fbpx The German Theatre System Has a Problem With Power and Discrimination | HowlRound Theatre Commons

The German Theatre System Has a Problem With Power and Discrimination

I was born into a family of theatre artists. When I was a boy, my parent’s friends always told me that theatre was definitely “the most beautiful place in the world.” This leitmotiv guided me for half of my life. How could it not be true—after all, it was the theatre of Goethe and Schiller, of Max Reinhard, Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht! However, after my first experiences in the theatre I began to doubt the leitmotiv. I heard stories about toxic directors, abuse, and discrimination and felt it myself. I wanted to find out the truth about the conditions in German theatres.

I was guided by the question: for who is the theatre really a paradise?

In 2019, I did a research project about the forms of power and abuse in the theatre landscape and published the results in the book Power and Structure in Theater. The publication was based on the largest study of its kind in Europe with nearly two thousand participants. Upon publication, it exploded into the German-speaking theatre landscape like a bomb. Even I, who have always been a critic of the theatre system, was surprised by the results: over 55 percent of the participants experienced sexism, systematic devaluation, and derogatory comments about their performance, appearance, and figure—especially female players. The number of discriminated women was 10 percent higher compared to their male colleagues: it was about 60 percent. They suffered from threats and intimidation, bullying, and slander. The results of my study were later verified by one study in 2020 and another study in 2023 that were executed by two different governmental bodies.

Only 0.4 percent of participants still trust the theatres in their current structure—that's just eight participants. The vast majority believes that theatre structures do encourage abuse of power and that nothing is done fairly. The overwhelming majority of German theatre artists are not content with the structural conditions in theaters. Theatre employees on all levels are hoping for reforms, real change, and a transformation into a fair and more sustainable theatre system. But why is this change not coming?

“The fish always starts to stink from the head,” is an old German saying that describes the situation of the theatre system precisely. Everybody knows about the asymmetry of power, about the patriarchal and authoritarian structures and the male toxicity of theatre directors in German speaking theatres in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Friends, relatives, and former students, who are working in theatres told me stories about the frequent, sometimes hidden but often open, abuse of power.

The power problem in German theatres is structural and a result of the neocolonial and Nazi history of Germany and German theatres.

Although Germany was not one of the largest colonial powers, Germany had a number of colonies in Africa. The Germans were involved in the slave trade across the Atlantic. From 1682 onwards, they abducted tens of thousands of people on behalf of the Duke of Brandenburg-Prussia.

Up to thirty-thousand African people were enslaved by German merchants in a period of about fifty years. Their descendants live today in Rio de Janeiro, Barbados, and New York. Not one of the descendants of the German duke’s family or of the merchants have ever apologized, made any amends, or paid reparations. But the dirty money made in this time helped the dukes to build magnificent museums and theatres.

Giving absolute power to one person in the feudal theatre companies laid down the first brick of a toxic structure and organization that was defined by paternalism, misogyny, and a strong hierarchy.

Most of the current theatre structures were established during German feudalism and colonialism. Theatre directors are called “Intendanten” today, an absurd rank coming from about 1750, when the Intendant was a retired military officer who had to “serve” as the director. In the territory of what would later become Germany, there were three hundred small states that were connected to each other like a patchwork quilt. The about three hundred courts were spread all over German principalities and countries, and nearly all had their own theatres. This was part of the cultural prestige and a symbol of distinction.

Giving absolute power to one person in the feudal theatre companies laid down the first brick of a toxic structure and organization that was defined by paternalism, misogyny, and a strong hierarchy.

Due to the crimes of the Nazi regime starting in 1933 and the Second World War, Germany became the most criminal and fascist nation in the world. German secret police (Gestapo) and other officials, as well as soldiers and civilians, killed 18.7 million humans. Among them were six million Jews who had to die under horrible conditions in concentration camps and ghettos. There were also 10 million Russians, 1.8 million Poles, 300 thousand Serbs, 250 thousand people with disabilities, 250 thousand Sinti and Roma, around 70 thousand homosexuals, and communists, as victims of the Nazis. It is often considered the most horrible period in the younger history of mankind.

