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Christopher Balme, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Theatre, Corona and Crisis: Scenarios

In early March 2020 the most severe crisis to affect the performing arts since the Second World War took hold. By the middle of March the world was in the grip of an unprecedented lockdown to prevent the spread of the Corona virus Sars-Cov-2 and its associated illness Covid-19. Most theatres and indeed cultural venues of any kind are still closed and some will probably remain that way until at least Summer 2021. In the context of an ongoing research project, “Krisengefüge der Künste: Institutionelle Transformationsdynamiken in den darstellenden Künsten der Gegenwart,”https://www.krisengefuege.theaterwissenschaft.uni-muenchen.de/index.html., I proposed a number of possible scenarios regarding the way the current pandemic will affect theatres in the future. In this paper I will discuss concepts from crisis theory, outline their relevance to possible scenarios for the way theatres will adapt and react to the crisis. This empirical material will provide a way to discuss the broader question of the conference, the position of theatre in Europe in a context of accelerated transition.

Christopher Balme holds the chair in theatre studies at LMU Munich.  His publications include Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical syncretism and postcolonial drama, (Clarendon Press 1999);  Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies (CUP 2008); The theatrical public sphere (CUP 2014) and The Globalization of Theatre 1870-1930: The Theatrical Networks of Maurice E. Bandmann, (CUP 2020). He co-edited with Tony Fisher Theatre Institutions in Crisis: European Perspectives (Routledge 2021).He is principal investigator of the ERC Advanced Grant ‘"Developing Theatre: Building Expert Networks for Theatre in Emerging Countries after 1945" and the German research group “Krisengefüge der Künste: Institutionelle Transformationsdynamiken in den darstellenden Künsten der Gegenwart” (DFG).  

Tanja Bogusz, Hamburg University 

Two Cultures, one Institution: East-Western entanglements at the Volksbühne Berlin after 1989

The Volksbühne Berlin is an outstanding exemplar for the entanglements and transitions between east and western conceptions of the role of art and theatre in the two German states. In my study, I used the conception of “experiential storage“ to describe the mutual learning procedures, as well as conflicting aesthetic collaboration between eastern and western theatre practices at the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz in the 1990‘s and after. The Volksbühne re-started, after 1989, on the basis of fundamentally different historical grounds and resulting performance strategies, whose structural resemblances lied, however, in their respective anomic positions within their former two cultures. But how was it possible to merge these different experiences into one institution? In which way the two approaches of “permanent revolution“ (Bourdieu), on the one hand, and the permanent re-affirmation of the socialist avantgarde in the serve of the people, on the other, have been merged successfully in the eyes of a unified German and international public? In my talk, I‘d like to refer to the conference‘s title by outlining a sociological analysis on the Volksbühne‘s redefinition of theatre and it’s transitions after 1989. 

Tanja Bogusz is a sociologist and social anthropologist with emphasis on practice theory, pragmatism, cultural sociology and science and technology studies. She was a guest professor at Kassel University, where she headed the group “Social Disparities”. She joined the Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Futures of Sustainability” at Hamburg University as a senior research fellow in spring 2021. Besides her study “Institution und Utopie. Ost-West-Transformationen an der Berliner Volksbühne” (Transcript 2007), she has published numerous papers and books spanning from social theory, French sociology & anthropology to human-environmental relations and transdisciplinarity. The English translation of her most recent book “Experimentalismus und Soziologie. Von der Krisen- zur Erfahrungswissenschaft (Campus 2018) is scheduled for autumn 2021. Find out more here: https://tanjabogusz.com/

Tony Fisher, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama London

The Politics of Displacement Effects: Althusser’s ‘Brecht’ and the Present Conjuncture

