Theatre Reform: Agonies on Stage

New Funding Rules Leave Vienna’s Many Small Venues in Peril

“Contemporary, innovative, international” – these are three of the criteria by which Viennese theatre projects have been judged ever since Vienna’s Culture Minister Dr. Andreas Mailath-Pokorny’s 2004 decision to reverse what he saw as “the stagnation of Austria’s theatre landscape.”

An internal study of Vienna’s “free theater scene” had convinced Mailath Pokorny that stricter guidelines and more review were needed. According to ministry spokeswoman Mag. Gerlinde Riedl, the core idea of the theatre reform was to challenge the idea of an artistic director receiving funding for a lifetime.

“With the reform we asked all the directors to stand the test again, to prove themselves,” Riedl said. “We wanted to create equal chances for old and new, and to prevent things from coming to a stand still. Art means changing and breaking through old structures, this is what the reform intends to do.”

Another revolutionary issue of the reform is the implementation of a four year plan. Being secured steady funding for a period of four years allows the institutions to plan ahead and do something substantial and sustainable. “But even those [who have received funding] have to prove themselves again after this time,” Riedl pointed out, adding that, “there will always be losers when there is a reform – people never respond very well to finding themselves in a less comfortable situation than they were used to.”

Presenting detailed grant proposals has long been part of applying for government funding. What was new this time around was the creation of a three person council to hear presentations and review project concepts, with the power to accept or reject ideas. The Ministry regards this “curator model” as an essential reason for the reform’s success.

“The curator model helps to get away from “freundlwirtschaft” – nepotism,” said Marie Ringler, the Green Party’s cultural delegate. “It is a team of professionals whose fulltime job it is to evaluate concepts and funding accordingly. However, the council alone is only the first step in a longer process of assessment and can not be viewed as having a dictatorship position.”

What Ringler criticises is not the concept itself, but the lack of consistency in implementing it.

“The city council has not yet managed to establish total transparency for the entire field of performing art; there are still some incidents of partisanship and projects whose funding seems ambiguous,” she said.

One of those much discussed cases – Adi Hirschal’s Lustspielhaus, a project, receiving significant funding, that in the eyes of many is nothing more than pure entertainment, lacking the sophistication and depth of many other concepts that were handed in. “A Kulturstadt like Vienna can also take one Adi Hirschal,” the council responded.

The city disputes the criticism for lack of transparency.

“The reform has contributed to creating space for new projects (and given) the Viennese theatre scene and funding process a more professional and transparent form,” the ministry said in an evaluation published in May 2006. This was accomplished primarily through its promotion of two institutions – Dietheater and Schauspielhaus – which they found “provide more space for contemporary performances.”

The ministry further pointed to “a pointed redistribution of funding which was especially aimed at promoting young and contemporary artists.”

However, according to Eva Brenner, director of the Vienna alternative theatre Fleischerei, the real effects of the reform have been a decrease in opportunities and audiences, increased animosity among smaller theatre institutions, and a stifling of the sort of fertile environment that promotes the very innovation the reforms sought to encourage.

“The establishment of such huge institutions like Dietheater and Schauspielhaus, where much the majority of performances are supposed to happen, leads to them having a monopoly over the Viennese independent theatre scene,” Brenner said, relating a widely held view, “and to a withdrawal of investment from the arena where small and alternative theatre institutions would be able to compete.”

This view is strongly opposed by both the city council and the green party, “There is no such thing as a monopole development,” said Ringler. “Apart from the two [Dietheater and Schauspielhaus], there is a range of gripping, innovative and revolutionary projects that have been funded with the help of the reform, such as TAG [Theater an der Gumpendorferstrasse], Kabelwerk, das Theaterkombinat.”

The Ministry also denies “forgetting about the smaller projects,” and in addition to an increase in the overall budget, it prides itself on the creation of more space for new projects. “Ten free theater groups received long-term funding through a four year concept, and five additional independent theater groups were given funding for the coming two years,” the ministry’s 2005 evaluation said.

Riedl, press speaker of the City Council, pointed out that a total number of sixteen new projects and groups were possible thanks not just to a redistribution of funding but also because of an increase in the overall off theatre scene budget from €14.mio in 2001 to €23.Mio in 2006 – an increase by 64%,” she emphasized.

