The 360-degree view

By Christine Wahl

Chamäleon's artistic director Anke Politz and managing director Hendrik Frobel in conversation with Christine Wahl about the award of the Theaterpreis des Bundes in the category "Private Theaters & Guest Performance Theaters".

Ms. Politz, Mr. Frobel – congratulations on your Theaterpreis des Bundes award in the category of private theaters and guest performance theaters! At your theater, you have specialized in contemporary circus – a performing arts form that is still so young, at least in this country, that even proven theater experts often have difficulties classifying it. How would you describe this art form?

Anke Politz: It is indeed a pretty broad field – which is why my definition also varies depending on my mood that day (laughs). But the crucial point is that contemporary circus is not about the spectacle or the performance of individual tricks, as is commonly associated with the term circus. Rather, it is an artistic dramatic form that uses circus techniques as a means of expression. Often theatrical formats dominate that are based on a dramaturgical and aesthetic overall concept and that operate at the interface with other arts.

In other countries, circus seems to be regarded as a matter for intense discourse: In Sweden, one can take circus studies, and circus is also academically researched in France. Why is it different in Germany?

Politz: For a long time, contemporary circus was not recognized as an art form here and was not promoted accordingly, so that when developing new productions, the marketability always had to be considered a priori, and commercial considerations naturally make the artistic horizon a bit narrower from the start. When this pressure doesn't exist, it's easier to experiment and develop a new formal language – which then also leads to the corresponding academic discourse.

Hendrik Frobel: Of course, the separation of culture into “serious” and “entertaining” also plays a role here, which is not nearly as pronounced in other countries as it is in Germany – and which is actually reflected here in the funding structure. In my opinion, far too much falls victim to this division. In any case, we ourselves see it more as a gift that we, due to our private theater structure, have to think in terms of making broad connections and staging productions that are popular with the audience, without the commercial aspect becoming the driving force for artistic development.

Your art form has since become more relevant: In the NEUSTART KULTUR program, which the federal government launched during the coronavirus pandemic, the new circus was also promoted. And with performances by renowned artists such as the internationally acclaimed choreographer Florentina Holzinger, circus elements are capturing major city and state theater stages.

Politz: Many people consider the new circus to be the art form of the 21st century because it is so diverse, flexible, and open – and because it functions non-verbally. After all, the same discourses are conducted here as in the other disciplines – feminism, postcolonialism and self-determined work are also major topics in our productions. But while these discourses often remain in their own bubble elsewhere, with the art of contemporary circus we have the opportunity to carry them beyond the stage and to a broad audience. I don't need an academic background to understand the evening’s performance; I don't need to have dealt with historical material in advance to be able to follow its current interpretation. The new circus is, in short, low brow in the best sense of the term.

Frobel: We recently had a school group from the Netherlands visit us. After the performance, the teacher came up to me and said: I've been teaching these teenagers for many years – and I've never before seen them voluntarily put down their cell phones and follow a performance with such fascination!

A woman stands at the lectern. Next to her, a man holding a bouquet of flowers. © Dorothea Tuch

Anke Politz (artistic director) and Hendrik Frobel (management) from the Chamäleon Theater accept the award.

When you began specializing in contemporary circus almost two decades ago, you were a pioneer: Most people probably weren't even familiar with the term back then.

Frobel: Nor is it the case that there were no misunderstandings at the beginning. Many people became wide-eyed when they heard the word "circus" and asked irritably what place it had in a theater. Or they asked: Do you also have animals?

Your programmatic reorientation also had a lot to do with the fact that you had to reposition yourself as a theater anyway.

Politz: That's right, the Chamäleon in its current form emerged from the insolvency of the previous operator, a variety theater in which the artists themselves were shareholders. Even then the work was done with a strong intrinsic motivation, it was not produced for some “market”. In this respect, we have inherited a great legacy. In 2004, however, a new direction was actually necessary due to the insolvency, and there was a desire to turn away from the traditional program structure that had taken the form of variety shows up to that point and to specialize in staged shows.

Was there a special initiation experience?

Politz: At the time, we invited the Canadian company "Les 7 doigts / the 7 fingers" to put on a piece about their experience of flat-sharing – and, without suspecting that this would be the new art form, we were simply bowled over. The evening was great, revolutionary, had even then what would now be called "immersive moments", and was always sold out. That's when we said: That's exactly what we want to do!

And already you were the pioneers of a new genre at your theater in Berlin Mitte!

Politz: We by no means invented contemporary circus. But what we really discovered quickly for ourselves – and what I think also makes us unique on an international scale – is the enormous potential that lies in this art form if you start supporting the actors at a very early stage.

Frobel: We really try to focus on our art and our artists in a 360-degree view. This includes, for example, guaranteed playing times of five months, so that thinking, development and work can take place very freely from the outset. Another point is our residency programs, the first ever for circus artists.

An ambitious all-round program – especially considering that as a private theater you have to take care of all the financing yourself. How do you manage that?

Frobel: I think we benefit on the one hand from the fact that we have positioned ourselves very broadly in terms of our audiences. Our program appeals equally to regional and international audiences, across all milieus and age groups. But, of course, we have to sell our tickets at higher prices than subsidized theaters, and we're already noticing that the situation is getting worse over the years: Our average ticket price is currently 45.74 euros gross. We can't raise that any further if we don't want to lose anyone. At the same time, like many others, our own costs are rising, whether in terms of energy, personnel or production costs.

Politz: We simply use our resources as best we can. That means we play virtually continuously, seven performances a week, with only a two-week break, which of course is used as rehearsal time. And we do what I would call relationship management. We've certainly had difficult seasons – it's not as if the audience is really enthusiastic about every journey we embark on here. But I think what we're really trying to do is to be available as a place and as a team, approachable. To this day, Hendrik and I often stand at the door ourselves, greeting guests, trying to figure out how to talk about our work and how to accept feedback, which may or may not be good, in order to build a lasting relationship. When someone comes up to me after a performance and says: I didn't like it at all, but I'm curious about the next night, I think that's great!

You used the break forced by the coronavirus pandemic to sharpen your profile once again.

Politz: It really gave us a unique chance to step out of the hamster wheel and reflect on ourselves – and we swore to ourselves: There's no way we're going back to where we left off in February or March 2020, because everything will be different. So, we also need a different perspective, a completely different motivation than simply saying: When can I open again? In this respect, the pandemic has really helped us to focus and to formulate what is important to us more clearly once again.

The award as part of the Theaterpreis des Bundes also comes with financial recognition. Do you already have concrete plans for how you will invest the 100,000 euros in prize money?

Frobel: Of course, we were delighted about the award – and also about the recognition it brings for the new circus as an art form. We would like to use the prize money to enable more residency work: open-ended, but paid right from the start – and equipped with a good structure and a good support package: rehearsal rooms, dramaturgy, discussions, whatever is needed.

Politz: During the pandemic, we developed a three-pillar model: Show – Grow – Create. And the prize money is to be completely invested in growing.