The aim of this talk is to examine the process by which political theatre confronts the problem of its ‘redefinition’ specifically in relation to what we might call the ‘closure of the political theatre’ as it came to be experienced in Western Europe, if not elsewhere. With this process the political theatre, understood as an agitational theatre capable of representing and effectively intervening in social reality, becomes transformed into a ‘critical’ theatre whose founding presupposition is that its condition of possibility is the impossibility of the theatre as a stage for politics. I develop the theoretical and practical consequences of this process of redefinition by drawing on Althusser’s lesser known notes on Brecht – Sur Brecht et Marx. Here, Althusser translates Brecht’s concept of ‘alienation’ as ‘displacement’, producing insights that show, first, how political theatre could be reconceptualised as a critical theatre, while, second, how a critical theatre foreshadows the closure of the political theatre in Western Europe (finally consolidated with post-dramatic theatre and theory, where politics works only ‘modo obliquo’ - Lehmann). The question that arises in relation to the emergence of the critical theatre is this: how does the critical theatre, in displacing the political theatre’s immediate relation to militant politics, construct a relation between the theatre situation and the political situation? In what way do the two coincide in the critical theatre? To answer this question, I draw on Althusser’s concept of the conjuncture, developed from Gramsci, then further developed by Stuart Hall, to describe the terrain of the political as ‘overdetermined’ by situational contradictions that produce crises. I argue that the critical theatre is best understood in a specifically political sense through its function as a critical theatre of the present conjuncture, whose contradictions it ‘articulates’.  I use Thomas Ostermeier’s production An Enemy of the People as an example of this critical theatre of the conjuncture, and its possibilities; but I also conclude the talk by identifying the wider historical and institutional factors that limit the possibility of a fully engaged political theatre under present conjunctural conditions.

Tony Fisher is based at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where he is a Reader in Theatre and Philosophy. His monograph, Theatre and Governance in Britain, 1500-1900: Democracy, Disorder and the State was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press. He is co-editor with Eve Katsouraki of Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance and Radical Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Foucault’s Theatre’s with Kelina Gotman (Manchester University Press), and Theatre Institutions in Crisis (2021) with Christopher Balme.

Radka Kunderová, Freie Universität Berlin

Redefining the Political Theatre?: Czech Theatre in the Early 1990s

In general terms, Czech theatre between 1948 and 1989 was largely dominated by the cultural politics of the ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which considered theatre an ideological tool and was heavily reliant on censorship. Yet particularly from the late 1980s, a growing share of Czech theatre makers became increasingly hostile towards the authoritarian regime and covertly voiced their criticism in their productions, often communicating their discontent “between the lines”, e.g. through metaphors, so as to avoid censorship. The pro-democratic social role of theatre seems to have culminated in 1989, during the so-called Velvet Revolution that brought down the supremacy of the Communist Party. At the time, theatre makers were involved in shaping the emerging democratic public sphere by calling strikes, organising demonstrations, and participating in the establishment of the leading pro-democratic political movement. Subsequently, some of them rose to prominent political positions – a case in point is the playwright Václav Havel, a former dissident who was elected Czechoslovak president in 1989. 

The prevailing historiographical narrative argues that the situation of Czech theatre changed dramatically in the early 1990s: faced with financial difficulties and declining audience numbers, theatre abandoned its interest in social and political issues. Czech theatre is therefore said to have suffered a crisis and to have largely lost its political edge. Historians claim that the early 1990s theatre shifted its focus towards a more lucrative entertaining repertory and dramaturgy of private issues, often staged within the framework of the so-called “postmodernist” aesthetic. According to this narrative, post-1989 Czech theatre alienated itself from public affairs and forfeited its former capacity for shaping broader social discourses.

In my paper, I will draw on Christopher Balme’s concept of the theatrical public sphere to argue that the relation of the early 1990s Czech theatre to the public sphere was less distant and insignificant than commonly assumed. I will also argue that rather than completely disappearing from Czech stages, the political was struggling to redefine its nature in the new, post-communist social situation when top of the agenda was construction of a democratic capitalist state. Inspired by Chantal Mouffe’s reflections on antagonism and agonism, I will examine how performing the political was redefined in the early 1990s Czech “postmodernist” theatre and how social issues performed on stage resonated (or failed to do so) with theatre audiences and the wider public sphere. The production of Naši naši furianti (Our Our Swaggerers) directed by the “postmodernist enfant terrible” of the Czech 1990s theatre Petr Lébl and premiered in 1994 at the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague will be used as a case study.

