Program design
How Do You Devise a Theater Program?

Press conference of the Deutsches Theater Berlin, season 2008/2009
Press conference of the Deutsches Theater Berlin, season 2008/2009 | Photo (detail): © Iko Freese /

Finding a play for performance is a process of lengthy discussions between dramaturge and artistic director. What has to be taken into account?

A job interview in the nineties of the last century. It is for the position of assistant dramaturge at one of the largest German municipal theatres. “Come up with a program for me by tomorrow that will ruin my theatre”, demanded the artistic director of the applicant. The latter made a list of a number of contemporary plays and wrote the names of various directors behind them whose work he liked. And quite to his surprise, he was hired.

That with this task Eberhard Witt, then the artistic director of the Bavarian National Theater in Munich, wanted not only to pose a question about contemporary theatre literature but also to give the budding dramaturge something to take with him, I understood only later. It is always helpful to allow yourself and your team to devise a risky program and put some purported essentials on the back burner when those aspects come to dominate a program which influence its design over and above substantial and artistic considerations: the tradition of the particular theatre, the urban context in which you are working, economic calculations (for example, will you perform contemporary drama on the larger stage?), scheduling constraints, the partly imagined expectations of the ensemble, the directors and the criticism of the audience.

Fundamental questions

Finding a play for performance is, ideally, the result of a lengthy process of discussions between dramaturge and artistic director. What idea do you have of the theater’s profile? What priorities mark your own work beyond the individual season? What are the (sociological, political, aesthetic) themes that drive you? What theatre texts can be linked to them? How closely will you guide a theme through the season by the selection of plays? What might eventual supplementary events look like – lectures, discussions, spectacles? Further, every dramaturgy department has a fund of plays that, independently of the discussed themes, people would like to see performed again. Then too you want to consider suggestions by the actors; and many theatres also have commissioned plays in progress that have to be accompanied.

None of the theatre texts that the artistic director and the dramaturge discuss in this process is read as only a text. With every reading there are concurrent reflections on the director, the casting and the venue. Not every play is suitable for every director, not every actor can work with every other of his ensemble colleagues, and not every project works on the main stage. It is a matter of thinking in constellations, both in artistic terms and in terms of how the work climate develops within a production. Intrigue and Love (Kabale und Liebe) or Minna von Barnhelm are offered to directors from whom one hopes for surprising approaches; premieres rather to those whose ambition is not aimed at overwriting the text. Which plays make it into the program depends on the extent to which they can be cast from the ensemble. It is of little use to become enthusiastic about a production of Richard III. if the desired actor for the main role has off for shooting a film at the time in question. Moreover, there are internal political and planning issues: Can you expect the actors to accept a guest performer as Richard III? No, surely not (even if there certainly are theatres that do this). Mustn’t colleague X be given again a larger part? Colleague Y has just rehearsed three plays in a row; he may need a break, or else there will be problems with the start of the productions.

Long-term plan

As long as the discussions take place without the director, however, they cannot be completely to the point. One reason for this is the competition among theatres (which, by the way, also exists with respect to texts). Good directors are sought-after directors. If you want to engage a director (few are permanently engaged) who works with the major theatres in Germany and is probably also on the go abroad or is producing operas, you must plan early. Invitations for productions two or three years in advance are not uncommon with stars of the scene. Who will produce a play at a certain theatre in a certain space of time is often more clearly and firmly decided than the question of what will be staged. This is true at least of the major venues. At smaller stages you have more time.

Another reason for the importance of the director’s participation in the discussions is that every play proposal must have the potential to ignite his imagination and desire. Not infrequently you hear: “So, I don’t know what to do with this text at the moment”. And, if all goes well, you are given a number of counter-proposals: “I could imagine these plays being performed at your stage”. But can they be cast? What will my colleagues say? Do the plays fit into the theme for the next season? Or doesn’t that matter in this case? The discussion goes into the next round.