One of the most complex challenges we face in the theatre industry right now is finding ways to expand our audience. We are seeing that, in fact, spectators who love the theatre and are used to it are coming back. And, with reduced seating capacity, our theatre halls are well filled. But how can we reach more distant audiences, young people, students? Even if a real opportunity exists, because of the many activities that cannot take place right now, the appeal of the performing arts is weakened by cumbersome safety precautions. We therefore must reflect on this question in broader terms.
Historically, theatre has been instrumental in conveying philosophical, moral and political ideas, especially during the Enlightenment. It was Peter Brook who said theatre played the role of the scribes in the Middle Ages. Critics and word-of-mouth reporting about theatrical experiences, concepts and aesthetics helped spread the ideas conveyed through those very experiences throughout Europe.
How can we ensure that theatrical experiences, concepts and aesthetics continue to convey ideas that will spread and help build Europe? How are theatres engaging with their audiences during this first season, with mandatory health and security measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? How are theatres engaging with one other and across borders? How can we ensure encounters, debate and dialogue when the new normal – i.e. social distancing – is in complete contrast to our profession?
2020 marks the fourth year of ENGAGE, ETC’s international programme for European theatres. And, despite our travel from country to country being limited, we are determined to spread our ideas, concepts, and aesthetics to inspire theatre colleagues and audiences across the continent. Our new ETC casebook publications on youth theatre, participatory theatre and diversity in theatre share practices and insights on how to engage with new and broader audiences. Our professional development programme offers a wide range of activities using virtual meeting spaces, addressing topics from sustainability and green theatre to new dramaturgies. Highlights of the European stage show ETC member theatres open again, with new performances adapted to the current rules, after a monthslong battle to prove the systemic importance of theatre.
The concept of systemic importance categorises society. It is a concept that divides society. It has created a problematic criterion for differentiation that has the potential to constitute values and evoke social divisions . For “systemic importance” always implies its downside: “systemic un-importance”, that is to say everything that is considered dispensable. But what would a society look like if everything “systemically unimportant” – stories and humour, sporting events and favourite playlists, theatre performances and films, questions of existence and broadening one’s horizon – were to dwindle away? The “systemically important” professions ensure that we live, yes, but how we live is being decided elsewhere…
EU Commissioner Gabriel told the members of ETC: “Culture is not a luxury; it is an important social and economic factor to overcome any crisis! For this reason, if the health and safety measures are in place, theatres should reopen because they contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of our citizens and ultimately of our society.” We are proud to be organising the first ever European Theatre Forum, within the framework of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and in cooperation with the German Minister of State for Culture and the Media and the European Commission in November 2020, ensuring that theatre has a strategic voice in policymaking decisions.
This year’s ETC Journal features two articles on the essence of this theatre season, asking the questions: How can we engage with our audience and how can we remain open to do so? The article by the Italian dramaturge Davide Carnevali, How can I convince my aunt that theatre could be of interest to her?, stresses the desire and responsibility to use the available tools of theatre to ENGAGE with our audiences. Ulrich Khuon, artistic director of Deutsches Theater DT Berlin and president of the German Theatre and Orchestra Association shares with us his own battle in reopening the theatre, which he finally won after a phone call from the German president. His text entitled Everything at once is the slogan of this year’s DT theatre season and first appeared in the theatre’s season programme.
This season will be about the survival of our entire sector, it will be about our means to ENGAGE – with audiences, with policymakers, with each other – to help build Europe, and the open society we value. For this to succeed we need solidarity and strong partnerships. As a network of European theatres, ETC thanks the European Commission for its continued financial support of and collaboration with ENGAGE.
Photo: RHIZOMATICS Discrete Figures (c) Suguru Saito