Radka Kunderová is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Institute of Theatre Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin. She has recently published the article “Crisis?: Czech Theatre after 1989“ in Christopher Balme — Tony Fisher: Institutions in Crisis (2021). In the past, she worked as the Head of the Institute for Theatre Research and an Assistant Professor at the JAMU Theatre Faculty in Brno, Czech Republic. Her publications include  studies on the socio-political dimension in Czech theatre of the 20th century, East-West collaborations during the Cold War, and artistic research. As a theatre critic, she has been associated with the Svět a divadlo theatre magazine.

Anneli Saro, University of Tartu

Turn to the West: Dynamics of Theatre in Transition

When conceptualizing Estonian cultural history, theatre scholar Jaak Rähesoo has highlighted two driving forces: ‘catching up with older and more developed (Western) cultures’ and ‘striving for certain originality’ (Rähesoo 2011, 444). The striving to catch up with Western cultures has been especially evident during the following periods: a) right after the decoupling of Estonia from Czarist Russia and becoming an independent state (1918-1924) and b) when censorship of the Soviet Union abated (at the turn of 1980s and 1990s) and Estonia regained its independence again (1991).

In my paper, I am going to analyse the dynamics of Estonian theatre at the turn of 1980s and 1990s, during the period of turbulent political and cultural changes. One aim of the paper is to investigate how the notion ‘Western theatre’ was constructed and the turns to the West implemented in theatre. The second aim is to analyse the interdependence of theatre and society that became especially evident during this period when theatre suddenly lost its former role of social forum. Victor Turner’s social drama theory and other transition theories (e.g. book titled Return to the Western World. Cultural and Political Perspectives on the Estonian Post-Communist Transition) are used for modelling a theatre system in transition.

Anneli Saro is Professor of Theatre Research at the University of Tartu (Estonia). In 2010-2014, she was Lecturer of Estonian Culture at the University of Helsinki. Saro has published articles and books on Estonian theatre history and system, performance theory and audience research. Currently she is working on two projects: comparative analysis of amateur theatre fields in small European countries and poetics of playing. Saro has been a convener of the international working groups Project on European Theatre Systems (2004-2008, 2017-) and Theatrical Event (2011-2017). She has been active as the Editor-in-Chief of Nordic Theatre Studies (2013-2015) and as a member of the executive committee of the International Federation for Theatre Research (2007-2015). She also served the University of Tartu as Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs and as Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Paweł Sztarbowski, Theatre Academy in Warsaw and Teatr Powszechny in Warsaw

Spectres of Communism

The title is an allusion to Jacques Derrida’s book ”Spectres of Marx” published in 1993, where he poses the question about the world after communism. For the French philosopher, the spirit of Marx is even more relevant since the symbolic fall of communism in 1989. Referring to the history of Polish theatre, I am going to check how this historical turn created a change in how communism was viewed and how primary happiness and hope dissolved into strong disillusionment. I would like to start with reinterpreting the gesture of the famous Polish actress, Joanna Szczepkowska, who officially announced the end of communism with her statement on Polish Television: ”Dear Sir/Madam, on June 4, 1989 communism in Poland perished”. This euphoric statement, for me, is the founding myth of sacrificing the new political order after 1989. I’m interested in how the Polish theatre responded to this statement, especially in the plays written by Paweł Demirski and Przemysław Wojcieszek. Why was euphoria displaced by a strong sense of disillusionment? And how ”Spectres of Communism” became ”Spectres of Populism”?

