Directors of children's and youth theatre – Barbara Kölling


Barbara Kölling © HELIOS Theater

Barbara Kölling was born in Wanne-Eickel in 1963. In 1989, after studying theatre studies, philosophy and education in Erlangen and Cologne and gaining early experience at state-run theatres (among other things, as assistant director at the Westfälisches Landestheater in Castrop-Rauxel and at the Schauspiel Köln), Barbara Kölling founded an independent theatre together with other artists of different genres. It was called the Helios Theater after the street in Cologne where it was first located.

It was here that Barbara Kölling did cross-genre work with dancers, actors, puppeteers and visual artists for both children and adults. After staging a number of productions based on literary sources, she went on to stage more and more productions of her own work and of play developments. This approach still influences Kölling’s productions. As a director, she collects, sorts, focusses and composes the material, which is produced by all the artists involved in the production.

In 1997, the Helios Theater moved to the Westphalian provinces at the invitation of the City of Hamm. Under the artistic directorship of Barbara Kölling and Michael Lurse, the theatre became an internationally renowned venue for children’s theatre. The theatre hosts symposia and festivals, receiving nationwide recognition for its artistic work for and with children. In 1996, 2004 and 2005, the Helios Theater received the Prize of Land North-Rhine/Westphalia and in 2009, it was awarded the ASSITEJ Prize. In 2011, the Helios Theater was nominated for the George Tabori Prize and it is regularly invited to perform at renowned festivals in Germany and abroad.

Barbara Kölling set up the international theatre festival “hellwach” in 2002 and since then has worked consistently in the capacity of artistic director to develop it further.


    The director Barbara Kölling, who was born in 1963, is known in the German children’s theatre scene as a pioneer in the fledgling field of theatre for the youngest children. Through working for and reflecting on young theatre audiences, the Helios Theater has developed to become a hub of discussion and activity. Together with Michael Lurse, Barbara Kölling has shaped its profile as artistic director.

    As well as staging productions for children and young people, Barbara Kölling started to develop plays for the youngest theatregoers from the age of two. Her interest in this form of theatre was aroused by the reception of European productions. In particular, the way in which these productions dealt with philosophical questions addressed a need Barbara Kölling had already strongly felt: that children’s theatre should deal with important questions of elementary importance for young and old alike. When she examines material, she finds ways of inviting the tiniest tots to explore elementary questions in a simple but not oversimplified way. After wood (“Holzklopfen” (Woodbeat) in 2008), water (“Ha zwei oohh” (H20) in 2010) and paper (“Anfangen, anfangen” (Begin, Begin) in 2011), she confronted her actress with clay in her latest production “Tongestalten” (Clay Figures). The confrontation of an actor or puppeteer with a material and live music leads to productions that do not tell linear stories. The different qualities of the respective material are made tangible by means of poetic images. At the same time, the young audience and the adults accompanying them are enabled to make associations through the creation of recognisable shapes and the appearance of figures, leading to the creation of individual meaning. While one viewer follows the relationship of the two wooden beings, another sees a story of evolution. For the youngest members of the audience, however, it is often the contact with the actor that is much more important than any plot, says Barbara Kölling: “When we engage in artistic communication with tiny tots, we should have the courage to address elementary artistic questions. In this connection, we have to keep on asking ourselves about the nature of the relationship between the actors and the audience. That can only be of benefit to the theatre.”

    She subjects her work to intensive reflection. That applies not only to the artistic processes but also, particularly in theatre for the youngest theatregoers, to the framework conditions of productions and the question concerning how they can do justice to the special needs of the age group. Since tiny tots are not used to going to the theatre, they do not conform to the conventional consensus regarding what behaviour is appropriate, but shed light on that consensus, implicitly calling into question the meaning and appropriacy of theatrical conventions. Barbara Kölling thinks about what happens before and after a performance, about arriving at and leaving the theatre, seeing these situations as an integral part of a performance. Such reflection frequently takes place in exchange with other theatre-makers from Germany and other European countries. The Helios Theater issues regular invitations to attend symposia and is a member of “small size”, the European Network for the Diffusion of Performing Arts for Early Childhood. In 2009, the Helios Theater was awarded the ASSITJ Prize for its work including its cooperation with researchers in the “Theater von Anfang an!” project (2006-2008). In the speech at the presentation ceremony, it was said: “The ASSITEJ Prize 2009 goes to the Helios Theater Hamm for its exemplary, ground-breaking, innovative, theoretically well-founded and regionally and internationally ideally networked theatre work for the entire children’s and youth theatre scene, not only in North-Rhine/Westphalia.”

    Barbara Kölling’s wish for the future suggests that we can expect many more exciting productions from her: “I wish to have the perseverance to observe and to continue to build in peace this space where adults and tiny tots can experience art together.”

    Elisa Priester

    Productions (selection)

    “Tongestalten” (Clay Figures)
    2011, Helios Theater, Hamm

    “Anfangen, anfangen” (Begin, Begin)
    2011, Junges Staatstheater Braunschweig, a coproduction with the Helios Theater

    “Ha zwei oohh”(H2O)
    2010, Helios Theater, a coproduction with the Mierscher Kulturhaus, Mersch, Luxembourg

    “Hand und Fuss” (Hand and Foot)
    2010, Theater der jungen Generation, Dresden

    “Holzklopfen” (Woodbeat)
    2008, Helios Theater, a coproduction with the Théâtre Jeune Public, Strasbourg

    “O Himmel blau” (Oh Sky Blue)
    2007, Helios Theater, a coproduction with Ania Michaelis, Berlin

    After a story by James Aggrey “Vom Adler, der nicht fliegen wollte” (The Eagle That Did Not Want to Fly)
    2004, Helios Theater, Hamm

    “Aus dem Haus heraus” (Out of the House)
    2003, Helios Theater, Hamm

    “Am Anfang war” (In the Beginning Was)
    1997, Helios Theater, Hamm

    “Jason oder der linke Propellerflügel ist kaputt” (Jason or the Left Propeller Wing is Broken)
    1995, Helios Theater, Cologne