Symposium on the Future of the Theatre
On behalf of refugee aid

Georg Kasch, Johanna Freiburg, Wolfgang Engler, Ernest Allan Hausmann, Ulrich Matthes (f.l.t.r.)
Georg Kasch, Johanna Freiburg, Wolfgang Engler, Ernest Allan Hausmann, Ulrich Matthes (f.l.t.r.) | photo: © David Baltzer

German-language municipal and state theatres have responded very swiftly to the influx of refugees from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. As a result, artistic directors and dramaturges currently have one subject at their conferences: the refugees and how the theatre should deal with this issue. During a symposium in late January at the Berlin Academy of Arts, they discussed whether the theatre in fact has such a thing as a political and social mandate.

Never before has theatre in Germany responds so promptly and all-encompassingly. Looking at the list of theatre evenings, projects and actions with which theatre-makers in recent months have responded to the influx of people fleeing from countries torn by civil war, you can already draw a preliminary conclusion: at the same time as the Germans’ fear of losing their prosperity and feeling of well-being grows day by day, the theatre has gone into immigration turbo gear and joined the ranks of voluntary helpers. No stage wants to be left out. A flagship of dramatic art, the Deutsche Theater in Berlin, has set up emergency accommodations for asylum seekers on its rehearsal stage. And even a very small theatre such as the Aalen City Theatre, which is equipped neither financially nor in personnel for such things, offers language courses for refugee children.
You have the impression that the theatre wants to establish itself as the centre for social decision-making in the consciousness of city populations. But it has also raised the question whether theatre-makers should in fact be going about providing “refugee aid”. At the Berlin Academy of Arts at the end of January 2016 a symposium took place entitled “What Should Theatre Be?” Artistic directors, actors and journalists debated together with policy makers. The answer to the question whether theatre, faced with a challenge such as the refugee crisis has a political and social mandate, was surprisingly unanimous: “Of course it does”.

Education and social mandate

In Dresden, in view of the leaden Pegida mood, this question hardly needs to be posed, said Wilfried Schulz, the artistic director of the Staatschauspiel at that time. Of course he asked himself, he said, whether this issue overly dominated his repertoire. But he had to respond to it and among other things has set up parallel to the Pegida demonstrations a large refugee café. For this he didn’t need a mandate, he added, if only because to position itself clearly on this issue is a main concern of his ensemble. The President of the Federal Cultural Foundation, Hortensia Völckers, went one step further, saying that theatre had an educational mandate as never before. “We must use this moment of instability and exception. Precisely because the distress is so great, very much is suddenly possible.”
  • Ulrich Matthes Photo: © David Baltzer
    Ulrich Matthes
  • Jürgen Berger, Wilfried Schulz, Hortensia Völckers, OB Peter Kurz, Burkhard C. Kosminski (f.l.t.r.) Photo: © David Baltzer
    Jürgen Berger, Wilfried Schulz, Hortensia Völckers, OB Peter Kurz, Burkhard C. Kosminski (f.l.t.r.)
  • Petra Kohse, Georg Kasch, Christine Wahl, Jürgen Berger (f.l.t.r.) Photo: © David Baltzer
    Petra Kohse, Georg Kasch, Christine Wahl, Jürgen Berger (f.l.t.r.)
  • Björn Bicker, Friederike Emmerling, Ulrich Khuon, Christine Wahl (f.l.t.r.) Photo: © David Baltzer
    Björn Bicker, Friederike Emmerling, Ulrich Khuon, Christine Wahl (f.l.t.r.)

Völckers probably also meant that in such a situation the theatre should be better funded by policy makers. Next to her sat Mannheim’s mayor, Peter Kurz. Whether theatre had a clearly defined mandate, said Kurz, he couldn’t say, but it did have a mandate-giver: the respective city community. At present the theatre was almost obliged to concentrate its forces on the refugee issue. On the podium also sat the artistic director of the Mannheim Schauspiel, Burkhard C. Kosminski. He stressed that, as soon as a theatre put refugees on stage, it undertook a great responsibility. For national theatres this means that, apart from the social integration of refugees, they should see to language training and jobs for them.
The artistic problems that theatre can incur with its devotion to such a dominating issue were treated rather indirectly at the Academy of Arts [Akademie der Wissenschaften in the original. But wasn’t the conference at the Academy of Arts?] in terms of what happens to the art of acting when more and more purportedly authentic lay actors such as refugees are fetched onto the stage. In this connection Ulrich Matthes, Director of the section Performing Arts, quoted a writer friend of his. This man now wrote only for television, Matthes said, because in the theatre there were no longer actors who could deliver demanding dialogue. An questionable assessment if only for the reason that many of those actors who allegedly speak dialogue so marvelously well in film and television work most of the time at a German-speaking theatre.
The discussion became interesting when Matthes wondered if today George Tabori would dare to stage Shakespeare’s Othello with Ulrich Wildgruber in blackface as the protagonist. This was in 1990 in a production at the Vienna Burgtheater. Shortly thereafter, the director and the actors were acclaimed at the Berlin Theatre Meeting. Today, said Matthes, Tabori would probably become the victim of a shitstorm. In a time of waxing political correctness and growing numbers of refugees, this issue has probably not been discussed for the last time.