A Project on Independent Theatre: a conversation with Manfred Brauneck 12.06.2017


Manfred Brauneck

2010 Balzan Prize for The History of Theatre in All Its Aspects

For his wide-ranging account of two and a half millennia in the history of European theatre, as well as his research on currents and events of an international nature in the world of theatre.

Interview mit Manfred Brauneck – www.balzan.org 12.06.2017

Manfred Brauneck began teaching modern German literary and theatre studies at the Universität Hamburg in 1973. His other positions include Head of the Zentrums für Theaterforschung and of the Studiengangs Schauspieltheater-Regie. Brauneck was awarded the Balzan Prize for the History of Theatre in All its Aspects in 2010, and with half of the prize money, he funded a Balzan Research Project that deals with independent theatre in contemporary Europe and its structure, aesthetics and cultural politics.
At the conclusion of the project, the results were published by Transcript Verlag (Bielefeld) in a volume in German and English by the Prizewinner together with ITI Zentrum Deutschland (Berlin).

Professor Brauneck, when is it that one can begin to speak of “Free” Theatre? And what concept of freedom does it entail – “free”, or more like the English concept of “independent”, or “not dependent upon”?
Brauneck: Independent theatre has witnessed significant developments in the past sixty to seventy years. Ever since the beginning of this development be “free” has meant freedom from institutional and economic constraints. At the end of the nineteenth century, this also meant being free of the censorship that existed at that time. In its beginnings (thus in the 1960s, though the 1970s, until the early 1980s), independent theatre was a countermovement to established bourgeois theatre culture, and especially its institutions. In turn, it had different forms in different countries. In Germany, there was a strong, traditional system of city and state theatres. There were similar structures in some countries, but in others there were not. In these early days, independent theatre arose as part of a political protest movement – above all among young people – that spilled over from the USA to Europe. It was something like an international anti-war movement, the protest against the Vietnam war, or – especially in the USA – protest against racism. It was also a protest movement looking for alternative lifestyles.

Do you mean that people wanted to be different and show it?
Yes. Independent theatre lies on the fringe of established society. It is devoted to theatrical work for targeted groups. These people were manifestly not interested in institutional theatre, but performed in nursing homes or prisons, in hospitals, in front of factory gates or in the streets – here in Hamburg, for example, even for shipyard workers. For these groups, theatrical work was exclusively the concern of independent theatre. Incidentally, one domain of independent theatre has always been theatre of children and young people, and theatrical work that engaged with the life of emigrants. In the beginning, they were mainly amateur groups that were not very long-lived. Thus, independent theatre developed in a highly politicized context. After the Vietnam War was over at the end of the 1970s, developments on the theatre scene moved in a less political direction. Woodstock was certainly a turning point.

What changed then?
New developments in theatre took place and they were associated with names like Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba, Jerzy Grotowski, Ariane Mnouchkine or even Dario Fo. This highly professional scenario was never understood as independent theatre, but its work lay outside of the theatre business establishment. This new theatre had an impact not only on independent theatre, but also on developments on the whole of theatre culture, including institutional theatre.

What were the consequences?
In the 1990s, independent theatre, as it were, reinvented itself, becoming more professional, with structured, more stable groups. For the first time, they were supported by municipal or state authorities. What was once counterculture has now entered European theatre culture, and is in fact a solid component of this culture. Today, the independent scene is no longer primarily political, and in no way confined to a single sphere. All things considered, today’s independent theatre scene is for young people. In the broadest sense, this also applies to the independent theatre’s audiences.

So have the different forms of the theatre landscape moved closer to each other?
Today, single independent ensembles go on world tours with their productions. Groups like She She Pop or Rimini Protokoll produce internationally, have developed their own artistic profiles and are competitive with institutional theatre in every way. Like the independent theatre scene in general, these groups work in collectives, and have no problem with press coverage. Among these groups, there are only a few individuals who still have little in common with the independent scene, and established houses are also turning towards cooperation more and more. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the independent scene is barely noted in press coverage of the theatre. Since the 1990s more or less, theatre aesthetics has witnessed a development: very little distinguishes independent theatre from the most advanced institutional theatre groups.

The realm of the independent theatre is indeed multi-faceted, and could even approach literary-aesthetic, biographic or structural issues. How did you and your colleagues proceed?
Above all, our goal was a comprehensive survey of independent theatre in a European context. We considered how groups were organized, where they emerged, and how they were sponsored. The project adopted a sociologically oriented methodology. It started with the structural background of the independent theatre. The point of departure was the scholarly literature on the subject, as well as other publications, including criticism. Then came numerous conversations with artists who work on the independent theatre scene, and with personalities who are involved in theatre policy making. The independent scene is organized differently in each country, thus it only makes sense to speak of independent theatre if one takes the entire situation of theatre in each country into consideration. For our study, detailed questionnaires were developed to find out the composition of the groups, the themes they worked with, their funding, their means of production and so on. The project staff travelled a great deal, and talked with theatre groups and directors as well as representatives and cultural/political leaders.

