Providing a Platform: Burning Issues
Performing Arts & Equity
Making Voices Heard
On the opening weekend of this year’s Theatertreffen (7 and 8 May 2022), the conference BURNING ISSUES x Theatertreffen, a co-operation project with the International Theatre Institute (ITI Center Germany), will take place at the Berlin Academy of the Arts on Pariser Platz for the first time and also return to Haus der Berliner Festspiele after an absence since the 2019 festival edition.
We hope that this Digital Guide will serve to extend and consolidate the topics addressed at the conference. We are living in times of change. It seems as if the cumbersome theatre apparatus has set itself in motion. This conference and this guide are an attempt to capture some of these “BURNING ISSUES” – with no claim of being exhaustive – and to make a variety of voices heard.
Let's Talk About Power!
We rarely talk about leadership in the theatre. Tools of personnel development, structured feedback sessions, joint workshops etc. are often still derided and not taken very seriously. Many artistic directors of theatres are self-taught in matters of management and were chiefly appointed because of their artistic excellence.
These decision makers find themselves under great pressure in their work and faced with high expectations from many different sides: from the culture politicians, the audience, their employees and often from themselves. This pressure results in urgent questions such as: What is modern leadership and what exactly is “good leadership”? What skills are needed and above all: Who is needed? What does it mean to head a theatre or production house in the 21st century? How can conflicts be resolved; is this relentless pressure really necessary and how should someone in a leadership position deal with it – without losing themselves in the process?
Discussions about cases of abuse of power and their consequences, including the much-debated term of “cancel culture” will also be considered. What exactly is an abuse of power and how can we recognise the abuse of hierarchical dependencies in its countless manifestations in the theatre? And what about Cancel Culture, is the cultural sector going overboard in its reforms? For some, the term signifies a long-overdue response to failed leadership or discrimination, for others it refers to the concern that professional careers may be destroyed prematurely on the basis of suspicions alone.
What is Good Leadership?
The proportion of FLINTA* in executive positions is still alarmingly low. What measures are needed to facilitate greater diversity in leading positions? And which training programmes should be made mandatory for everyone who bears responsibility for their staff? The team of BURNING ISSUES has asked various theatre makers in the German-language region how leadership positions in the sector should work.
Yvonne Büdenhölzer has been director of the Berliner Festspiele Theatertreffen since 2012. In 2020 she received the Berlin Women's Prize for her commitment to equal opportunities in theatre. Since 2021, Yvonne Büdenhölzer has been President of the ITI - International Theatre Institute Centre Germany.
Natasha A. Kelly holds a PhD in communication studies and sociology as well as being an author, curator and lecturer with a research focus on post/colonialism and feminism. She teaches as a lecturer at numerous private and government institutions, gives her own workshops and is involved in various social projects. More @natasha.a.kelly
FEELINGS is an artistic collective consisting of theatre pedagogue and performance artist Jil Dreyer and theatre pedagogue, performance artist and actor Josef Mehling: together they founded feelings.mem in 2019 and offer various formats in the fields of performance, theatre, media and games as a theatre pedagogical team.
Karin Becker is artistic director at Theater Konstanz. From 2009 to 2015 she was Artistic Director and Deputy Managing Director at Schauspiel Hannover under the artistic directorship of Lars-Ole Walburg and from November 2015 to 2019 Artistic Director at Thalia Theater.
Meike Sasse is a dramaturge at the Theater Konstanz. After studying Comparative Literature and Theatre, Film and Media Studies (TFM) at the University of Vienna, she worked at the Volkstheater Wien, Schauspielhaus Zürich, Theater Regensburg and Theater Oberhausen. Currently, in addition to her work as a dramaturg, she is the commissioner for diversity discourse and development at Theater Konstanz.
Nicola Bramkamp is artistic director and founder of the SAVE THE WORLD initiative, initiator of the BURNING ISSUES conference and teaches at various universities such as the Mozarteum Salzburg, the Hochschule für Bildenden Kunst, Hamburg and the ZHDK.
Magz Barrawasser is a freelance theatre director and theatre pedagogical networker. In addition to directing theatre workshops, she has staged productions in the independent scene as well as guest performances and her own productions at the Hessisches Landestheater Marburg and Schauspiel Essen.
