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The "Independent Performing Arts Oscar"

By Tom Mustroph

Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schneider, Chairman of the Board of the Fonds Darstellende Künste and member of the jury for the Tabori Prize award, in conversation with cultural journalist Tom Mustroph about the development and significance of the prize and the Fonds’ future tasks.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schneider stands at the speaker's podium on the stage of the Tabori Award Ceremony 2019. © Florian Krauss

Prof. Wolfgang Schneider bei der Tabori Preisverleihung 2019

Wolfgang Schneider, Simone Dede Ayivi, one of the winners of this year's Tabori Prize, asked those working on her most recent production Wetterleuchten at Theater Oberhausen — especially those working behind the scenes — about their magic moments in theater. I would be interested to hear about yours. What comes to mind?

I remember moments in children's theater. As president of ASSITEJ, the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People, I've seen a lot, worldwide. One of the most moving experiences was at a production by Suzanne Osten of the Unga Klara Theater in Stockholm. The play Mädchen, Mama und der Müll (The Girl, The Mother and the Demons) was about a child growing up with a schizophrenic mother. The stage itself represents the unique world of a hoarder, filled with things the mother has accumulated throughout her life. The deeper you get into the story and the more intensely you realize what this child must be going through, the more the rear of the stage opens up, as if never-ending and, as a result, it is especially threatening. I was impressed not only by this intense staging, but also by the way the play was received. To my right and left sat adults who were crying and being comforted by their children. This happened in a very special way. It was not a matter of erasing something that one had just experienced but, rather, it was a way of putting into words that life – as banal as it may sound – can have both sunny and dark sides.

Both the action on stage and the reaction in the audience around you contributed to the magic of the moment?

Exactly. That's why I chose this example. I have rarely experienced this in such a striking and poignant manner.

When was that?

It was about 20 years ago.

If the International Tabori Award had existed back then, would this production have been considered for such an honor?

Unfortunately not, because it is a Swedish production with no relationship to Germany.

So what rules do apply to the International Tabori Award, which has been awarded this year for the first time to the artist Nicoleta Esinencu and the Spalatorie Theater from Moldova? Does this relate to their collaboration with the Berlin HAU Hebbel am Ufer?

Exactly. The idea is to honor the international and cooperative elements of the independent performing arts. The current situation with this terrible war in Ukraine shows in particular that we must not only practice solidarity, especially in the performing arts, but we should also be aware that we too must ask questions about our world and that we share many of conflicts of this world. That's why the idea of a theater that gets involved in society and that also knows that this is not just a German matter is still so relevant. That's why the independent performing arts in Germany have always had a European, if not an international dimension.

Scene from a performance by Teatru Spalatorie: five performers stand behind stage structures that resemble musical installations and look into the camera. In the background, dim spotlights arranged in three square fields can be seen, directed at the audience. © Ramin Mazur

What was the original reason for the Tabori Prize?

The Tabori Prize is aimed at artists whose productions have already been supported, who have continuously distinguished themselves through works with a nationwide and international appeal and who have a special signature in terms of content and aesthetics. In our media-dominated world, it is, of course, also about how to attract attention. An award is one format which helps. I don't want to be presumptuous, but the Tabori Prize is something like the Oscar for the independent performing arts in Germany. And I would like this award to have an even broader resonance. It is also linked to financial resources that can flow back into a production and make artistic processes possible. It attracts attention not only for those who are honored with the award, but also for the whole; for our unique theater landscape.

What exactly are the criteria for the Tabori Prize? Which group of artists is eligible for it? And what is the selection procedure?

This is very clear; you can even find it in the statutes of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. The aim is to contribute to enabling diverse contemporary forms of expression within the independent performing arts. Specific criteria are aesthetic quality, relevance of content, and ongoing artistic work. The selection takes place on the basis of the projects funded during the last five years. The jury is composed of five members: The two chairmen of the Fonds’ Board of Trustees, two of the three members of the Board of Directors, as well as one prominent expert within the field.

How is the preselection made? And how is the final decision made?

Each member of the jury is allowed to make two proposals for the Tabori Prize and three proposals for the awards from the substantial pool of artists and groups supported by the fund in the past five years. And then we take a day to discuss the proposals. It gets interesting when two jury members initially choose the same group. However, this does not automatically mean that this group will receive the prize. We take a lot of time to weigh things up and discuss them.

How has the prize developed over the years, and also the perception of it? What have you observed?

