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Old questions to a young audience

By Annika Haas

In a conversation with participants from three Bundesweiten Artist Labs, Annika Haas learns about the strategies that artists are discussing or are already using to build sustainable relationships with the audiences of the future.

How does the audience find its way to the theater? And what constitutes theater when it suddenly no longer has a location? These questions also arose during the pandemic with regard to young audiences, since they usually don’t yet have a "fixed" relationship to theater as an institution and a place. In the independent scene, permanent venues are not always a given anyway. Therefore, it’s not surprising that independent children's and youth theater groups were inventive and quickly developed plays that also worked without a physical stage. During the pandemic, for example, there was the audio walk “Schulausflug” (imaginary company, 2021) and the video conference "Spiel dich erwachsen!" (pulk fiktion, 2021).

In addition to looking back at these kind of pandemic-related experiments in format, the creators of three of the labs share a central pragmatic experience when it comes to questions that touch upon the post-pandemic relationship between young audiences and the independent theater scene: Without theater visits and guest performances usually organized by schools, it was very difficult to establish contact with children and young people during the pandemic. Following on from this experience, independent groups with deliberately participatory practices in particular are reflecting on how they themselves can build more sustainable relationships with their audiences. This not only makes them less dependent on mediators such as parents and teachers, but it is also connected to their conviction that theater for a "young audience" – which includes babies through to elementary school children and young adults – shouldn’t wait until after the play is finished to seek contact with the corresponding age groups.

As Vanessa Stern has discovered during her research with her lab "Publika Kartographie" (“Audience Cartography”) in Berlin, audiences are almost never the target groups named in funding applications. Rather, they develop over time, like networks of plant roots, and ultimately cannot be controlled or directed in their growth. Stern's attempt to map the rhizome of audiences that connect to her plays in an experimental documentary is both comical and serious. Stern interviewed more than 40 people who have seen her plays, asking them who had told them about her work. The paths led sometimes through sisters, friends or the neighbor of a colleague and were often adventurous. The interviews also reveal another observation: The people on stage generate a considerable part of the audience. On the one hand, the audience of productions of the independent scene often includes friends and family. On the other hand, the diversity in the audience is proportional to the diversity on stage. Thus, Vanessa Stern's productions are also about the question of how to think beyond the representation of diverse groups. And of how the issues relevant to these groups can be credibly represented and discussed.
A group of people sit in a circle on chairs and applaud. © Salar Baygan

With regard to young people and their issues, however, it’s not so easy to represent them on stage. The group pulk fiktion has been reflecting for some time on why children and young people should be interested in theater that is made by adults. The adults at pulk fiktion therefore don't stick to themselves, but work together with young people on the production of their plays on a long-term basis. The title of the lab initiated by pulk fiktion, "Beziehungsweise Maker Space" (“Specifically Maker Space”) at the FFT Düsseldorf, gets to the heart of the fact that the relationship with these young collaborators does not develop by itself. Like the relationship with every audience, this working relationship must be established, and to do so it needs "encounter tools", according to the group's dramaturge, Lisa Zehetner.

These tools can help to expose the existing hierarchies in communication and collaboration between theater makers and young people who are working artistically and to develop a more realistic approach to them. „Augenhöhe ist fake. Beziehung aber nicht“"Equal terms is fake. But relationships are not," according to the pulk fiktion website. Zehetner outlines what this means for her work in concrete terms: "We want to produce dialogues between our own world of thought and the perspectives of children and young people. But when we involve them in our productions, it's inevitable that we always appropriate their perspectives to some extent in the process." In addition to mutual interest, she says, there needs to be a sincere appreciation of the time and content that the current seven young people, aged between 12 and 20, invest in working with pulk fiktion.

Involving young audiences in the theater production in this way not only changes the process of its creation, it also means a change in the work of mediation, which educationalist Kristin Westphal describes as follows: "Leaving behind a practice of mediation in the sense of classical instruction" in favor of "a performative practice" in which "the experiential realities of children are shown."

Although the trend toward participatory mediation is now widespread, production and mediation represent largely separate domains at the funding level. Also, beyond the project logic, there are too few instruments that facilitate working on long-term relationships with young audiences. Célestine Hennermann and Ossian Hain also draw attention to an economic dilemma in a discussion during the lab “Publikum der Zukunft” "Audiences of the Future" in Frankfurt/Main: "Work in the field of children's and youth theater is less valued than other art forms. The idea prevails that the productions are not that costly. 'After all, you're only doing something for children.'" It’s disappointing that this perception persists, not least in light of the fact that the concerns of children and young people were never a top priority, even during the pandemic. Hennermann and Hain refuse to be cynical, however, and are doing everything they can to create welcoming spaces for the audiences of the future. After all, they say, theaters are parts of the "democratic whole."

Involving young people from all social groups in democracy therefore also means considering them to be part of the theater world and taking them seriously. Even if they are not to be found in the established theater venues. Thus, Hain draws the lesson from the pandemic that it is important to move even more consistently into the urban space. Because that's where the audience of the future is already to be found. For example, they are standing in line in front of the Frankfurt Zoo. Next year, a temporary theater workshop of the independent scene will move into the old zoological society building right next to the zoo. When Hain saw the queue while exploring the area around the building during the lab, he had an idea: Couldn't the queue in front of the zoo be completely transformed into a theater? "The zoo has a diverse audience, and it has a kind of informal contract with its visitors: 'You're welcome here, and you get things in terms of entertainment and education.'"

So, the form that the audience of the future will take is also linked to what the theater can offer them. The labs in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Berlin show that theater makers have long been working with young people on good formulations and sustainable relationship deals that are no longer based on the "equal terms" rhetoric.

In the summer of 2023, in 64 Bundesweiten Artist Labs, independent artist groups explored the relationship with the audience in post-pandemic times. Our editor Elisabeth Wellershaus and a team of guest authors observed them at work.

Annika Haas is a media theorist and freelance writer. She researches and teaches at the Institute for History and Theory of Design at the Universität der Künste Berlin.