“Inequality is not a natural phenomenon. Inequality is not abstract, it is made by ideology and politics! Ideas and ideologies are a deciding factor in history. And they can be changed. We can determine what we see as social justice, a just economy. It is up to us, and the struggle for a fair society is nowhere near lost. But: We have to fight this fight! It isn’t enough to form opinions, we have to actively join the fray and get involved.“
Is Artistic Freedom Really Without Boundaries?
Another Get Out of Jail Free card that creative executives like to play is the much-touted concept of artistic freedom, according to the maxim: In the name of the artistic freedom, a conductor or director is allowed to get away with just about anything – throwing stands, attacking people verbally, giving free rein to their (usually negative) feelings. These central figures of a stage production can keep an entire establishment and its several hundred employees in suspense, or even in terror. Whether “stars” or not, artistic leaders are given a great deal of power under the banner of artistic freedom. And even if “artistic efforts based on collaboration” is set up as an ideal, in cases of doubt, it’s the star’s own artistic will that ultimately everyone be forced to follow. Because how would you dare to constrain the artistic process of a “genius”?
Two elements are mixed here, though – the stage work and the rehearsals, i. e. the creative process. What’s visible on the stage is one thing: the work itself should be artistically free, even though this freedom is necessarily restricted by various fundamental rights, such as the inviolability of the individual.
The creative process during rehearsals is quite a different matter. Artistic collaboration is clearly subject to the provisions of health and safety at work, and here the stipulation that the mental health of employees must not be put at risk applies. The work process and the protection of the physical and, above all, mental health of workers must not be undermined, even in artistic enterprises.
Of course, nobody should try to constrain the artistic process If you consider the day-to-day work that goes into development of a piece, you will see that this ‘artistic’ process is often anything but. At the end of the day, the making of theatre and opera is a craft, not only in terms of stage design and technology, but also in terms of the preparation of texts or scores. This craft requires clearly defined processes, time limits and sober-minded instructions. If an artistic manager, for example a director, does not respect the need for these frameworks by demanding his ‘artistic freedom’, he will not, in the end, be able to do justice to the art. If information is provided too late or not at all, if at the last minute ideas are changed or an extensive redesign is demanded, the logistical effort and unnecessary pressure would overwhelm the staff, both on- and offstage, as well as the organisation as a whole.
Artistic managers must raise their awareness of their responsibility to their employees, who have the right and the opportunity to establish boundaries within the rigid time and organisational architecture of a theatre.
Christina Barandun is a theatre scholar and consultant for occupational health management in theatres.
Source references Video:
- 3:18 Definition Machtmissbrauch (definition abuse of power)
- 6:30 85% of companies
- 7:30 Employees according to latest research ...
- 8:30 The consequences are considerable ...
Kühne Logistics University, Wissenschaftliche Hochschule für Logistik und Unternehmensführung Hamburg (Kühne Logistics University, Hamburg School of Logistics and Business Management)
Pressemitteilung, 17.02.2021, PDF, S. 2
- Nationwide contact point:
Themis: Vertrauensstelle gegen sexuelle Gewalt und Belästigung(Themis: Confidential Office against Sexual Violence and Harassment)
Abuse of Power in the Theatre Industry
Opinions on Cancel Culture
Yes: When Suspicions Destroy Careers
In late March, artist Ronja Maltzahn was banned from performing at a Fridays for Future-event because her hair-style is wrong. By wearing dreadlocks, so the reasoning, she appropriates a foreign culture without having gone through its oppression. Cultural appropriation as a charge! As if that weren’t the basis of the world’s culture – music, fashion, architecture: it was all appropriated at some point. And this exclusion came from a group that we had hoped would be the one to focus on the essential struggles.
This disinvitation is a harmless example – cancel culture can do more than this, it can destroy careers. Klaus Dörr, interim artistic director of Berlin’s Volksbühne, resigned after the daily newspaper taz had vilified him as a transgressive sexist. Not because he admitted to the accusations, but to avoid any mudslinging. The accusations made by seven female members of the theatre’s staff of 270 included “offences” like staring, kissing hands and laying a hand on the arm. A putative sketchy remark was made at a party seven years ago. The only actionable accusation of upskirting, taking photographs under women’s skirts, had to be dropped by taz following a temporary injunction – the newspaper had no evidence except for its shady complaint. The legal department of Berlin’s Cultural Senator had furthermore confirmed that the accusations against Dörr did not even warrant a written warning.
