The Future Theater

by Ben J. Riepe

Shortened version in: tanz. magazine for ballet, dance and performance, yearbook 2017, ed. by Der Theaterverlag, Berlin 2017, p. 98-103.

Theater needs a structure. This is unfortunate, but true. Because at present, working in the field of performing arts either means working in the independent scene where one struggles from project to project, application to application, residency to residency, guest performance to guest performance, ever uncertain, ever underpaid, ever adapting, but independent. Alternatively, one may integrate into the system of a city theater. Within such a system, there are many liberties, many possibilities, many resources and a large (potential) audience as well. However, there is also the city commission, the region, the attendance figures, the subscriptions, the extremely long scheduling times and the overall inflexibility of an artistic establishment.

There were times when I wished myself into the visual arts, where I would not need a structure and could just do my thing so that I would finish with a piece of art that stands for itself, that I would not constantly have to “revive” in order for it to take effect. I just do not really want to work alone. Especially the act of “reviving”, of having – live and as material – the immediate living organism, the body, is my motor. Of course, it seems tempting to just sell my work and start thinking about what I want to do next. But this thought brutally drives towards the market, and art pushes towards the market, towards capital, towards the possession of the rich, as an object of vanity and prestige.

To me, dance means liberty in art. Choreography is the structuring of space and time. At the center is the human being and their body – as a subject, as content, medium, staging point, witness and creator. The work itself defines the space (stage, museum, non-artistic venue etc.) and duration (an hour to three months). Ideally, I determine these aspects in the process.

Performing arts is about developing, about “working innovatively”, about “interdisciplinary” development. And where is the place? Which place enables what I have described? It is a place that is all about something old-fashioned. First and foremost, this is CONFIDENCE. Confidence in my work, in myself, in my ideas without constantly having to prove, defend or justify myself. In order to go deeper and explain my ideas clearly, I want to draw up a quick analysis of the current state of affairs.

In the independent scene, one permanently writes applications. I constantly verbalize and develop new projects that only exist in my head or on paper and might never, or never in that form, become reality. I am so very tired of writing these applications. I notice how writing applications influences – and even corrupts – my work. I also notice that writing applications corrupts the work of many others. The work of other artists, curators, intendants – of the entire scene. We are forced to verbalize something that is non-verbal and will never become verbal. Dance, like most other art forms such as music and visual arts, is abstract, and therefore non- verbal. Certainly, this process of verbalization and putting it into writing can also help. It has helped me in speaking about my own work and reaching this level of discourse that we have in the independent scene. But why is it almost irrelevant in city theaters, especially in dance and the opera?

I see my works approximating more and more to the concepts I came up with while writing the application, with all these trilogies, superordinate themes and further progressions of a progression. My writings have become such an extreme cosmos, to the point where I can no longer escape them. Online, on my website, in interviews and on panels, I further intensify this cosmos because, like a prayer wheel, I repeat, vary and further develop everything. I have learned to articulate myself, which is good. However, there is a side to it that is completely wrong, because the actual process of creation no longer takes place in the rehearsal room. Not out of the moment – during the search, during the examination, through a coincidence, a misunderstanding, out of the problem, out of all the performers, in short: the process – but in theory, in front of the laptop.

We need the Wuppertal theater, or any other comparable opportunity, so that we no longer have to create art through applications. The application often follows a theme. Therefore, curating also happens by theme. This evokes the same logic: there is not enough money to construct the entire program according to an international standard. Hence, applications have to be written here as well. The application calls for some form of wording, for a theme, for some reference. Of course, I understand this to a certain extent, because a jury or a committee needs to decide based on some sort of criteria.

There is such a vast number of artists, festivals, places and relations that some basis for decision becomes necessary. We constantly create new works, so you cannot simply say “these people always do a good job, we’ll give them money again” (which was certainly often the case in the past and led to a lot of nepotism). We fall back on the scattergun approach – everybody gets something at some point and somehow everybody survives. Through this approach, everybody does badly and the pressure on politics and lobbies grows so much that new funding with new criteria is created. This leads to creating new degree courses that produces another few thousand artists, curators and lobbyists who call for funding opportunities even more articulately. More funding structures emerge, all of them uncoordinated, so that the constructs and whatever else needs to be done for them become more and more insane. But where does this lead?

The theater or the festival gets funding for the new series waiting to be filled up with works and artists. Now there are not necessarily enough artists or works dealing with exactly the theme of this series. If there are some, are those the most interesting works? Here, then, is where it becomes difficult…

What makes a work interesting? This of course is very difficult to answer and one should never generalize, but above all, a work is not interesting if you can understand and categorize it.

Today, works need to have social relevance.

