Playwriting in Germany

Friederike Emmerling
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By Friederike Emmerling

As regards to playwriting, Germany proves to be quite a surprise. While German people are mostly perceived by the rest of the world as aloof and thrifty, they treat themselves to a theatre scene that may be described at the very least as opulent. That opulence manifests itself not so much in the splendour of individual stagings as in the rich variety of productions. Nearly every medium-sized town has its own theatre, and in larger cities, several can be found right next to each other. In 2018 alone, the Deutsche Bühnenverein (German Stage Association) listed 140 city, state, and regional theatres. In addition, 220 private theatres, 150 theatres without a permanent ensemble, 100 touring theatres and beyond that a large number of independent theatre groups. But even that’s not all: the majority of German theatres operate using the repertory system. That is, rather than presenting plays one at a time – for an eight-week run, for instance – they present a different show every evening. Successful productions can remain in the schedule for years, and every season they are joined by numerous new stagings, some of them of new plays.
The German theatre public can thus choose from a full menu of the most diverse and challenging theatre experiences. Repertory theatre is closely tied to ensemble theatre, which is another unique feature of the German theatre scene: ensemble theatres hire actors on long-term contracts so they will be members of the company for several years at a time. That’s the only way the stringent timing of a demanding repertory system can be carried out. The ensemble also includes technicians and those employed in workshops and administration. No fewer than 39,000 people are directly employed by theatre and opera companies in Germany. Many more, such as playwrights, work indirectly for the theatre. This model, unparalleled in the whole world, is made possible by the federal government and the states, which provide generous subsidies to the German theatre scene. With obvious success: a vote will take place in 2021 to decide whether German theatre should be included in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list. At the same time, the theatre must be prepared to ask itself fundamental questions about its antiquated structures and whether they are appropriate for development into the future.

From a purely literary point of view, German-language drama offers an embarrassment of riches. Able to pursue curiosity without inhibition, and unconstrained by economic pressures, it breaks through all boundaries between genres. German playwriting must be understood not merely as dialogue, but as texts to be embodied. From lyric poetry via the essay to fiction, all the different literary forms come together in this drama. The transitions are fluid, the topics dealt with reflect the Zeitgeist. It’s no longer primarily about content, nor about language, but above all about form. Because as plays are written, the question always arises: what forms are appropriate for today’s theatre? And for the theatre of the future? Plays are always also literary visions of a new form of community.

With authors like Elfriede Jelinek and Roland Schimmelpfennig, the classic playscript was transformed into something shimmeringly poetic. Whether it was in the fascinatingly sprawling, accusatory streams of text in the work of the Nobel Prize winner, or in Schimmelpfennig’s linguistic displacements, whose sounds delve ever closer to the beauty of the tragic, form became the driving force. In the early 21st century, writers like Igor Bauersima, Lukas Bärfuss, Sibylle Berg, Gesine Danckwart, Martin Heckmanns, Fritz Kater, Dea Loher, Albert Ostermaier, René Pollesch, Falk Richter, Moritz Rinke, Kathrin Röggla, Marlene Streeruwitz, and Theresia Walser functioned like catalysts for a diversification of dramatic form.
Suddenly German-language playwriting became bold and desirable, and America and England were no longer the only countries producing forward-looking drama. As the 21st century progressed, a new dramatic self-confidence developed in the German-speaking realm. This was and is partly attributable to the many opportunities to study playwriting at colleges and universities. Among theatres, there was a positive run on premieres. Admittedly, most of them were produced with as little risk as possible on small stages and at minimal expense. New playwrights penned innumerable „small“ plays – with casts of two to four, produced in theatres‘ smaller black box spaces – and those scripts satisfied the permanent hunger for premiere productions all round the country.
The sheer number of new plays meant they could never all be staged a second or third time. At some point, the „premiere“ label came to seem more important to theatres than the quality of the work. A new play became old as soon as its premiere was publicized. This led to excessive production. Somewhere along the way even the theatre no longer really believed in the possibilities of German-language drama. The reason given was that this work was seldom suitable for theatres’ large houses. Too small, too light, not complex enough. Then authors like Thomas Arzt, Katja Brunner, Wolfram Höll, Rebekka Kricheldorf, Thomas Köck, Anne Lepper, Philipp Löhle, Wolfram Lotz, Ewald Palmetshofer, Sascha Marianna Salzmann, Clemens Setz, Ferdinand Schmalz, Nils-Momme Stockmann, Ulrike Syha, and Felicia Zeller came along and required drama to be uncompromising, for it not to cut corners. As these writers found success, they demanded the large stages for their plays.

Drama by female authors has – with a few exceptions – seldom been seen on theatres’ main stages. Fortunately, this is in the process of changing. Women and their writing are moving more into the spotlight. Directors and dramaturgs are becoming more aware of them, as is the public. And only once such work achieved greater visibility did it become clear what had previously been missing from the theatre: female anger, understanding, perception, intuition, aggression, and debate. There’s no question we’ll be hearing much more in future from authors like Sivan Ben Yishai, Caren Jeß, Enis Maci, Maria Milisavljevic, Yade Önder, Magdalena Schrefel, Nele Stuhler, and Miroslave Svolikova, who in vastly different ways write with courage, radicalism, and humour, and with great freedom.

All theatres wish to make new discoveries and prompt positive attention in the press. So they plan premiere productions of new plays. But there are limits to how effective this can be because the arts sections of newspapers continue to shrink. Hardly anyone takes any interest anymore in smaller premieres. And second productions of new plays happen less and less frequently. As little as fifteen years ago there was exciting competition among theatres to see which company could present the best staging of a particular play. It’s hard to imagine that today. Theatres literally recoil from a script when they find out it‘s already due to premiere at another theatre. The emphasis is always on what is most new, most original, with the ideal being what hasn’t yet actually been written. And yet successful second and third productions of new plays would be one of the least demanding and most effective means to support German-language playwriting.
Successive productions of one play are the only thing that can provide author with the time and space and financial security they need in order to write new work. In recent years, some theatres have demonstrated through successful productions just how much impact contemporary drama can have when new plays are given additional stagings following their premieres. Here as in other areas, it’s a question of sustainability and of conserving resources. German-language theatres tend to underestimate the potential of German-language drama. Many consider „international“ work more desirable by definition. And yet it’s time for responsibility to be shared – for plays that have been created in and through the German theatre scene and could grow further. There’s too little awareness of the extraordinary, unconventional beauty and cutting-edge charm of German-language playwriting. It would be quite easy to be proud of it – of these pulsating plays which so determinedly go in search of visions and rhythm, sound, dissonances, humour and poetry, and which also pursue that particular painful beauty through which, in its multifacetedness, art can offer hope and teach humility.
Proud too of the hardness and concision, the angular clarity, the choruses, the rich and dense texts, the depths, and the bearing of the unbearable. Drama that is disturbing, but in the best possible way. Such work needs to be worked through – and worked through in performance. In the theatre. For without theatre, drama would be obsolete. And without drama, theatre would remain silent.
In 2020 alone – in the short time when theatres could be open, between the closings because of Covid-19 in spring and fall – it became clear in the most touching way what language can mean to us when touching in other ways is no longer possible. Perfectly formed language can help us to overcome longing. That doesn’t alter the fact that the coronavirus situation is catastrophic for theatre and for playwriting. But it points to something fundamental. When theatres re-open and audiences can once again watch and hear and feel, drama will give form to the spoken. It will give it innumerable forms, as many as life itself does, and they will stimulate thinking blunted by Covid-19 and make minds explode with pleasure. For plays in their great variety are the literary basis for the conversations we shall have. They are indispensable. Everywhere. And always.

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