But taz’ thrill of the chase was not to be curbed. At the same time, the paper painted an unbearable image of women. Because these “transgressions” did not occur in a Stalinist house of corrections but at a proud theatre that is famous for uninhibited breaches of taboo. And these women were unable to formulate simple sentences like: Boss, don’t put your hand on my shoulder! The gender equality officer was unable to work out a solution, so taz had to be involved?
The scandal around the State Ballet School began in 2020, with an anonymous dossier denouncing the allegedly untenable conditions at the school, including a number of since then proven lies. This was followed by a television broadcast about the allegedly scandalous pressure to achieve by rbb-Abendprogramm. The witness was a teacher who had left the school following alcohol-related incidents, of all people. Giving in to pressure from the media and without verifying the accusations, the then Education Senator banned the two directors of the institution – after 17 years of successful work. Until today, despite intensive investigations, nothing was found to justify this ousting. The people who were fired have won all labour legislation trials and have drawing their salaries for two years without being allowed to return to work. What remains is the impression that this school must have been terrible indeed.
Whether comedian Luke Mockridge “nearly raped” his girlfriend, as the published accusation reads, can only be known by two people – the two who were there. Still, “Der Spiegel”-magazine spread it widely and unabashedly fuelled the Instagram-debate. Mockridge is not the only victim of cancelling to be found on a psychiatric ward afterwards. And yet, the press could have been warned by the lie concerning rape about weather journalist Jörg Kachelmann.
In all cases, the courts have criticised the media’s coverage of suspicions, which neglected the high principle of the assumption of innocence. The media assumed all the tasks of the justice system at once: they investigated, indicted, convicted and reviled personalities in public with unproven claims. The law protects murderers and perpetrators of abuse; names and photos may not be published previous to a verdict of guilty. But what are serious crimes against unbidden kisses on the hand? Readers love stories like this: they will read, click and pay. But journalists must be pretty hard-nosed if they will hazard the loss of someone else’s career to further their own. And how do the actual victims of rape and abuse, who are not famous and who have no champions, feel when they read these outraged texts?
No: Cancel Culture: Who Is the Subject of This Discussion?
Cancel Culture – it’s a dreaded term, a political buzz-word that suggests the establishment of a common practice, a new form of culture. “But where will it end, except in the demise of error friendliness and the targeted eradication of individual careers?” some outraged critics are saying. And how can alleged “faux pas of a private nature” even be considered exemplary for a person’s work ethos?
What is conspicuous about all this is that there has been much more talk about cancel culture since the spectrum has expanded to include social participation and having a say: some years ago, when subordinate people had hardly any opportunities to make themselves heard and were – as, say, guest workers or refugees – expected to show invariable gratitude in exploitative employment structures, the facades of many directors’ positions seemed flawless. This is changing now, especially because media tools to make oneself and one’s position visible are increasing. The larger the spectrum of voices expressing their opinion on a topic is, the more differentiated will our view of this topic become. Things that were okay for a long time – racist forms of representation in art, for example – and noted without question, are no longer acceptable because – to stay with the same example – people affected by racism did the work of challenging the established historic awareness and its concurrent Eurocentric perspective, and questioning it with regard to its gaps and exclusion mechanisms. Accordingly, there is a wealth of knowledge now: bookshops are amply stocked, workshop options are available in ever increasing numbers and basic information on many discourses can be accessed in a few seconds. So, whoever opts for discriminating forms of work and/or presentation has either not gathered enough information – out of laziness or even out of ignorance – or they deliberately ignore what offends other people. But as a rule, careers don’t end because of single acts of misconduct. And neither is the press informed as soon as something transgressive occurs. Whoever claims that seems to overlook the mental and physical pressure that people affected by discrimination live with. It takes them a long time to speak at all; they choose error friendliness or indulge transgressions, they live in fear for their jobs, seek advice in their closest environment, see equity officers, diversity advisors and, of course, people with “management functions”. Evidently, being mentioned in the press is preceded by a long journey with numerous suggestions to talk. And in fact, media coverage of a person’s problematic behavioural patterns does not necessarily signal the end of their career: There are just as many cases where an honest apology and an analysis of their own style of working have led to a new beginning of their careers.
