German Theatre: Interventions and Transformations

Azadeh Sharifi*

The Epicentre and Its Eruption

The past years have brought eruptive changes and transformation to the German theatre scene. Recent waves of migration, the #metoo movement and the political climate of the rise of far-right-parties have demanded serious action that were accompanied by protests and interventions. In this national report, the focus is on actions and measurements that have been taken in recent years to overcome the underrepresentation of diversity in its various forms, especially women (of colour) in leading artistic positions; and how the German theatre scene has stepped up in the political discourse to fight the division of the country.
Keywords: #metoo, Germany, migration, far-right movement, diversity, feminism, postmigrant theatre

Just as an earthquake is long in the making but begins with little—or no— warning, this year’s announcement of the selection for the Berliner Theatertreffen festival (which encompasses ten of the most remarkable theatre productions of 2018) caused a major outcry. Only three of the ten productions were directed by women and only one of the ten directors was a person of colour, representing the diversity of German post-migrant society.[1]

The jury of Berliner Theatertreffen reacted to the outcry with a public statement, explaining that their decision was based on the “fact” that there weren’t many productions directed by women that were aesthetically inspiring.  Furthermore, they claimed that there were no distinguished productions representing current debates on diversity in German theatre.[2] Their statement caused further criticism and led to mockery on social media, exposing the arguments against female artists and artists of colour as one of the essential tropes within the German theatre world, where the (white) male artist is ultimately perceived as a genius and where the male gaze dictates what is considered to be ”aesthetically inspiring” theatre, despite the fact that in the jury five of the seven theatre critics are women.

The artistic director of Berliner Theatertreffen, Yvonne Büdenhölzer. Photo: Christoph Neumann

However, in contrast to the protests and interventions of past years, this year’s controversy had direct consequences, becoming the catalyst for real action. A week after the protests, the artistic director of Berliner Theatertreffen, Yvonne Büdenhölzer, announced a quota system for the coming next three years, in which at least 50 percent of the selection should include female directors. Büdenhölzer herself has become highly vocal regarding gender inequalities in recent years. Furthermore, in somewhat more modest, and often unsuccessful endeavours, she has attempted to transform the most recognised and traditional German theatre festival into a more open, diverse and inclusive space.

The fact that measures need to be taken to overcome an opaque system of inequality and exclusion is still opposed by some people, who fear that the freedom of art could be threatened by a political agenda. Indeed, there are more and more interventions—albeit from the right wing and populist groups and parties with a nationalistic and chauvinistic mind-set—aiming to restrict the German theatre world and to preserve an imaginary ethno-nationalist German culture. Therefore, it would be insufficient to see the events surrounding Berliner Theatertreffen 2019 as isolated, singular and specific.

The eruption had much more behind it: the response was dramatic because the historical backstory was so strong and overpowering that the people involved could literally no longer stay in their seats. It’s often difficult to see the benefit of such eruptive events at the time, but with hindsight these cataclysmic events can be understood as transformational, much like theatre itself. And they represent the epitome of recent interventions and transformations in German theatre, considering that some of the debates have been around for years, or even decades. And they are finally bearing much needed fruit. Just as a good play has many different storylines that are intertwined, so too does the backstory to this particular debate.

The Underrepresentation of Women in German Theatre

One important line of the backstory is the underrepresentation of female artists in German theatre. According to Deutscher Kulturrat, only 22 percent of German artistic directors are female, just 30 percent of the productions are directed by women and a mere 24 percent of the staged plays are written by female authors (see here).

The statistics haven’t changed much in the past 20 years, and gender inequality is often accompanied by sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault (see here).

The #MeToo movement, which was initiated by Tarana Burke in 2006 in the U.S. and went viral globally in October 2017, had a huge impact on Germany and on German theatre. Just prior to this, in the summer of 2017, the journal Merkur invited young female authors and artists to write about their experiences of sexism and sexual harassment at universities and art schools, especially within programmes for playwrights. This occurred after a student anonymously wrote about an incident at the Literaturinstitut Leipzig. One article in particular, in which the author dared to question the specific relationship that occurred between male professors and some female students during her time on the writing programme, provoked a highly controversial and extremely heated debate.[3] But the tone and setting of the debate finally changed in the autumn of that year with the #MeToo movement, as more and more female artists became publicly vocal about their experiences, which led to the foundation of groups and initiatives like Initiative für Solidarität im Theater and Theater.Frauen and Pro Quote Bühne.

