Commentary: "I saw The Lion King": American theater through German eyes

von Cory Tamler, TheaterTreffen blog, 5/15/11

[Last Friday,] a panel of performance artists, artistic directors, dancers, and cultural politicians debated the state of the "free theater scene" in Germany. On the table were financial infrastructure, artistic freedom, audience development, interaction of the free scene with state-funded theater, political lobbying and more. Here's my problem with the problems: in searching for answers, Germany isn't looking any farther than its own backyard.  We've already taken a look on this blog at some of the stereotypes about German theater that appear in English-speaking media. But Germany has plenty of stereotypes and assumptions to match.  My experience is that the complete lack of interest German theatermakers have for American theater is matched by a complete lack of insight into the American theater system and community. Statements I've recently heard:

  • I thought you could get money to produce anything in America if you cast the right star!
  • Hm, I had no idea there was theater going on in Chicago.
  • Yes, I've seen American theater. I saw a touring production of The Lion King.

I spent more than two hours Friday night listening to the panelists talk about space and funding problems, definitions of amateurs versus professionals, interaction between big theater houses and small "free" groups, and audience development as if they were all pretty new questions. Which, in Germany, they may be. In America, they're as old as the theater scene itself. If German theater weren't so busy staring at its bellybutton, maybe somebody would pick up on that. Do you know what Germans say when they talk about audience development?  "Audience development"! In English! It's telling when even Germans can't use German to discuss a concept. (Similar reasoning would lead me to suggest that Americans should be consulting Germans in on our ongoing attempt to figure out what a "dramaturg" does.)  The American theater model is far from perfect. But it is a model that includes cities with unique and vibrant theater scenes.  There certainly is room for very fruitful dialogue and interchange between German and American theater; but in order to start it, theatermakers in both countries need to be willing to look past our stereotypes of Broadway glitterati vs. noble dramaturgs.


Commentary: Why aren't more American plays seen abroad?

Eliza Bent, May-June 2011 issue of American Theatre magazine

"Travel," Mark Twain once remarked, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness" -- and certainly we theatre folk are an open-minded bunch. Shouldn't it stand to reason that we'd be eager to share our work with international audiences?   Though a number of American theatres produce plays in translation or host artists from other continents, relatively few U.S. productions are seen these days outside our borders. Nurturing relationships with festivals abroad can result in co-commissions and co-productions.  Elevator Repair Service's The Sun Also Rises, for example, was commissioned by Germany's Festival Theaterformen Hannover/Braunschweig.  And Caleb Hammons, producer of Young Jean Lee's Theater Company, [is negotiating co-commissioning interest from European presenters for] Lee's next project. "In Europe, there's a lot less concern over exclusivity," observes Hammons, noting how a European festival may just be keen on getting a German-language premiere, whereas an American theatre might demand a world premiere production.   American culture doesn't lack for exportation. Movies, music, fast-food chains, celebrities and politicians from the U.S. are known the world over. Do we really need to export our theatre as well?  "The kind of American culture that creates loud, trashy commercial saturation is not the kind we participate in, in the arts," says John Collins of ERS. "It's critical that we keep the world interested in what's not in Hollywood or on TV. People have gotten pretty cynical about America and its culture -- especially in the past 10 years. If we can offer them something on another level, we should."  Caleb Hammons agrees. "America produces more than just tours of The Lion King," he says. "In Europe, theatre is Art with a capital 'A.' We do that here, too. The work we're creating can stand up to other kinds of theatre happening on the global stage."


Commentary: What can American classical music orgs learn from Germany?

Anne Midgette, The Washington Post Classical Beat blog, 5/11/11

According to the book Musical Life in Germany that just landed on my desk, there were 168 publicly financed concert, opera, chamber and radio orchestras in reunified Germany in 1992. Since then, 35 ensembles have been dissolved or merged. That's a lot. There are 2,237 fewer full-time positions for orchestral musicians in Germany today than there were in 1992 -- a loss of 18%. As we wring our hands over the loss of orchestras in Louisville, Hono­lulu, Syracuse, and the Philadelphia Orchestra's declaration of bankruptcy, imagine what we'd do if we lost 35 of them. However, even after all these cutbacks, Germany still has 133 orchestras, and 83 opera houses - one-seventh of the world's opera happens in Germany alone. And the number of concerts and attendees, is actually going up: there were about 1,800 more orchestral concerts in the 2008-09 season than there had been in 2001-01. Orchestral attendance was, by 2008-09, up to just over 4 million.  [However,] the picture for theaters overall was worse: most German theaters present opera, operetta, ballet and musicals, and the totals for all of the categories showed significant declines: audiences were down by more than 1.2 million.  All of this, I believe, provides a useful perspective in evaluating the current situation in America. Yes, the German and American systems are radically different; you can't compare their government subsidies with our privately funded model; and Germany has more classical music institutions than any other country in the world. But the fact is, as we look ahead to a questionable future for orchestras on this side of the pond, Germany offers a concrete picture of what cutbacks and crisis actually look like.   I'll hazard a prediction that the future in the United States might look somewhat similar: fewer orchestras, much handwringing and uncertainty, but still lots of concerts. It's in the eye of the beholder whether the glass is half empty (so many losses! Can't be sustained!) or half full (4 million concertgoers! How can you say music is threatened?). It's more helpful to face the reality: the crisis is real, and continuing, and yet even in the midst of it, there's still a lot of music in the landscape -- maybe more than ever.

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."