Blog Post: German thoughts.

So the event I was at in Cologne this week was called Heimspiel. Heimspiel is a German funding stream- getting theatre buildings to think about working in different ways, especially with independent artists and with different audiences. This week-long conference was the end of this 3 year funding programme, presenting some work and inviting German and International theatre professionals to examine the models and discuss the outcomes.
Absolutely fascinating for me as Artistic Director at Slung Low (especially in relation to the HUB) but also for my work as co-curator for trans.form at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and other bits of programming I do. The conversations were about many many important things- including politics and funding- but they were never NOT artistic. Which is to say, at no point did the participants doubt that it was their job, as artists, to contribute to the national discourse- through their art but also the discussions surrounding.
And that this conversation- outside of this conference- was (should be) WITH the public and not just with each other or with the press (but rather THROUGH the press).
This is not a belief amongst the Germans I met (of all types of theatrical ambitions) but an absolute certainty. Theatre has a sacred place in the nation’s civic discourse. Absolute. This relatively simple set of statements aren’t always a given in the UK- depending on where you are standing and who you are talking to determines whether the context is “Theatre as part of the entertainment industry” or “Theatre as art form”- and correspondingly how much of space people really want theatre to take up. Mostly I think this certainty in the Germans comes from being funded at a considerably higher level (massively higher) and therefore, quite frankly, feeling like they are more valued. Financially they are. (German Culture is funded with 1.15 Billion Euro a year. It’s hard not to think that’s a typo. It’s not. Check out Andrew Haydon at http://postcardsgods.blogspot.com/ for more)

There was also an overwhelming sense that being ‘easy’, simple, clear is not the over-riding aim of a theatre piece: it was not necessarily, in and of itself, a benefit for a production to be easy. That the act of ‘reading’ a performance is a refinement of thought on the audience’s part. That to communicate with the audience is theatre’s primary responsibility but that that is not synonomous with ‘make plain’.
And also- that at least in the first instance- “I didn’t get it” might be a reflection on your own thought processes rather than the quality of the performance. That theatre isn’t something to be ‘got’ like one of those multiple-choice TV phone in questions.
These are all great things to be reminded of at the moment. Great remembrances to be added to the continuing questions and challenges- not least because I start rehearsals tomorrow and it was absolutely the kick up the arse i needed.

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Mostly I met some great, thoughtful, determined people.
Who said some interesting things. Especially when seen and heard within the context of last week’s funding settlement and the thoughts that has provoked in me . Not as a direct comment- it’s too easy to be a smart arse in that way- but as interesting echoes and corruptions from around the different parts of Europe.

The right wing Government of Sweden has asked the Royal National Theatre of Sweden to rewrite their mission statement. 2 of their producers were on the trip. They submit their thinking in a week but today said the following ;
“Those of us making Theatre do not represent (ethnically, culturally, socially etc) those making up society.
The ideas that we are discussing in our work are not the most pressing issues in our society.
The form and style of how we present the work does not reflect how our society processes information and tells stories.
And we are going to have to do something about this.”

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Dutch dramaturg Tobias mentioned earlier in the week that Cultural funding was to be cut 50%. Actually that’s not quite the case. 25% has to be cut from the overall cultural and leisure budget. Performing Arts gets 50% of that budget and because museums and libraries are more popular with the public and the Government, the whole cut will be likely taken from the Arts. The Government have undertaken a strong ‘anti-artist’ attitude in the run up to the cuts and public support seems not to be there for the arts community.

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Karin Beier (Artistic Director of Cologne’s city theatre) is certain that one of the responsibilities of her city theatre is to lead discussion on important matters- currently on the responsibility the City Council has for a tragic building accident that happened last year. When asked if she was worried her substantial city council funding would be threatened she was adamant- “of course not. they pay us money so we can bite them. it’s our job as artists. they know this.”

I was reminded at the airport by UK’s Matt Fenton (he runs the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster which if you haven’t gone to then you are missing out) about the Greeks and the sign of a civilised society being that intelligent critics are given the resources and the space to critically engage with a people. No such thing as a new idea.

Matt also gave a talk about the trend in the UK for cultural gate keepers to re-examine their role- he was particularly referring to the incredibly successful season where he allowed 7 self- selected (they answered a newspaper advertisment) members of the community to programme a season at the Nuffield. It also reminded me of the language coming out some regional rep houses recently- the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s re-defining themselves as a theatrical ‘ark’. Interestingly in this community programmed spring season at the Nuffield the quality and tone of work continued uninterrupted but ticket sales doubled. Doubled.
I agree with Matt that this can be attributed to having 7 active, invested members of the community being ambassadors. It’s a hell of an impact for 7 people though.

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A whole host of people articulated the same, specific thought so I’m assuming it is from a book? but it’s an interesting one that bears repeating. It is in relation particularly (but not exclusively) to the city theatre structure in Germany: “It is extraordinary that in 2011 the theatre making process is still based on the mid to late 19 century industrial processes and relationships.” Which it is in many senses.

Tobias from the Netherlands brought a different sense to this when he said- ” there is a tension between maintaining a cultural heritage but accepting that you are using 19th century models and systems when no other area of society is. Is it an institution’s job to push forward an art form or to protect the theatrical heritage?” It occurred to me that in Holland they don’t really have the money anymore to do both.

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It was extraordinary week, full of provocation and inspiration. Not everything the German system does is brilliant (diversity issues and strategies particularly feel old fashioned) but the rigour applied to all areas, the thought and complete lack of compromise in the tiniest of decisions felt really timely and I return strengthened strangely.

Which is just as well as tomorrow I start making Mapping the City in Hull- a hugely ambitious piece that will need the very best from me and the whole team at Slung Low.

Anyway I’m suspicious that even more than usual this entry is really of interest only to me but I enjoy hearing any thoughts anyone else might have

Much love to all

Al

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