Whither Theatre Studies? A discipline sounds itself and its subject out
From 25 to 28 September 2014 the Society for Theatre Studies met for the twelfth time, at a conference organized by the Institute for Theatre Studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum. The Society has been sounding out and enquiring about the content and educational goals of theatre studies since its founding in 1992.
Theatre studies, which has existed now for a good hundred years, is a comparatively young discipline, which has its origins in German studies. Today it covers a broad spectrum of subjects and can be pursued under various aspects and with different emphases. It is often combined with film and media studies. In Gießen, for example, there is a degree programme in Applied Theatre Studies; relatively new is the programme in Dramatic Research in Bochum; in Hildesheim the transdisciplinary approach of cultural studies has made a name for itself; and there are various programmes in dramaturgy connected to universities, colleges and academies of music and drama. One fundamental difference in the offerings is the respective weight placed on the relationship between theory and practice.
In 2014 the main coverage of the discipline in the press concerned the Leipzig Institute for Theatre Studies. Here a total of five professorships and assistant positions were not to be re-filled after their expiry, which would have been tantamount to the closure of the institute. Leipzig was the site in 1992 of the first conference of the Society for Theatre Studies. In 2014 the conference convened on the theme of Episteme of the Theatre. With this topic, the question of the essence of theatre studies was on the agenda: What methodology underlies dramatic research, and what knowledge can it produce?
Diversity of subjectsThe participants met to address the intellectual interstices between science and art. Present at the opening of the conference was one of the luminaries of the discipline, Hans-Thies Lehmann. Along with Erika Fischer-Lichte, who has done central work on the “aesthetics of the performative”, Lehmann, who coined the term “post-dramatic theatre” and is now retired, is probably one of the best known German theatre scholars.
At the conference there were about 30 panels on numerous themes that revolved round the fundamental concepts and subjects of theatre studies. The questions could be classified under the three main areas of the discipline, whose students often also encounter these subdivisions in their courses: theatre theory, theory history and historiography, and (performance) analysis. Within these three areas, the subjects of study have a very broad range and the treated theories often lie at the interfaces with other cultural sciences, with philosophy, sociology and the discussion of play. The large number of questions could be accounted for by the dependence of theatre on its respective context. The red thread that ran through the lectures was Michel Foucault. The bulk of the talks held consisted in discussions of his understanding of epistemes. In addition, such conferences also afford the opportunity of seeing what other researchers are working on, of making contacts and defining one’s own research in relation to other positions.
There were no candidates to replace key ideas such as the “aesthetics of the performative” and “post-dramatic theatre”. On the contrary, one had the impression that these concepts were only further refined, combined and transferred in interdisciplinary discussions. The central question of the conference was directed to the relation between theory and practice. In one of the opening addresses, the historian of science Hans-Jörg Rheinberger compared the laboratory situation in art and science. They have in common, he observed, that they make use of an experimental and so collective access, which is open-ended and subject to the uncertainty principle. Thus the terms “experiment” and “rehearsal”, which were also repeatedly important in other lectures, designate a comparable approach. In her lecture, Mieke Matzke, Professor of Experimental Forms of Contemporary Theatre at the University of Hildesheim and member of the performance collective She She Pop – she has herself called this a schizophrenic biography – discussed the change from the seminar room to the rehearsal stage within the university context. The following discussion revolved round the question of what courses teachers offer and what students expect when they decide to pursue a programme of artistic or dramatic research. Even though here not everyone was in agreement, there is consensus that the approach of dramatic research to certain themes is unique and makes possible the acquisition of knowledge that could not be gained through the scientific method alone. It may be hoped that not only the students of theatre studies, but also decision makers in higher education policy recognize this.