Theatre was one of the most important entertainment industries and one of the major propaganda instruments during this critical period. Private theatres were expropriated from their Jewish owners and were brought into line with the Nazi state. An example is Max Reinhardt’s famous Deutsches Theater Berlin. Many German artists sympathized with the Nazis (Gustaf Gründgens, Heinrich George, Richard Strauss among others) or were ardent supporters (the family of Richard Wagner). After 1939, they were supposed to entertain the people and give them the feeling that the war would supposedly be won by the Germans, even when the German troops had suffered huge losses. Until 31 August 1944, theatres served as a facade for Nazi cultural policy, duplicating war propaganda slogans and bringing dubious plays to the stage.

The outside of the Duetsches Theater building.

Deutsches Theater Berlin. Photo by Jörg Zägel.

In this time, the base for the current public theatre system in Germany was created by the so-called “synchronization” of all theatres under the watch of the Nazi State. A Nazi chief dramaturge was responsible for controlling all theatres, their personnel, and their program. All Jewish artists had to leave the theatres; most of them had to flee the country or were killed in Auschwitz.

Dramas that were not approved by the Nazis were not allowed to be performed. Almost all works by humanist and democratic authors were publicly burned and banned from libraries, schools, theatres, and private homes when the Bücherverbrennung took place in 1933. The theatre programs were “cleaned up” and the theatres played a very one-sided repertory with an ideological focus on Nazi topics (mythological superiority of the white race, subjugation of all other races and cultures, preparation of children and adults to serve the Führer in war or through motherhood).

In 1945, the Allies laid the foundations for two new democratic German states. But the two German theatre systems in the East and the West stayed synchronized with their political executives, and most of the theatres were not reprivatized. They remained state-run so that the Americans and Russians could better control cultural policy in the western and eastern parts until the Federal Republic of Germany and the Eastern German Democratic Republic were founded in 1949. In the West, the so-called cultural federalism was introduced, meaning that each of the then eleven federal states were responsible for education and culture. The socialist East Germany remained with a centralized cultural policy and the theatre structure did not change at all. In 1990, after the fall of the East German Wall and the integration of the East into the Western Republic, the theatres were formed into one German theatre ecosystem. Nothing changed—the theatres remained public, i.e. state-owned. The chance of restitution was missed again; instead, half of the theatres in the East were closed or merged with other theatres in the first few years after the Wende in 1989 and the reunification in 1990.

Today, politicians from cities and states appoint theatre directors for a period of about five years. On average there is only one director per theatre; it was only in the last few years that the Minister of Culture in the state of Hesse began to introduce more women and teams in leadership positions.

A photo of the outside of a Theatre Building with two statues in front.

German National Theater Weimar.


The German theatre system has a lot of structural problems: it is defined by the demand for unlimited availability of all artists and employees by their theatre directors. The “theatre director” (Intendant) is by far the most powerful person in the German public theatre. As the artistic director and CEO in personal union, he is responsible for all major decisions in the theatre. He is an arbiter of fees and contracts, and an enabler of artistic development on and behind the stage; he serves several essential functions in one. Most directors are not specifically trained to fulfill the requirements of this function and also resist the temptations of power.

Most theatre directors no longer receive training. Any qualifications they may have received earlier in their careers have not equipped them for the multitude of complex and significant cultural shifts that have occurred.

Theatres are big employers and in smaller, especially East German cities, quite often on top of all local enterprises. There are between one hundred and one thousand employees working depending on the size of the theatre and the public funds given.

The absolute power of the director leads to a hierarchical theatre organization. Currently, everybody in the 140 public theatre companies works for the director, who excessively aims at developing his artistic profile and brand. The typical aim of a theatre director is to preserve and augment his power and, after a contractual period of about five years, to become elected to the next level in the hierarchy of theatres. The bigger the cities, the bigger the theatres, and Berlin is at the very top with eight state-run and dozens of smaller free and private theatre companies.

The abuse of power manifests in verbal discrimination, physical abuse, and a high gender pay gap of 34 percent in the artistic theatre professions. It also manifests in the glass ceiling that makes it difficult for women and people of color to get a position in top management. The number of women advancing into executive positions in theatres is still much too small. Taking into consideration the last fifty years, only 10 percent of all theatre productions invited to the renowned German Theater Meeting (Theatertreffen) were helmed by female directors.

