What can good dramaturgy achieve? For the presentation of the Marie Zimmermann Fellowship for Dramaturgy, Judith Engel met with Friedrich Schimer, the co-founder of the fellowship and artistic director of the Landesbühne Esslingen, and head dramaturge Marcus Grube. In the office, it smells faintly of joss sticks to cover the smell of the water damage, which seeps through the wall in patches above Schirmer’s desk. If the water damage were a play and the dramaturge responsible good, this would not have happened. Schirmer is sure of this.

Judith Engel: You initiated the Marie Zimmermann fellowship for Dramaturgy with Akademie Schloss Solitude. What was the intention behind it?

Friedrich Schirmer: On the one hand, the intention was to create something that also stands for Marie Zimmermann. Marie Zimmermann was a magnificent dramaturge and festival director, who forged her way into dramaturgy via public relations first and later into the theater as a curator. Since there were no comparable prizes and fellowships for young dramaturges as there were for actors, stage designers, directors, and writers, both Mr. Joly and I agreed that it would be a good time to create a fellowship in memory of the exceptional dramaturge Marie Zimmerman. At the same time, we also wanted to do something for dramaturgy. The then president of the Dramaturgische Gesellschaft immediately liked the idea because there was nothing for which a young person who pursues this difficult and wonderful career could receive attention, recognition, or just a moment of reflection. As dramaturges, we are always in motion. I never had time to step out of the theater business for three months when I was a dramaturge in order to reflect on my work and gather strength. That was the idea that grew between myself and Mr. Joly. I was very thankful that Akademie Schloss Solitude was willing to share the responsibility for this fellowship and to accommodate the fellows. When I look at the many magnificent dramaturges now that were able to undertake this fellowship, I am very proud that we had this idea at that time.

Dramaturgs are always advocating the principle behind a play, the sublevel of the play, the invisible, the not so obvious and yet they must not lose sight of the obvious.

 JE: What characterizes a magnificent dramaturge?

FS: I would instead call them special dramaturgs.I think that dramaturgy is a gift/talent. It is something that can only be learned to a certain degree. A dramaturg has to focus on the essentials. He or she has to know what it is all about and at the same time see what can be realized under the terms of the respective theater. On the one hand, dramaturgs are therefore representatives of the utopia, on the other hand, they have to be realists. They are always advocating the principle behind a play, the sublevel of the play, the invisible, the not so obvious and yet they must not lose sight of the obvious. This dialectical task makes this job so difficult. A dramaturg has to say the right thing in the right tone and at the right moment, to help along while at the same time co-producing and in turn being the very first critic. That is so special about this job.

JE: What does the work of a dramaturge consist of?

Marcus Grube: Talking.

FS: Talking and reading. In the past, I would have said that it comprises everything from reading the secondary literature to the knowledge of the historical backgrounds and different text versions as well as public relations, the work on the program booklet, promotion, and the creation of the repertoire. Today, the activities have been expanded by another dimension that didn’t exist before because the dramaturge is now the only constant besides the actors. Directors come and go, either in glory or in shame. Dramaturges stay. They have to represent the work and communicate it.

»We mediate on all levels: in the house, with the technical department, with the actors, with the audience.«

MG: It is a mixture of production management. In films, you would call it a co-producer …

FS: … and of the strategic overview. Someone who evaluates which ideas of a director are feasible and make sense and can be passed on to the theater management or also have to be pushed through. Directors often use dramaturgs as a portal to push through scenic concepts. Will there be one musician on stage or several or even a choir? The director develops all of this with the dramaturg. The dramaturges are the first ones who implement these ideas in the house.

MG: One essential area, the intermediary area, is added to this. That is why I said »talking.« We mediate on all levels: in the house, with the technical department, with the actors, with the audience.

FS: Dramaturgs are also the first wailing wall. Actors who are unhappy with the work during the production will normally seek out Marcus first. This requires an almost therapeutic approach. Finding out when it is about sensitivities or if there really is a crisis brewing that one does not perceive – like the water damage I have in my office at the moment. I only smelled it for a week. It smelled of smoke and all of a sudden, the wall was wet.

A good dramaturg also has to function outwardly. For example with the technical department in mock-up set rehearsals. We always invite the boards of the workshops, and they then want to know what kind of play it is, what one intends to do with it, and why it would interest anyone. Like a seed.

JE: That sounds like a very intermediary position.

MG: Yes. And at the same time, it is also about the development of the overall concept of the theater manager, determining company ethics.