“The art remains free” — Die Vielen demonstration in Berlin. 19 Μay 2019. Photo: Die Vielen e.V.

The initiative Theater.Frauen, under the leadership of the artistic director of Schauspiel Bonn, Nicola Bramkamp, and organised in March 2018, featured an event entitled “Burning Issues,” which examined working conditions for female artists in German theatre. Over 350 female theatre artists participated. In their resolution, they demanded a higher representation of female leaders in German theatres. The media covered the events that came after the initial meeting and public interest led to wider discussion. Within the last two years, more and more women have been nominated as artistic directors of city and state theatres. And there are further demands to transform the hierarchical system and leadership in German theatre, making it more transparent and diverse; this proposal has been taken up not only in German theatres but also in the German speaking countries. Two Zurich theatres, Theater Neumarkt and Gessnerallee Zürich, have nominated two teams of three women,[4] all of whom are under the age of 40.

Beyond White German theatre 

While the founding of Ballhaus Naunynsstrasse and its post-migrant theatre[5] in 2008 was a crucial moment for the representation of Germany’s diverse society, it was also a departure point for many young artists of colour and artists of second, third or even fourth generation of immigrants to flood the German theatre scene, which had been, until then, largely white-dominated. And after Shermin Langhoff became the artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theatre Berlin in 2015 more and more marginalised groups and communities became engaged in the German theatre. This has not only brought more artists to German stages but has also changed the discourse around theatre and performance.

Julia Wissert: the first black female artistic director of a German city theatre. Photo:

Additionally, the acknowledgement of Germany’s colonial crimes[6] by the German government and the re-evaluation of its traces and objects have amplified postcolonial discourses within (highly selective) fields of German society. In recent years, postcolonial discourses and intersectionality have grown into an important issue that has been addressed by venues and production houses on the independent scene like Kampnagel Hamburg, Mousonturm Frankfurt, Hebbel am Ufer Berlin and Sophiensäle. Postcolonialism has also become a topic at Berliner Theatertreffen, where, in 2015, the discourse programme carried the umbrella theme “Wer sind wir in der weißen Welt?—Theater und Postkolonialismus” (“Who Are We in a White World?—Theatre And Postcolonialism”). 

Furthermore, the diversification has led to the appointment of the first black female artistic director of a German city theatre. Julia Wissert is a trained theatre director from the renowned Theatre Academy Mozarteum Salzburg. From 2020, she will be the designated artistic director of Theater Dortmund (see here).

Another major but controversial subject that has been connected with Wissert is the jurisdictional challenge of structural racism within theatre. In collaboration with lawyer Sonja Lassert, she has established an anti-racism clause, which can be added as part of individual or collective theatre contracts. The clause, based on the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, takes the form of a fundamental tool that can hold employers accountable within the slippery structure of systemic racism. While some leaders in the German theatre field support these legal actions, most theatre makers who are not affected by racism fear that they could be held accountable for “unintended” discriminatory acts. 

Beside the representation of diversity of ethnicity and race, German theatre has become more aware of its ableism on stages, where performers are not enabled or, worse still, are excluded through different forms of non-accessibility. While multi-abled and neurodiverse theatre companies like Tikwa Theater and Theater RambaZamba have been producing art for decades, the representation of disabled people within the main theatre stages is still rare and/or has been labelled as “special.” Breaking the mould since 2015, under the leadership of Karsten Wiegand, Staatstheater Darmstadt has engaged disabled and neurodiverse actors and actresses as part of its regular ensemble.

Political Responsibilities and the Threat to Freedom of the Arts

Finally, the events that have shaken up the German theatre scene most profoundly (namely, the arrival of significant numbers of migrants and refugees in recent years) have, unfortunately, been accompanied by the rise of the far-right and right-wing populist movements. In the summer of 2015, around half a million migrants and refugees entered Germany. Angela Merkel’s famous statement “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”), which she proclaimed after other European countries closed their borders, spurred hope and social division. The majority of German society welcomed the people who had fled war and many other forms of oppression. The so-called Willkommenskultur (Welcoming culture) saw most Germans, and most German theatres, assist the newly arriving people.[7] Many theatres opened their doors for people to sleep in, to eat in or just to have contact with Germans. They offered language courses and accompanied refugees through their asylum court cases. Many started art and social engagement project in the camps. Some theatre companies, such as the Maxim Gorki Theatre and Kammerspiele München, created entire ensembles with refugee actors. The so-called “migration crisis” also led also to more open conversations about artistic and political duties, public funded arts buildings and the undertaking of personal responsibilities, in the face of nationalist and fascist movements that are now threatening German society.


