Dresden Model
Democracy Needs the Citizens’ Stage

„Ich armer Tor“ according to Goethe's „Faust“  (director: Miriam Tscholl), Dresden Citizens’ Stage, f.l.: Valentin Steinhäuser, Sebastian Eckhardt, Sandro Zimmermann, Benno Fritz, Kai-Uwe Kroll, Bertolt List, Armin Biedermann
„Ich armer Tor“ according to Goethe's „Faust“ (director: Miriam Tscholl), Dresden Citizens’ Stage, f.l.: Valentin Steinhäuser, Sebastian Eckhardt, Sandro Zimmermann, Benno Fritz, Kai-Uwe Kroll, Bertolt List, Armin Biedermann | Photo (detail): Matthias Horn

The idea of a citizens’ stage in its broad sense has stirred the German theatre world since the Enlightenment. A description of the Dresden Citizens’ Stage on the occasion of the conference “What Can a Citizens’ Stage of Good Standing Really Do?” taking place in January 2013.

Friedrich Schiller’s address What Can a Theatre of Good Standing Really Do? conceived the idea of the theatre as a permanent institution of popular and civil education. The “theatre of good standing” that was aimed at should be a “guide in civic life”. “Enlightenment of the mind”, “formation of manners” and “sublimation of the senses and passions” were the goals that, according to Schiller, could be achieved by a “harmonious development of all the faculties”. A possible dramaturgy corresponding to this concept had already been delivered by his fellow playwright Lessing at the end of the eighteenth century with the idea of the bourgeois tragedy. Heroes, who are “of the same stuff” as the audience, were suited to intensify the feeling of proximity and empathy for the characters in the spectator. The aim was to arouse a mimetic identification and associated self-knowledge in the audience. But neither Lessing nor Schiller thought to fetch amateurs on stage. On the contrary, they were attempting to cast out the dilettantism of the travelling theatre troupes of their day.

Amateur actors on stage could become socially and aesthetically interesting only after the establishment of the municipal and state theatre and the related professionalisation of their actors. In the wake of the ’68 movement of the last century, the theatre world developed a new understanding of theatre: hand and hand with the criticism of the existing director’s and intendant’s theatre went the interest in social reality. Lay people on stage were not only allowed – they were encouraged. Theatre with apprentices, villagers, prisoners, the elderly, immigrants and the disabled was tested at various places and realised mainly in the form of independent projects. Authenticity was the rationale and magic word of the aesthetics which, from then on, has more and more held sway in established professional theatre.

The citizens’ stage: the Dresden Model

Lay people on the stages of municipal and state theatres came into vogue in the 1990s. This became a popular movement in theatre, which culminated in the projects of Rimini Protokoll, with their “experts of everyday life” and Volker Lösch’s citizen choruses, but had its broad base in theatre youth clubs and many individual citizens’ projects.

A citizens’ stage was first established as its own division under the umbrella of a state theatre in 2009. Since then, the Dresden Citizens’ Stage has been a place where citizens of the city can present both themselves and the issues, problems and plays that concern them. New, therefore, is not that “protagonists of life” have been fetched onto the stage; new is that they have been given their own theatre, an “identification point, a place for us”, says intendant Wilfried Schulz. The structural embedding of this form of theatre in a state theatre has had far-reaching consequences. It creates professional production conditions for performance-loving citizens, provides rehearsal rooms and programme services, directors, stage designers and dramaturges that develop a production together with the lay actors. This is usually a social and aesthetic challenge for the theatre understanding of all concerned. The professionals ask themselves why the Citizens’ Stage has been offered as a venue to this particular issue or play. They have to discover the characteristics and peculiarities – the authenticity – of their actors, want to strengthen and develop their abilities for dramatic articulation. The citizen actors in turn are confronted with a variety of performance tasks that can range from the self-experienced and self-invented marriage game “Yes, I do” to Goethe’s Faust, which was adapted in the play Ich armer Tor (i.e., I Poor Fool) in which seven men discovered and mirrored their own midlife crises. The lay actors present themselves with their (more or less) theatrically transformed biographies in up to twenty performances to their fellow citizens, who have received this special programme offering with evident enthusiasm (they now make up nearly ten percent of the total audience of the Dresden State Theatre).

The Dresden Citizens’ Stage, however, comprises five productions in the complete programme for which the actors are selected in a careful process of discovery that then turns into a nearly two-month rehearsal period. Because of the professional duties of the performers, rehearsals usually take place in the evening and on selected week-ends. Eight so-called “Clubs of the Citizens’ Stage”, with names as poetic as Club of Love-Struck Citizens and Club if the New Old Masters, work once a week on themes under the direction of drama teachers, assistant directors and actors of the regular ensemble. The dramatic results are presented in workshop performances. A format that has been re-invented is “The Citizens’ Dinner”. At a large table, about eighty Dresden citizens meet who the theatre-makers think ought to talk to and perform with each other – midwives with undertakers, pastors with whores, bankers with punks. The Citizens’ Stage has a wealth of offerings in which teachers can become students of theatre.

Altogether, the Dresden Citizens’ Stage is a very lively theatrical biotope, whose creative wealth of forms can hardly be foreseen. What already seems certain, however, is that about 1,200 citizens of the city, who have already embarked on this theatre experiment, constitute a potential of theatre connoisseurs who will follow and discuss other productions of the directorial and acting art at “their theatre”

The social context of the citizens’ stage

Putting the Citizens’ Stage within a larger contemporary social context, it becomes apparent that this “rehearsal stage for life”, whose goal (according to its director, Miriam Tscholl) is “to stand lived experience on its head”, is part of a social discourse that is currently being conducted under the label of the “new bourgeoisie”. A civil society that expects it members to take part in social and political consensus-building and decision-making processes must have a theatrical testing grounds. It seems obvious that a participatory democracy needs participatory forms of theatre. A democratic civil society needs a citizens’ theatre, which brings together citizens of all ages, social backgrounds and walks of life in dialogue and involves them in joint dramatic interplay.