by Azadeh Sharifi*
Politik im Freien Theater (politics in the independent theater) is a theater festival in Germany which was founded 1988 by Die Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education). The festival emerged from discussions to open the field and methods of political education through theater. At the time, the German state and city theaters were more focused on internal Regietheater/aesthetic discussions, the independent scene was placing its emphasis on political and social topics, creating formats and aesthetics which involved interaction with the audience.
Since then, the festival has been taking place every three years in a different German city. This year (2018) is the 10th edition of the festival, in cooperation with Münchner Kammerspiele and Spielmotor e.V. in Munich. The topic for this year’s edition is “Reich” (being rich). It includes issues of economic, cultural and social inequality, as well as local and global (post)colonial and neocolonial power asymmetries.
The jury for the 2018 edition are Sophie Becker (curator, SPIELART Festival, Spielmotor München e.V.), Christoph Gurk (curator, Münchner Kammerspiele), Milena Mushak (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung), Johanna-Yasirra Kluhs (independent dramaturg and curator of Interkultur Ruhr, Duisburg), Christine Milz (performer and dramaturg), Dr. Sandra Nuy (political studies scholar, University Siegen) and Dr. Azadeh Sharifi (theater scholar, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich).
Johanna, you are a dramaturg and a curator, traveling constantly for your work through Germany. How would you describe the particularities of this festival and what kind of position does it enjoy/have within the German theater scene?
For me, the festival is a very special setting/framework within the independent theater scene, because it is in this framework that its relation to the sociopolitical circumstances of German society are put to the test. The festival has an extensive and critical program that discusses and makes the economic and social inequality—especially in the city of Munich—visible. The topic is very close to actual conditions of real life/the society (?), which then demands solutions and tangible strategies.
But, I think, we, as artists and theater makers, need to accept that there are different principles (privileges) of politics and arts. This opens a great potential in terms of rethinking the self-perception of the independent performing arts. We are often motivated by socio-political circumstances and sometimes we think of our artistic creation as an effective tool. And what makes this festival special is that it no longer allows a framework that lets us stick to the pure claim in a theoretical sense.
Sandra, you are a political studies scholar and, as such, you have a particular perspective on the political dimension of the festival. How would you describe theater and politics? And how can theater (or arts in general) influence political events?
As an art form that deals with the conditions of the public sphere more than any other art form does, the theatre reflects the standards of political and social practices. Since these action practices are used more and more by performative strategies, the theatre is predestined to making action and communication perceptive in their aesthetical transformation—and also predestined to intervene where and when necessary.
At the same time, political theatre is also action in rehearsal. The theatre explores the conflict lines of society as if magnified by a burning lens that further enables a follow-up discourse. An intense discussion about the shows one has seen is a fundamental component of a political scale. And vice versa: the one who wields power needs—for the legitimation of their actions—in addition to contextual, factual or normative orientation, a representational component.
Power needs representation—an embodiment to enforce topics and interpretations, to maintain affirmation and, most of all, to generate attention. Personalization, de-reification, dramatization and emotionalization—in a nutshell: staging—are (not only since Trump) part of the daily business of political (media) communication. In order to be able to detect the content levels of political spectacles, one has to learn first how to decipher the set of rules of a staging. In this sense, theatre is capable of being (anew/once again) a school of seeing.
What do you think about the theme of the festival Reich (rich)? And what subjects does it need to reflect?
If one translates “rich“ in terms of social, economic and ecological inequality, in my opinion, it seems to be the subject of the moment. The current flight and migration movements very clearly show, on a global level, that the shortage of resources go hand in hand with economic and political crises. The swing to the Right throughout Europe, for example, correlates, if nothing else, with social inequality—be it a real one or an imagined one.
I think a festival that wants to contribute to a diagnosis of the present time should consider accordingly the following aspects: migration and flight, poverty and exclusion, the impacts of neoliberalism and capitalism on the housing market, for example, or on work and the gender pay gap, on globalization and discrimination. And last but not least, the audience should be able to experience as many different forms of the present theatre and performance arts as possible.
