New Scope – The Concept of Writer-in-Residence at Theatres

Marius von Mayernburg; © Katharina Birus
Marius von Mayernburg | Photo (detail): © Katharina Birus

The German-speaking theatre has been increasingly integrating playwrights into specific theatres. The concept of the writer-in-residence has been greatly expanded. What a writer-in-residence actually does, depends on his interests and on those of the theatre in question.

Friedrich Schiller was probably the first writer-in-residence. He was hired for nearly a year and had to deliver three plays for the modest salary of 300 florins, as we can read today at the website of the Friends and Sponsors of the Mannheim National Theatre. Tough conditions for a 23 year-old playwright who had fled Stuttgart in 1782 to Mannheim in the neighbouring country of Baden and was just taking his first steps in theatre. Today it is somewhat different. Writers-in-residence positions are generally no longer bound up with an explicit obligation to produce a certain quantity of work. Since the German-speaking theatre has been increasingly integrating writers for a limited time into specific theatres, the concept of writer-in-residence has been expanded.

The classic case is that an author is hired for a definite period, like an actor or a director, and given a writing commission. Today, however, the job is not just about that. Now authors work in a variety of ways at a theatre. In 1999, for example, the Berlin Schaubühne fetched Marius von Mayenburg as writer-in-residence. It turned into a close collaboration. Mayenburg has now written almost ten plays for the Schaubühne. But above all he also works there as a dramaturge and director.

At one’s own desk

This serves as a model for the present day, but not all writer-in-residence positions must necessarily be so. How a residency looks depends upon the style of writing and the chemistry that develops between the author and the specific theatre. Felicia Zeller, for instance, was also appointed to a writer-in-residence position in 1999. The venue was the theater rampe in her hometown of Stuttgart. At that time, she says, it was important for her to be able to test her written texts.

“There were readings with the actors and it was very good for me to hear my texts spoken.” But nothing more was necessary. Zeller is one of those playwrights whose imagination performs somersaults at her own writing desk. Thus her being a writer-in-residence did not work to make her presence at the theatre more frequent. On the contrary, the less she knows of what is going on at the theatre, she says, the better it is for her. And: “As an author, I’m pleased by the honour of a writer-in-residency and declare myself ready to support the theatre”.

Practical activities

For Zeller, “writer-in-residence” means writing within her own four walls. Other writers, on the other hand, want to learn about the practical activities of the theatre. When the Austrian writer Ewald Palmetshofer was writer-in-residence at the Mannheim National Theatre in the 2010/11 season, he worked above all as a dramaturge and was involved in the premiere of Philipp Löhle’s supernova (wie gold entsteht) (i.e., supernova [how gold is produced]). He worked on his colleague’s text, which Löhle in turn thought a pretty good idea.

Writers-in-residence help shape their time at their theatres. Löhle, during his time at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, from 2008 to 2010, was one of the authors writing prose texts for the theatre’s newspaper. Another writer-in-residence, the Swiss author Reto Finger, invited other writers and artists onto the stage and presented them to the audience.

The right time

The new scope of the writer-in-residence has the advantage that, with a monthly salary of 400 to 700 euros, the connections of the authors to the respective theatres does not necessarily generate additional writing pressure. But it can lead to the author’s “core competence” not coming into the picture during his residency and to the absence of any of his plays from the programme. This may have to do with the theatre’s repertoire or with the author’s having to work through in the corresponding period commissions from other theatres.

What considerations, then, should be taken into account if a theatre wants to integrate an author more closely into its work? “The right time and whether the residency is a useful addition. This applies both in financial terms and with a view to what I as an author can learn from the theatre about writing”, says Philipp Löhle, who in the current 2012/13 season is writer-in-residence at the theatre where he also stages his works.

Subsequent productions

During his residency at the Mainz State Theatre, it is premiering one of his new plays. Should there be no new play on the programme, says Löhle, then there should at least be subsequent productions during the time of the residency of already premiered plays. Schiller, who left Mannheim in April 1785, would have subscribed to this view. At that time he had written Fiesco’s Conspiracy at Genoa and Intrigue and Love, and was working on Don Carlos. His circumstances were so precarious that he nearly landed in debtors’ prison.