Ten years of nachtkritik.de Critiques and debates

Esther Slevogt and Christian Rakow
Esther Slevogt and Christian Rakow | © Thomas Aurin

Read a review of a premiere performed the night before at your breakfast table - that has been possible for a whole decade now on nachtkritik.de. Since its controversial beginnings, the website has become a leading information and discussion platform for theatre goers and theatre makers. To mark this anniversary, we spoke to two critics who wrote for nachtkritik in its early days: founding member Esther Slevogt and new co- editor-in-chief Christian Rakow.

Ms. Slevogt, you were one of the first editors and a co-founder of nachtkritik.de. What led to the launch of this theatre website 10 years ago?
Esther Slevogt: There were four of us who were theatre critics and one who was a visual artist. In our daily work, the writers among us had realised that fewer and fewer theatre reviews were appearing in the newspapers’ features pages. You had the feeling that it was a dying discipline and hardly any of the editors in charge understood anything about theatre anymore. Also, it seemed to us that the notion of the critic who looks down from a pedestal and exalts or denigrates productions had become questionable. We thought criticism might be able to survive if it did not see itself as the last word about a work of art but the starting point of a dialogue. So we opened up one-way criticism to two-way traffic and in May 2007 called out to the world: “Hello, is anyone out there still interested in theatre?“ And the reply we got was a quite deafening “YES!“
After some major newspapers initially complained of the demise of quality criticism, nachtkritik critics are now to be found on practically all the discussion panels and major juries. What do you see as the reasons for this amazing development?
Rakow: When nachtkritik.de was launched, people still regarded the Internet as a playground for amateurs. But from the beginning, we set out with relatively competitive fees and good authors. It just needed something to make the public notice that as far as our set-up was concerned, we work in a very similar way to traditional features pages and also achieve equivalent quality. Another aspect has definitely played a role. We have also brought in a different way of thinking about theatre, one that is more like a dialogue and involves more intensive reasoning. The fact that we engage in and also facilitate dialogue with users gives us a perspective that is closer to audiences and less hierarchical, and that makes nachtkritik critics attractive for juries.
Slevogt: In the bel étages of dramaturgy and other highbrow institutions, people who sit in front of computers were long considered to be blithering idiots. But we said: “Dear theatres, if you believe that the Internet and digitalisation are illnesses that are going to go away, you’re going to lose your audience.“ In 2013 we came up with the idea of the “Theatre and Web” conference to discuss with theatre makers how digitalisation and computer games change theatrical narrative or the relationship between the audience and the work of art – and that extends to marketing opportunities, for example through social media. There was great ignorance on the part of theatres. We have also addressed some very avant-garde issues, which were often taken up again elsewhere at festivals the following year. So we like to think that we have done development work in this area over the last few years.
This “two-way traffic“, that is to say the opportunity for nachtkritik readers to react by writing commentaries on the texts of critiques and debates, faced criticism in the early days on account of its maliciousness. Have you done something like basic research in the field of open discourse?
Slevogt: When people finally had their say after the French Revolution, the mob went out onto the streets shouting “String them up!“ Participation is something that has to be learned. And that goes for the Internet as well. But from the start, there were also wonderful and important contributions. And at the same time, a theatre website is a very good place for this kind of intervention. After all, a kind of improvised theatre is going on in our commentaries all the time. Something that really should be done is a puppet theatre play consisting only of dialogues from the commentary columns.

Rakow: People like to use the concept of the mob when they think about the social media. But if you look at our commentaries in detail, there is very little that resembles mob behaviour. Of course, polemic is part of the game and you have to be very careful to check when it overshadows the rational arguments. Basic research is the right term there. We had to learn which dynamics cause snowball effects. But we have also learned that very few calls to order are needed to keep people focused. And this opening to discourse is incredibly beneficial. Some of the objections raised are very well-founded and as a journalist they give you objective feedback and ideas for further research tasks. I personally benefit from a strong headwind in that I examine myself and ask: “Did I look precisely?“ We also have an audience that is thankfully well-qualified and well-informed.
Among them are many prestigious theatre makers, if the pseudonyms under which they write their commentaries do not deceive.
Slevogt: You don’t have to register with us to be allowed to comment, but if we see certain names from the business, we always research them. Whereas at the beginning, we had whole choirs of “Claus Peymanns” and “Sebastian Hartmanns”, all of whom were not genuine (which is why we put these names in inverted commas), we now get maybe just one commentary in five thousand that uses a stolen identity (we then delete the posting). The fact that people don’t cheat is in itself a kind of educational success. If it says “Joachim Lux” on a nachtkritik.de commentary, then Joachim Lux, artistic director of the Thalia Theatre, is the man who wrote it.
For authors, though, writing for hours overnight is hard - being the first to dare to stick one’s neck out to brave what is often a strong headwind. Does that put off new writers?
Rakow: It has to be said quite clearly that it is not everyone’s thing. It is not for the fearful. But we have a strong pool of regular authors in a great many regions and we now have a choice of good people everywhere. And conversely, by virtue of our profession, we do not exactly have any qualms about evaluating other peoples’ work.