FS: We have developed the direction of the repertoire over the next several years together. Not the motto of the season, but …

MG: … what holds this theater together in its core.

FS: Namely for the whole six years. We have developed this together according to a quotation by Heiner Müller, which I had found randomly in a brochure from my predecessor. Heiner Müller said correspondingly: “The last century, the twentieth century, was the shortest one in the history of mankind. It started on August 1, 1914, and ended on November 9, 1989.” I think this is very wise. In these two short sentences, he has essentially captured the dilemma of the twentieth century. We have derived from it that we want to strive for a look at this century. Of course, we will also stage Shakespeare and other plays in-between. But the repertoire here is a classical triple jump, so to speak. First of all, it has to be a repertoire for the theater audience in Esslingen. At the same time, it also has to have a certain glamor so that the Stuttgart-based audience is attracted and it has to be fit to travel.

If you have talent but the craftsmanship is missing, then the talent is not worth anything anymore. I find that this is what dramaturge training can provide. Life does the rest.

MG: You have talked about the word talent or gift – getting back to what Friedrich mentioned earlier. For me, dramaturgical work is also a question of a personality that allows different constellations and priorities. There are theaters with a very loud dramaturgy. The stamp of the dramaturgy is on everything. For us, content and what we show on stage is more important. The game is on the pitch and not on the sidelines.

JE: Both of you have used the term »gift« and »talent« and you have said that good dramaturgy can’t necessarily be learned. Elisabeth Schweeger, the director of the Akademie für Darstellende Künste, however, will be talking about the subject of how and why dramaturges are trained at the award ceremony. What does this kind of dramaturge training look like against the background of a talent or gift?

MG: I think that there is a craftsmanship. It is like that in every job. If you have talent but the craftsmanship is missing, then the talent is not worth anything anymore. I find that this is what dramaturge training can provide. Life does the rest. A lot of our work is diplomacy. And in diplomatic service, usually fully qualified lawyers operate. But just because you are a good lawyer, doesn’t mean that you are a good diplomat. You have to have the ability to use language. That is why I said earlier »talking.«

FS: And you have to have the ability to observe and recognize certain developments. To capture a snapshot and to see the direction in which this snapshot is heading, where it has not headed yet, but might get to. Or if this direction leads directly to a disaster.

For this, a certain persistence and an open heart is necessary.

FS: Of course, it is not an easy process to communicate these observations to a director. Because he or she will at first defend his or her work like a lioness her brood. But in order to avoid descending into pro forma jubilation, we have to express what we see. For this, a certain persistence and an open heart are necessary.

JE: How can it be explained that this central and intermediary position of a dramaturge does not exist in this form in other countries?

FS: My theory is that the German theater system is the positive heritage of German state particularism. When the courts, which according to their financial strength could afford either opera houses or just theaters, went bankrupt, bourgeois society took possession of the theaters. Of course, the theaters were not entrusted to theater people, but to retired schoolmasters, cavalry captains, honorable people who could deal with money. »Intendant« is a term from the French military administration. Someone was needed who had an understanding of the theater, could read plays, and knew how to cast Die Räuber. Dramaturg means Dramenschneider, a drama tailor, I believe. Out of this, the director later emerged. That is why this job, in this range and width, only really exists in German-speaking theater. The quantum leap in dramaturgy, however, only really came in the late 1960s or the 1970s through the Schaubühne.

MG: Those are historical developments, just like how you have an anesthetist in the surgery room nowadays instead of a specialized nurse. I think that what could certainly be observed in the past few years is that this singular German phenomenon is expanding. This could be a very important position, a corrective, particularly in a theater that has developed very strongly towards a director’s theater where suddenly an intermediary instance within theaters is needed.

You serve something that is bigger than you.

JE: What do you value the most about your work?

MG: I think that is very difficult to say. What I find very important is that this is a kind of serving activity. You serve something that is bigger than you. That has always appealed to me. That has always been my inner motivation.

FS: Marcus has described this very nicely in the preliminary talk. I quote you now: Good dramaturgy is invisible.

MG: You could compare it to reading something from an author and always hearing the typewriter rattling in the background. When I notice that a dramaturge was at work, then hands off!

FS: That is already the answer to your last question concerning the biggest dramaturgical achievement of the last few years: dramaturgy that has managed to make itself indispensable and yet remains invisible. Good dramaturgical performances are not visible.


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This post was written by Judith Engel.

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