Friendly Fire – Part 2

Notes on interviews about the Berliner Theatertreffen

In July 2022, Berliner Festspiele, the state-funded organization responsible for a bunch of festivals taking place in Berlin every year,  announced that the new management of the Berliner Theatertreffen would consist of the team Olena Apchel, Marta Hewelt, Carolin Hochleichter und Joanna Nuckowska. The recently appointed artistic director of Berliner Festspiele, Matthias Pees , explained that this team is intended to “connect the Theatertreffen more closely with the Central and Eastern European region”.
A small flurry of public discussion followed, with many commentators expressing their lack of understanding or scepticism for this decision, e.g.  Christian Rakow. Then people looked back at an interview that Matthias Lilienthal and Amelie Deuflhard had already published on the Theatertreffen website in May. And finally, Matthias Pees himself gave two interviews, one on, , the other in „Der Spiegel“, in which he explained his intentions.

In the following – as in “Friendly Fire – Teil 1” – some sentences from these three interviews are commented on because they are of general importance. Here (ML) stands for Matthias Lilienthal, (AD) for Amelie Deuflhard, (Pees) for Matthias Pees.

Criticism of the existing jury procedure

“‘Best of’ is not a forward-looking principle.” (AD)

The rampant expansion of ranking lists also in the theatre sector speaks for the fact that “best of” is at least a current principle. Andreas Reckwitz explains why rankings (“quantitative techniques for representing particularities”) are necessary, especially in singularity markets (such as theatre)1. In the endless competition for attention of singular productions, visibility must be generated. Rankings serve this purpose. The time-honoured principle of “Theatertreffen” of selecting ten equally remarkable productions is more cautious in this respect. The jury has always resisted any ranking among the ten invited productions. This preserves to some extent the singularity, the incomparability, of the work of art. However, any selection based on the “best of” principle is under the constraint of having to define its selection area and actually cover it completely. Hence the restriction to the German-speaking area and the intensive travelling of the jurors.

“Medium-sized and smaller theatres are visited by the jury to a much greater extent than is then reflected in the final selection”. (Pees)

This is a basic problem of the Theatertreffen. But it also has its place in the system. One can think of the German, Swiss and Austrian municipal and state theatre system as an autopoietic system that is stable in itself and can regenerate itself. It is also capable of resonance, of reacting to its environment (other social subsystems, other theatre systems). Such a system needs elements for self-observation, self-imaging subsystems. The Theatertreffen has always been such a subsystem for self-observation of the German-speaking theatre system. The Deutsche Bühnenverein, the association of all German  theatres,  is a different one, with different guiding distinctions. The specific difference of the Theatertreffen subsystem is “aesthetically remarkable/not remarkable”. The individual theatres as subsystems of the larger theatre system interact with each other in many ways. Actors change, dramaturges discuss, artistic directors go on merry-go-rounds, authors receive prizes, and so on. But how does the overall system perceive itself? Without self-observation, no readjustment of interactions, no change of structures is possible.

The theatre system is also financially controlled. Theatres in large cities have larger budgets than those in small towns. This also creates a market for actors, directors, stage managers, production managers, etc. It is therefore not surprising that the aesthetic singularity market correlates with the financial market. The best directors move to where they earn the most or at least have the best working conditions. This correlation is never perfect. The Theatertreffen owes its existence to the fact that this correlation of art and money was blurred after 1945. The aesthetic centre of theatre culture in the Federal Republic moved between 1945 and 1989 from Darmstadt (Sellner, Hering) to Bremen (Hübner, Zadek) to Bochum (Zadek, Peymann) to Berlin (Stein, Grüber). There was a need for an artificial centre to reconcile perceptions. After 1989, with the inclusion of the former GDR and the development of Berlin into the actual capital, there was a natural centre, the correlation of art and money was perfected. But still, the system needs an element of introspection as a whole system. Without a province, there is no capital. The manifold interactions, the opportunities for advancement and internal differences of the subsystems are essential for the stability of the whole. Permanent self-observation is necessary for the permeability of the overall system. The significance of the Theatertreffen for small theatre towns lies not only in the invitations (which are rare), but in the permanence of observation.

