of our day and age.


As we enter a new era of performance and theater, it remains to be seen which of the many directors active today will enter the pages of history. There is no doubt, however, that the European directors mentioned in the article have not only turned the creative interpretation and staging of texts into art but have also played an instrumental role in bringing theater into the 21st century.

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By Agnes Theresa OberauerBA Drama & PhilosophyAgnes Theresa completed her BA in Drama and Philosophy at the Royal Holloway University of London in 2014 and is currently finishing her MA in Physical Theatre Performance Making at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. She works internationally as a writer, performance artist, theatre director, and performer. Born in Austria, she has lived in six countries (Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, Estonia, and the UK) and traveled many more, always seeking to expand her horizons and challenge her preconceptions. Her interests range from Greek philosophy to capoeira, posthumanism, and Nietzsche.