I think this means on the one hand, that the dialogue with politics becomes ever more intensive because more and more funding opportunities and higher funding amounts emerge. Though how to convince politicians with arguments like “non-verbal” or “immerse yourself”? So we have to verbalize again, and in talking about it, a new vocabulary developed, which corrupts all of the arts.

Additionally, in the niche of niches of contemporary dance, we are struggling with an audience problem. Not many people are interested in it. The first niche is dance in general – we all know that dance or ballet is always the third wheel in the city theater system and always gets cut first. Music and opera are classic. Acting is entertaining or formative, shocking, stirring or dunning. Dance? Maybe it is pleasant? A great achievement? Ultimately, not to be fully taken seriously. The second niche is contemporary dance, which even fewer people understand. They’re not even dancing anymore! And you really never know what you will get. Everything is experimental, and then the program in independent theaters keeps changing and you can no longer follow what is happening. In the city theater, at least you can follow the ensemble or your personal favorites in the various works.

Once you have found a choreographer you like, you want to see more of them. But their next work is only scheduled to come out in a year (this is the usual application cycle), on a weekend, with only two or three performances, and just when you were planning a weekend trip. And so the delicate connection gets cut.

It is the connection to the intangible innovation. The connection to free dance that does not rely on auxiliary media like easels, cameras, musical scores or text, but can use these elements freely. Dance draws directly from the human being and their body. It is THE liberty in the arts, and above all, non-verbal, abstract and ephemeral. This is no disadvantage, but a strength in which we need to regain confidence. We believe that we need to defend ourselves, and for that purpose, we have developed the wrong vocabulary:

Artists are forced to legitimize themselves through a vocabulary of ostensible intellectuality. This has driven dance into a lack of freedom. We have bet on the wrong horse, on recognition rather than experience.

Our school education is already purely cognitive. Art – and especially the non-verbal arts – should not have to attempt to translate and justify itself. Quite the contrary indeed – it almost becomes an educational task. Theater is about immersing yourself into something you might not be able to understand right away. If you let it in, it has the ability to move something in you – on a fundamental level. What we need, then, is a school of immersion. A school of experience, of opening the senses.

Furthermore, the Wuppertal theater is a local theater. Locality has a bad reputation. Locality contradicts the internationally connected scene of today. Artists, as well as curators are travelling around the world and working in various different cultures and contexts. “Globalism” has long become reality in contemporary dance. Dancers and choreographers show their works all over the world, give workshops, participate in processes, labs or discussions. Curators and artistic directors want to portray exactly that in their “independent” theaters. They want extremely international, extremely versatile and extremely fast works, like an eternal festival. Theater is supposed to be extremely exciting. In this machinery, the heated level of discourse, innovation, internationality and flexibility of the independent scene, one thing no longer exists: “Locality“.

The only local aspect left is the audience. In Dusseldorf, I am a local artist. In Seoul, Salvador de Bahia and San Francisco, I am an international artist.

As a local artist, knocking on doors at home, I am no longer international, not as exciting, not as big. In that, I am not alone. I know thousands of high-ranking artists who are not able to play in their cities. Still, local artists are extremely important because it is easy for audiences to connect to a local artist through the city theater and follow their work or a development. Why is it, then, that local artists deal with worse conditions than their “international” colleagues that we ourselves are too?

The city theater is local. There is a commission to develop works FOR the city. There are large budgets, proper workshops, fixed ensembles, rehearsal rooms. The resulting performances often stay confined to locality. Germany, with respect to its vast number of local apparatuses, is a sheer land of local theater. The productions for many millions are not always very innovative, while the international theaters – extremely flexible, innovative, discursive, extremely precarious – advances great art. Something is wrong here. We need a local-international theater, without applications and discourse extravaganza. Wuppertal therefore has a real chance of creating a theater that puts an end to dealing with the antagonists of the past: from local or international sources, independent or fixed, poor or rich.

So what does it look like, this place of utopian theater? What am I imagining? Spatially, it is a city theater, structurally equipped with the same budget, organization and workshops. In this example, the Wuppertal theater.

The main stage needs a restauration and new technical appliances. The bar is great. The garden out front with its glass ashlars is very nice too, for parties, performances and for just dwelling. True hospitality can happen here, which is the pulse of every theater.

The foyer in the back, where stairs lead up on both sides, used to have a small rehearsal stage, which you could use as a little stage as well. It was completely open and acoustically not fully isolated from the foyer. It should be closed. I would put a huge black ashlar in there, completely geometrical and as high and wide as possible, so that it looks as if the stairs were huddled against it. On the inside is a white cube, fully equipped like a theater. A large white space that can be used for performances, exhibitions, hybrid formats etc. You can insert one or more stands or use the space completely open. The audience position can be chosen freely according to the wishes and needs of the production. The space is also usable for small productions. It is a stage as we know it from the independent scene, a museum space (with technology) – a grey space, an open room for the in-between. A hybrid of a thousand possibilities.

