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Make a wish

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

Elisabeth Wellershaus spoke to three labs to discuss how theater can become a research space that investigates complex social needs.

Some of this year’s labs are dedicated to theatrical research. Among other things, they are working with children and young people whose interests are still politically underrepresented in society today. And yet, young people often have much more interesting approaches than adults to dealing with the growing challenges of everyday life.

I recently read a text by Sibylle Peters to find out how much potential there is in young people's interest in research. Peters is the co-initiator of the lab „Zusammenarbeit von Künstler*innen und Kindern“ (“Cooperation with artists and children”). With the Fundus Theater, she has been researching for many years what it means to explore the world from a child's perspective. And she writes: "In their early exploration, children often have amazing experiences of success. They manage to stand, walk, speak, and draw; it's no wonder that for a while many of them think everything is possible."

Adults also achieve amazing things from time to time. They invent telephones and airplanes, discover active ingredients such as penicillin and enrich the world with the results of research from a wide range of disciplines. However, most people are discouraged from a young age from cultivating curiosity about their environment in all its contradictions and possibilities. Peters writes that instead of growing into a shared exploration, "children and young people often end up learning something completely different: That they have to learn certain things, regardless of their own wishes and desires." So, what can intergenerational justice look like, where the interests of children are taken more into account?

The lab, which Sibylle Peters is supporting, is the consolidation of a network of 24 artists, researchers and children who began to create the space for this during the pandemic and who are thinking about how research can be intergenerational, performative, and networked in the future. The theaters from the independent scene have long been places where the unimaginable is explored using unconventional means. But theater research with young audiences brings new possibilities into play. Together with young people, it’s possible to think very directly about the future. Fortunately, many of them are not so quick to give up and they are formulating wishes and demanding the seemingly impossible. And pursuing the question of how we can continue to live on a planet that is currently being threatened by various man-made disasters.

Among other things, the network used the lab time to explore interspecies issues, new narrative models, and the question of what is worth fighting for and with what means. This includes how children, who are known to be quickly inspired to fight, can become involved as early as possible when it comes to programmatic decisions. "Among other things, we set up a children's jury that voted on past projects from the network that were available on our website," explains Sibylle Peters. "Three of these projects were selected to be performed again as part of the NACHMACHEN program, initiated by Anne Pretzsch. This has created an exchange between our project themes and also a certain level of sustainability."

The need to imagine a common future, one that will shape the lives of younger generations in particular, is evident in the structural discussions about the climate or the capitalist logic of growth. It can be seen in the desire for change, which is repeatedly overwhelmed by the impact of current crises. But perhaps the closest we can come to fulfilling these wishes is through collective reflection. And in the kind of collective research approaches that are already being explored in theater research and encounters between performers and young audiences.

The exploration and questioning of utopias is most likely to thrive in spaces that are willing to be open. But how open are the cultural spaces in Germany these days? Who has access to the possibilities offered by research approaches? Who feels welcome in theaters or other cultural spaces? And who already faces obstacles due to their background when it comes to participating in public debates? The lab „The World of the Arty Class“ deals with similar questions. Nuray Demir and Michael Annoff examine the intersectional entanglements of classism and racism in relation to the production of and interaction with audiences in the independent theater scene. This work ties in with the contributions to their series "Kein schöner Archiv". A project dedicated to documenting the intangible cultural heritage of the "post-migrant" society.

In events about educational opportunities and the unequal treatment of children in German schools, about precarious work and the collective exhaustion of marginalized groups, Demir and Annoff trace the structural exclusion mechanisms of the dominant society. As a first-generation academic, Demir knows all about the many ways that social exclusion works. In the digital interview, she says: "I hope that identity politics discourses are no longer appropriated by a white middle-class majority." "Independent theater has always been in lockdown" is the title of a text that she and Annoff published in 2020. After all, the exclusion of many people from academic and cultural spaces in Germany did not start with the pandemic.

You can see a part of the Floating University, in front of and inside of which the participating artists are standing and looking joyfully into the camera. © Pablo Hassmann

Leicy Valenzuela would also like to see a structural opening. In a Zoom call, she talks about the frustrating experiences of artists from migrant communities, whose work is still often invisible to a wider audience. In the MicelArtistLab, she and nine others focused on expanding a knowledge exchange network for artists from Latin America living in Germany. "Our aim is to strengthen working structures and raise awareness about our work," she says, "and to develop strategies to include the audience as an important part of the migrant communities." It is an audience that has so far been denied access to cultural participation in many places. "But theater should not be disconnected from life beyond the stage," explains the performer and theater educator. Rather, her lab is about strengthening connections.

Audience members, many of whom regard themselves as part of Latin American communities, also use her performances as places to meet and exchange ideas. One of her lab’s research aims is to explore shared spaces. In dealing with the question of how shared experience becomes joint action. And how sometimes the best way to meet one's own needs can emerge from the somewhat adverse conditions of cultural productions. "We don't want to give room to the competitive logic that is far too often created by the structures in the independent scene, but rather support each other. We also want to keep collective action in mind when dealing with audiences – so that we are seen by many."

Visibility, participation and disruption are the focus of many labs in 2023. Or in the words of Leicy Valenzuela: "Recognizing that we are not minorities. Because we are many!"

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.

Elisabeth Wellershaus is a journalist and author who deals with questions of decolonization and cultural negotiation processes around the topics of sustainability, solidarity and social cohesion. She works as an editor for various German-language media, including the 10nach8 column for Zeit Online. Her book "Wo die Fremde beginnt" was published by C.H.Beck in January 2023 and was nominated for the Deutschen Sachbuchpreis (German Non-Fiction Book Prize).