But with all due respect – how many times did the word career get mentioned in this short text? Why are we talking about the protection of the transgressive? What else is the debate about cancel culture than a confirmation of the fact that the structures really haven’t changed and that people who experience discrimination still have to chiefly consider what, when and – above all – how they can speak out in order to make sure that the careers of the people who have offended them stay intact?
Birgit Walter is a freelance writer. After studying journalism, she worked for more than 30 years as an editor in the culture section of the Berliner Zeitung. She received the Theodor Wolff Prize and the Journalism Prize of the German Cultural Council.
Antigone Akgün is a freelance performer, author and dramaturg. Since 2017 she has been a juror at the Berliner Festspiele's Theatertreffen der Jugend. This year she is taking over the conception and editing of the Theatertreffen blog together with Ozi Ozar.
What’s on Stage? – About a Contemporary Approach to the Dramatic Canon
What would a season’s programme be without the classics, without “Faust”, “The Robbers”, “Mary Stuart” or “Hamlet”…? Would there be fewer visitors? Would the subscriptions drop, would school groups henceforth avoid a trip to the theatre, the veritable venue of high culture? And: which materials and texts would be left? Should we really erase the so-called German canon and never show any of its plays again? Or isn’t the task rather to rewrite, to rethink it?
Sooner or later, all these question lead us to the discourse about cultural identity – to the questions of what holds a “nation” together, which stories have been told across the centuries and what kind of consciousness, of identity has been their result. When we ask who came up with these stories many years ago, the answer is quite simple: well-educated White men.
Particularly among the younger generation of dramatists, we see the wish to challenge the canon in their writing, to turn it inside out and to question it critically from a contemporary perspective. The authors’ attempts and approaches are as varied as their individual points of view. And this diverse image of perspectives finally begins to somewhat reflect the diversity of today’s society.
Why “Peer Gynt”, again? Why not something new, something diverse, something courageous, something that has not yet been done? This author is complaining even though things are going pretty well: I’ve been offered my biggest commission yet. Finally: a theatre text for the main stage. This is a rare opportunity for me as a young author of nearly 40 and more than 20 years of theatre. Finally, the first commission for the big stage, the very biggest stage. There will be 500 people in the auditorium. I’m a pragmatist and this means that if everything goes well and the pandemic turns out to be favourable and everything goes to plan at the theatre and the piece is performed more than ten times (which is rare for new texts) – then this number of “500” means that four-figure residuals may be expected on top of the fee. So this means that a) I will finally and for the first time have a commission which recognises that this is how I make a living and b) we are finally moving on after the pandemic .
My first big commission arrived: the main stage and a fee that was actually going to allow me to pay my bills. But how did it come to this? The theatre had decided that there were too many men in the season’s programme and when the director suggested “Peer Gynt”, it was clear that it was going to be a rewrite. By a woman. And Peer would also be a woman. The homage to Mr Ibsen remained in place. And I will stick to the answer that I gave an older gentleman during an audience talk when he asked why it was necessary to adapt an Ibsen-text: “Would you have come to the theatre if MILISAVLJEVIĆ had been played on the main stage?” No, and neither would you go to see an experimental story that sounds a little post-migrantic on the studio stage. So, what should I do? To get you to listen to me?
So, we take the Ibsen and we squeeze out everything that is important for the things that we want to say. I’ve done this before, and with his “Enemy of the People”, I got into a little trouble with an oil magnate called Irving in Eastern Canada. The play ended up dealing with fracking, which he likes to do in that region – and it turned out that he owned the theatre in which it was performed. So the text had to be rewritten with no mention of oil, but using gold instead. Okay, so it was gold mines that polluted the waters of the nearby reservation. The message was still delivered. Mr Ibsen – because, again: who would have wanted to see a MILISAVLJEVIĆ in Eastern Canada? – had served his purpose.
Just like he did in “Peer Gynt (she/her)”, because we committed ourselves to a decidedly feminist reworking of the text. In the programme brochure, I wrote: “In this sense, the rewriting of the original text is not only shaped by the fact that women assume male roles and vice versa – be it Peer, an Ingo instead of an Ingrid, or a Troll Queen – but also in that this very approach causes the topics of the play to change. Topics like social roles, care or generational conflicts are treated differently. The original text may see the caring mother in Aase, but not the complex structure of care that she as a single mother had to deal with for all these years. Peer’s father Jon is described as a lush who drank himself to death, but he does not appear, he has no effect, except for the lack of financial support. His worries and hardships are not mentioned in the original text. And in Ibsen, Solveig waits until the bitter end, old and faithful. Her purpose is to give absolution to Peer. Ibsen makes her wait for Peer because she once promised him that she would. However, ‘Waiting and thinking about someone are two very different things, Peer’, Solveig says in this version. And it’s not only about rethinking characters and renegotiating them against others, but also to look deeper, to render their motives, attitudes and emotions visible, and thus the social structures that underlie them.”