In the early years, the prize was more of an internal event at the fund, on the one hand serving to promote exchange between member associations, but also having an effect on federal politics, especially through the support of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. The prize is now of note within the entire independent performing arts scene. When I last had the pleasure of welcoming guests at HAU Hebbel am Ufer in 2019, I could see that Germany's theater milieu was very broadly represented at the awards ceremony. Representatives of municipal and state theaters were present, as were representatives of state and municipal funding institutions. This is just as it was meant to be. Because ultimately, this awards ceremony is an exchange between those who are involved in this world and those who make this world possible, and a way of letting each other see what was staged last year and is of value.

Earlier you called the award the Oscar for the independent performing arts. What do you hope this Oscar can achieve for its winners? And what has it already achieved?

The concept has worked. The prize is recognized and exists within the theater world as the highest award for the independent performing arts nationwide. It gives this world and its artists continuous visibility and helps the award winners to distinguish themselves further. Last but not least, it recognizes outstanding work. In this respect, it also has cultural-political significance. It is a certificate, a license that is given in order to accord further promotion. I think that's a very important aspect: that we celebrate ourselves on the one hand — that should always be part of theater, participating in the enjoyment of those who receive an award — but then the artists also go on to create something new with the money. It is therefore important to us that the award ceremony is not formal, but that it is shaped by artists with their contributions. Artists are always involved.

The Fonds’ general support program has been massively expanded in the last two years, to the delight and benefit of the entire field. What was the level of funding in figures?

The Fonds Darstellende Künste alone will have awarded around 150 million euros in broad-based funding programs in 2021 and by the end of 2022. Thanks to these funds, which were granted to us as part of NEUSTART KULTUR, we were able to diversify our funding program. In addition to the funds for classic project funding, which no longer exist as such because we were able to transform them into process funding, we expanded conceptual funding, made residency programs possible, added research funding, and offered funding for networks and structure for the first time. We were also able to fund more broadly, with an emphasis on federal politics but, additionally, in cooperation with states and municipalities. In these two years, we have also succeeded in intensifying communication between the various funding strata to such an extent that we can now really speak of an overall funding package. Important impetus came from the Bundesforum, organized with the Bundesverband Freie Darstellende Künste. A cooperative cultural federalism has become possible that benefits artists. This was not the case before, because various funding programs were in opposition to each other. For example, there were different submission times and funding deadlines. This has changed.

How do you assess the prospects of this support program, which was in part also the fruit of pandemic management scenarios, being continued in the future with the same scope and emphasis?

I would like to refer to a letter from the Fonds’ Board of Trustees to the new Minister of State for Culture and the Media, which addresses this very issue. In it, the concern is articulated that the diverse range of funding measures made possible by NEUSTART KULTUR might no longer be continued in this way. However, it also makes clear that the independent performing arts continue to drive innovation in theater culture and that the Fonds Darstellende Künste, in particular, has been a pioneer, setting the pace for necessary cultural change processes in this time of crisis. This is still true. It is also relevant in this context that we have had the entire portfolio of funding evaluated within a research program consisting of twelve studies. This is a very important foundation for being able to speak in a convincing manner in the future about the qualities as well as the quantities of productions in the independent performing arts.

Which cultural policy fields does the Fonds consider particularly relevant in the coming years?

This is work in progress; it also depends on the evaluation of the studies. We want to expand conceptual funding further. It gives the groups and artists security to plan and a three-year perspective. One of the topics that should concern us more is diversity. Even the independent performing arts are sometimes still quite German. That's why this question of internationality and interculturality is so important. And that of interdisciplinarity, which is already more self-evident in other countries. In our country, there is still, too often, a very strong separation between acting and performance, puppet theater and children's theater and circus and theater in public spaces. I hope that open forms and fluid formats will become more natural in the future. Thirdly, we need to look at where free theater is taking place. Up to now, this has mainly happened in big cities. However, there is a lot of room for improvement in smaller cities and, above all, in rural areas. The question of sustainable theater production runs through all our programs. One of our studies is not only about CO2 emissions and how to make facilities climate-neutral, but also about the future of how we produce and consume, including audience travel routes and the mobility of performances. Another cross-sectional task is that we should leave no stone unturned to consider audiences of children and young people more and more in our funding. In the past, the world was divided into theater for adults and theater for young audiences. And here, I'll return to my first example, which was elicited by the question about the magic moments in theater. Theater that appeals to both children and adults is not always possible, of course. But it should be thought about by everyone who produces and hosts in the performing arts, so that intergenerational theater can also play a larger role.