A dialogue in Beijing
Stefan Fischer-Fels was one of the contributors to an international panel in the context of the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering 2018 in Beijing that discussed central ideas of theatre for young audiences in China, Denmark, Japan and Germany. Some of his remarks and thoughts can be re-read and shared here.
It is impossible for me to describe „THE“ Western, or even „THE“ German culture. It is too diverse, and people with roots in “The West” would tell very different stories. So this is my personal view summed up in two central ideas about basic concepts and thoughts that are relevant for TYA in Germany today. These lead to a few observations about contemporary TYA in Germany that include challenges for the future and for a global exchange and cooperations across borders.
As a first starting point I will focus on the Western philosophic movement in the 18th century, which in Germany, was called „Aufklärung“ (engl.: Enlightenment). It was the starting point also for German „Idealism“ (Hegel, Marx etc.) and the German „Classics“ (Lessing, Goethe, Schiller etc.). There were similar movements all over Europe, i.e. in France, where philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire gave impulses that lead to the French Revolution of 1789. Three terms became very important for the social and cultural life in the Western world: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity / Brotherhood. The movement of Enlightenment searched for the answer to one central question: „What does it mean to be a human being?“
One of the central figures of Enlightenment in Germany was Immanuel Kant. He wrote a famous article „What is Enlightenment?“ which states that „Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.“ The ideal of Enlightenment was the „responsible citizen“ or „empowered citizen“, who feels free to use his brain independently of other people. Thus, „Use your own brain“ and „Dare to know!“ (SAPERE AUDE (lat.)) – was the motto of Kant. Dare to know also included: Ask questions, criticise and don’t take things for unchangeable. He was looking for ways to develop a „common sense“ which we call „Vernunft“ in German.
My thesis is, that the idea of Enlightenment has huge impact on the development of the arts and the theater until today and some central ideas originate from this movement, i.e. that „education and culture is for everybody“ and not for a few people, individualism and a concept of participation that includes children, takes them seriously as human beings with their own fears and hopes, enters into conversations with them about childhood, poverty, divorce etc.
I have a second starting point which I call „Anti-Enlightenment“. In the Western societies we are facing more than 200 years of colonialism, exploitation and wars. In Germany we had the darkest moments of our history just 80 years ago when the Nazis killed millions of people all over the world and in our own country. „Never again!“ was a big starting point for the arts after World War 2 in Germany. “Never again!” means: To fight for humanity, empathy, tolerance and respect, because we have experienced where intolerance, nationalism and racism lead to. At the moment we are facing a new nationalism and a growing racism in the Western countries. Their representatives obviously want to change the world into a place of intolerance and aggression. They find roots and reasoning in Nazi ideology and they use not only media, but also the arts to convey their message.
I would like to describe some impulses in contemporay German TYA while keeping the two starting points in mind. We believe that Theater is always a mirror of and a reaction to the times we are living in. So every play raises questions or discusses phenomena of the present. We believe that children’s theater has a social function and a responsibility. Some observations serve to underline this thesis:
- TYA in Germany is not only entertainment. It wants to challenge the children with regard to content and aesthetics. It tries not to be educational in the sense of conformity. It tries to raise questions, give impulses – in order to invite the audience to fill gaps or give answers based on your own thoughts and dreams.
- TYA in Germany is international. Plays and artists from Belgium Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands and many other countries have influenced German theater. Many theatres cooperate across borders, most recently with African countries like Nigeria, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. We try to explore the idea of „Fair Cooperation“ and experiment with shared responsibilities for funding and decision making in these projects.
- TYA in Germany is very diverse aesthetically. There are conventional stories and adaptations of children’s books, there are modern versions of fairy tales, linear stories, well made plays, psychological acting following Stanislawski, old legends and myths that are newly interpreted and contemporary stories that reflect children’s everyday life.
- TYA in Germany discusses taboos. A play about homosexuality for youngsters is possible, is not forbidden and schools appreciate the possibility to take this as a starting point for discussions with their pupils. TYA takes sides and lobbies for outsiders and those who have different abilities and individualities. Children and Youngster are presented as active and able to change their situation.
- TYA in Germany has years of experience and a variety of concepts to hear the voice of the children, to interact with them about what they have seen and what will be shown in the future. And of course children also participate as actors on the stages with their own performances.
- TYA in Germany is experimental. There is a strong impulse of a new generation of artists to create experimental and performative theater – reacting to the complexity of every day life. This can be perceived as a contemporary variation of Bertolt Brecht’s plays. Performative Theater can be imperfect, transparent, biografical, documentary, fully open and on the same level as the audience without a fourth wall between. Actors become performers. Theater-Puzzles become a challenging aesthetic experience also for young audiences. They encourage the individual and the audience as a collective to reflect reality in new ways.
- TYA in Germany is connected with theater in general. The aesthetic discussions within the theatre landscape as a whole are mirrored or even initiated in TYA.
- TYA in Germany reflects current issues like migration and diversity within society making different voices heard and giving the stage to a variety of perspectives. Cultural diversity contributes to an active and continuous rewriting of traditions.
- TYA in Germany tries to reflect new technologies and the effects of digitalization. Taking the lives of children as a starting point, these influential changes to everyday life need to be played with and criticized also in the theatre.
One challenge is the „religion of consumerism“ which focuses on ownership and consumption. This might well be a global challenge that calls artists to discuss alternative views and attitudes to the world beyond those of possession and consumption.
Immanuel Kant invented the phrase of „World citizenship“ which develops a new meaning in times of globalization. In a „Global Village“ it is necessary to communicate with our neighbours to find global solutions. We have to create interest in our respective countries for other cultures and styles. We have to collaborate in a fair way. We have to learn from each other, see the best traditions, experience examples and formats and explore new technologies.
Stefan Fischer-Fels is the artistic director of the Junges Schauspiel Düsseldorf, member of the board of ASSITEJ Germany and EC member.