Decidedly feminist. What we meant was: seen from the perspective of care, of the weakest. That is what this “Peer” may be – but intersectional?
Yes, I like to write with the broadest range of society and diversity that my perspective will allow me to (and which, admittedly, is not as diverse as the German-language theatre actually needs it to be). These texts tend to be produced for the smaller venues and performed no more than ten times. And I just like to write with a female focus from time to time. This means only women onstage. Or at least, only women in the text, because this is what happens: “Great, we will cast half the roles with men. One character is left out, but to make up for it, we found an older female actor who can be hired as a guest.” Because of course, this municipal theatre with one of the largest acting companies in Germany did not include a single female actor over 50, and perhaps not even 45. Because as soon as you turn 40, you’re booked as a grandmother. At least, recently a 60-year-“old” character in one of my plays was cast with a woman who was born one year before me. But that is the female actors’ lot. As a 40-year-old dramatist, I am still seen as super young and should consider myself lucky to finally be played on the main stage, even if it isn’t actually under my own name. But I don’t want to complain, because I’ve paid my bills.
Maria Milisavljević is a playwright, freelance dramaturg and translator. She is a co-founder of theaterautor*innen-netzwerk.
About Heartfelt Wishes, Solidarity and New Possibilities
Katja Brunner talks about solidarity among persons read as female and about the questions of how loud the beating of her feminist heart is and what she would like to see in a debate about the dramatic canon. Listen now
Katja Brunner is a playwright and performer. In addition to her own plays, Brunner works continuously with the playwrights' collective "Institut für chauvinistische Weiterbildung" and writes essays for newspapers and magazines.
Archival Work in Transition
Anna-Katharina Müller in conversation with Sara Örtel
Dear Sara, who are you and what is your field of work at the Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts)?
Sara Örtel: I am a research associate for the Performing Arts archive at the Berlin Academy of the Arts, where I am in charge of Production Documentation. Unlike documents about persons, which constitute a focal point of the archive’s profile and often reach us in the context of legacies, the documentation of productions have a closer connection with the present: It is a curated selection; we agree on a written documentation of rehearsals and request material. This happens before rehearsals have even begun, only on the basis of the title and the creative team. Our aim is to have someone in the production team document it, because any additional outside person could endanger the intimacy of a protected rehearsal room.
How do you decide which production should be documented?
This decision is made by the head of the department and myself, in consultation with members of the Academy’s section for Performing Arts. Our budget allows for eight to ten production documentations per season. Even if we are guided by the credo of operating a representative and exemplary collection, this is a very small number of documentations for the German-language region. That is why there is a collecting focus on directors’ individual signatures. Our aim is to capture working methods or special aesthetics which leave a mark on the theatre landscape, and to describe how they are created during the rehearsal process.
It sounds like a kind of scouting to me: To recognise in advance what the current trends are and make a possible prediction for the future at the same time.
It’s pretty much impossible to be aware of everything, to know everything, to predict everything. The upside is that the archive works with time. Since we will never be able to capture more than two or three exemplary productions by one director rather than their entire work, we at least have several years to document a specific directing signature. In the best case, trends will also be reflected by working methods and represented in the collection in that way.
I suppose that if we look at the archive’s history, we will find that it consist mainly of white directors who are read as male. To which extent do you respond to current demands and structural changes?
I have been with the Academy of the Arts since 2018 and it is true that only very few female directors are represented in the collection – the majority of directors are white and male. One of the reasons is that especially before the German reunification and with very few exceptions (Ruth Berghaus was one of them), the theatre landscape was defined by male directors, and one of the collecting principles was to document their careers. There has been some rethinking recently: fewer documentations of the works of one director and instead a wider range of different artists – read as male and female. It is one of my concerns that the collection should reflect the diversity of today’s theatre landscape and show the many different working methods in the theatre. But – and this is a major but – given the small section of artistic work, we also aim to document works that will still be of interest in a few years and to follow performing artists who are establishing themselves.