In recent years, artists and theatre makers like Matthias Lilienthal, have been under threat, because they have positioned themselves in the highly controversial debates on Germans’ national identity against far-right movements, like Pegida—Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident)— and right-wing populist political parties, like the AfD—Alternative für Deutschland. These movements have placed themselves alongside a post-migrant society, which embraces diversity of race, gender, ethnicity and other aspects of identity that don’t fit into the existing heteronormative white Leitkultur (dominant culture). The  performance group Zentrum für politsche Schönheit (ZPS) was sued for “building a criminal organisation” (see here) after they rebuilt a miniature version of the Holocaust memorial in front of the house of Björn Höcke, one of the leaders of AfD party who has close and well-documented ties to neo-Nazi organisations. The charges have since been dismissed, after it became known that the public persecutor had close connections with the party.

In the face of the personal threats and the threat to freedom of the arts, the movement Die Vielen(The Many) has been founded. The movement, which consists of artists and theatre makers, started in 2017 in Berlin and has since spread all over the German theatre scene. In their declaration (Erklärung der Vielen), the movement’s advocates call upon the transformational power of the arts. Their statement “Solidarität statt Privilegien. Es geht um Alle. Die Kunst bleibt frei!” (“Solidarity, not privileges. It’s about everyone. Art must be free!”) has become a leading slogan in political demonstrations for the diversity of German society as well as at artistic and social events.

Final Remarks

This seismic activity will certainly have more aftershocks in coming years, especially with the unavoidable ingression of the right-wing party into the German government in the coming elections. But the transformational movements and political acts of recent years give hope that the German theatre is transforming to a more inclusive and diverse scene; one that can resist regressive fascists and backward nationalist movements.


[1] The term “post-migrant society” is used by German political scientists, such as Naika Foroutan (2019), to emphasize the impact of migration, especially after the Second World War, on Germany and the German society. It implies that, through migration, certain social and political transformations have evolved.

[2] In the video statement, they referred to Frank Castorf, who, in their opinion, negotiates postcolonial issues on stage. I have inserted this example to emphasise that, even when it came to postcolonial matters, they jury was looking for a white male perspective (see here).

[3] I don’t want to go into great detail, as this would go beyond the scope of this National Report. Nevertheless, I find that Emma Willis’s article, entitled“‘Acting in the Real World’: Acting Methodologies, Power and Gender,” in Theatre Research International, Volume 43, Issue 3 (October 2018), is helpful regarding the expected relationship between theatre teachers and female students.

[4] The new artistic directors of Theater Neumarkt are Tine Milz, Hayat Erdogan and Julia Reichert. The artistic directors of Gessnerallee Zürich, who will be appointed in 2020, are Juliane Hahn, Rabea Grand and Michelle Akanji.

[5] Post-migrant theatre is a label connected to Berlin‘s Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and its artists, who have diverse background but are generally perceived as the descendants of immigrants and as non-white. Post-migrant theatre was established to give black artists and artists of colour a dedicated space where they could create art and theatre without the usual experiences of racism and exclusion.

[6] Germany annexed her overseas colonies during the period of massive European imperial expansion in the late nineteenth century and went on to lose most of them during the First World War. The comparatively short duration of Germany’s colonialism had a historical importance. In fact, the German colonial expansion of the 1880s helped to catalyse the partition among the European powers at the Berlin Conference (1884–1885). Besides its crucial role in the European domination of Africa, Germany murdered more than 300,000 colonised people in the colonies, mostly during the Herero and Nama Genocide from 1904 to 1907. In the 1980s, the Whitaker Report confirmed that the German war against Herero and Nama was in fact the first genocide of the twentieth century.

[7] As this is rather a concise report, I want to briefly mention that there have been critical debates around Willkommenskultur that indicate notions of white salvation, colonial legacy, as well as other forms of hegemonic practice towards migrants. 


*Azadeh Sharifi is a writer, researcher and activist. She is currently working on her postdoc project (Habilitation), “(Post)migrant Theatre in German Theatre History—(Dis)Continuity of Aesthetics and Narratives,” at the Theatre Department, Munich LMU. Her research interests include post-migrant theatre in Europe, postcolonial discourses in theatre and performances of race and gender. She is a former Fellow at the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures,” Freie Universität Berlin.

Copyright © 2019 Azadeh Sharifi
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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