The devaluation of women and people of color in the theatres is a structural problem in the German theatre industries. Numbers are not lying, they show that the slogans of inclusion and diversity are just marketing—the rest is pretending.

76 percent of all CEOs on top of the theatres are male and white, 24 percent are women. Only one out of 140 theater directors is a person of color. This low share is shameful for a country that has been open to immigration for more than seventy years and with a share of 28.7 percent of immigrants living and working in Germany in the second and third generation. This says a lot about a male power system in which women, and people of color can only reach top positions if they have sufficient connections to high-ranking members of the so-called Stage Association or other influential networks.

9.4 percent of women were affected by sexual assault, which was often disguised as offers of “help accelerating the artistic future” by offering a good role in an interesting production, where the artists could be seen by international casters, producers, and directors. In 37 percent of cases, the artists rejected this offer and suffered severe consequences: they were no longer cast, and when they wanted to leave the theatre for another company, the mostly male artistic directors called their male colleagues in other theatres and made sure that this “disobeying” artist could no longer get a job in the theatre business. This could be the end of the career.

At the very heart of every theatre there is a vast, dark tomb where all the dreams of its artists are buried. And the gravediggers were mostly the theatre directors.

82 percent of all mentioned cases of abuse and discrimination took place in full responsibility of male theatre directors, who were neither democratically selected for their position nor acting in the interests of their organization and employees. They have no code of ethics and/or do not work from a “good governance” perspective. Even though the abuse of power has led to the dismissal of five German theatre directors so far in the last three years, the problem is not solved. Most directors who committed discrimination and abuse of power will never be accused because the affected colleagues are afraid of losing their jobs.

There is another saying that at the very heart of every theatre there is a vast, dark tomb where all the dreams of its artists are buried. And the gravediggers were mostly the theatre directors.

I spoke personally with more than one hundred actresses, opera singers, and dancers who had to end their career, and even the best lawyers could not restore the lost reputation of these artists. You are “in or out”—forever.

The problem can’t be solved by dismissing an abusive director, because often the next male director, who was probably his assistant or colleague on a lower hierarchical level, has learnt to copy the “classical,” unethical behavior of their predecessors who are his role models.

The average theatre director is starting his career as an assistant, a scenic director, or dramaturg and is working his way through the institution. After about twenty-one years of service in the theatre landscape, one in thirty is reaching his goal and becoming elected as a director of one of the public theatres. On average, they are starting at the age of fifty-four as a theatre director in one of the thirty smaller and middle regional theaters. After one or two successful terms of about five years each, they usually become promoted to the next level, the so-called city theatre (“Stadttheater”), where they stay about another one to two terms of five years.

Theatre directors of city theatres are responsible for about three hundred to five hundred employees, and for a budget of about 30 million USD. Finally, the directors with the most outstanding artistic oeuvre are becoming rewarded with a post at one of the highly respected and outstanding metropolitan theatres.

My recommendations to address these issues are structural in nature. First and foremost is the democratization of the selection processes of new theatre directors, which includes a necessary psychological review with the question: are they humble and empathetic enough to lead people who dedicate their lives to the service of art? This kind of assessment exists only in Zurich, Switzerland. I would suggest codes of conduct to introduce ethical and fair, as well as diverse and inclusive, thinking and acting into theatres. Transparency between all levels and spheres should ensure that all important information and decision-making bases are available to everyone. And finally, participation should guarantee greater involvement of artists on the employee level in key decisions and in supervisory boards. In Ethical Theater, I propose transformation processes in the organization of the theatre, including breaking down its classical architectural barriers, making it more inviting for the public—theatre must be an open and inviting place. Finally, I suggest that employees and artists should also have voting power in board and management meetings and establish Ethics Councils that have the power to veto toxic decisions of the management and propose immediate measures for improvement. This would include great solidarity and collaboration between all artists in a theatre. I believe that these structural changes could significantly address the problems of abuse and discrimination within German theatre and open up a path to a kind of “theatre of the future.”

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today