Would you say that the classical, typically German or typically European canon is currently being somewhat displaced by contemporary drama?
I think that with regards to the theatre, it is more a question of interpretation than of the material itself. The collection has always been interested in contemporary drama because it reflects important topics and the zeitgeist. However, productions of the classics are and will also remain interesting for the collection because they can be compared across the decades. The interpretation of individual characters or the material as a whole is very much determined by the times that we are living in. That is why productions of the classics reveal a lot about respective current events. New texts are still very rarely produced by more than one theatre, which means that there are fewer cross references with other documentations.
If you venture a look into the future, do you think that there will be changes in your archiving work and for archiving in general?
I think that our awareness that the theatre unites several different arts has caused us to already apply several positive approaches: For instance, we are collecting set designs with the respective directing material in the archive, because the set is a decisive working foundation or counter-weight in directors’ theatre. In the future, we will expand these connections in our considerations. Will performances still take place onstage in the future? Or has our concept of what constitutes a stage changed? The relationship between theatre and the digital sphere will also occupy us, as will the question of which protagonists will be shaping the theatre in the future. One advantage of production documentation is that it is close to the process. The working process itself will always tell us something about our ideas of the theatre, about our times and current power structures. It is important to stay open and to keep in mind that theatre is a joint effort by different artists. It is a collaborative art.
Sara Örtel is a research associate at the Akademie der Künste Berlin. She is a founding member of the Frankfurt performance collective Arty Chock and worked as a dramaturg at the Deutsches Theater Göttingen from 2014 to 2018.
“This edition of Burning Issues will remain burning until change is achieved. It will not quickly turn to ashes, nor become shadowed by new fashions of discourse, because equity can also be a way of gathering our forces to establish a common vision and practise of justice, instead of dispersing and fragmenting our efforts. Equity can be our journey towards local, regional and transnational progress in all sectors of the performing arts.”
One Stage for Everyone – Inclusive Casting Policies
Who exactly makes theatre and for whom? Whose stories are told, which kinds of lived realities are made visible, who even has access to these venerable halls and who is refused admittance? These are urgent issues with regards to structural ableist discrimination which still and consistently happens at the theatre. Building structures, a lack of sign language interpretation, websites that are not barrier-free etc., etc. etc. … it is a long list.
Of course, it is also necessary to make underrepresented points of view visible onstage, to change viewing habits, to promote the removal of barriers, to enable inclusive access onstage, backstage and in the auditoria and to allow the theatres to become places where the stories of many different people with many different perspectives are told. But shouldn’t our route take us beyond barrier-free accessibility? Shouldn’t we aim for co-determination in executive structures and inclusion in all areas of creative production?
10 Items on the Way Towards a More Inclusive Theatre
Remove the Barriers in People’s Minds
The theatre scene is ruled by unease and ignorance when it comes to inclusion with regards to people with disabilities and the potentials this entails. There must be a fundamental change in the mindset of cultural institutions; people with disabilities must be recognised and acknowledged as users and makers of culture.
Appreciation of Differences
All people should have an opportunity to express themselves as artists in a world that appreciates differences as valuable. For the theatre, this means that we must challenge established concepts of body, space and society in order to allow an expansion of customary criteria in contemporary culture.
Diversity-Oriented Development of Organisations
This requires the continuous availability of barrier-free options in art and culture as well as comprehensive, diversity-oriented organisational development in theatres with the aim of rendering the cultural landscape structurally and sustainably inclusive. After all, inclusive access is an added value for the entire audience and the entire structure of cultural operations.
Art Functioning as a Bridge
Art and culture present a society’s discourses; they are the place where visions for a future society are developed. Art and culture are thus role models, and the processes created here can be transferred to other social spheres. It is therefore especially important for the cultural sector to reduce political and social stigmatisation and ensure that art and culture are accessible for everyone.
This requires the visibility of previously underrepresented artists with unique experiences and points of views because they produce new and unique art. It will result in inclusive experiences and more interesting artistic outcomes for a broad audience, leading to a change of perspective that is important for the development of a democratic, diverse society, and strengthening the relevance of culture in societal contexts as a whole. Culture must be conceived and designed barrier-free. It must learn from people with disabilities in order to create a new image of a diverse society.