Paweł Sztarbowski is dramaturg, publicist and teacher at Theater Academy in Warsaw, Deputy Director of Powszechny Theater in Warsaw since 2014. PhD. of Theatre Arts. He graduated from Philosophy studies at the University of Warsaw, studied  Theatre Arts at the Theater Academy in Warsaw and defended his PhD dissertation entitled “Theater and Solidarity. On theater of the community” at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He was the founder of Nowa Siła Krytyczna - a group of young reviewers writing for the Polish Theater Vortal e.teatr.pl.  As reviewer and publicist, he has co-operated with an abundance of polish and foreign magazines focused on the topic of theater  (Theater der Zeit, Svet a Divadlo and Theater Seasons, Didaskalia, Dialog). He is the author of numerous scientific texts on theater declaimed on both all-Polish and international conferences and published in collective works. He is the editor of books Liberated Energy (Warsaw 2011) and Teatr wspólny (Bydgoszcz 2013).

Andrea Tompa, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj

From Social Change to Social Drama: or How the Present Expropriates the Past (The Case of Hungarian Theater after 1990 till the Present)

Although the centralized, ministerial control of the repertoire ceased to exist in the mid ‘80ies, and the need for competition in the chairs of the artistic directors also appeared prior to the changes, some taboos and untouchable topics – like the 1956 revolution - still existed as a proof of censorship until the social change of the year 1990. The new regime brought a complete freedom from censorship, but there were no immediate tasks to be fulfilled, and there were no such powers which would demand a radical change. The 90ies were characterized by general satisfaction. It was a smooth and slow transition, with no radical changes. New theaters were created, independents were working more and more visibly outside the system, contemporary dance field underwent an important growth also on the independent level, the audience, disappearing at the beginning of the 90ies, was starting to grow again. The system was safe and untouched.

Viewed from a decade later, from the “golden age” era when independent theater makers started to question the system itself, the 90ies can be viewed also as a conservation of the status quo. This status quo became then a system incapable of change and mobility, interaction and inclusion. The “system” became a routine, but also symbolically an untouchable one. A general phenomenon was the fact that the artistic directors were managing theaters for 2-3 decades; young generation got very little attention and no space to influence processes.

The regime (and not the system) started to change in 2006 when artistic leaders in the provinces were replaced (based on projects masked as democratic competition) with political appointees. The political will of the Fidesz party also built up the National Theater – a most controversial story of political involvement. After the elections in 2010, the political involvement aimed to exchange the elites (and not the system): changes in leadership of institutions to exclude the old elite, the independent artists, institutions, to give control upon financing, subsidy, awards, institutions, grants to the new elite. The last battlefield was the Theater and Film Academy which underwent a dramatic change under privatization, thus the whole “old” institution being destroyed.

The new elite of the performing arts field (highly supported by political will) viewed this process as a “change of the system”, thus trying to expropriate the “old”, i. e. of the 1990 change of the system. But critics (and victims) of this change would define it as a situation of deep crisis which is governed by political will and control.

In my paper, I would like to compare the consequences and techniques of the two so called changes, and the recent expropriation of the term, pointing out that the “need for a change” and circumstances were very different in the two analyzed periods. I would also like to point out that the preservation of the status quo created a rigid, intolerant, exclusive system, which would not necessarily lead to an interference of politics into the field. 

Andrea Tompa is a Hungarian writer, theatre critic and academic. Her main field of interest is contemporary Hungarian and East European theater and drama. She collaborates with theater magazine SZINHAZ  [szinhaz.net] (Theater). She is an academic at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania and is the author of four novels.

Meike Wagner, Stockholm University

Performing Citizenship around 1800: Utopian Performatives of Early Bourgeois Theatre

In my contribution, I will build my argument on Jill Dolan’s concept of ‚utopian performatives’ (2005). Dolan has developed her ideas with regard to today’s theatre and performance from a feminist and queer theories perspective. She considers utopia an open performative process and not a blue print with an ideological agenda. ‘Utopian performatives’ describe moments of an emotional experience in theatre and performance that can give a sense of a better world, a potential change and open space for imagining the hitherto impossible. While Dolan is operating in today’s theatrical and scholarly field, it is productive to connect her concept with the historical situation around 1800. Utopia can be identified here on three levels: 1) utopian concepts of freedom and subjective agency; 2) utopian concepts in a repertoire of a ‘theatre of hope’; 3) utopian concepts of educating/forming a ‘new man’ through aesthetical experience. I will analyse these historical utopian performatives in regard to the transformative potential of early bourgeois theatre. A special focus will be on amateur theatricals that had an important impact on the mainstreaming and performing of bourgeois theatre.

