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Lessing, Schiller, Brecht, Müller, and the State of German Theatre

In the summer of 2015, Frank Castorf, the longtime director of the Volksbühne Berlin—the most important drama house in Germany—was fired. Chris Dercon, from the Tate Modern, will take over the Volksbühne in 2017. Nationally, a great controversy began between those who want to hold on to Castorf's theatre and others who say that a change is necessary. They want to open the theatre to international artists and new trends in drama, dance, and performance. Unlike in the US, publicly financed theatres in Germany are battlefields of harsh debates in the media, while the number of spectators tends to decrease almost unnoticed year by year.

American theatre is heading towards a strong community-base and high quality theatre in major cities, while the German theatre is heading towards a more equal, structurally changed system of public and independent theatres that have a strong political focus.

Queen Lear by Tom Lanoye at Schauspiel Frankfurt. Photo by Birgit Hupfeld. 

There seem to be big differences, but only a few similarities between the German and the US American theatre. A closer look at the German theatre landscape and its history will offer a crucial insight on how complex theatre systems help to change and establish reforms, and what are the new theatre models on both sides of the ocean.

Today, both theatre landscapes are on the verge of a new quality: the American theatre is heading towards a strong community-base and high quality theatre in major cities, while the German theatre is heading towards a more equal, structurally changed system of public and independent theatres that have a strong political focus.

There are more than 140 publicly financed theatres in Germany that range from communal and small regional theatres to large state theatres (Staatstheater) boasting more than 500 artists and employees working in several genres. Most of them offer two to three different genres: theatre, drama, opera, and dance; this also includes longstanding, independent companies called ensembles—that have continuously worked together for at least five years. This leads to high quality work, offering opportunities to develop new artistic approaches and build strong ensemble companies.

A new generation of German directors and choreographers have begun changing the claims for a higher perfection of language, mimicry, movements, interdisciplinary knowledge, and audience concepts, more so than before. Some of them work with international ensembles, their members performing in different languages depending on their origin like Gorki-Theatre Berlin. Other theatres are cooperating with independent groups like in Stuttgart and Munich (Kammerspiele), which is followed by an exchange of artistic approaches and formats and a high level of artistic innovation.

The Dramaturg and the Repertoire-System (Repertory System)
Each German theatre produces between twenty-five to thirty new productions per year, and presents more than forty different shows, while changing its program every day. Most of the actors must be able to act in more than ten different plays simultaneously in a single season. Together, they are producing more than 2,500 new productions per year, and presenting more than 5,000 different shows per season. You find theatres in every town wherever you stay in Germany; you don’t have to drive more than forty miles to reach the next theatre.

The system is called the Repertory System (Repertoire-System), typical for the German theatre since Gottholt E. Lessing founded the concept in 1769. Lessing was also the first theatre dramaturg and his system is labor intensive, expensive, and quality-driven. In his short tenure at the National Theatre in Hamburg, Lessing wrote over 100 reviews, articles, and theoretical pieces in which he established the dramaturg as a professional. His collection of articles is called Hamburg Dramaturgy, a well-known piece of written theatre history. The function of the dramaturg is crucial in all German theatres, even in many of the free companies. S/he is the “brain of production,” and the manager of artistic quality. S/he not only gives advice to the director, but is also responsible for the final script—serving as a vital resource to the artists and the whole production team regarding the knowledge about the play and its playwright.

Over the past twenty years, the job description of the dramaturg has undergone a transformation in Germany. S/he has become the creative producer who is responsible for both the artistic and administrative interfaces of a theatre production. The creative producer has the knowledge of a producer and a dramaturg. In training future theatre managers in Frankfurt, we are integrating these functions into the curriculum.

Lessing was an important theatre reformer, and one of the most important playwrights of the German Enlightenment Period (Aufklärung). He wrote masterpieces including Nathan the Wise (1779), Emilia Galotti (1772), and Minna von Barnhelm (1767), which all belong to the period “Bürgerliches Trauerspiel.” During Lessing’s time, several attempts were made to establish the first free, civic theatres under the name of the National Theatre in Hamburg and Mannheim, and then later in Weimar. Abel Seyler, a friend of Lessing, was a pioneer of establishing civic theatre companies; he was a co-founder of the Hamburger Entreprise, the first private German theatre company. Unfortunately, this Hamburg-based company failed after only three years. Abel Seyler then went to Mannheim to establish the second National Theatre in which Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Raiders) premiered in 1782. This piece was the most important drama of the so-called Sturm und Drang, the period of the emancipation and enlightenment in the German Arts.

These experiences were responsible for establishing a publicly financed German theatre system, which emerged many periods later and which is supplemented by German tax payer’s money—about $2.6 billion per year. It is the repertory system that makes expensive German theatre productions no longer tenable without public subsidies of up to 80 percent. Only 18 percent of the theatre budgets are financed by tickets, and less than 2 percent by sponsors and donations. An increasing number of voices advocate a limitation of the repertoire, a concentration, and an elimination of the repertory system. These voices call for the system to go back to an Stagione (en suite, like Broadway) production type, which offers and maintains a singular production in a venue as long as it is possible to perform, which is common to English and American companies.