The main stage is, of course, usable from every side as well, and productions can include the audience on the stage too. Larger scale productions for bigger audiences find their place here as well.

Additionally, the theater needs some rehearsal spaces, smaller studios for thinking and researching, which we need to build or look for somewhere in the city.

We put an end to thinking in divisions. Originating from the human being and for the human being, everything is possible here. It is about choreographing movement, atmosphere, light, music, song and sound, audience, content, image, aesthetic, discussion, language, material etc. These elements are connected in a floating relation, and for every work, the appropriate element takes the lead in the space and narration.

Whether there is a fixed ensemble with a lot of guests, or whether every “choreographer“ (in a broader sense) brings his own ensemble of dancers, performers, actors, singers or whatever they need is up for decision case by case. My tendency is towards an ensemble of hybrid actors.

The resulting projects are as we know them from the independent scene, only completely financed and application free for the artists. Financed through the city theater system. Stage, costume, light etc. come from the trades, guests bring their creative staff, with the sole limitation that the stages must be suitable for tours. This is necessary so that the logistics of production, storage, assembly and disassembly do not determine the processes to the extent that they traditionally do in the city theater system.

The seasons and runtimes are significantly longer, the way they are in the city theater. There will not be performances of different works every night. It would drive the artists and the audience crazy, since they should get the opportunity to follow works more closely. A work should be performed at least four times (e.g. from Thursday to Sunday) and a couple of times again throughout the current and possibly the following season.

Longer runtimes and revivals are not only important for the audience, but also for the artists. Only at the premiere, in the encounter with the audience, does the work reveal what it actually is, what its weaknesses and strengths are. Through performing it again and again, seeing it again and again and rehearsing it, the work becomes well rounded, profound, strong and rich. At the premiere, the skeleton is complete. Only the encounter with the audience adds the flesh. In times of consumerism and the throwaway society, I consider it important to provide an impulse for deceleration and immersion.

I cannot help but think of Pina when I think about a utopian theater in Wuppertal. Her masterpieces were not simply launched as such. Her works especially were in a constant state of change. Things were changed here and there – how could she have worked like this without revivals?

There should not be too many premieres in one season, also because the mere quantity devalues dance itself. Nobody can see all of it. We also need time and tranquility on the stage. There would still be a second stage, a bar and a garden where there is still enough going on. Courage for deceleration. Courage to grant artists the right to not have to function ad hoc, but experiment throughout the year, maybe even throughout their life. It is also important to be allowed to create bad works, to be on the wrong track, to make a mistake every now and then. Here, I have to think of Pina again, and the confidence that I demand. Pina was trusted with the dance division of the Wuppertaler Bühnen without having a lot of experience under her belt, without being successful right away, without drawing a large audience. The small audience that did come was appalled, aggressive and disappeared vocally. Still, she was allowed to continue, she was not replaced. We all know the effect this has had…

A large number of curators or dramatic advisers are available – as dialogue partners, as outside eyes, as enablers, I love dramatic advisers. Artists in every production should have the opportunity to work with one or several of them. It is important to connect people – worldwide – and to communicate works, locally and internationally.

However, as opposed to the all too familiar way, the decision makers should always be the artists. Because it is about art and the needs of art. Everyone else is there to enable art. To devise spaces, contents, contexts and connections, visions for formats, series and themes. These are the people who participate in the conversations. I imagine that there are these proposals and the artists who work at the particular theater can choose whether they are interested in realizing the proposed work. If enough artists are interested, they start working on the production, if not, the proposal is postponed or discarded. Otherwise, the artists will get caught up in the same old system of working on contents and formats that fall short of their desires.

There can be series or curated festivals, but they cannot become a monoculture.

But how do we make decisions and who gets to make which decisions? Who gets to participate? I always find it hard to generalize in this case, because there is no perfect system, because we are all human beings with different skills. Some can work better in a collective others need clear tasks fields. Not everyone who has big ideas is able to implement them or be a leader. Still others thrive in situations where they need to do everything at once. Some people function well in dialogue settings. We need to create a system through a very honest process. It should not be about vanity.

The power structures need to be well balanced, but not to the point where the strength of the voice gets lost. The audience still needs to know what they are in for. They are in for a school of perception, for extensive spatiality, for genre transgression, visionary works and works in process. The artists are tangible; the audience can experience the processes. The Wuppertal theater would be a theater of the artist, a theater of brutality, a theater of emptiness, a theater of immersion.