Implementation of Human Rights
Over the past decades, society and politics have largely failed to make art and culture accessible to people with disabilities. Statistics show that around 19 percent of the European population have a disability 1 ; we are therefore talking about a large proportion of the population. People with disabilities are structurally especially discriminated and disadvantaged (not only in the cultural sector) and still do not have the same opportunities for participation – even though the right of participation in cultural life, for example, was already formulated in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This means that an exceedingly large group of people is disregarded within the cultural sector’s diversity debate. Political decision makers must fulfill their obligations and make serious efforts to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which was ratified as early as 2009. Thus, the implementation of the UN-CRPD may no longer be regarded as voluntary and based on the individual commitment of theatre makers. Instead, it must occur across structures and regions and be implemented by the theatres on the basis of obligatory measures and regulations established by politics.
The Courage to Expand the Artistic Vocabulary
Measures towards accessibility must become inherent to artistic vocabulary and their use must become a source of inspiration for art and culture. In addition to the development of multi-sensory approaches, the theatre has to find a creative way of handling classical devices of accessibility themselves. Audio description, sign language or subtitling must be taken into account when creating the work. They will thus be disengaged from their functionality and transformed into artistic elements that are essential to the work’s aesthetics and dramaturgy. Motivated from within the work, they will enter into an aesthetic unity: rather than being “add-ons” or “translations”, they will be instruments of artistic expression. This will result in additional qualities for both work and process, providing entirely new creative impulses for each new production and sustainably changing views of creative processes.
Funding and Qualification Are Required
Most cultural institutions do not actively wish to exclude a group of people and they are aware of their political and social responsibility. The problem, therefore, is not a lack of good will, but rather a lack of knowledge, experience and resources. Employees must be given the opportunity to raise their awareness and acquire qualifications, and funding must be made available or reassigned within the budgets of large cultural institutions. Also, political decision makers as well as funding authorities must recognise spending for accessibility as a necessary requirement for equal opportunities. After all, it is becoming more and more evident that exclusive cultural programmes are facing legitimation problems for failing to address important groups of society.
Changes in Education and General Conditions
Large theatres often claim that they would like to include artists with disabilities in their companies, but that there are no trained artists on the market who would be willing to join them. Since there are hardly any accredited training opportunities available for people with disabilities in the fields of dance and theatre, this is a circular argument. Training institutions have to become more open and adjust their curricula. But theatres also need to change their general conditions and requirements for admission so that creatives with a disability may be motivated and enabled to work in these cultural institutions.
ACCESS & INCLUSION are a MISSION that must be formulated, represented and resolutely carried out. Theatres must be aware of the fact that this is a process with many stakeholders and that perseverance is required. Things will not be changed in a day and “access profiles” must be developed in joint debates. Theatres must start their journey towards more diversity and inclusion on all crucial levels, i.e. with regards to their EMPLOYEES, their AUDIENCE, their PUBLIC RELATIONS and their PROGRAMMING. This task must be addressed by everyone; it concerns all departments and, ultimately, everyone and everything. Inclusion is not a one-way street but an intersection where all participants learn from one another.
Why We Don’t Need an Inclusive, But an Anti-Ableist Theatre
The label “Inclusive Theatre” often stands for productions or programmes where people with and without disabilities or deaf and hearing people perform together. But let’s be honest: In how many of these productions, festivals or companies are people with disabilities or deaf people placed in positions of power or decision making? While you are reading or listening to this text, consider how many performances featuring disabled or deaf artists you can remember watching? And in how many of them were these artists part of the directing team rather than just performers?
Your answers to these questions will probably not be unique. In 2021, more than half of the respondents from the cultural sector (52 percent) of the study “Time to Act – Wie mangelndes Wissen im Kultursektor Barrieren für behinderte Künstler*innen und Zuschauer*innen schafft (How a lack of knowledge in the cultural sector creates barriers for disabled artists and spectators)” assessed their own knowledge of the work of disabled artists as poor or very poor. Only 16 percent stated that they had a good to excellent knowledge – despite the fact that there are more projects labelled as inclusive every year. I would like to take this imbalance as an opportunity to address new ways of thinking and acting necessary to ensure that disabled or deaf artists are able to work with equal rights and self-determination in the theatre sector (both at state and municipal theatres and within the independent scene). The following seven points serve as an outline.