I think within the liberal left global thinking social inequality is one of the most important topics when it comes to the future of our societies. And, at the same time, maybe because of the different circumstances and realities, the discussion is marginalized, and a lot which is obvious is kept hidden. That is why I find it very important to deal with these questions, especially with the (economic) situation in Munich. My perspective on Munich has drastically changed through our work as members of the jury for the festival and it had a huge impact on me as a theater maker.
But I see a gap between social reality and its “translations” on stage. The performative rendering is very abstract and very often indirect. For example, there are performances on unproductivity and laziness to counterpart the demands within the performing arts of productivity. Or there are performances challenging monetary distribution, the hegemonic power structure of cultural institutions as well. Of course, one often takes an interest in topics that affect oneself, and I feel that that, too, is important. But, at the same time, these intra-discourses seem inappropriate in the face of real poverty in the city. Artists might often work under precarious conditions, but, in fact, they come from a privileged familial background.
Sophie, you are, together with Tilmann Broszat, the curators of Spielart, but, at Politik im Freien Theater, we are a jury of seven. How would you describe the work within this big jury? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Juries are traditionally used when it comes to so-called (national) “best shows,” such as the Berliner Theatertreffen or Tanzplattform. The goal here is a certain kind of objectivity: it should be prevented that one person selects “according to his/her personal interests.” I think that the desire for majority approved selections has its own dangers—namely, to compromise within a compromise. I, personally, find one artistic director no longer up to date. A third possibility could be to work with different co-curators, who are each responsible for a different part of the program.
Milena, you are part of the jury and, at the same time, represent the interests of Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. How would you describe the mission for the jury and your own position within the decision making?
The focus of the festival poses a special challenge for the jury. With their selection, they have to ensure a high artistic quality and professionalism of the productions, as well as a wide mix of different formats of theater to present innovative theatrical aesthetics that are able to appeal to a wide audience— sometimes even with little theater affiliation. At the same time, the invited productions should reflect on as many relevant aspects of the topic as possible.
I am responsible for the organization of the festival. On the one hand, I am part of jury; on the other hand, I am responsible for the conception, development and implementation of the entire supporting program, which includes both our own events and co-operation with different organizations in Munich. As a member of the jury, I incorporate the perspective of the festival’s sponsor. And, therefore, I have a list of criteria that guide me through the process of screening and evaluation of theater productions.
And how would you describe the audience of the festival?
The festival has set itself the goal of combing the two disciplines, theater and political education. Therefore, we address and expect a mix of the “typical” audiences of both disciplines: the traditional theater audience and the audience interested in politics. Our aim is to break classical ideas about political education as well as make the medium of theater more visible as a place for political debates. We want to expand traditional methods and formats of political education with theatrical formats.
The 15 performances invited to the festival should be attractive to heterogeneous audiences; ideally, even for people less interested in theater and/or politics. Around a third of the pieces should also be suitable for young people. Besides, the performances we have a range of approximately 50-60 events of various formats, such as: lectures, podium discussions, lecture performances, readings, exhibitions, installations, film series, workshops, teacher training, concerts, etc. The events are largely conceived and implemented in cooperation with local stakeholders. In this way, local stakeholders working on similar topics can build and ensure a sustainable network.
*Azadeh Sharifi is a freelance scholar and writer in Berlin. Since 2016, she has been carrying out research at the Institute of Theatre Studies, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich on the subject of “(Post)migrant Theatre in German Theatre History – (Dis)continuities of Aesthetics and Narratives.” She studied German, philosophy and public law in Heidelberg, and completed her doctorate thesis in 2011 at the Institute for Cultural Policy, University of Hildesheim on “Theatre for everyone? Participation of post-migrants using theatres in Cologne as an example.” She contributed as an academic writer to the Balzan Prize on the subject of “The role of the independent theatre in the European theatre of the present: structural and aesthetic changes,” under the direction of Prof. Manfred Brauneck and organiζed by the International Theatre Institute (ITI), Germany (2011-13). She was a fellow with the international research training group “Interweaving Performance Cultures” at the Frei Universität Berlin (2014-15) and is a member of the Future Advisory Board (FAB) of Performance Studies international (PSI). In addition to her academic work, Azadeh Sharif often works in the field of practice.
