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Does theater in Germany need development planning?

By Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch

On November 02, 2021, the results of studies that monitored the NEUSTART-KULTUR grants will be presented by the Fonds Darstellende Künste and the researchers who took part. The program was led by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schneider, Chairman of the Board of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. This is a conversation about key findings and what needs to be done now.

Professor Schneider, what is the most important finding from the monitoring process that evaluated the Fonds Darstellende Künste’s aid programs during the corona pandemic?

The first finding was that, within the theater arts, there has been little research done in Germany on the independent performing arts. This need not worry artists; the Fonds Darstellende Künste are well aware of the range of content-related and aesthetic developments because of the thousands of project applications they receive. What we didn’t realize until now was that the varied materials generated by this practice – and also the cultural-political theater scene – were so little recognized at German universities in the way that we have now attempted with our NEUSTART KULTUR research program.

How exactly was the research program designed?

We commissioned twelve studies from eleven colleagues at ten different universities, who have now sent us a volume of over 1000 pages of results and findings. These results have essentially come from three sources: the first source was material from the Fonds Darstellende Künste’s various funding programs, which were substantially expanded through the NEUSTART KULTUR initiative. The second source is the makers and their resources, a qualitative empiricism; many conversations, interviews and a sort of scholarly observation. And the third source is actually the acceptance of the idea of a theater scene – a discourse that, if you look at what I think is the most important reference source on cultural policy, has been going on since the German Bundestag’s Commission of Inquiry’s final report "Culture in Germany" in 2007. If you refer to the chapter on theater, it actually talks about a theater scene for the first time, and not about two worlds, three pillars or the system of municipal and state theaters – to which independent theater is supposed to be added. On this basis, discourses have been analyzed in recent years that have also found their way into research.

Did the sub-studies provide any really surprising results?

When you've been in business as long as I have, you can still be surprised, even if you think you know a lot of things already. In this case, there was a lot of confirmation, at least as much encouragement, and many more ideas for change. There has never been a study of this magnitude before. If one looks at the reflections on the effect of art alone, this essentially consists of how we perceive ourselves and the world. However, on the one hand, art thrives on change, and on the other – and this has certainly been a topic in the last year and a half – it is not only highly relevant, but can also be systemically relevant in regards to societal considerations. This is confirmed in detail in the studies, because one gains insight into concrete production practice. And where production was not possible because of the pandemic, one gains insight into thinking, into plans for the future, into the structural perspectives that were developed during this time.

Can you give an example?

Quite a few. Since the Fonds Darstellende Künste is a funding body set up to provide stimulus in the Federal Republic of Germany, we naturally focused on the role of the funding programs and structures. That's why we asked our academic colleagues to take a special look at these tools, take them apart and reassemble them for us. It is still important for us to learn from this crisis in regard to the funding system and to ensure, with new or changed programs, that, to put it bluntly, more theater is possible for more people.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schneider stands at the speaker's podium and gives a speech. © Dorothea Tuch

Prof. Wolfgang Schneider beim Bundesforum 2021

What are the specific points that need to be addressed now?

Almost unanimously, the researchers pleaded for a stronger focus on multi-year funding. There is, for example, the idea of funding a network of artistic research over several years, in which several groups or artists apply for funding together and continue to work with what they have developed, perhaps involving others, so that a research process running over several stages emerges – instead of a project that is exhausted in a few performances. It's about time frames, about planning security. For some years now, the Fund has provided conceptual funding for a period of three years. It has been confirmed to us several times that this is the right way to ensure that artists have time to pay more attention to process-relatedness than to short-term project funding.

Was the so-called funding jungle – the small-scale and sometimes confusingly structured possibilities offered by municipalities, states and the federal government – discussed?

Yes, the funding options must become more compatible. The funding arena is very varied and, above all, we live in a system of cultural federalism. This political multi-level system has been discussed in relation to artists. There must be a better exchange in order to come to an understanding which involves all other funding institutions such as the Federal Cultural Foundation and foundations in the states or in municipal contexts. At the same time, no one should be concerned that everything in this field will be organized in a purely centralized manner from now on. The individual framework conditions, backgrounds or initial scenarios are too different for that.

