During Friday night’s discussion in HAU 2, a panel of performance artists, artistic directors, dancers, and cultural politicians debated the state of the “free theater scene” in Germany. On the table were financial infrastructure, artistic freedom, audience development, interaction of the free scene with state-funded theater, political lobbying and more. Here’s my problem with the problems: in searching for answers, Germany isn’t looking any farther than its own backyard.
We’ve already taken a look on this blog at some of the stereotypes about German theater that appear in English-speaking media. But Germany has plenty of stereotypes and assumptions to match. One biggie: American theater is just not interesting.
You’re welcome to argue for the truth of that statement. And if your knowledge of American theater is a bit broader than Broadway, I’m ready to listen to you. However, my experience is that the complete lack of interest German theatermakers have for American theater is matched by a complete lack of insight into the American theater system and community. I talk to directors, actors, artistic directors, designers, and playwrights here who have grossly limited views of my country’s theater landscape. Statements I’ve recently heard:
“Oh, but I thought you could get the money to produce anything in America if you cast the right star!”
“Hm, I had no idea there was theater going on in Chicago.”
“Yes, I’ve seen American theater. I saw a touring production of The Lion King.”
Outside of the United States, American theater is synonymous with big, commercial Broadway musicals. And in general, it’s not my business to complain about that. People have enough misconceptions about theater in their own countries (during Friday’s discussion, Fanni Halmburger of She She Pop said she’s constantly asked if the group has “reached their goal” now that they’ve been invited to the Theatertreffen; it’s a question she seems to meet with the same shrug-and-sigh attitude with which I confront the assumption from friends – and, apparently, Simon Stephens – that I, as a playwright, obviously must have a career in glitzy, commercial New York City or London’s West End as my ultimate goal).
But I spent more than two hours Friday night listening to the panelists talk about space and funding problems, definitions of amateurs versus professionals, interaction between big theater houses and small “free” groups, and audience development as if they were all pretty new questions. Which, in Germany, they may be. In America, they’re as old as the theater scene itself. If German theater weren’t so busy staring at its bellybutton, maybe somebody would pick up on that. Do you know what Germans say when they talk about audience development? “Audience development” – in English! It’s telling when even Germans can’t use German to discuss a concept. (Similar reasoning would lead me to suggest that Americans should be consulting Germans in on our ongoing attempt to figure out what a “dramaturg” does.)
Having two shows from the “free scene” among the invited productions in this year’s Theatertreffen is spurring German theatermakers on to wonder if there will come a day when there’s no distinction between free theater and state theater, and to try to imagine what that model might look like. If you are going to have this conversation, don’t you think you should at least have an open mind when it comes to a country which, notoriously, has no state theater system at all?
The American theater model is far from perfect. But it is a different model. It’s a model that includes cities with unique and vibrant theater scenes like Chicago (with its focus on ensemble theaters and world-class long-form improv) and the Twin Cities (with its commitment to nurturing new plays). It’s a model that makes room for companies as diverse as the Nature Theater of Oklahoma (NYC), the Rude Mechanicals (Austin, TX), and Lookingglass (Chicago); that has a thriving community-based theater scene in the spirit of companies like Cornerstone (Los Angeles); that requires constantly seeking out new ways to reach audiences and connect theatermakers across the country with one another.
There certainly is room for very fruitful dialogue and interchange between German and American theater; but in order to start it, theatermakers in both countries need to be willing to look past our stereotypes of Broadway glitterati vs. noble dramaturgs.