German Stage Association
“We’re on the right track”

Barbara Kisseler, President of the German Stage Association;
Barbara Kisseler, President of the German Stage Association; | Photo (detail): © Bertold Fabricius

An interview with Barbara Kisseler, from 2011 to 2016 Hamburg Senator for Culture, on her work as President of the German Stage Association. She held the office from May 2015 until her death on 7 October 2016. The interview took place at the beginning of 2016.

Mrs Kisseler, Are there situations in your work in which your offices gets in each other’s way?

No, I haven’t yet experienced that. The German Stage Association, the organization for German theatres and orchestras, is an employer’s organization and has been headed for many years by artistic directors and artists. During this time it often seemed as if there were some God-given opposition between representatives of the artistic side and policy makers. In me someone from the other side, from the politicians, has assumed the office. I think it’s an advantage.

Why?

As President of the Stage Association, I speak the language of the politicians with whom I deal; after all, it’s the language I’ve learned in the course of my years in politics. So when I talk to city commissioners for cultural affairs, mayors and ministers, I find sympathetic ears straightway. Also with politicians who say culture isn’t their thing. For example, if cuts are threatened anywhere, I ask on the telephone: “Have you really thought about this? And if so, can you let me know what?” Some trade unionists call for the hiring of more or less cultural officials for the German theatre; the other side insists on the greatest possible artistic freedom, which for the artist often means social insecurity. We have to find a compromise. I feel I’m on the right track.

How do you argue against politicians who want to make cuts in culture in the face of the challenges presented by the care and accommodation of the very large number of refugees?

First with numbers. Looking at the comparatively small sums that go into cultural affairs puts many cost-cutting demands in perspective. Those who believe that our society would have even one problem less if cuts are made in the area of culture are the victims of a snow-job. I think we have to spread the burden that has resulted from the refugees who have come to Germany as evenly as possible, on all shoulders. I experience the willingness to do so in the cultural sector in many places. The artists say: we won’t refuse to make cuts if we must, but the burden must be reasonable. I think it’s a question of social comparability. Where this is absent in politicians’ austerity plans, as, for example, in Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania and Thuringia, I’m ready to fight against them.

How do you counter municipal and cultural politicians who, in the face of the federal government’s savings targets such as the introduction of the so-called “debt limit” from 2018 on, want to merge or even shut theatres?

In the coming years the financial relations between the federal and state governments will be re-arranged. I’m convinced that even after the new regulations it will still apply that theatres are of systemic importance. On this point I’ll be happy to risk a bit of trouble.

How do you convince people who seldom or never go to the theatre that we need this kind of culture?

I would hope that the theatre does this itself. The theatre has to work harder to reach broader social circles. A little constructive effort never hurt anybody. Given the changes in media consumption by young people, theatre artists are called upon to explain the special attraction of theatre: no iPad gives you the authentic experience that a theatre gives; an experience you can talk about before and after the performance. In addition, the theatre is a marvellous antidote to the emotional isolation that afflicts so many people today.

In your speeches you like to emphasize the social aspects and integration effect of theatre. What exactly do you mean?

On the theatre stage what holds our society together becomes sensuously experienceable. You recognize there your own values, especially when questions are asked that are controversial in our political system. You learn to accept other opinions and tolerate different points of view. This is essential to our everyday co-existence. I know: theatre isn’t the repair shop for society. But in the theatre you can experience how meaningful it is for the individual to get involved socially. Of course, this only a part of the power and magic of the stage. You also have to make clear the intrinsic value of art. You learn how to recognize this as a spectator in the theatre. I’ve learned that once you’ve taken the drug theatre, you often become addicted to it.

Are you, as head of the Stage Association, satisfied with the place enjoyed by theatre in Hamburg under Senator for Culture Barbara Kisseler?

My impression is that in no other German city is the theatre so loved as it is in Hamburg. The Lord Mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, held his keynote address on the refugee problem in the Thalia Theater, not in the City Hall: that’s a statement. This city is proud of its theatre; it’s valued as a place of art and civil society.

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