Criticism of theatre critics

“Theatre critics are no more neutral or objective than we are.” (AD)
“As a dramaturge, I also still see myself as a kind of critic.” (Pees)

Of course theatre critics do not judge objectively. Christine Wahl formulates the credo of theatre critics: “But there is one conviction that unites us all: The eternally plural attracts us.”2 Aesthetic judgements are never objective. An aesthetic judgement only suggests approval to everyone3, i.e. it must argue in order to gain persuasive power. However, this subjective generality of the critic is different from that of the dramaturg. Internally, a dramaturge may be as sharp a critic of a production as a newspaper writer. But externally, towards the audience and the public, he has to be careful. He has an interest in a positive judgement. His or her contract renewal also depends on how far he or she succeeds in contributing to audience acquisition, to a positive public reaction or to the creative climate in the house.

After all, when several media judge a production, the subjectivity of the judgements becomes clear. The fact that there were critics who hid their subjectivity behind categorical praise and slurs, writing in the tone of the authoritative ex cathedra judgement, was due to the need for self-assertion of newspaper writers in a differentiated media landscape. But the grand critics have disappeared, partly because the media landscape has thinned out and almost no newspaper can afford a full-time theatre critic any more. On the contrary, since the 1970s, the emphasis on the subjectivity of the theatre experience has become a quality feature of theatre criticism (even if the “I” in the formulations is still frowned upon). The extent to which the critic succeeds in both linguistically conveying the subjective experience and argumentatively backing up his or her own emotional reaction is decisive for the effect of a theatre review on the reader. Till Briegleb has summed up this understanding of criticism: “A critic may hate, be moved, instruct, resign, become personal or cheer, as long as he brings his feelings into an understandable relation to the subject matter.” 4

“Critics writing against the decline of theatre criticism.” (ML)
“Theatre critics’ fear of loss of significance”. (Pees)

I can’t see any fear on the part of critics of losing their own significance. Those who write theatre criticism today know the marginal importance of their work. If there is a fear among critics, it is that of the theatre’s loss of significance. And there is just as much of this fear among theatre directors, actors and curators.

“Whether there are enough critics left at all, who still want to do it – or can afford it at all.” (Pees)

This question is justified. (Almost) no one can afford to make a living from theatre criticism. The fees are pitiful or non-existent. The clamour about the poor qualifications of theatre critics is age-old:

“Yes, theatre criticism is not infrequently the last refuge of a degenerate talent, of a mentally and morally disintegrated person who finds himself excluded from all other literary activities, which require the acquisition and mastery of a rich material.”

This was written by H.Th. Rötscher, himself a theatre critic, as early as 18645. Michael Billington, the theatre critic of the British “Guardian”, provided a friendlier self-description of the type person that becomes a theatre critic:

“Critics are born, not made: possibly because of some temperamental deficiency or innate shyness, many of us discover at an early age that we prefer to be among the watchers than the watched … We find our emotional energies released by appraising the work of others.”6

But the qualifications of today`s critics are high. Most of them have a degree in theatre studies as intellectual background. But no one stays in the business for long, unless they have sufficient other income. Some become dramaturges, a few get editorial posts in the mixed feuilleton, some become lecturers at universities, others switch to curating festivals. Theatre criticism has become a sideline or a transitional occupation 7.

“I doubt that journalism still is really as independent as it was or supposedly once was.” (Pees)
“A view of journalism that is out of date.” (AD)

Frugal rewards for theatre criticism naturally encourage susceptibility to subtle attempts of corrupting critics. Till Briegleb’s iron rule “A sincere critic does not fraternise with the theatre.”8 is being softened. This applies above all to local criticism. If newspaper editors are still interested in theatre coverage, they want preliminary reports, interviews, portraits. These require closer contact with the theatre. Local theatre critics tend to be mild in their assessment of the productions of their city’s theatre anyway9.

