Gießen School “The Book of Applied Theater Studies”
Now, 30 years after its founding, a book documents the work of the Giessen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies.
It may be said without exaggeration that the reputation of the Gießen Institute for Applied Theater Studies is legendary. And the reputation is well justified. You could sometimes think that all the innovations in German theatre of the past years came exclusively from the small studio stage in Building A of the Philosophikum II on the Gießen campus.
Reflection and retrospect
The institute founded by Andrzej Wirth and today directed by Heiner Goebbels has existed for thirty years. Now it has given itself a book: Das Buch von der Angewandten Theaterwissenschaft (The Book of Applied Theater Studies), edited by Annemarie Matzke, Christel Weiler and Isa Wortelkamp (Alexander Verlag, Berlin 2012). Reviewing it means more than merely reviewing a book. You are reviewing a study program and, above all, a theatrical practice that has infected, fertilized and even actually changed the entire German theatre.
Books about the Gießen Institute have not been lacking in the past, but the present work is in fact an excellent introduction to the way of thinking and working at the Institute, with a strong emphasis on what happened and developed there in the 1990s. Accordingly, the heroes of today – René Pollesch, Rimini Protokoll, Showcase Beat Le Mot, She She Pop and Gob Squad – are the focus of the essays. The Gießen Theater Studies program has thus become historic, the object of reflection, of retrospection, of self-questioning and self-assurance.
The book lacks in principle something of the perspective from outside. It is a self-celebration (if of course a duly critical one); you feel yourself in the midst of a staff outing. But it is the genuine article and in its pages the reader can experience the real Gießen.
Theory and practice
What then is Gießen today through the eyes of Gießen? The old paradigm of the cancelled separation of theory and practice seems to have faded into the background. That production and reflection are closely linked has become such a commonplace in Gießen that it has lost much of its transgressive, innovative force. Gießen has simply got used to the connection.
This is noteworthy because in the hard sciences – with the exception of elementary particle physics – theory still everywhere follows practice. There is a certain practice and then a theory is developed. In the soft sciences, on the other hand, Gießen has, so to say, prevailed; there the mixture is now common; even the Bologna Reform emphasizes practical orientation and application.
It was always the blessing and curse of Gießen to turn endless theatrical and theoretical loops in the space between theory and practice. This space has been extended by Gießen’s rejection of the usual idea of theatrical representation. And behind the contrast between performers and audiences still shines the old structuralist couple of signifier and signified. That continues to this day.
Opening of theatrical space
What was true before is still true: Gießen has opened up theatrical space immensely, especially with respect to what can become theater and how it can be performed. Gießen continues to pose questions about the possibilities and limits of theater. At the same time, inherent in Gießen is a tendency to ideology; theatrical space was always in danger of closing up again in the endless reference to reference, in theater about theater.
But here too there has been an opening; Heiner Goebbels even speaks of an “end of the Gießen School” in view of the breadth of new works in form and content. It is said that today there are even productions of dramas at Gießen.
There are also signs that the central Gießen dogma, the strict rejection of municipal theater, is crumbling. The idiosyncratic relation to municipal theater used to constitute, so to say, the Gießen identity. And for this there used to be and still are very good aesthetic and institutional reasons.
The Berlin and Hildesheim theater scholar Jens Roselt has written about the Gießen identity in the present book: “One studies theater studies, but actually one does not want to do theater. The greatest possible distance to theater is sometimes so ostentatiously displayed as to become itself a theatrical pose”. This is a nice pointing of Gießen’s views. More of this amiable detachment would have done the book good.
Central to Gießen today is obviously group work; you could even speak of – naturally decentralized – networks. If you study theater studies in Gießen, you learn how to work collectively. This may be heard in many of the essays. How productive and exciting reflection on this can be may be seen, for example, in Veit Sprenger’s text (Showcase Beat Le Mot): CHAOSSYSTEMSELBSTMORD.
Collective work arises out of the critique of institutions, but goes far beyond this. It is the fundamental acceptance of the many voices that cannot be drawn together into one perspective or one meaning. This goes as far as an affirmation of productive dilettantism; as Heiner Goebbels writes: “Don’t see lacking competence as a weakness and something to be covered up, but rather as strength to be used to extend the artistic perspective to include the view of the Other – that is the core of collective work”.
The next generation of Gießen graduates is just now becoming known and is also described in this book. There is a striking clustering of director duos such as Auftrag : Lorey, Hofmann & Lindholm and Herbordt/Mohren.
The extraordinary success of the Gießen School is probably related to the fact that the Institute began its work when the theater was suffering from petrifaction and therefore in many places opened and changed itself. Today we tend to identify all that has since happened with Gießen. We forget that this development would have somehow taken place anyway. But it is certain that Gießen has given it a lasting intellectual and practical complexion.