Variety should be preserved?

Exactly. It is obvious that in the independent performing arts not only solo artists are active, but that they work together in different formations and, from this, they benefit in regard to the further development of content and aesthetics. Many sub-studies clearly recommend strengthening this and taking it into account in funding programs.

Speaking of funding structures, one sub-study addresses the issue of diversity. What was the conclusion?

A lot of programs and projects have been developed in the past on the topic of diversity. But it is obvious that the funding structure in its current state is not able to be the driving force for improving access conditions for underrepresented groups and artists to funding in the field of performing arts. Some studies clearly show that there are individual funding programs, but that diversity cannot be reduced to migration or inclusion-related project funding. Instead, there is a general plea to recognize diversity as a central area of activity in funding and to make it an integral part of theater practice.

What might that look like?

Two sub-items illustrate this, because they take up debates we have had about boundaries in the Fonds Darstellende Künste in recent years. Where does theater begin, and where does social culture and cultural education end? These components are described as indispensable dimensions to diversity development, in regard to the experiences of those who were interviewed here and who have been artistically active in the field in recent years. The second point, which of course pleased me as a long-time president of ASSITEJ, is that children's and youth theaters are an elementary component in diversity development, that they contribute to what is presented and represented on stage; how and by whom. They enable something like an overall social mediation, which at its best has a lifelong effect, especially since the audience of children's and youth theater is one of the most diverse in terms of composition.

The relationship between urban and rural areas was also examined. Are there any new findings?

A clever study has looked at the socio-spatial conditions of theater. There are clear indications of what does not happen beyond the big cities or what can be considered the norm in rural areas: the principle of audience participation. It is made very clear here that this may also be a learning experience for the entire theater scene. It is clear too that there is something wrong with the funding: the federal precept, which means municipalities, states and the federal government in ascending order of regional relevance. It is not structurally effective when it comes to theater work beyond the big cities, because many municipalities see culture as a voluntary activity and they are short on finances. There are clear indications in the studies of how this situation can be improved.

In what way?

In the future, funding should focus, for example, on the unsolved problems of generational change in networking structures and social places in rural areas such as schools, libraries, sociocultural centers or village community centers. Without good venues, nothing works. And it won't work without improving the skills of local administrators and politicians. We also asked whether Germany needs something like theater development planning – connected concepts for municipalities, states and the federal government, with the goals of expanding finances and improving working conditions and understanding between the funding institutions. Cooperation between the independent performing arts and public theaters is recommended; permeability and knowledge transfer as well as joint production platforms are emphasized. And theater-related training in Germany is also under scrutiny.

Did the studies also reveal negative developments, such as the fact that we were often overwhelmed by the increased funding within a short period of time?

The long-term nature of theater funding will be the be-all and end-all of future cultural policy. All studies plead for more time, more spaces, more money. This sounds utopian, but it is based on the precarious practice that research highlights. Commitments and planning security obviously promote artistic processes and prevent independent theaters from having to shimmy from project to project, spending a lot of time on filling in application forms and having to seek out the next funded program after a short period of performance practice. Research notes the need for research funding, process funding, and residency funding, as well as resumption funding and conception funding.

What will happen to the results of the study after the presentation? Can clear recommendations for action be derived from them?

I owe a great debt of gratitude to my research colleagues’ studies. In a short period of time, in what is probably the most difficult situation for theater, they have observed and interviewed those involved in the independent performing arts and given insights that must now be fed into the discussion. All texts will be freely available, after the symposium and before the publication of the studies – analog and digital. The world of politics will also be able to make use of the results, hopefully to consider, work out and realize reforms with the artists and the Fonds. Neustart Kultur has finally made it possible to analyze the situation of the independent performing arts in a well-founded way and to evaluate what will be sytsemically important to the theater scene in the future, not only to be able to exist, but also to make its potential available for society and to develop furthe