Theatre Scene and Trends

Independent Theatre in Germany

Gob Squad; © Manuel ReinartzThe independent theatre scene in Germany is large and vital. As an ideal-type, it stands in contrast to the large sphere of state and municipal theatres.

The independent theatre scene in Germany is so large and vital that one can speak only in rough outline of positions and trends of development. As an ideal-type, it stands in contrast to the large sphere of state and municipal theatres, which, publicly owned, receive open-ended funding from the cities and states. They have ensembles paid according to collective wage agreement and repertories that put a different production on the boards practically every evening. Since the 1990s this type of theatre, resting on the federal structure of Germany, has eroded as the public purse in many regions comes under financial pressure, with the result that the ‘dual system’ (independent scene versus publicly-owned theatres) long ago dissolved into various mixed forms.

Organisation and social situation

The wide field of independent theatre comprises groups, individual artists and independent theatres. Their funding is in most cases short-term and is regularly reviewed by public juries. These artists stand in a tradition of independent political theatre that has developed in Germany since the 1960s under the influence of international groups like the Living Theatre, but also of the aesthetic theories of Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski.

The Independent Theatre Association, founded in 1991, organised them into an umbrella organisation of 15 state associations and 3 associated partner associations with about 1,000 members. It represents, according to the Association’s own information, the interests of an estimated 1,500 independent theatres and artists, and aims, among other goals, at an improvement of their social situation. The income conditions of the independent scene are much worse than those of state and municipal theatre. Average earnings are € 1,104 gross per month (information of the Artists’ Social Insurance, 2012). According to estimates from 2006, 75 percent of independent artists cross-finance themselves through non-theatrical activities.

Funding instruments

„Best Before“, a Multi Player Game by Rimini Protokoll; photo: Milan RadovanovicInstitutions and established theatre groups receive at most a five-year public funding. The bulk of independent groups finance their work through individual projects, mainly via public-sector subsidies. The two chief funding instruments are the national Performing Arts Fund of the Federal Cultural Foundation and the Capital Cultural Fund for projects connected to Berlin. Since 1988 the Performing Arts Fund, founded in 1985, has spent 11 million euros nationwide for 2,400 projects; in 2011, € 785,000 for 79 projects. The Capital Cultural Fund has, since its founding in 1999, sponsored over 1,422 projects in various areas (theatre, dance, art, music and literature) with a total of about 119.5 million euros (as of June 2012). It is one of the reasons that the focal point of independent theatre in Germany today is located in Berlin.

Large institutions that cooperate in many projects such as Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin, The Forum of Independent Theatres in Düsseldorf, Kampnagel in Hamburg and Mousonturm in Frankfurt am Main, have subsidised budgets that ensure the essential technical operation of the theatre. For the artistic work, the theatres and invited groups must apply anew for public and private funding. There have long been calls that such theatres should be better endowed financially and expanded, for example, as production venues on the Dutch model. The envisaged funding by the national government, however, is blocked by the German federal system.

Not only the previously mentioned theatres, which are fairly regularly reviewed in the features pages, but also the various festivals for independent theatre reflect the scene’s trends. Among the major theatre festivals are Impulse in North Rhine-Westphalia and Politics in Independent Theatre. They invite both outstanding productions from the entire German-speaking world and international guests.

Aesthetics

„Verrücktes Blut“, director: Nirkan Erpulat; A coproduction of Ballhaus Naunynstraße and Ruhrtriennale 2010; photo: Ballhaus NaunynstraßeTraditionally, the independent theatre has seen itself as an ‘experimental space’ that creates alternatives to ways of performing dominant in municipal and state theatre: it relies on the development of contemporary plays rather than on the cultivation of the literary canon, open space concepts rather than proscenium theatre, collective work in all aspects of performance rather than the division of labour characteristic of large institutions. And it asserts the identification of the performer with his work against the mutability of the professional actor, an all-rounder who appears in the service of others (the director and the author).

From the 1960s into the 1980s independent theatre was in close touch with critical political currents like the anti-Vietnam and anti-Atomic movements. Since the 1990s it has been noticed how contemporary social and political problems are approached indirectly and abstractly. The focus today falls on the discursive conditions of public life and the cultural and aesthetic imprint of reality on perception. The Applied Theatre Studies programme at the University of Gießen and the Applied Cultural Studies programme at the University of Hildesheim have profiled themselves as think tanks and training centres for such theory-saturated independent theatre practices.

Recent developments

From this field of theatrical research important theatre concepts have emerged in recent years:

  • participation: the taking part of non-professional performers in an artistic production (for example, in the documentary theatre of Rimini Protokoll);
  • inclusion: participation of mentally handicapped performers (for example, at the Theater RambaZamba in Berlin);
  • interculturality: opening the theatre to questions about migration (for example, Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin, the refugee project Hajusom in Hamburg);
  • interactivity: surmounting the barrier between performer and audience (for example, Gob Squad).

With these inspirations, artists from the independent scene have long been pushing into the municipal theatres. Intendants such as Sebastian Hartmann (Leipzig) and influential artists of German contemporary theatre such as René Pollesch, Sebastian Nübling, Stefan Pucher and Nicolas Stemann have developed their distinctive signatures in the independent scene. The cost pressure on the municipal and state theatres provides a further incentive for cooperation with freelance artists and their less expensive productions. By means of the new fund One-Two Pass (Doppelpass), the Federal Cultural Foundation supports collaborations of publicly-owned theatres with independent groups. The German ‘dual system’ is gradually metamorphosing into a network of multifarious exchange relations.

Christian Rakow
The author is an editor of the Internet portal www.nachtkritik.de and theater critic for “Theater heute”, the “Berliner Zeitung” and the “Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung”.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner, Heather Moers, Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
January 2013

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