Actress and director Beate Göbel’s recent project Frauenkunst unter Strafe, a theatre group working in conjunction with the female correctional facility Wien Favoriten, is one of the ‘new’ projects that has profited from this new “creation of space.”

Citing positive experiences with the original council, Göbel went on to say that she had seen the new council members around in the theatre scene a lot lately. “They certainly try to get a realistic picture of what the landscape looks like,” she said.

However, ‘creating space for new projects’ is a statement that leaves a nasty aftertaste in the mouths of established professionals in the free theater scene, people like Erwin Pipits of the Odeon theater in the 2nd District. On its website, the Odeon complained that many already proven institutions now had to justify their concepts all over again, from scratch, facing an overtly strict evaluation of work that has been successful for decades.

Under the new system, a proven track record does not seem to be enough, a point the ministry addressed directly in the 2006 evaluation:

“For a number of institutions, such as the Odeon theater (…), the reform and the council have suggested future-oriented, alternative solutions.”

Riedl reports that, as of now, the reform has reached 80% of its goals.

“However there are four so called ‘problematic’ cases left to deal with,” she said. “In the case of the Odeon theatre or the Kosmos it was and is still necessary to find alternative solutions regarding the financial situation through changes of concept.”

Commenting on the strong negative reactions to changing something in these long-established institutions, Riedl suggested that many established professionals use the media, rather than relying on political contacts to get funding.

“They chose to threaten the city council by starting off a media campaign against the council,” Riedl pointed out. “This works, as the media feel obliged to take the artists’ side.”

 

The new council also places an emphasis on what they called the “festival compatibility” of projects – meaning that a show should be able to travel, and to hold up under the glare of international exposure. However, many in the field of modern theatre, such as the Fleischerei, aim for an identity that involves an interaction between theme and audience, rooted almost by definition in community performance.

“Festival compatible is only a part of what we call a need for internationalism,” said Green Party council member Ringler. The reform demands projects to be more than just festival material; she wants to see projects that are interesting enough to be noticed on an international level.

“The reform awards all those who try to break through the borders of Austria,” she said.

In its forecast for the year 2007, the ministry’s evaluation discussed implementing a budget for multicultural projects, and theater people are curious as to how open and inclusive this support will be.

“There was a historic opportunity afforded by EU-entry,” the Fleischerei’s Brenner said, “where Austria’s cultural institutions could have started to cooperate with the Eastern European countries – some with enormous potential and embracing contemporary, alternative ideas”. The Polish theatre, for example, is considered one of the finest anywhere in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

So far, however, Austria appears to have missed this chance. A position as the cultural axis between East and West could still be won, but that would require earning a reputation as a strong and open-minded mediator and partner for those new movements, as well as becoming a model for progress and open mindedness in the cultural world.

This is an argument Ringler agrees with. As she sees it, the funding of cross cultural projects has been almost ignored by officials over the last decade.

“Slowly, slowly the scene of international, multicultural work is opening up again and beginning to flower,” said Ringler. “This is especially important in a town like Vienna where 30% of the citizens are not Austrians.”

 

Theater people are skeptical, however. A vital theatre landscape, they suggest, will not be fostered by new, stricter regulations and more control through an insider council.

Independent theaters in Vienna explore contemporary topics like globalization, integration and migration, working closely with the community, while bringing fallow locations – like the barracks in Ottakring where writer and director Tina Leisch has launched her project “Soho Ottakring” – back to life. Other popular programs include Erwin Piplits and Ulrike Kaufmann’s avant-garde theatre group “Serapions Theater” in the Odeon, Interkulttheatre and the masterful Metropol theatre.

“What the reform achieves is to skim off the aesthetic cream on the surface without bothering to sustain the very substance that produces this final layer,” said Brenner, – “work that is only possible on the foundation of, and thanks to, the work done in the less seen and lesser known lower layers of theatre life.”

In other words, even though many professionals in the free theatre scene acknowledge the need for change, they reserve the right to be critical of the official attempt to install a “theatre avant garde from the top,” a thin layer of fresh paint put over the current framework, vigorous with all its rough edges, instead of trying to build it up from the foundation.

Doubts of such nature and the attitude of the city council to “break through old, dusty structures and create space for something new,” still remain to find a consensus.

In the third year after the reform’s implementation, this can only be a mid term analysis, and it remains to be seen whether this cut heals purposefully or leaves a scar.

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