Meike Wagner is the Professor of Theatre Studies at Stockholm University. She was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant 2020 and is a Principal Investigator of the project “Performing Citizenship. Social and Political Agency in Non-Professional Theatre Practice in Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and Switzerland (1780-1850)“. Her book “Theater und Öffentlichkeit im Vormärz (Theatre and the Public Sphere in the Early 19th Century)” (Berlin 2013) is based on her historical research on the early development of bourgeois theatre in German speaking countries. Her current research interest lies in the ideas, models and practices of theatre, which materialized in the early 19th century as a result of social, political and aesthetic transformations around 1800 influencing the development of modern theatre as we know it today.

Matthias Warstat, Freie Universität Berlin

Berlin 1989: Theatre and Street Protests

What role did theatre play in the social and political change that is associated with the autumn and winter of 1989/90 in Germany? This will be discussed in the talk with regard to Heiner Müller's 1989 production of Hamlet/Maschine at the Deutsches Theater Berlin. As a public institution, theatre can make demands, protests and critical interventions visible. However, theatre publics (like the publics of the arts in general) do not fit into the more general political public of a society without frictions and discrepancies. Debates and assemblies in the theatre are different from protests in the street, and artistic productions cannot easily become part of a political movement. I want to show that many theatre people in the late GDR were well aware of this gap between theatre and other forums of society. In complex ways, they thought about how they could contribute to the accelerating transformations with their artistic work and their public role: For this, considerable distances had to be overcome. During the eventful months of the swelling protest and then of the regime change, they were also concerned on their own behalf with the question of what changes lay ahead for theatre and what future structures and conditions of work would be desirable for theatre practitioners. Artistic processes were interrupted by forms of assembly that went far beyond regular theatre practice. The events before and after 9 November could by no means be ignored on stage, so that the idea of an “intrusion of time into the play” gained some plausibility.

Matthias Warstat is Professor of Theatre Studies at Freie Universität Berlin since 2012. Between 2008 and 2012, he was Chair of Theatre and Media Studies at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. In 2012, he was awarded an ERC-Advanced Grant for the project „The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre“. Matthias Warstat is Co-Director of the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures”, Principal Investigator in the Collaborative Research Center “Affective Societies: Dynamics of Social Coexistence in Mobile Worlds” and Director of the “Dahlem Humanities Center” at Freie Universität Berlin. Main research areas: modern European theatre history, theatricality of society and of politics, aesthetics of contemporary theatre. Recent publications: “Soziale Theatralität. Die Inszenierung der Gesellschaft”, Paderborn: Fink 2018. Intervention and Repetition: On Rhythmical Specifics of Political Theater. In: Babylonia Constantinides u.a. (Hg.), Change Through Repetition. Mimesis as Transformative Principle Between Art and Politics. Berlin: Neofelis 2020. 147-161.

Jana Wild, Academy of Performing Arts Bratislava

Redefining Theatre in Slovakia in the 1990s

The paper gives a survey of how independent subjects after 1989 redefined the social roles of theatre - in terms of broadening the scope of activities beyond the fictional formats, in new ways of interacting with the audience. After presenting the Slovak theatrical lanscape with its major players in terms of professional and amateur/alternative companies in the 1990s, the main focus will be on Darina Kárová and her international theatre festival Divadelná Nitra and on the Stoka company of Blaho Uhlár.

Jana Wild, Professor of Theatre and Shakespeare at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (VŠMU) Bratislava. She authored several Shakespearean monographs in Slovak, organized international conferences in Bratislava and edited international book collections focused mainly on Shakespeare in Central Europe (“In double trust”, 2014; Zrkadlá pre doby, 2015; Shakespeare in between, 2018). She has also published widely on Slovak theatre and drama. Her translations from German into Slovak include Christoph Hein (Der fremde Freund, 1989), Elfriede Jelinek (Die Liebhaberinnen, 1999), Roland Schimmelpfennig (Reich der Tiere, 2018), Christopher Balme (Einführung in die Theaterwissenschaft, 2018). In 2017, she was elected board member of the European Shakespeare Research Association (ESRA).

