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Like Winning the Lottery

By Georg Kasch

Culture despite the Crisis (episode 5): The Theaterlandschafft Association brings productions to local children.

They exist, these small theatrical wonders away from the big city. Theaterlandschafft e.V. is an example. Located in the eastern Harz Mountains, the association provides the rural region south of Quedlinburg and Halberstadt (where the Nordharzer Städtebundtheater can be found) with productions primarily for children. Together with her husband, theater director Kerstin Dathe has been converting a former FDGB (Free German Trade Union Federation) vacation home "in the middle of the forest" since 2012. Today, the tree house in Friedrichsbrunn – so called because it has a tree emblazoned on its wall, but also because it is growing slowly – is a refuge consisting of a stage, rehearsal rooms, a tailor's and carpentry and puppet workshops. In addition, there are rooms for workshops and for overnight stays. Also there is an open-air stage, which is very practical, especially now, in the second corona summer, making it possible to show new and repertory productions.

The association came into being because a group of freelance artists decided to join together in order to market themselves better, to work on productions as teams. Ten people belong to the core team, all of whom also work in other theaters and on other projects. In addition, there are two positions linked to a year-long voluntary work cultural program and guest artists with whom they regularly collaborate. Around three premieres are produced each year, plus a repertoire of around twelve productions. The majority are puppet theater evenings for children. But there are also classics like "Faust" in the program, using contemporary language.

"We've been a loose network," says theater director Dathe. "But for all the craziness that's happened because of corona, Neustart Kultur has allowed us to take a leap as an association." The problem until now has been that Theaterlandschafft e.V. has only been funded on a project-by-project basis, never structurally. At the same time, it all takes a lot of organization. "Elsewhere, the Kreisjugendring organizes 30 places where you can show your production. With us, there's no such distribution list. We deliver part of the mail to some school offices, because they often don't have an internet connection yet."

A puppeteer is operating a gray mouse puppet that is peeking out of a bowl in front of her. © Theaterlandschaft e.V.

Thanks to the investment fund of the Deutsche Theatertechnische Gesellschaft (DTHG), which supports conversion, modernization and equipment measures in cultural institutions through Neustart Kultur, they have now been able to purchase a tour bus and a mobile stage. Previously, they traveled using several private cars. Now the material and people are in one place. "On average, we tour 80,000 kilometers a year," says Dathe — to partner theaters in Stendal and Dessau, but above all to countless elementary schools and child psychiatric clinics in the countryside. Their goal is to bring theater to places where there is otherwise none. They also travel regularly to festivals in Chemnitz, Stuttgart and Linz. "That's where we try to earn our money." Because not much comes in through ticket sales in children's and youth theater. "These 40,000 Euros were like winning the lottery for us!"

Which also applies to the funding of two new productions by #TakeAction from the Fonds Darstellende Künste. The money makes it possible to finally pay fair wages and buy the materials that are needed instead of "picking them out of the trash" as Dathe puts it. Both productions tell of major social conflicts in a way that is appropriate for children. In the puppet theater production "Der Kontraspatz", a frightened mouse retreats to an attic. During a thunderstorm, a frog and a sparrow also seek shelter there. They are fundamentally different: The mouse is afraid, the frog is on the point of bursting with anger and the sparrow is basically against everything.

How do you manage to live together under these conditions, especially in a world where strict rules apply? "During the pandemic, I researched what this does to children," says writer and director Rosmarie Vogtenhuber. She interviewed young people between the ages of four and ten. "The children rattled off an impressive list of prohibitions to me," Vogtenhuber recalls. "One girl said to me ‘I stood at the window and called corona names!’"

Corona doesn't play a role in the play – but the situations the pandemic has put us in do. "Without wanting to be didactic, the play calls for action," says Vogtenhuber. It also suggests taking a step back in order to see the bigger picture. Like the old double bass that has been living in the attic for over 100 years.

The second production supported by #TakeAction is also aimed at children. Director Karin Eppler tells episodes from Selma Lagerlöff's famous "Nils Holgersson" novel about a boy who is shrunk by a goblin and gets to know his country from the air, on the backs of geese. In this case, the story centers on a character who can’t function in the system, who is a burden to people and animals because he has no respect for them. "What's it like to be a small person who can't deal with their anger?" asks Eppler. She found the answer in Lagerlöff, "It's not that a difficult child is made docile. Rather, Nils learns about others and himself through a change of perspective." This is shown in the form of paper theater using a framework plot.

Theater director Dathe is on stage in both productions. For her, anyway, the most important thing is to be able to act again. "Seven months without theater was the worst punishment!" she says. That's why there is no summer break now. Of course, she knows that the current situation is a temptation to produce too much too fast and overload everyone. But the joy of a summer of theater outweighs that. "It's an emotional release!"

In the series "Kunst trotz(t) Krise" (Art despite the Crisis), cultural journalists Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch take a look behind the scenes of funded projects on behalf of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. What is the impact of the Fund's #TakeThat funding as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR program of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media.