If you want to describe the German theatre landscape, you don’t necessarily begin with the theatre festivals. Unlike in other countries, state and municipal theatre still guarantee the basic supply of performing arts in Germany. That is, through public-sector institutions which, with a technical staff receiving collectively negotiated wages and permanently employed ensemble actors, build up a regularly changing repertoire. In addition to these, however, there is also in Germany a constantly growing number of festivals, which are sometimes closely networked with state and municipal theatres.
The Recklinghausen Ruhr Festival, one of the most renowned German theatre festivals, was founded in 1946 as a relief project of the Hamburg Theatre. By illegally delivering coal, the colliery King Ludwig 4/5 in Recklinghausen enabled the Hamburg stages to operate in the winter of 1946/47. As thanks, the Hamburg Philharmonic, State Opera, and the Thalia Theatre performed for several days in Recklinghausen in the summer of 1947 under the motto Art For Coal. Today the Ruhr Festival, with a budget of around seven million euros, is an important co-producer for municipal theatres and independent ensembles. After the premieres at the Ruhr festival, which takes place in May and June, the productions move into the repertoires of the guest stages or tour other festivals.
A similar role as an important co-producer is assumed by the Ruhr Triennial, likewise based in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), which, with a subsidy of almost 14 million euros–mainly from the state of NRW, is in the financial top class of German theatre festivals. It takes place annually in August and September, and has a new festival management every three years. By contrast, the Bayreuth Festival, which is devoted to the operas of Richard Wagner and has a budget of around 16 million euros–of which only 40 percent comes from public funds–produces works exclusively for the “Green Hill,” as the Festival Hall in Bayreuth is called.
By setting a thematic focus and a limit on time the festivals, usually organized as GmbHs and publically funded, are particularly attractive for private sponsors. Platforms consisting of a mix of canonical, experimental and popular works such as the Ruhr Festival have up to 77,000 visitors, while festivals more specialized in popular material such as the Karl May Festival in Bad Segeberg draw up to 346,000 visitors. Many of these large audience events such as the Burgfestspiele Bad Vilbel, the Bad Hersfelder Festival, and the Open Air Festival in Schwäbisch Hall cover the summer months. Outstanding among the experimental festivals specialized in performance art are Theatre Forms, which takes place alternately in Brunswick and Hanover, and the International Theatre Institute, organized every three years in different cities. Even more so than the Ruhr Triennial or the Ruhr Festival, Theatre Forms and the Theatre of the World have positioned themselves as internationally networked festivals.
With the intensification of international cooperation, the festivals contribute to what the research theatre maker and future general director of the NT Gent, Milo Rau, has recently outlined as a utopia of future theatre: a “global popular theatre,” which by exchanging productions across national boundaries helps people share their themes and aesthetics with each other.
The downside of this development lies in its fleetingness. Touring productions and temporary events can at best be a supplement to what a stationary municipal theatre, with its regular performances, can accomplish for a thriving theatre landscape: the permanent availability of repertoire productions, through which a lasting communal theatre discourse arises. Whereas municipal theatre productions with their regionally known ensemble actors are more oriented to local audiences, travelling festival productions typically tend to a certain formalization in content and aesthetics: they often work primarily sensuously, deliver little text and more music, have a performance duration of usually two hours (because in this way easier to fit into a festival plan) and present their performative actions against economical, easily portable scenery. In content, they remain necessarily sketchy and can be enjoyed relatively context-free. This is the price of mobility.
In addition to independent festivals, there is a growing number of programme festivals, anchored at municipal theatres or production enterprises. They furnish the opportunity to produce thematic focuses and enhance the festival’s attractiveness for supra-regional reporting. The Lessing Festival at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, the Authors Festival at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin, the Schiller Festival at the National Theatre in Mannheim and the Summer Festival at the production enterprise Kampnagel Hamburg are among the most highly regarded festivals of this type. Especially venues away from metropolises, such as Mannheim, afford such focused events the chance to present experimental aesthetics which cannot gain a broad audience from the outset, but which develop the audience’s taste for temporary adventures through their own and external influences.
FESTIVALS WITH JURIES AND CURATORS
The leading festivals continually present new developments and exploratory directions in theatre. Particularly the “display window” festivals, which see themselves as a selection of outstanding positions: the Berlin Theatre Meeting which, since 1964, gathers together every year the ten “most notable” productions of the season in Germany, Austria and Switzerland with the help of a seven-member jury, and the Mülheim Theatre Festival which, since 1976, presents every year nine plays, likewise chosen by a jury, who also award the Mülheim Dramatist Prize during the festival.
The festival Politics in Independent Theatre, founded in 1988 and organized every three years by the Federal Agency for Civic Education, plays a comparable role for the independent scene. The North Rhine-Westphalian festival Impulse has forfeited something of its similar character since it replaced its independent jury by the curator principle. The showcase festival for children’s and youth theatre is Augenblick mal (Wait a Minute!), founded after the 1991 Berlin Biennale and selected by an independent jury.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
This article originally appeared in Goethe Institut in June 2018 and has been reposted with permission.