**Johanna-Yasirra Kluhs works as a freelance programme and production dramaturge and artistic adviser. After studying German and philosophy, and working as an artistic assistant at the PACT Zollverein and FAVORITEN 2012, she became artistic director of the Dortmund theatre festival FAVORITEN 2014 together with Felizitas Stilleke. She also devised and directed the festival “FUX” with Anne Hirth at the Wuppertaler Bühnen. In 2014/15 she was on the selection jury of the NRW children’s and youth theatre festival “Westwind.” She has worked as a programme dramaturge at the Theater im Pumpenhaus in Münster and at the Südpol arts centre in Lucerne. She works with various directors and choreographers as a production dramaturge. She is a member of the Cologne theatre advisory board. She also co-manages the programme of the Interkultur Ruhr Foundation and is on the selection jury of the Politics in Independent Theatre Festival.
***Sandra Nuy is an associate professor of Media Studies and research associate at the Department of Social Sciences of the University of Siegen. She studied German, sociology and political science, from 1988 to 1994. In 1999, she completed her doctorate thesis on the television history of Arthur Schnitzler’s dramas. Afterwards, she completed vocational training as a cultural manager and worked as a freelance dramaturge and editor (among others for the Foundation of Arts and Culture of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Rhineland Regional Council). In 2003, she returned to university. She teaches and does research in the fields of political culture and media aesthetics, political dramaturgies and cultures of remembrance. Since her studies, she has also worked as a freelance cultural journalist and theatre critic. She lives in Cologne and has been a member of the city’s theatre advisory board, since 2015, and the jury of the Kurt Hackenberg Prize for Political Theatre, awarded by the Freie Volksbühne Köln. Her latest publications include: Die Politik von Athenes Schild. Zur dramaturgischen Logik des Politischen im fiktionalen Film (The Policy of Athene’s Shield. On the Dramaturgical Logic of the Political in Fiction Films), Münster 2017.
****Sophie Becker is a dramaturge, artistic director of the SPIELART festival and vice director of the theatre directing department at the Theatreakademie August Everding. From 1994-2000, she studied drama in Munich, in the areas of theatre studies, musicology and contemporary German literature. Her degree dissertation theme was: “Musical Theatre Post-1968: On the Relationship between Political Message and Theatrical Form in Hans Werner Henze’s/Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Works El Cimarrón and La Cubana or A Life for the Arts.” Afterwards, she took on permanent positions at the Theater Aachen (2000-04), the Semperoper Dresden (2004-06) and the Bavarian State Opera (2006-08). She has been working on a freelance basis since 2008: as a lecturer at the Theaterakademie August Everding, in 2008 and 2010 as assistant artistic director for DANCE, since 2009 in various roles for the SPIELART festival, as a permanent guest dramaturge at the Semperoper Dresden (2010-2014), and as a dramaturge for the Bayreuth Festival, the Salzburg Easter Festival and the de Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam. Jury activities: the general funding of the German General Cultural Foundation (2011-13), Tanzplattform Deutschland 2014 and the Performing Arts Fund (since 2018), among others.
*****Milena Mushak studied German, comparative literature and philosophy in Bonn and Paris. Since 2002, she has worked as a consultant for events at the Federal Agency for Civil Education/bpb. Until 2006, she was responsible for the implementation of youth and participation projects, established peer-group education programmes and managed nationwide action programmes for increased youth participation on behalf of the bpb. From 2006 on, she focused on interdisciplinary projects involving political and cultural education. In this capacity, she became director of the Politics in Independent Theatre Festival in 2007, which takes place every three years in different locations. Since 2011, she has been vice director of the Operative Division for Events and Conferences of the bpb in Berlin whose core tasks are to devise, develop and implement the bpb’s Berlin programme of events. These include an international visitors’ programme, numerous discussion series, conferences, exhibitions and festivals.