Nachtkritik conference
Theatre meets the Net

Montage for „Theater and the Net“
Montage for „Theater and the Net“ | Photo (detail): © Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

A conference in Berlin in May 2013 sought to build a bridge between the mutually shy theatre and internet scenes. They have more in common than meets the eye.

Nothing has shaken the old cultural techniques as deeply as digitalization and its consequences. In the eyes of the administrators of high culture, users of computers and the internet, much more players of computer games, have long had the image of uneducated social misfits. And communication between the theatre and the denizens of Net society has long consisted only in the paternalistic injunction: “People, shut off your computers and educate yourselves! Go to the theatre! We offer you salvation from your self-inflicted dumbing down!”

Improving the world as chalk and talk teaching

That the average internet user today perhaps has long taken in and processed at his computer more educational content and information than theatre people do in the insularity of their art and canteen world often seems hardly conceivable in dramaturgy departments. There as ever they brood over repertoire and season mottos, like teachers in their common room during a report conference. That at least is the image that Net society has of the theatre and its makers. The authorial claim with which theatre addresses its offer of improving the world in the manner of chalk and talk teaching is no longer compatible with the dehierarchicalized forms of communication that have established themselves since the advent of Web 2.0.

Yet theatre and the Net have much in common. To explore these similarities and points of contact, and to bundle together the questions that have now arisen about the complex “theatre and Net”, was the idea of the Nachtkritik conference “Theatre and the Net”, which was mounted in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.

Theatre in a Net society?

At the opening of the conference, two symbolic figures of the two scenes met: Net politician Marina Weisband and old theatre hand Claus Peymann. One of the rules of this meeting was that Peymann had to attend the Net conference “republica” and Weisband the Berlin Theatre Meeting. The Nachtkritik conference was scheduled between the two supra-regional industry gatherings of the theatre and Net scenes. Peymann showed himself impressed by the world improvement euphoria of the Net activists whom he met at “republica”. Before, the theatre was the site of subversion from which revolutions began. Today, he reflected, the site is probably the internet. Weisband in turn described theatre as a personal retreat for emotional and physical experience; not everything must be networked and digitalized in the end.

The next day then the discussion turned around theatre in a Net society. The journalist and internet entrepreneur Christoph Kappes sought to stake out a space for thought with thirty basic theses, which he subtitled “bullshit bingo”: how might theatre look in a Net society? Stefan Kaegi, one of the makers of Rimini Protokoll and pioneer of participatory theatre forms, engaged in a discussion with Joachim Lux, who made a plea for maintaining the “fourth wall” in theatre, even though his Thalia Theater in Hamburg is one of the most experimental in terms of the combination of internet and theatre.

Interactive theatre and the non-hackable live experience

In another panel, inventors of participatory and interactive theatre formats such as Signa Köstler (Signa), Sebastian Hartmann and Matthias Prinz of machina eX discussed with the game designer Martin Ganteföhr the scope and limits of participation. Herbert Fritsch, one of the first theatre people to have experimented with the Net in theatre, described his artistic disappointment and disillusionment with the internet. A third thematic block concerned the way in which the writing of criticism on the internet has changed writing itself.

For not only artists but also critics must face the radical reorganization of the public by the internet. Once critics were intermediaries between the spheres of theatre and the public. Now they have to assert themselves as a voice in the crowd. Parallel to the discussion panels, social media professionals from the Berlin Agentur TLLG offered workshops for the staff of public dramaturgy departments at theatres. This was something that met with great resonance if only because there is a great need on the part of people working in this new branch of theatre to exchange experiences: how do you generate an audience out of Facebook fans, and do people in a audience constitute a “community”?

In the months since the conference much has happened: for instance, the NSA affair has everywhere braked internet euphoria. The eerie surveillance possibilities of digital media may foster a renaissance of the unhackable live experience offered by theatre. How does theatre respond in general to the changes in our lives brought about by digitalization? Questions like this will be pursued at the second edition of the “Theatre and the Net” conference on 3 May 2014 in Berlin. The planning is underway: to be continued.