The world of theatre has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Theatres were forced to close their doors, productions were cancelled, and artists were left struggling to find new ways to create and connect with their audiences. Tim Mrosek, the dramaturg of the theatre studiobühneköln, shared his experiences, challenges, and thoughts on the future of theatre in an interview.
studiobühneköln is a theatre that is part of the University of Köln. Founded in the 1970s, it has a long history of producing innovative and experimental theatre. The theatre is known for its commitment to social and political issues and has been a platform for emerging artists. Along with this, it provides a playground to young theatre-makers at the University of Köln and beyond to dip their toes in professional theatre through a series of courses, initiatives and opportunities.
studiobühneköln faced the same challenges as many other theatres in the world, but a big one hit them right in the middle of the pandemic. In mid-2021, their space was shut down due to building structure and fire hazard problems. "Without a space, it is difficult to maintain a profile and identity for the theatre," Mrosek observes, and they had to find new ways to create and connect with their audience. While the decision to shut down the venue was unconnected to the pandemic, but it's impact was ultimately made even worse due to the timing. Thus finding a new space to call home continued to be an ongoing challenge as they started to respond artistically to the lockdown.
This is also why their theatre seasons since then have been titled AUSWÄRTSSPIELE (English: Away Games or Away Season) where they continue to collaborate with other houses, venues and institutions in Köln to produce theatrical work. They experimented with various online formats, such as live-streamed productions and video-based open calls to engage the artist community. One such endeavour was the WOW Festival held in collaboration with ANALOG Theater Köln and Studio Trafique, which invited a wide variety of digital and hybrid performance projects to the fore.
One of studiobühneköln's flagship initiatives is their fünfzehminuten-festival (English: 15 Minute Festival). Devised as a scratch format, studiobühneköln invites artists from Köln and North Rhine-Westphalia to bring 15-min long presentations across theatre, dance, music, media and other disciplines. All formats are welcome and encouraged, from shows and performances to readings, lectures, live painting and more. The focus is on new work, whether it's finished, still in the making or the first draft of an idea. In the pandemic, of course, these presentations were turned into video submissions made by the artists and then live-streamed to the public.
Two versions of the fünfzehminuten-festival took place in this digital format. These were re-imagined as fünfminuten-festival (5 Minute Festival) where they invite video entries by artists up to 5 minutes long. The second digital edition was hosted by Mrosek from his living room during an ongoing lockdown. Mrosek adds, “It’s always a bit difficult to really find the number of people that are watching because in real life, there’s always a huge queue outside of the venue." The number of entries for the virtual festival was similar to the number for the in-person festival, but it was difficult to determine how many people were actually watching due to the lack of physical presence.
They also used the downtime to prepare for the future by applying for new funding and working on different projects. They currently have two audio-based performances available freely for audiences, Verliere Dich and Marienburg. They participated in the Neustart Kultur funding program and applied for Corona Hilfe funding. They filmed productions and streamed them afterwards. They found that some streaming formats worked better than others, but they also expressed that people started to crave real-life experiences as the pandemic continued.
Mrosek revealed that the pandemic led to an influx of new funding and programs that supported theatre development. However, with the pandemic slowly coming to an end, there is a fear that this funding will dry up, and theatres will struggle to find resources to continue their work. In addition, the pandemic highlighted the need for better working conditions and fair salaries for theatre artists. The pandemic also led to a shift in what audiences want and need from theatre. While online formats were initially exciting, there was a growing desire for in-person experiences. Theatre artists had to find ways to create these experiences while still adhering to safety protocols. This was an exceedingly tough operational journey for the team, as they had to continuously play catchup to the changing regulations.
Mrosek believes that the future of theatre will be a mix of both digital and in-person experiences. He also sees a need for theatres to fight for relevance in society and to provide fair working conditions for artists. He believes that a place like studiobühneköln has a responsibility to stand for these values. Mrosek's personal artistic background and interests lie in working with performers. While he acknowledges the importance of new technologies, he believes that the focus should always be on the actual performance and its artistic value. Mrosek adds “The absolute belief in new technologies has not really fulfilled its promise.", hinting that there must be more work done to integrate technology into existing artistic working methods and environements.
In conclusion, the pandemic has brought about many diverse challenges for studiobühneköln, but it has also led to new opportunities and directions. The team is continuing to adapt and find new ways to create and connect with its audience. The future of theatre will be a mix of digital and in-person experiences, and Mrosek indicates a renewed emphasis on the artistic value of the performance and the optimal working conditions for artists. That, and re-building momentum with a physical home once again.