Brandon Woolf, New York University

“Considerations on the Berlin Theater Situation”: 30 Years Later

Much time and ink has been spent over the last few years considering the implications of the Chris Dercon debacle at the Volksbühne in Berlin. Considerations like: Is the German-speaking world still committed to maintaining its unique albeit highly costly theater system—grounded historically in large ensembles, extensive repertoires, and generous state support? Or: Has the time come for the German theater to justify its activities economically and compete in an innovation-based global network of private and third-sector-driven creative industries? Indeed, we saw that the extended debates over Dercon’s proposals for a “new” Volksbühne were much more than a quibble about the aesthetic proclivities of a new theater director; the debates extended way beyond the theater’s proscenium and called into question the priorities of cultural policy and future of the city of Berlin itself. Despite the great fervor of this recent controversy, public debate about the state of the state-stage (Staatstheater) has a long institutional history in Berlin. The 1990s bore witness to a series of truly dramatic infrastructural shifts at the theater in the wake of German reunification: the dismantling of long-standing theater institutions, the advent of new institutions, and the refunctioning of older institutions with new purposes and orientations—both aesthetic and political. In this talk, I return to a few key moments from the Berlin “theater crisis” of the 1990s in an attempt to situate the urgent structural conversation that emerged about the theater as a heuristic for understanding shifting social realities nach der Wende. To phrase it differently, I suggest that the theater in crisis both represented, and contributed to, broader and intersecting processes of (nascently) neoliberal urban development in postreunification Berlin. I hope that a return to the crisis of the 1990s might help us understand more recent “crises” as part of a longer, fraught history of a Berlin caught uncomfortably between the shrinking welfare state theater and the emergence of an “alternative” ethos of self-administering and project-based creativity. Further, I suggest that looking back can also help us to look forward as we continue to imagine performance-based responses to still-pressing policy questions: In a city struggling to determine just how neoliberal it can afford to be, what kinds of performing arts practices and institutions are necessary—and why?

Brandon Woolf is an interdisciplinary theater artist and Clinical Associate Professor at New York University, where he directs the Program in Dramatic Literature. His monograph, Institutional Theatrics: Performing Arts Policy in Post-Wall Berlin (Northwestern University Press, forthcoming 2021), shows how theater and performance can help us rethink institutions of public life both in and beyond the arts. Brandon recently co-edited Postdramatic Theatre and Form (Bloomsbury Methuen, 2019), which intervenes in ongoing debates about contemporary performance by developing a theory of theatrical form. He is also collaborating with Stew, the Tony Award-winning playwright and composer of Passing Strange, on a book that explores Stew’s catalogue of performance works in the context of intersecting discourses on race, theater, and rock ‘n’ roll, and which is forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Concurrent with his scholarship, Brandon’s artistic work explores theater’s capacity as a social practice. Over the last decade he co-founded and co-directed three performance ensembles – Culinary Theater, Shakespeare im Park Berlin, and the UC Movement for Efficient Privatization [UCMeP]. These groups have been featured in scholarly forums like Theatre Survey, South Atlantic Quarterly, L.M. Bogad’s Tactical Performance, and Barbara Fuchs’ forthcoming Theater of Lockdown, as well as in the New York Times, London Guardian, Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung, San Francisco Chronicle, The Kelly Clarkson Show, and Robert Reich’s 2013 film Inequality for All. In 2020–21, Brandon is an Institute Fellow at Target Margin Theater in Brooklyn, NY. His work has also been supported by the Fulbright Foundation, DAAD, Berlin Program for Advanced Studies, American Society for Theater Research, and the International Research Center for “Interweaving Performance Cultures.” www.brandonwoolfperformance.com