What was the organizational framework for the evaluation of this phase of the project like? How was the field of research defined? What issues did you concentrate on?
First and foremost, without the Balzan Prize and its financial support, this projects would not have been possible in any form or fashion. Other liaisons were also very important, like our work together with the German International Theatre Institute (ITI) in Berlin, which coordinated the implementation of the project. We organized a series of symposia in Hamburg, Berlin, Hildesheim and Leipzig, where the participants (Dr. Henning Fülle, Andrea Hensel, Dr. Tine Koch, Dr. Petra Sabisch, Dr. Azadeh Sharifi ) reported on the status of their work and discussed other themes that independent theatre is concerned with. With the abovementioned universities, I secured agreements for collaboration in each case. The contents focussed on the fields of dance and performance, theatre for children and young people, the development of independent theatre in post-socialist countries, and finally the theme of theatre and migration. In several contributions, an overview of the development of independent theatre in individual European countries – including the development of independent musical theatre – was drafted. In the end, cultural-political considerations on the promotion of the performing arts were discussed. Colleagues (Prof. Dr. Gabriele Brandstetter – FU Berlin, Dr. Barbara Müller-Wesemann – Universität Hamburg, Prof. Dr. Günther Heeg – Universität Leipzig, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schneider – Universität Hildesheim) from these universities supervised individual sections.

You spoke about the importance of the Balzan Prize for your study. To be honest, did you know anything about the Balzan Prize before you received it in 2010?
No, I knew nothing about the Prize or the International Balzan Foundation. I was rather surprised when they called me. At first I was even a bit sceptical, and replied that I would hopefully receive it in writing. When I then received the official announcement by telegram, I looked into the Foundation and the figure of Eugenio Balzan.

In accordance with the Prize rules, you then launched the survey of independent theatre with half of the prize money. Is this subject dear to your heart?
In the 1970s, I was very intensively involved in independent theatre, then completely lost touch with this field and set my sights on other research work at the University of Hamburg. In the 1980s, I worked together with Jürgen Flimm, an administrator of the Hamburger Staatstheaters, to build a course of study for theatre directing, worked as Visiting Professor in the USA and took over as head of the Zentrum für Theaterforschung at the university, which was concerned with a series of very special research projects. One of the main themes of my work in those years was the history of the European theatre, but not of the independent theatre. As I then began looking for a subject for my Balzan research project, the decision landed rather quickly on independent theatre.

Out of a sort of guilty conscience?
No, certainly not. I was simply curious as to how this very vibrant independent theatre scene had developed. It was clear to me that independent theatre had changed considerably since the 1990s. There was also my interest in the personality of Eugenio Balzan, who left Italy under Mussolini for political reasons. The Prize and the Foundation have certainly emerged from this emigration. I figured that this theme, which obviously also has a political dimension, would have pleased Eugenio Balzan. Of course, he was also a good businessman, otherwise such a big foundation would never be possible. Thus, if you will, these were the two reasons for my choice of this subject.

The different aspects of the project were documented in the comprehensive presentation that you published together with ITI-Berlin, with the title “Das Freie Theater im Europa der Gegenwart” (Independent Theatre in Contemporary Europe). It ended with a sort of list of demands for the promotion of independent theatre. What consequences can be expected from the project as a whole in terms of practice – and scholarship?
The working conditions on the independent scene are precarious in every country. Ways of promotion are quite different and inadequate. Policy has a fixation for funding established theatres, which can probably be explained by the tradition of theatre culture in these countries. Our book’s survey makes this makes clear the enormous cultural role played by independent theatre as well as the diversity that now exists. We can now say that, in a few post-socialist countries, the very fact that scholars can study independent theatre means that the standing of independent groups has risen.

And in scholarship?

What our book does is to present the most comprehensive survey of independent theatre in Europe. As a reference book, the English edition has been published online and is available through Open Access (http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=627657) – thus building connections to the artistic development of the independent theatre as well as individual artists, individual directors and groups. Another concern of our team: with remaining funds from the budget, we will support a related project on experimental independent musical theatre.

A few words on the conclusion of the project?
Basically I am satisfied: our work will have a long-term impact – not only on scholarship, where it essentially provided an impetus to the subject of independent theatre, but also on the cultural-political scene. In general, theatre has lost ground in the media. It must struggle for its audience and it is going to have to change. Likewise, one can also observe that not only independent theatre, which has already drawn younger audiences, but also established companies must be used more by future generations than previously was the case. Of course, theatregoers may remain a minority among youth. The majority of young people today are attracted by the digital products of the entertainment industry. However, it appears that theatre can be rejuvenated, and thus play a role in society in the future.

Henning Klüver

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