Vienna’s Small Stages – More Dark Nights

A planned €8 million in cuts to the Arts budget threatens intercultural theatre

The WORT Ensemble in The American Pope | Photo: Daria Klimova

Underground theatres turned into discos; dance troupes posing for Palmers; lobbies plastered with logos, where photos of past productions once kept traditions alive…. It’s a nightmare scenario in Vienna, the cultural capital become a cultural wasteland, awaiting “Europe’s Next Top Model,” or yet another festival, perhaps celebrating Wolfi’s 2nd cousin twice removed, newly “rediscovered” to seduce the credulous willing to slap down €100 for anything with the word ‘Mozart’ in the listing.

For alternative theatres in Vienna, however, this is no joke – too true to be funny for those who think that creativity does best on a small scale.  Is this fantasy or reality? Well, actually, something in-between.

Sources close to the City of Vienna agree that approximately €8 million in cuts will be made to the 2011 culture budget, to stave off an alleged threat of financial meltdown. Under current proposals for allocation, this will have a considerable effect on the alternative theatre scene, particularly on multi-cultural projects – although the Red-Green (Social Democrat-Environmental Party) coalition now in the Rathaus promised just six months ago to focus on migrant mainstreaming and more funding for intercultural projects and institutions.

Eva Brenner, for one, is dismayed. “This is exactly the opposite of what was promised,” said the director of the Vienna alternative theatre Fleischerei. Previously, funding would be distributed at the district, city and national levels, with the city taking up the majority role. The cuts have meant a lot of stream-lining, and although the Rathaus has tried to put a positive spin on this by a reorganisation under the motto ‘less is more,’ the result, as Eva Brenner says, is simply that ‘less is less’. Former district cultural councils have now been fused with the small city council for intercultural activities to create a larger combined “Council for City Culture and Inter-Culturalism.” But even this is suspect, as the overall budget has not increased and staffers are now forced to do the work of more people.

At the Fleischerei: Gaby Aldor und Doron Tavory in “Bachman and Celan” | Photo: Eva Brenner & Derya Schubert

Another part of the problem is the Baumol cost disease, explained Paul Stepan, cultural economics researcher and treasurer for the SOHO festival. This theory, pioneered in the 1960s, relates to the cost-effectiveness of traditional professions, particularly that of classical theatre. The analysis runs as follows: The same number of musicians are needed for a Beethoven string quartet today as 200 years ago, i.e., the productivity of classical music has not increased.  But the wages of the musicians have increased, relative to inflation and the same level of effort is required to organize and perform a concert (it is still not possible to conduct a concert via Skype, thank God).

The result is that larger theatres require larger investments, which tie up major parts of the culture budget. So, even though funding for theatres has increased over the past few years (from €825,3305.00 in 2007 to €893,97458.00 in 2009), larger institutions have continually rising costs which, in end effect, eat up ever larger parts of the budget.

The problems of funding also relate to the way in which actors are paid. Changes to the Schauspielhausgesetz (Theatre law), which came into the force in the beginning of 2011, mean that actors must now become salaried employees of the theatre and not, as Freierdienstnehmer, on a freelance basis. This, explained Dina Kabele, co-founder of the independent theatre group WORT Ensemble, places an impossible burden on independent theatres, which cannot afford to put actors on salary. This also creates problems for actors who take on additional freelance work, as they will now have to carry two social insurance schemes – the freelance, and the salaried – which almost invariably results in higher social insurance fees. The change in the law also means that salaried actors will be closed from accepting funding from the Syndicate of Freelancers (Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Freiberufliche).

A good example was the WORT_ensemble’s recent production The American Pope, looking at the social and political consequences of a female Pope in the Vatican in the 21st century. The small, but symbolically rich setting of the Johann-Nepomuk chapel on the Währinger Gürtel Bogen at the boundary between the 9th and 19th Districts provided exactly the right sort of backdrop for a play challenging the tenets of Catholicism. In the intimate, neighborhood setting, the immediacy of Kabele’s compelling portrayal of the woman Pope held the audience riveted, becoming part of a lone woman’s high-risk challenge to power and tradition, and a fascinating commentary on contemporary political and social issues. This kind of small, intense production, definitely not mainstream, is what the city of Vienna is moving funding away from, as it shifts funding towards larger performing groups.

Many of the theatres feel betrayed by the plan, and especially by city’s attempt to present all of this as positive for Vienna’s cultural scene. This might be true, as long as your only idea of culture is to put on your best suit and Homburg and go to the Burgtheater to watch an admittedly first-rate production of ‘King Lear’. Or buy ten overpriced tickets for a Kursalon concert from a man in a ill-fitting Mozart wig. Not that these aren’t worthwhile. It’s just that there is, and should be, so much more.

The GI Singers at the theater’s annual Intercultural Street Festival, “Auf Achse Dorfplatz” this year on June 15, which brings theatre to the residents of the 7th District | Photo: Eva Brenner & Derya Schubert

The re-organisation of the cultural budget, which began after the election of watershed election of 2000 when the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) entered the federal coalition government with the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), has meant the closure of a significant number of small theatres on the alternative scene. Since about 2003, venues like the  Österreich Theater, Theater MBH and Theater des Augenblicks have folded as funding dried up and important inter-cultural theatre projects such as the Kurdish-led Lalish Theater and Theater Tanto have been severely reduced or moth-balled.

The Fleischerei itself has had to cancel several parts of its signature piece for the Grätzel project Auf Achse, a street theatre procession and festival project in Vienna’s 7th District for which it won the Innovation Prize 2010 in the category “intercultural exchange”, awarded by IG Kultur Wien.

They recently received a letter from the city’s Cultural Ministry, informing them that only a certain amount of funding would be made available, with the effective result that the Fleischerei’s yearly infrastructural budget will once again be substantially cut.

The reasoning? New market forces, officials say. Experimental theatres are, by their nature, not money-makers. They exist to create new forms of art and expression, and help to give young artists their first helping steps into the art world. The very fact that they are small and local allows artists to take chances with productions without having to worry about attendance figures. If the Raimund Theater does a musical about the Habsburgs, it’s a sure-fire winner, but a proposal for experimental dance would never make it past the first round.

This is what small theatres are for. And why they matter.

With the cuts, funding is being re-focused on a few theatres in and around the 1st District, whilst smaller groups are being encouraged to join forces with larger production houses. More emphasis is being placed on attendance quotas, ticket sales and ‘value for money’, the sort of marketing mentality in which small theatres cannot, and arguably should not, be asked to compete.

As a result, many artists are becoming discouraged and increasingly isolated, Brenner said. People are afraid to take chances with projects, for fear that the funding will not be approved, and competitive pressures are building, as existing groups compete for an ever-shrinking pool of funds.

Is it all doom and gloom? In the short term, probably yes. A lot more theatres are going to close, and many are going to be left to struggle to find funding. Some say that Vienna may benefit in the long run; after all, new forms of theatre shouldn’t be dependent on government funding, but on passion and innovation at a grass-roots level.

But at a time when government is spending tax-p ayer’s money on rescuing banks, many say, it should not be withdrawing funds for culture.

Could this motivate people to express their frustration in creative forms?  Perhaps. Or at the ballot box.

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