Community theatres had one of the toughest times responding to challenges brought on by thee pandemic. Matthias Riedel-Rüppel, artistic director of the Kleines Theater Haar in Munich, Germany, shared his experience of navigating the pandemic and embracing digital culture in an interview.
When the pandemic hit, the Kleines Theater Haar faced a difficult challenge: how to continue their work when live performances were no longer possible. Riedel-Rüppel and his team quickly pivoted to live-streaming performances, starting with amateur equipment and gradually upgrading to professional-level technology with financial support from the local government. They also reached out to other companies for collaborations and created a three-day digital conference with guests from around the world. The Theater presented all of its digital offerings within the framework of KTH.digital, a single place where audience members could log in and access recordings, performances, talks and more to stay connected with the Kleines Theater’s work.
The pandemic and the resulting shift to digital culture have brought both challenges and opportunities for the theatre world. Riedel-Rüppel's experience shows that theatres can adapt and innovate in response to changing circumstances, and digital culture can be a valuable addition to the theatre world. The pandemic also highlighted the need for theatres to engage with their local communities and beyond. Riedel-Rüppel emphasized the importance of going to the people and promoting the theatre through shows on the street and social culture work. "We have to show us to the people," he said. "Because the people will not come here if they don’t know that we are here."
Despite the challenges, Riedel-Rüppel sees digital culture as a new dimension in the theatre world rather than a replacement for live performances. "It's not live culture, it's not TV, but something like this in the middle of them," he said. As the pandemic subsided, the Kleines Theater returned to in-person performances but continued to offer hybrid shows that combined live and digital elements. All of these factors also compelled Kleines Theater Haar to stage open-air performances outdoors, to offer live performances to audiences whilst still following the social distancing protocols.
While Riedel-Ruppel is hopeful for the future, he also acknowledged feeling tired and burned out from the pandemic. He admits the challenges of bringing audiences back to live performances post-pandemic. “People are used to Netflix, Amazon Prime and streaming now, they are comfortable with entertainment at home”, he says, talking about the noticeable shift in audience trends towards spending on entertainment. Working with fluctuating seasonal demand in the cultural audience isn't a new phenomenon for theatres in Munich, a city that transforms into an international tourist hub for Oktoberfest every year. These two months are hard for cultural organizations, admits Riedel-Rüpper, and cultural organizations often cease programming during this time.
As we move towards a post-pandemic future, it will be interesting to see how theatres continue to incorporate digital culture and engage with their audiences. Local community theatres like Kleines Theatre Haar have the difficult job of doing a balancing act when it comes to in-person performances and other formats. Riedel-Rüppel's approach of embracing change and reaching out to the community serves as an inspiration for other theatres looking to navigate the challenges of the present and the future.