The pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to theatres across the world, as they had to shut down and find new ways to engage with their audience. The Junges Theater Bonn (JTB) was no exception. However, the JTB quickly adapted and found new ways to engage with its audience. Moritz Seibert, the artistic director of JTB, shared his experience during an interview with Gaurav Singh Nijjer for the research project "Hier, Jetzt (Und Dann?)".
The JTB celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, having showcased theater for children and young people, families, school classes, and kindergartens since 1969. For more than ten years, the JTB has been the most visited theater for young audiences in Germany with 140,000 spectators per season. The repertoire of the JTB consists of well-known children's books, world premieres of pieces developed in-house, and co-productions. Children and young people play in many JTB productions, who receive training and direction from the theatre's staff.
Seibert explained that as soon as theaters were closed, they knew they had to find ways to stay in contact with their audiences. They quickly explored ways to reach their audience digitally and through open-air performances.
The JTB established its digital stage door, which is an area where audiences can explore all the areas of online professions of the theater that are usually not seen when attending a live show. Furthermore, they offered livestreams of their past productions as well as for work developed during the pandemic. "We always had some kind of video recording of each show for security reasons, in case someone gets ill and has to be replaced on a very short notice. Thank god we had them, and could start streaming right away.", he adds. With this, they were able to reach schools from all over Germany and expand their audiences dramatically. "Now we had grandparents from Melbourne meeting their grandchildren who lived in Bonn or somewhere in Germany", says Seibert. He mentions that they used this opportunity of digital gatherings to further establish their digital foyer and conducted discussions with the audience after the show.
As they started making sense of this new environment, the JTB gained a lot of abilities and equipment to do things digitally, making it easier to produce shows with a large share of digital production technical elements.
The theater undertook two special projects during the pandemic - an early outdoor project in which parents and their children would drive up to a spot in Bonn, where the theater team put up a show outdoors, and a later digital project that was more sophisticated in technical terms. The JTB quickly realized that open-air performances were well received and they plan to keep it as an extra venue that can be used during some weeks of the year. Seibert believes that open-air theater is a more important part of the future of theater, and audiences are familiar with it.
The second project was based on the first one, and the team took what worked and developed it to a new stage. The digital project had a multiplayer program built for it, with a more photorealistic 3D high-definition world, and more elaborate avatars and possibilities to move and make the face move. Seibert observes that while early pandemic projects were more spontaneous and came out of nothing, and in a way, were nicer than the technologically-heavy projects, alluding to how theatres all over the world always innovate when faced with scarcity.
While the JTB widened its reach geographically through digital theater, they also discovered some unique challenges to these efforts. the team faced specific challenges around licensing and legal issues. Most of its shows are based on well-known books and films, and the team relied on exemptions from the rules to show most of the plays they played digitally, but only for a very limited amount of time. The theater was able to show the two digital productions they produced themselves or had licenses for, but most of the productions were not available for streaming due to licensing or legal reasons. Additionally, Seibert mentioned that they had to learn how to work, develop and rehearse shows remotely, whilst following strict social distancing and masking protocols at the time.
While the JTB gained a lot of abilities and equipment to do things digitally, making it easier to produce shows with a large share of digital production technical elements, Seibert cautious about the future of digital theater. He believes that digital theater is expensive and complicated, and it strongly depends on the pandemic. "Digital theater worked well when theaters were closed, and everyone was thankful for anything to do with kids. But it doesn't work as well now that the theaters are open again." Seibert says, adding that the team is also grappling with the question of what the metaverse will mean for theater and live entertainment, and whether there is a future for digital theater if it is in 3D and technically sophisticated enough to stand on its own. Seibert acknowledges that the sheer quantum of work they produced in the last few years makes them very attached to it, even if they might not go back to digital working methods in the immediate future.
At this point in time, the theater has more than enough on its plate to getting the theater up and running again economically, back to pre-pandemic levels. Seibert hopes that given the multitude of challenges and obstacles his team faced in the past few years, they will be to cope with other uncertainties that may arise in the future and continue to produce shows for children and young people, families, school classes, and kindergartens.
In conclusion, the JTB has faced many challenges during the pandemic, but they quickly adapted and found new ways to engage with their audience. The JTB's focus on family shows and engagement with schools shows that theater can be a valuable educational tool, and it is crucial to keep it accessible to young audiences. The JTB's vision for the future of theater is inspiring and shows that theaters can continue to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances while remaining true to their core values.