Author: Esther Slevogt, author and theatre critic; internet portal nachtkritik.de

Performing arts in Germany - an approach

Initial situation

The Federal Republic of Germany has the largest and densest network of institutional and independent theatres in the world. It ranges from city and state theatres that are run by the federal government or municipalities, commercial musical and entertainment stages to a high concentration of independent theatres, dance companies and performance groups that are, however, generally financed by state support programs. Currently, the situation of the performing arts in Germany is characterised by a paradox. On the one hand, the financial crisis is gnawing away at the German theatre landscape’s substance because public funds are dwindling. On the other hand, in Germany the performing arts’ relevance as an accumulation point for political and social developments is rapidly increasing. 

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Historical summary

The development of the performing arts in Germany is closely tied to the bourgeoisie’s emancipation. For this class, which was economically strong but lacked almost all political influence until the end of the First World War, theatre became the central form of self-understanding in the 19th century. As a result, the city theatres established themselves as important centres of urban culture.

Diversity in the German theatre landscape also results from the fact that Germany first became a nation-state with Berlin as its capital in 1871. Up until then, there was only a geographically and politically loose structure of city-states and small states or principalities; their residence cities each had its own court or state stage. The high status of theatre in this country’s culture has its roots here. Up until the present day, almost every larger city has had its own theatre, often a so-called Drei-Sparten-Bühne (a theatre with three divisions) with opera, acting and ballet. Many Bundesländer (federal states) also run their own high-quality state educational centres for theatre and dance. 

The central role of the performing arts in German culture is additionally rooted in the politicisation of the arts during the First World War (1914 – 1918). As a result of this politicisation, the first ideas for anti-institutional, open theatre forms also developed; as early as the 1920s, they departed radically from bourgeois theatre aesthetics. During the Weimar Republic (1918/19 – 1933), independent acting groups formed, often cast with laymen, that were no longer tied to established venues and organisational structures.

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After 1945

In the 1960s, the first independent groups from the Bundesländer of the old Federal Republic (West Germany between 1949 and the German reunification in 1990) first linked to this movement, which was violently ended by the National Socialists in 1933. In the GDR (German Democratic Republic, 1949 - 1990), there was never a noteworthy independent scene due to institutionally fixed and strongly centralised cultural policies.

In West Germany after 1945, the city theatres had a restoration as centres of self-understanding and self-confirmation for the educated middle classes; this was structurally supported by the regional sovereignty of the Länder in issues of cultural politics as determined by the constitution. The latter forms the core of the Länder’s sovereignty, and it grants them a primary jurisdiction in reference to cultural issues in the sense of a federal principle of structure and responsibility. In the GDR, at first one attempted to latch on to the various avant-garde movements from before the war, along with their efforts to force an opening of the theatre in terms of content and institutional regulations. But here the attempts at renewal remained limited to the city and state theatre institutions as well, even though the GDR theatre’s aesthetic potential for innovation was far stronger than that of the old Federal Republic. 

This only changed when one of the most momentous West German theatres was re-established after 1945. In 1962, a group of young artists converted a multi-functional hall in Berlin-Kreuzberg into a theatre. The Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer not only did away with the central perspective of a proscenium stage; hierarchical structures were also eliminated. In the cooperation between the directors Peter Stein and Klaus Gruber, the dramaturges Dieter Sturm and the playwright Botho Strauß, a style-defining theatre developed in the Western part of the city that committed itself to a radical and critical contemporaneity for many decades. Not only classical and Greek literature was newly interpreted. In addition to the then groundbreaking dramas by Botho Strauß, pieces by Bertolt Brecht were also included in the programme; as a communist, he had been boycotted in West Germany for an extended period.

After his emigration to America, Brecht had moved to East Berlin in 1948 where he first worked at the Deutsche Theater before moving to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm with his Berliner Ensemble in 1954; this theatre still thrives from its reputation as the Brecht theatre. After 1945, the Deutsche Theater, which gained worldwide renown under Max Reinhardt’s direction, rose to become the GDR national theatre under the leadership of the director Wolfgang Langhoff. It not only took on the cause of newly questioning the bourgeois German classics, it also presented the development of modern socialist classical works. In the 1950s, the theatre directed its attention to young authors such as Heinar Kipphardt or Peter Hacks. Up until 1989, theatre in the GDR fulfilled a complex and contradictory function between being a critical public sphere, opposition and cultural self-assertion. Many artists repeatedly failed in the face of close-minded state cultural policies. Heiner Müller should be mentioned among the influential authors and theatre professionals after Brecht; in the 1980s, he had the role of a national author in both German states. 

