How we do it in Germany: Society and how it affects Theatre

In my last post I talked about how theatre is produced in Germany for the most part, how our government and the states and cities fund what artists to in theatres.

I also mentioned that this could – in a way – be influenced by how proud we (sometimes) still are to be the country of Goethe and Schiller and Lessing who kind of invented dramaturgy itself. That’s why theatre and any kind of cultural practice (as in performing arts in general, but also writing and visual arts) are rather important to us and why our theatre system is so massively funded: we believe that each and everyone should have the opportunity to go and see performances and be also able to afford it.

A new book about the Bürgerbühne.

A new book about the Bürgerbühne.

Schools organize trips and make their high school students see theatre performances – they mostly will see plays that are related to their current curriculum, but it is also a great way to give teenagers the opportunity to get used to theatre. For the last couple of seasons a phenomenon called ‘Bürgerbühne’ (which literally translates to ‘stage for citizens’) has become a fashion throughout the country. In these Bürgerbühnen the inhabitants of a city – who aren’t necessarily very fond of theatre itself or avid theatre-goers – work with professional theatre people on projects about themselves. These projects are presented on the real stage of the real theatre in their city. I think this gives quite a good example of how theatre and its audience are connected in Germany – of course the Bürgerbühnen are also a way to bring a larger number of (new) people into the theatres, but it also shows how theatre can care for their audiences in a manner which is not only focused on meeting the needs and taste of the audiences but also asking them for their topics, what they want and what they care about.

Both the schools organizing trips to theatres and the Bürgerbühnen show how German theatre might be an idea of theatre for everybody, but not just for everybody’s entertainment – most of the German theatre-goers expect to learn something. If you ask someone for their feelings right after a performance (s)he will most likely say that (s)he saw/learned/felt something new; this especially occurs with new works, contemporary plays or projects.

But let’s have a look at musical theatre: as I mentioned, we actually do have plenty of theatres being capable of performing any kind of musical theatre. They, too, offer a great variety of projects for children, teenagers and elderly people – but when you ask an audience member about the performance right afterwards (s)he will probably talk about how great the voices were (or were not), about the costumes and the set – and this will happen with Mozart’s Magic Flute as well as contemporary pieces and ‘real’ musicals. Musical theatre in Germany tends to be more about the music than about theatre – and this is, at least in my opinion, what makes it so hard for new works of musical theatre to be produced in Germany. Music isn’t necessarily something to be educating – at least that is what most theatregoers think – and just in case we want something more entertaining, we can rely on good old American classics. One of the most successful productions at Komische Oper Berlin in its not very successful years was a very glittery production of Kiss me, Kate.

Watch this video on YouTube.

A trailer for Kiss Me, Kate at Komische Oper.

Theatre directors (when they are not the directors of a theatre serving only one genre) often pull (modern/contemporary) musical theatre only for entertainment purposes. For every other topic – be it relevant to society or political issues – projects without music seem to work so much better and often cost less.

This approach to musical theatre productions has led to the opinion that musical theatre is only for that. Only for entertainment, only for the great voices the singers display while singing musical in musical theatre – and to be honest, the mega musicals we get here in Germany are not really trying to change that situation.

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