The Ensemble Concept and the Principle of Manufacture
Two more aspects that characterize the German theatre system are: the ensemble-concept and the principle of manufacture (Manufaktur-Prinzip).

Manufacture means that all stage sets, costumes, props, and masks are produced in the theatres. In German theatres, all steps from the idea to the final production are carried out “under one roof.” This holds management to a very high standard as they have to take care of new productions, complex logistical planning, and manufacturing in addition to financial and human resource issues. This raises the bar high for the young German theatre managers who are emerging from places like the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts.

Ensemble means that a group of up to thirty artists in drama and up to eighty in opera (including a Choir) are working together. Each member is contractually bound by the theatre for a minimum of two to five years, performing up to five different roles per year.

Overproduction, Fusions, and Mega-Mergers
The highest costs the theatres have are the personnel costs, which have grown in the last fifty years from 60 percent to 80 percent of the theatres’ budgets on average. Ten percent of the overall budget is for utilities, while another 10 percent goes to the production of the plays—e.g., the payments for stage sets and costumes, and guest directors and guest actors if necesary. Inflation in recent years has caused an increase in salaries, while productivity remains stagnant. Yet due to demographic changes, the number of spectators declined. Most theatres create additional programs with no additional resources to supplement their "planned" theatre season in an attempt to balance the numbers. Therefore, overproduction (Überproduktion) arises as a new phenomenon because the German theatres are hunting for more spectators.

If Germany wants to maintain a large, publicly funded theatre system (with more than 140 theatres, 40,000 full-time employees and artists and 10,000 freelance artists), the structures and the modus vivendi of the operations must be reformed.

Safe Spaces at Schauspiel Frankfurt. Photo by Birgit Hupfeld. 

The federal states and municipalities are no longer willing to bear the increasing costs. Instead, they are demanding reductions of budgets, personnel, and types of performances. In many federal states, public theatres are fused together to save costs and generate greater income. One recent example is the fusion of two theatres in the state capital of Saxony, Dresden. The Semper Opera and the Dresden Dramatic Theatre have been combined into the largest theatre company in Germany with more than 1,100 artists and employees, and a yearly budget of more than $100 million, of which $80 million is a subvention. The cultural and political trend is headed in the direction of Theatre-Mega-Mergers (Theaterkombinate). Most recently, there was a merger of three theatres and two orchestras in Halle/Saale in Saxony-Anhalt, which is now a mega operation. Another mega-merger is the Berlin Opera Foundation (one of the biggest opera complexes in the world), which consists of the State Opera (Staatsoper Berlin), German Opera (Deutsche Oper Berlin), Komische Oper Berlin, and the Berlin State Ballet. However, this kind of company is slowly losing its ability to control the artistic and economic quality of their productions, and develop sustainable relations to their spectators.

New Reform Models
If Germany wants to maintain a large, publicly funded theatre system (with more than 140 theatres, 40,000 full-time employees and artists and 10,000 freelance artists), the structures and the modus vivendi of the operations must be reformed. The model of the single president-director (Intendant), who is entirely responsible for the theatre, is obsolete and dangerous. Theatre management covers a much wider variety of responsibilities than twenty years ago, including expertise in economics and organization, law, artistic approach, lobbying, audience, artists, and budgeting. German theatre needs two important things: 1) a broader board (Direktorium) with three to five directors who represent the various knowledge necessary to operate theatre today, and 2) real participation of the artists.

Participation to me means emancipation, which results in artists having a seat on the board. Ultimately, they should have a seat in the supervisory board and the board of the company; be involved in the election of new directors and artistic planning; and their voice should be heard in the selection of new productions, directors, and guest artists.

There are actors organizations and networks like the ensemble-netzwerk (ensemble-network) of more than 1,500 professional artists that are fighting to improve conditions and increase wages for the worst paid segments—young actors, women, and assistants. The networks were founded a few years ago and have become influential players in the discussion about the future of German theatres.

The theatre systems of Europe and North America once had similar theatre roots. They are both based on similar structures and working methods that stem from the Elizabethan theatre, referring to William Shakespeare as one of the founding fathers of modern theatre. Shakespeare’s Company, The Lord Chamberlain's and later The King's Men, became the model for theatre companies across Europe, including Germany, and later in the first settlements of North America. The owners of the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre, the Burbage family, who were actors, held 50 percent of the company. The other half was held by the major players, among them William Shakespeare. During these times, actors were artists and entrepreneurs. Now, they are only a workforce without any participation.

The development of the German theatre system is closely linked to its history as evidenced in the case of Lessing and Schiller. Friedrich Schiller, next to Lessing, Kleist, Büchner, and Goethe, is one of the most important German classical dramatists. After his success in Mannheim with Die Räuber, he went to Weimar, the central location for the German classical drama.

