The Change in the Concept of the Author Play Development versus Drama?

Royal Exchenge Theatre Production: „There Has Possibly Been an Incident“, directed by Sam Pritchard. © Jonathan Keenan
Royal Exchenge Theatre Production: „There Has Possibly Been an Incident“, directed by Sam Pritchard | Photo (detail): © Jonathan Keenan

The concept of the author has evolved considerably in recent years. Even the Play Market at the Berlin Theatre Meeting has been re-oriented.

It was a symbolic bombshell when Thomas Oberender, head of the Berliner Festspiele, and Yvonne Büdenhölzer, artistic director of the Theatre Meeting, announced the effective abolition of the play market for 2014. Although the event, part of the annual Berlin Theatre Meeting, will continue rather euphemistically to be called the “play market”, it will no longer, unlike in the past 35 years, invite authors to submit plays – that is, dramatic texts, from which a jury makes a selection to be presented in staged readings. In future, so-called “godparents” will nominate young theatre talents – directors, collectives and also authors – “who have distinguished themselves through a remarkable theatre language and pioneering forms of play development”. Their works will then be shown in guest performances at the Theatre Meeting.

The keyword is “play development”. This term is still meant to include the solitary labour of the author behind closed doors in which he gives birth to a text and which is then brought to life on the stage. But in future this is to be only one possibility amongst other.

Plays – dramas - projects

That the redefinition of the play market puts this 2,500-year-old form of theatrical production into a new perspective by no means bespeaks an acute drop in the writing of dramatic works. On the contrary, never were more plays being written and premiered in Germany than in the past ten years. Going on 120 new plays are produced annually in solo authorship, the result of funding practices that have rapidly multiplied since the invention of the play market in 1978. In 2009 a study by the University of Witten/Herdecke identified no fewer than 75 funding programmes in German-speaking countries: workshops, authors competitions, advancement awards, play markets. Not to mention commissioned plays, with which theatres generate premiers on their own initiative and attract the attention of nation-wide theatre criticism. The resultant new plays, however, seldom experience more than production at a secondary stage. After six performances the play is rarely done again and that’s the end of it. Re-performance is the exception.

Authors and collectives

The legitimate complaint about the wear-and-tear of talent and over-promotion is one motive for the re-orientation of the play market. The other reason is a development that began parallel to the accelerated output of texts: a changed concept of the author that sees the real creator of theatre to be the director, who appropriates dramatic material and takes possession of it as a malleable starting-point to be shaped as he chooses.

The other extension of the concept of the author found its institutional locus with the founding of the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies in Gießen 1982 – and now also in Hildesheim. Not only there collectives already form during student years and invent theatre evenings quite independently of dramatic textual sources, mimesis and classical acting. They bear names such as Rimini Protokoll, Gob Squad, She She Pop, Monster Truck, MachinaEx or and company. Their play developments, which they prefer to call projects or performances, help themselves to collaged texts drawing on all the discourses of the present; they use documentary material, biographical experiences of “experts of everyday life” and experiment with the use of dance, music, light and visual arts in ways that cross all genre boundaries. When the subject demands, they leave the closed space of the theatre and swarm out into the city. They free the audience from their seats and place them at long tables or channel them through performance spaces in which they have to solve interactive tasks or come into conversation with the actors.

Co-existence

The graduates of the post-dramatic talent pools and their collectively developed productions have long since gained their place: at festivals, in the theatres of the independent scene such as the Berlin Hebbel am Ufer, the Frankfurter Mousonturm and the Zürcher Gessnerallee. But also increasingly in municipal theatres. Thus, for example, the Federal Cultural Foundation has responded to the new forms of production – and to the structural problems arising from the integration of these collectives in the repertory and ensemble system. Its “Doppelpass”, or “One-Two”, model has brought together independent groups with municipal and state theatres for individual projects. A rejuvenation for the theatres, and a bit of production security for the groups.

In the long run we can probably expect a peaceful co-existence of both systems: the author is not about to die out if a portion of funding, grants and competition monies goes in future to collectives and their work. The first edition of the newly defined play market at the Berlin Theatre Meeting bears witness to such a peaceful coexistence: the English director Katie Mitchell opted for the visual artist Miet Warlop, who develops performances, stage sets and exhibitions; Signa Köstler, the Danish co-founder and namesake of the collective Signa, nominated the stage designer Mona el Gammal; and the English playwright Simon Stephens the author, performer and musicians Chris Thorpe. The message of the 2014 play market is that the expanded concept of the author not only explodes the old genre boundaries, but also extends across the boundaries of language.