Independent Theatre in Germany
In search of new forms of theatre

Showcase Beat le Mot „ALLES“
Showcase Beat le Mot „ALLES“ | Photo (detail): Robin Junicke

Independent theatre has always played an important part in Germany. For some time now, it has also conquered the municipal theatre scene.

Every two years the Impulse Festival presents the most important independent theatre productions from German-speaking countries in various cities of North Rhine-Westphalia. Shown there are works that often test, question and reflect upon the very art form of theatre, ranging from documentary theatre to works in urban space and installations. As aesthetically various as these productions may be, they all have in common that they have arisen outside the established structures of municipal theatre. Many of the groups that have been invited in recent years are organized as collectives and have no individual directors – for example, Gob Squad, Showcase Beat le Mot, Rimini Protokoll, Andcompagny&Co. and She She Pop. The working form of the collective has become a hallmark of the independent scene, especially in contrast to the institutionalized theatre and its established hierarchies.

New freedom

The collectives are in the tradition of independent theatre that was founded in the 1960s and 70s in deliberate rejection of established hierarchal working methods. Independent theatre saw itself as an alternative to the prestige stages of the municipal theatre and its related structures. For a long time this demarcation was mainly about an ideological struggle between the classical canon and a middle-class orientation on the one hand and experimental forms and a different access to the audience on the other. Today the situation is different. There are groups that are considered part of the independent scene that produce and present their works at municipal theatres. At the same time, many larger theatres now venture scenic experiments that are not possible within the context of independent theatre because of economic constraints. The polarization has also been increasingly questioned at the political level: in the contrast, independent theatre is often assigned the role of the young up-and-coming outsider, whose legitimacy is constantly in question. This view altogether fails to take into account the range and importance of independent theatre.

New ways and means

There are certainly fundamental differences in the form of independent and municipal theatre. And the Impulse Festival and its invited guests could serve as an example of the potential that exists in independent theatre. What distinguishes all these groups is that they work not within previously defined structures, but rather themselves define their structures. They are not appointed to a theatre by a public body, but rather themselves seek their venue and their funding. For each project they themselves set the conditions and requirements of production. Of course, these forms are also subject to guidelines: juries award funding and the time frame of the funding influences aesthetic decisions. But the method of working, how the work is produced, who rehearses with whom and in what way, is negotiated anew with respect to the aesthetic requirements in each production process. In this sense, such a method of production, which creates and reflects upon its own conditions, may be seen as a kind of research whose object is the theatre and social structures. The production of theatre becomes inseparable from the aesthetics that produces it.

Here the concept of independent theatre gains a new meaning. Independent theatre then means to be free in the best sense from the constraints of institutional, architectural and aesthetic stipulations. Bound up with this is the freedom to develop a production from its concept and text to its actual staging, the freedom to try out different forms of work, different working contexts.

New forms of theatre

The potential for the development of new forms of theatre that lies in such ways of working is apparent in the innovative impulses that have come and continue to come from the independent scene. They have influenced fundamentally the aesthetics of municipal theatres – whether through spatial concepts that go beyond the architecture of institutional theatre buildings, the use of non-professional actors or new participative forms in which the role of the audience is re-defined. Each of these approaches requires different forms of collaboration in the process of production: in the treatment of public space, in the search for a different concept of acting, in a new relationship to the audience. This includes continually developing the methods of working, negotiating structures of remuneration, seeking new spaces and new partners. Here, in the constant re-invention of theatre at the levels of both aesthetics and production, lies the special potential of independent theatre.