Since the 1970s, West German theatre had been increasingly profiting from artists from the GDR who were unable to work there as a result of state repression. The most important West German venue for these artists in the 1980s was the Bochumer Schauspielhaus under the direction of Claus Peymann; he had belonged to the Schaubühne’s founders and is now the director of the Berliner Ensemble. After 1990, Berlin’s Volksbühne turned into a melting pot of theatre aesthetics as well as artists from the East and West. With its director Frank Castorf and artists such as Christoph Marthaler or Christoph Schlingensief, it was the most influential theatre in a reunified Germany and continues to to set strong artistic accents up to the present day.

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Excursion: dance

The revolutionary movements in art and society during the 1920s also took special hold in German dance. The highly formalised movement language of classical ballet was not solely attacked as an expression and relict of a feudalist noble culture that one intended to overcome after 1918 (at the latest), but also rather fundamentally as the epitome of the discipline induced by a social order that stood in opposition to man’s striving for freedom. In particular, Ausdruckstanz (German expressionist dance) had the objective of finding its way back to the body’s natural movement. As a contrast to classical ballet, the term Modern Dance was coined at the beginning of the 20th century; as a result of the strong domination of German artists or those working in Germany, it was soon also termed New German Dance. National Socialism stopped this development – with long-term effects.

In dance theatre, Kurt Jooss’ student Pina Bausch first re-attached to the avant-garde tradition in West Germany in the 1960s – starting at Essen’s Folkwangschule (up until today one of the most renowned educational centres for dance in Germany) and then since 1973 until her death in 2009 as the director of the ballet department of the Wuppertal stages, which then became world famous through her work. In the GDR directly after the war, Gret Palucca started working in Hellerau near Dresden, where important dance innovators such as Émile-Jacques Dalcroze and Rudolf von Laban had worked before 1933. However, she was constantly tied up in conflicts with the anti-avant-garde dogmatists in the state and party leadership. Among others, the important choreographer and opera director Ruth Berghaus was a graduate of her school. Up until the present day, Dresden’s Palucca-Schule – already founded in 1925 and re-opened in 1945 – belongs to the leading educational institutions for modern and classical dance in Germany. 

Since 1990, only the dancer and choreographer Sasha Waltz has succeeded in reaching Pina Bausch’s reputation on a national and international level. In contrast to Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz originated from the independent dance scene and then later, from 2000 – 2005, after the final end of the Peter Stein era, was one of the artistic directors next to Thomas Ostermeier of the Berliner Schaubühne. Since then she has been working independently; above all she rehearses and produces at the Radialsystem V Berlin, which was founded in 2006.

Modern dance theatre still has trouble finding its place in the Drei-Sparten-Betrieb of the state and municipal stages; classical ballet still dominates here. The ballet companies from the city and state theatres have, in contrast to the acting ensembles, an internationally influenced structure; the German city theatre system has attractive work conditions for well-educated dancers from all over the world.

With its focus on contemporary forms of dance and performance (mostly characterised by Tanzplan Deutschland, an initiative of the German Federal Cultural Foundation), the state support policies have also made the Federal Republic of Germany interesting for artists from the independent scene in recent years. Artists such as the Argentinian choreographer Constanza Macras works both in the city theatre system and in the independent scene, where Macras caused a furor with choreographic projects that included Berlin immigrant children from marginal social groups (“Hell on Earth”, 2008), among others. Dance theatre has thus attained a new social function as a medium for integration.

In the last few years, dance has also been very convincing as a medium to cross the threshold and serve as an instrument for initiation into cultural education and community participation programmes. It offers people with diverse backgrounds – beyond all barriers in age, language and education – the possibility to play together. The Berliner Philharmoniker’s first famous education project for children and adolescents with the British choreographer and dance teacher Royston Maldoom, which became a legend in the documentary “Rhythm Is It” (2004), is only one of many examples. 

Since then, a true dance boom has been reaching a variety of educational institutions as well as independent groups and city and state theatres. There are open dance projects in urban youth and cultural centres that thus also become attractive workplaces for freelance international artists. In addition, eleven federal states have now introduced the performing arts as a school subject; since 2008, the acceptance for creative dance as a school subject has also been increasing. Thus interesting fields of work for international artists are increasingly present here as well, since the schools often work on a project-to-project basis.