Slevogt: Headwind from commentators is also an exercise in humility for us critics. At the beginning, I got a dreadful shock at every commentary on my texts. Meanwhile, I have become more intrepid and in the fray of commentaries, I sometimes feel like Asterix brandishing a wild boar above his head and shouting out, “Where are the Romans?“
That is a very sporting way to see it. So are nachtkritik critiques generally different?
Rakow: I have observed that many authors tend to add one or two more arguments than they might do in a monologue medium in which one tends to write more drastically and hypothetically. That’s possible because our texts, at 4,500 characters, correspond to the old full review format that newspapers now only use for very important premieres, if at all.
Slevogt: Our texts are generally better than those in local newspapers, which often no longer have any critics at all and send their intern. We see that in our round-up of what the critics say. Ten years ago, it was never a problem to link to two or three other reviews, even of small productions in small towns. Today, you are sometimes only dealing with bloggers of uncertain provenance or with influencer marketing. But it’s becoming less and less common to find reviews in daily newspapers.
And our texts are also better edited. And that editing is done in dialogue with the authors, as far as that is possible in the bustle of the early morning.

Rakow: Breaking down hierarchies at all levels is built into nachtkritik’s DNA. Adjusting working relationships and trusting authors and their expertise were important to us from the outset.
How is nachtkritik.de financed and do you estimate that there will continue to be money for quality journalism in the future?

Slevogt: We began with private money in the hope that it would not be lost. And with sponsoring. Some money came from the ZEIT-Stiftung and from the Foundation Lower Saxony (Stiftung Niedersachsen). But at the same time, we built up professional marketing and advertising sales.

Rakow: nachtkritik set itself up as an independent quality medium early on. We have an average of some 300,000 visitors a month. The maximum number of visitors we have had to our website on one day so far was 21,000. We achieve these figures because people have the feeling that we have an independent attitude that is expressed in a reliable context. For a time, there was theaterkritik.ch in Switzerland, where theatres could buy their reviews, as it were. That website was not a success. In our tiny niche, at least, I do see a demand for independent, professional journalism. Intensive discussions are currently under way as to how it can be financed. Whether to put up paywalls or use subscriptions. We have launched a fundraising campaign, which is a great success. But most of our funding comes from advertising, and it should be as diverse as possible because that can prevent individual theatres from attempting to influence the coverage

Slevogt: Sometimes, some explanation is also required: “No folks, if you place an advertisement, it doesn’t automatically mean that a critic comes to visit you. That wouldn’t be in your interests, either. But you do reach a target audience that has an affinity for the theatre.“
As well as reviews and contributions to debates from the German-speaking area, you also publish so-called “theatre letters” from 12 countries. Is there a strong demand for this international sector and how should it grow further?
Rakow: You could say that, even though we don’t yet have the same footing in each country and of course can only provide very sporadic reports. We receive many enquiries about cooperation from international websites. We have a very good critic in England, Andrew Haydon, who regularly writes texts in English which are read as often as reviews on major premieres in the German-speaking area. We would like to develop this further, but it takes time.
... and more resources. Probably developing children’s or dance theatre also takes time and resources?
Rakow: For years, children’s and youth theatre has been making justified claims on us. However, we have to focus on our core business, and that is spoken theatre for adults. But wherever there are overlaps, for examples, when performance groups appear in the children’s theatre sector, we try to take a look at them. In so doing, we hope to include certain representative and innovative phenomena in these sectors in our coverage. We also take an occasional look at opera when spoken theatre directors put on productions there. Or dance when there are performances with discursive connections, for example with Constanza Macras. Editorial work always involves selecting and being aware of the extent to which interest is satiated. Whether there have to be 50 premieres per month, the number we currently cover, or whether there should ideally be 60 – particularly in view of the fact that the theatres are producing more and more – these are things that would have to be discussed specifically if conditions are better in the future. We would include the other genres to a greater extent. But not infinitely. We don’t attempt to cover everything that’s going on in the German-language theatre scene, but only what we feel might be of interest to a particular readership.