Critique of Power
We have to start questioning why even in inclusive projects, creative and non-creative decisions are generally made by non-disabled people. Reflecting on this situation with a consideration of critique of power entails an active investigation of ableism. Ableism describes the structural discrimination of people with disabilities which includes continual exclusion and a depreciation of the life and theatre work of people with disabilities and deaf people. Anti-ableist theatre is always inclusive in the original sense of the word, because to operate from a power-critical standpoint means changing structures. But to this day, many so-called inclusive projects in the theatre sector do not keep this promise. That is why we need to refocus on anti-ableist thinking and action to do justice to disabled and deaf culture makers.
Barriers as opposed to deficits
The cultural sector needs to change its perspective from looking at individuals as “being disabled” to seeing them as “getting disabled” by society. We owe this insight to the disability rights movement of the 1980s and it is known as the social model of disability. In concrete terms, this means: job postings and productions that reduce disabled and deaf people to certain features (for example the search for dancers with “non-normative physicalities”) should become a thing of the past. Instead, it should be the central task of all key players and institutions in the performing arts to find out which barriers disabled and deaf artists are confronted with in the performing arts and how these can be removed.
Focusing on barriers and structural exclusion also means ridding oneself of the claim of being able to discern every individual person’s disability from their appearance. When the representation of disability is limited to performers with physical disabilities and corresponding aids (for example crutches or a wheelchair), this shows only a small section of the life realities of people with disabilities. Diverse representation encompasses a great variety of experienced barriers, including chronically ill or neuro-divergent people (for example people living with autism) or people with learning difficulties.
Anti-ableist casting policies will no longer support the dominant concept of disability that is generally represented by White, cis-hetero persons with visible physical disabilities, because this concept reduces people and their experiences to the feature of disability. Far too frequently, ableism is not reflected in any other power-critical discourses. We may increasingly encounter people with disabilities and deaf people in so-called inclusive productions and panel discussions on barrier-free accessibility, but not when issues like anti-racism, reproductive justice or queer life realities and art practices are under debate. Not considering people with disabilities or deaf people in the context of all topics and all fields (also beyond the stage) means losing out on crucial perspectives.
Executive, power and decision-making positions
The theatre sector will only undergo actual changes once people with disabilities and deaf people have been recognised as experts. This also means hiring them as part of executive teams so that they can be involved in making all creative and non-creative decisions from the beginning. This includes the choice of topics and aesthetic decisions as well as rehearsal and programme structures. Since people with disabilities and deaf people are often excluded from established education and training structures as well as formal and informal networks, we need to increasingly create spaces (for example through residency, mentoring and co-production programmes) where people with disabilities and deaf people can try out their own working practices within frameworks that provide individually barrier-free access.
Recognition and support of the cultures of artists with disabilities and deaf artists
The UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been effective in Germany since 2009, stipulates not only the access to culture in general but also the recognition of specific, inherent cultures of people with disabilities and deaf people by the non-disabled, hearing majority society as a human right. This takes account of the fact that although people with disabilities and deaf people are currently only rarely able to present their own artistic works on the stage of the independent scene or the subsidised municipal and state theatres, they have developed their own cultural heritage within their communities (from barrier-free work practices to their own art forms). It is therefore up to the agents and institutions of the performing arts to learn about the history and present status of disabled and deaf art and to question the presumed superiority of non-disabled and hearing aesthetics and working methods.
New quality criteria
Just as in all sectors of society, the criteria for assessment and support in the performing arts are fundamentally informed by an ableist norm of bodies and capabilities. It is therefore necessary to expand one’s own reception practice and to critically examine to what extent entry criteria are serving to reproduce exclusion (for example, university degrees or a certain number of previously funded projects are inadequate standards to assess the funding eligibility of a new artistic project). Only once we have acquired a broad knowledge of disabled and deaf art will we be able to define new criteria of artistic quality.
All these points are united by the objective of enabling disabled and deaf culture makers to work in self-determined and individually barrier-free conditions and with the same rights as the non-disabled, hearing majority society. Engaging in this process and consistently centring anti-ableist thinking and actions also means refraining from automatically labelling every appearance of disability in the theatre as inclusive.
Noa Winter works as a freelance curator, dramaturge, workshop leader and project coordinator, among others for the project "Making a Difference". In addition to managing the production of various festivals, she has taught at the University of Mainz and is currently writing her doctoral thesis on the self-determined working methods of disabled artists and aesthetics of access.