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New theatre forms for new social realities

In the last decade, dance and theatre have also been established as forms of social communication between private and public spheres. Examples are the city discovery projects by LIGNA, Boris Sievert, Matthaei & Konsorten or the city editions of the 100% evenings by Rimini Protokoll. Here, the audience are also increasingly in demand as participants. This occurred in parallel to an opening of the acting departments of the city and state theatres on an institutional level. For a very long time, non-German-speaking artists had almost no job opportunities, because the belief dominated that the audience was homogenous and had been rooted in Germany for generations. This was reflected in the programme policy as well as in the ensembles’ composition. Only recently, in the course of their institutional opening, have the city theatres begun to no longer orient themselves towards the idea of a dominant national culture. In times of reduced public spending, they were forced to re-define their function as a representative centre of urban culture.

The theatre audience in Germany has, in the meantime, diversified as much as the Federal Republic’s society has; it is long since made up of people with the most diverse cultural roots and educational backgrounds, and this audience can no longer be reached with a classical educational canon.

However, these realities have long since been a part – in structure as well as content – of the independent scene; it has been a decisive motor for development in the performing arts in Germany for the last two decades. Here, the most diverse formats – from performance to documentary theatre and independent material development up to free adaptations of classical material – accessed completely new audience groups in multi-disciplinary projects or symposia with political issues. It includes a young generation that has grown up with digital media and technologies, and whose viewing patterns and cultural strategies have long since changed the demands placed on theatrical narration.

Long before the term “audience development”, which encompasses the development and (strategic) acquisition of cultural audiences, became an instrument of marketing in the city theatre dramaturgy departments, independent venues such as Kampnagel in Hamburg, the Sophiensæle in Berlin or the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) under the directorship of Matthias Lilienthal (1991- 1998 chef dramaturge at Frank Castorf’s Volksbühne Berlin) had long since shown how it is done: offer events to the most diverse target audiences and interest groups (such as socio-political symposiums or pop-culture mixes between readings, performances and concerts).

In the context of searching for new audiences, the independent theatre discovered an almost completely ignored part of German society: the descendents of those people who had come to Germany in the 1960s as immigrants. Now they almost make up a fifth of the German population. Matthias Lilienthal was the one who brought the first theatre festival for post-migrant culture “Beyond Belonging” to life at Berlin’s HAU in 2005. Here German artists with Turkish roots confronted questions dealing with their cultural identity. Shermin Langhoff, commissioned by Matthias Lilienthal as the curator, continued the concept in her own theatre, Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, and attained national fame. She will be heading the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin beginning with the 2013/ 2014 season.

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A changing landscape

So today, the German dance and theatre scene is a changing landscape and has thus also become an open space for international artists. Barriers are breaking down – those between countries and cultures, as well as those between fields of performing arts that now increasingly serve as productive impulses for each other.

The possibilities and the career opportunities are great. But so are the personal risks – you have to accommodate to a work situation whose basis is self-exploitation and short-term, financially precarious conditions. Successful works have a scatter factor, because in Germany there are a number of renowned festivals, especially for independent works. They give these works additional attention beyond regional borders, often beyond national borders as well. (see festival links

The innovative elites – in theory and practice – of the German theatre and performance scene often came from the Institute for Applied Theatre Sciences at the University of Giessen. Here the students learned, in the tradition of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, to also consider the prerequisites for their form of representation in their theatre works. In Giessen, the concept of the “post-dramatic” was minted by the founding director Andrzej Wirth and the theatre scientist Hans-Thies Lehmann. Graduates from Giessen who have given formative impulses to the contemporary theatre include the director and playwright René Pollesch or the members of the performance groups Rimini Protokoll and She She Pop; they conquered the city theatres from their base in independent theatre. In the meantime, the Cultural Sciences and Aesthetic Practice of the University of Hildesheim’s degree programme has also gained a reputation as a cadre factory for an up-and-coming theatre and performance avant-garde.

The state educational institutions for acting, dance, choreography and directing generally also have university status. However, access is difficult. As a rule, only a small percentage of applicants even manage to pass the tough admissions tests. Those who can’t speak German without an accent hardly have a chance of being accepted to a state acting school. This is different for applicants in the fields of dance or choreography; here, remarkable artistic talent is the only decisive criterion.

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Accepting the challenge

The performing arts today – not only in Germany – work to mediate at various interfaces: between private and public spaces, on the border between fiction and documentation, pop culture, the culture of daily life and “high” culture as well as the virtual and physical world. Categorisations and definitions are becoming more and more difficult; this is simultaneously a threat and an opportunity. In this scenario of dissolution, the performing arts gain an important function: individuals who meet with art as its audience members are offered cognitive and sensual access – as well as traction to save them from losing hold.

This is the fundamental challenge for the creativity and inventiveness of those who want to work in Germany – but it is a challenge that is worth accepting.

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