In Weimar, Schiller took up the idea of a National Theatre again. Many years later, the two most important theatres in Schiller's life—the theatres in Mannheim and Weimar—were raised in his honor to the rank of a national theatre.  Both Manheim and Weimar have an important national significance, and are not only producing classics, but also contemporary classics, modern, avant-garde plays, performances, and installations. During my time in Weimar, I was asked repeatedly when we would finally produce classical plays in their “original” style—as the poets had established the text. We never did. But the visitors, especially the tourists, were longing for a more “historical” performance style. No serious German theatre is practicing this today. The theatres are looking for contemporary, modern, and post-modern approaches following the legacy of Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Heiner Müller, Einar Schleef, and Christoph Schlingensief—artists who renewed the art of theatremaking.

Actors became performers who play, sing, dance, and discuss discursive material in documentary theatre (Rimini-Protokoll), or lectured performances. Each drama school has focused on a certain modern or post-modern style, reflecting the theatres of Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, Heiner Müller, Frank Castorf, and/or René Pollesch. Considering this constant renewal and rejuvenation of theatre, it is not surprising that German acting and directing techniques and practices have surpassed the style of neoclassical schools and theatres in Russia and in France—which are still referring to Stanislawski and his scholars, and the methods of naturalism.

Every second year, the German theatre system loses a public theatre or a branch of a theatre (drama, dance or opera) because of lack of money and support. It is still made up of about 140 public theatres, another 100 private theatres and 100 more independent ensembles, theatres, and festivals. It is still characterized by the interdisciplinary approach; its all-in-one capabilities (from manufacturing to producing); tough competition and a very qualitative repertoire system; and, last but not least, its social importance represented by the large subventions, and the high amount of up to 30 percent of children and young theatregoers frequenting the theatre.

The biggest challenge we are facing today is the steady decline in visitors, the rising costs, and the political pressure to cut costs. Measures taken to adapt to these new circumstances have been the implementation of the creative producer; the slowly starting replacement of the intendant by so called directorats of three to five board members and a new participation of the artists in decision-making. In our courses we are preparing young, experienced professionals for the challenges of a very diverse management role and fast changing future.

Thoughts from the curator

Thomas Schmidt talks about the state and history of German theatre.

State of German Theatre


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Very very interesting.To see $2.6 billion in state funding for theatre alone, while our government with a population 5 times the size, considers cutting the $150 million for the entire arts endowment...I'm not sure we can even count America as a western country in the same way that Western Europe is classified in modern civilization...While the need for change is always present, I can't say I'm particularly enthused about Dercon and some of the, excuse my frankness, idiotic statements he has been making about certain things to certain people, least of all people like Fritsch and Pollesch who ought to have been the first people to make happy it seems...It's one thing to advocate for some change, but its another thing to blast what is one of the best theatre systems (from my limited knowledge) in the world. Not that the article is doing that, but Dercon seems to be a wrecking ball in the conversation, so I'd encourage that articles like this make it more clear that the current system is INCREDIBLE, but needs some upgrades and some experimentation and further inclusion...Not an overhaul.We need European arts and culture ministries to hold strong at this time, forgetting even Trump, but even when we finally get a progressive government in office, we will need to be able to point to where its better, and not have it thrown back that Europe is looking over here and saying, they can do it the way we do it.That is an international disaster for Europe to be, in any way, further emulating American culture. It's bad enough theres McDonald's and Pizza Huts everywhere...please keep the standards of arts and culture higher than ours...which I believe are directly responsible for the electing of a reality TV star to the presidency.It's what people do, so of course, it's what we've elected.

Thank you, Brad, for your comment! I fully agree, the current German Theater System is extraordinary, since the 40.000 Artists, technicians and Administrative Staff, who are working in the mentioned 140 public theaters, have contracts of the public service, which are financed by the communities and/or by the Federal States. But the Situation of the independent artists is less comfortable. This injustice has to be overcome. And there are a lot of other things to be done. But finally all Nations, either Europeans, Americans, Asians, Africans, or others have to find a way to increase their cultural Budgets. Cultur is one of the major conditions for economic and social development. A Society without theaters, literature, arts, will stop to reflect.But you need public funds to take risks, to finance artistic innovations, to work in laboratory situations, to test new alliances and cooperations, to work in new organizational forms, and to establish an international exchange of the Arts for one specific reason, to learn from each other. Will continue soon to write about German Theater Forms today.

This is a wonderful project, congratulations!It is such an important text for everybody working as a dramaturg or Director, or teaching Drama, Dramatic Arts, and German Literature and Languages. For my students this is the starting text in theater theory, before we then read more Avantgarde-texts from Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, Antoine Artaud, and Heiner Müller, which are influencing the development of the epic and later, the postmodern theater forms. I will Touch this development in my next essay, writing, a.o., about the theater of Frank Castorf and René Pollesch, about Rimini Protokoll and SheShePop, and about the newest texts from the dramatists Elfriede Jelinek and Sibylle Berg.