Theatre Scene Independent, Yet Precarious

For Mieke Matzke (not pictured), being independent means freedom in production: performance of She She Pop in 2012.
For Mieke Matzke (not pictured), being independent means freedom in production: performance of She She Pop in 2012. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Britta Pedersen

The independent theatre scene in Germany is growing, but its problems remain: too little money, too little security, and virtually no (political) recognition. A status report. 

The independent theatre scene in Germany has a fascinating history: it was spawned by the revolutionary movement that fundamentally questioned the country’s social and political system in 1968. At that time, the criticism was directed first and foremost at state and publicly funded institutions, which were organized according to a strict hierarchy and run by men. Independent theatre also emerged in opposition to so-called high culture with its elitist educational aspirations, which excluded large parts of the population.

“We therefore propose that German theatre should be democratized,” wrote Barbara Sichtermann and Jens Johler in the theatre magazine Theater heute in 1968. Their criticism was entitled “On the Authoritarian Spirit of German Theatre”. The alternative theatre practice of the 1968 era followed the Bertolt Brecht tradition and embraced his sweeping criticism of theatre as an “apparatus”. Since any genuine democratization of German theatre – in the sense of a transition to collective forms of management, administration and directing – failed to materialize, however, artists began to form groups outside the established institutions and to look for new spaces for their work. This gave rise to an “independent scene” that took very specific local forms under all kinds of different cultural and political circumstances.

Networking And Institutionalization

In the meantime, the independent scene has become professionalized, established its own performance venues, set up translocal and international networks, founded lobbying associations and formed co-production structures. In short, it is “institutionalizing” the way it works and engaging in dialogue with cultural policy stakeholders with a view to ensuring the longest possible public funding. “For us, independent means being as free and independent as possible in terms of our productions,” writes the performer Mieke Matzke, a member of the feminist collective She She Pop. “In this sense, the structures and working practices of such independent theatre are directly linked to the question of where productions take place and what the political implications of this are.”

At the federal level, the Federal Association for the Independent Performing Arts (BFDK) is the umbrella association that represents the interests of around 27,000 independent dance and theatre professionals in total, as well as 16 state and seven associated associations. Since the 2016/17 season, Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media has provided funding for the Alliance of International Production Houses, an association of seven independent venues in the metropolitan regions that are also involved in wide-ranging international networks. By contrast, the nationwide flausen+ network, which was established in 2010 and has 31 independent theatres from 14 of Germany’s states as its members, exerts more of a regional impact. In addition, the Netzwerk Freier Theater (NFT), to which eleven professional theatre and production companies belong, was set up to facilitate the “supraregional exchange of productions and know-how”.

By comparison, the independent scene is extremely egalitarian and diverse.

Under Precarious Conditions

The Berlin State Association for the Independent Performing Arts (LAFT Berlin) is an excellent example of just how effectively such institutions can represent the interests of artists in the public domain and vis-à-vis cultural policymakers. It was established in 2007 as a non-profit association. Not only does it run overarching working groups on things like “Spaces”, “Diversity and Anti-Discrimination” or “Archive” and in 2016 set up the Performing Arts Festival (PAF) that takes place in around 60 venues all over the city each year. In addition, in launching the Performing Arts Programme (PAP), the LAFT Berlin created an effective instrument to professionalize and interconnect the largest and most diverse local scene in Germany and strengthen its infrastructure – with funding provided also by the European Union. Although the independent scene in Berlin now has access to nearly 40 different funding programmes and the funding has been increased considerably, its situation remains precarious: the scene is growing and policymakers are finding it virtually impossible to come up with any effective strategies to prevent it from being forced out of the inner city by gentrification.

Under the banner Fairstage, LAFT Berlin has been working together with Diversity Arts Culture, the Ensemble-Netzwerk and the Berlin Senate since 2021 on a model project aimed at improving working conditions and reducing discrimination at spoken theatre venues in Berlin. By comparison with the municipal and state theatre landscape, the independent scene is extremely egalitarian and diverse, especially in terms of gender and colour. This is evident not only in its programmes and aesthetics. Furthermore, the calls for equality and equal opportunities in theatre since 2010 have led to many Germany-wide initiatives and organizations that are committed to improving working conditions and combating discrimination – such as Bühnenwatch, Pro-Quote Bühne and the Ensemble-Netzwerk.

For example, out of the independent scene – and with substantial support from the Fonds Darstellende Künste – the association “Die Vielen” was born on 9 November 2018, 80 years to the day after the start of the November pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany. From 2016, the cultural landscape had been exposed to a growing number of right-wing extremist attacks. The parliamentary questions raised by the right-wing conservative AfD (Alternative for Germany) party in the cultural committees were on the rise. The art and cultural landscape in Germany (and later in the German-speaking world) responded by closing ranks and clearly positioning itself as never before.

Vulnerability Revealed By Pandemic

It is also thanks to the Fonds Darstellende Künste, Germany’s federal cultural promotion fund, that the funds made available by the federal government as part of its “Neustart Kultur” scheme – the coronavirus bailout package for the art and cultural scene – were able so effectively to reach those people who needed them the most: the independent (performing) artists who have no security or protection whatsoever under labour law.

The independent theatre scene tends to be viewed as a low-cost and innovative alternative.

The coronavirus pandemic and its impacts highlighted once again how vulnerable the independent scene is: project-based work – that is to say the independent and concept-based development of working structures in alternating teams – poses at the same time an existential threat. Ever since the “Kulturinfarkt” (cultural infarction) study that was published in 2012 fuelled discussions about the legitimation of the theatre landscape, if not before, the independent theatre scene has tended to be viewed as a low-cost and innovative alternative. There is far less interest in the largely precarious working conditions and lack of social security and retirement provisions. This has (hopefully) been changed by the pandemic crisis.

“The Coalition of the Independent Arts stands in opposition to policies that increasingly expose art created in independent structures to commercial constraints and subject it to displacement, thus restricting its autonomy as well as marginalizing the social significance of art,“ states the website of the “Coalition of the Independent Arts”, which views itself as an interdisciplinary lobby group for the 40,000 or so independent artists working in Berlin. In Berlin, it is clear that spaces for social experimentation will vanish without the independent scene, and this applies equally to all other cities and regions.