“In times of social media, one can communicate oneself through quite a few channels. This creates the possibility of criticism of criticism.” (AD) is the medium that has best succeeded in using these possibilities of interactive communication on the internet for theatre criticism.10 But the social internet media accelerate the fragmentation of the public sphere through the algorithms of attention steering working in the background. The public sphere is a field in which opinions compete for attention. The media have always been segmented, newspapers had a basic political slant. Nevertheless, they were open to the reading public. Anyone who read a conservative critique of a theatre performance in the “Welt” (or “Daily Telegraph”) could have their opinion confirmed by reading a more liberal critique in the “Frankfurter Rundschau” (or “Guardian”). Back then, it was a long time ago.  What the segmentation of the public through attention-grabbing and choice architecture on the internet does, can be seen in the political development of American democracy. However, it is short-sighted to conclude from the reduction of the importance of print media that theatre criticism is dying.

Christine Wahl sees the fatal tendency to understand the task of theatre criticism as an invitation to “join in a community of values” 11. Deuflhard and Lilienthal seem to orient themselves more towards the model of the market economy. Each producer advertises his product. The theatres can criticise themselves; after all, every dramaturge is also a critic, according to Matthias Pees. After all, every expert assessment for some theatre by the management consultancy Actori, which specialises in theatre consulting, has shown that the marketing department needs to be staffed more strongly, despite or precisely because of all the theatres’ efforts to save money. So marketing departments of theatres simulate journalism in their own interest.

However, one function of theatre criticism (in addition to providing guidance on possible performance attendance, reporting) is to draw theatre into the realm of public debate. A theatre performance is an event in the simultaneous physical presence of many. Making this event debatable is also a function of criticism. This includes some kind of judgement, positive or negative, that makes a debate for-and-against possible. This debate is not only the great public one, but also the private one between spectators of the same production and between actual and potential spectators. A theatre review is not only part of a public debate, but can also be the subject of a private debate. Such micro-discussions form the root network of a pluralistic democracy. Theatre criticism is not marketing. A theatre production is more than just a commodity to be sold. Theatre criticism is debate culture. And the aesthetic debate about the value of jointly experienced representations of human conditions is the pleasurable preliminary exercise for the debates about the political regulation of social relations.


“Set an example for how we on this continent intend to live and communicate with our neighbours in the future in general.” (Pees)

That is the best intention of the whole enterprise of restructuring the Berlin Theatertreffen. But there does not yet seem to be a coherent concept for how it is to be realised.

  1. Andreas Reckwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017. p.175. See also my article “Theatre and Theatre Criticism in the Society of Singularities.”
  2. Christine Wahl: Zum Stand der Theaterkritik. 4 May 2022
  3. “The judgement of taste itself does not postulate everyone’s approval {…}; it only suggests this approval to everyone.” Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft. Analytik des Schönen, §8
  4. Till Briegleb, “Kritiker und Theater. 10 Thesen” in: Dramaturgie. Zeitschrift der Dramaturgischen Gesellschaft. Resümée des Symposions ‚Radikal Sozial‘. Berlin 2006
  5. Heinrich Theodor Röscher, Die Kunst der dramatischen Darstellung in ihrem organischen Zusammenhang wissenschaftlich entwickelt. First volume. Leipzig: Otto Wiegand, 2nd edition 1864, p.50
  6. Michael Billington, One Night Stands. A Critic`s View of modern British theatre. London: Nick Hern, 1993, p. IXf
  7. I have always understood my appointment to the jury of the Theatertreffen in 2000 as the beginning of the decline of the profession of theatre critic. I was probably the first person in that position who did not earn his living as a journalist.
  8. Rule No.1, Till Briegleb op. cit.
  9. On the differences between regional and national theatre criticism, see: Vasco Bönisch, “Die Aufgaben der Theaterkritik”, in: V.B., Krise der Kritik? Was Theaterkritiker denken – und was ihre Leser erwarten. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2008, pp. 103-150
  10. See Christiane Wahl’s essay “Zum Zustand der Theaterkritik” 4 May 2022
  11. in: Zum Stand der Theaterkritik” 4.5.2022

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