At Geneva’s Theater Poche, representatives of the theatre work together with audiences to choose what appears on stage. Mathieu Bertholet (right) with the actors at the start of the current season.

Colla­bo­ra­tio­nin the spotlight

In cultural institutions, collaborations between artists, administration and the public result in new, creative ideas.

The curtain rises, and the stars are centre stage in the spot­light. They are show­e­red with applause and publi­city. The pecking order is very clear. Eccen­tric artists make head­lines and rein­force the idea that artis­tic licence legi­ti­mi­ses and excu­ses a multi­tude of sins. Tradi­tio­nally, hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures with proces­ses that have some­ti­mes remained unch­an­ged for deca­des make the thea­tri­cal world appear a rigid working envi­ron­ment – yet thanks to its magne­tic appeal, it will never be short of staff who are prepared to sacri­fice ever­y­thing to make their dreams a reality. Crea­tive envi­ron­ments should be the perfect place to trial new models of working that take account of contem­po­rary deve­lo­p­ments and values. Cultu­ral insti­tu­ti­ons need to step up to the mark so that inclu­sion, gender equality and sustaina­bi­lity are not just subjects that are given lip service on the stage. To be credi­ble, the insti­tu­tion needs to make them part of its self-image. Nume­rous cultu­ral bodies are show­ing how this can work. Some have a long tradi­tion in this area.

Tradi­tio­nally revolutionary

Théâtre de Poche in Geneva has a long tradi­tion of follo­wing its own path. It has served as a revo­lu­tio­nary coun­ter­foil to the city’s main­stream thea­tres for over 75 years. Right at the outset, it was a woman who stood at the helm – which is a state­ment in itself. Fabi­enne Faby was the first artis­tic direc­tor of the little theatre in Geneva. Under her leader­ship, the Poche blazed an inde­pen­dent trail. While the other thea­tres in town staged fami­liar clas­sics and successful shows from Paris, the Poche focu­sed on contem­po­rary texts and was built around a locally based ensem­ble cast. 

The result is an approach that the Poche refers to as fabri­que de théâtre. Today the theatre, which is run by the Fonda­tion d’art drama­tique de Genève, inter­prets this idea of the factory in its colla­bo­ra­tive approach to artis­tic crea­tion. Ever­yone is invol­ved: the audi­ence, the tech­ni­ci­ans and the admi­nis­tra­tive staff. ‘By the time the season gets under­way, ever­yone here knows the plays,’ explains Mathieu Bert­ho­let, artis­tic direc­tor of the Poche.

One of the advan­ta­ges of the small company is that lines of commu­ni­ca­tion are short and people frequently run into one another. Nevert­hel­ess, people need to be concep­tually willing to turn working in paral­lel into working coll­ec­tively. And despite the fact that a lot of ideas are worked out in colla­bo­ra­tive proces­ses, Mathieu Bert­ho­let empha­si­ses the importance of ever­yone having a role that deser­ves respect. A tech­ni­cian is not a direc­tor and very few audi­ence members will be talen­ted actors, but that should not dimi­nish the value of colla­bo­ra­tion. On the contrary – accep­ting everyone’s indi­vi­dual role is an expres­sion of appre­cia­tion. ‘It under­lines what a chall­enge it is to be a good actor or the skills you need to be a tech­ni­cian,’ he explains. ‘Preten­ding that ever­yone can do ever­y­thing deva­lues each of our indi­vi­dual abili­ties.’ The system is open, but each posi­tion is diffe­rent. Every single person brings diffe­rent compe­ten­cies to the table. The point is to use them. 

Diver­sity with risk

Invol­ving so many view­points can make colla­bo­ra­tive ways of working diverse and open-ended if you are prepared to discard the regu­la­tive aspects that a strict hier­ar­chy brings. Instead of being led by titles and roles, the decis­ion-making process is guided by the quality of the input. But this way of working is demanding. 

Even unsound hier­ar­chies give a sense of secu­rity. That is why clarity is needed when it comes to proces­ses, respon­si­bi­li­ties and commu­ni­ca­tion. It is important to find it within the colla­bo­ra­tion so that the approach is not under­mi­ned. ‘For me, this clarity is often miss­ing,’ Nico­lette Kretz main­ta­ins. The direc­tor of the auawir­le­ben Thea­ter­fes­ti­val Bern adds, ‘You end up with infor­mal hier­ar­chies that can be very unpleasant.

For me there is nothing worse than when indi­vi­du­als weasel their way into seizing control of a demo­cra­ti­cally orga­nised coll­ec­tive.’ And because infor­mal hier­ar­chies do not offi­ci­ally exist, it is more diffi­cult to stand up to them. This makes the colla­bo­ra­tive approach chal­len­ging. Clarity and commit­ment are needed. Nico­lette Kretz states, ‘Everyone’s always calling for new struc­tures in culture, but if struc­tures that look great on paper are imple­men­ted by the wrong people, they’re no longer so great.’ 

The auawir­le­ben Thea­ter­fes­ti­val was foun­ded in 1982. It has been run by a nonpro­fit asso­cia­tion since 1998. In 2020, the auawir­le­ben team drew up a mani­festo. It sets out what auawir­le­ben expects in its colla­bo­ra­tion and defi­nes shared values such as diver­sity and inclu­sion. These were alre­ady prac­ti­sed by the team. ‘Perhaps not all that consis­t­ently,’ Nico­lette Kretz admits. But the value of the mani­festo prima­rily lies in the message it sends to the outside world. Anyone who comes into cont­act with the theatre festi­val knows what they are commit­ting to. Because the mani­festo includes both guest artists and the audience. 

Open-outcome working

When a mani­festo sets out stan­dards or guide­lines for artis­tic colla­bo­ra­tion, critics like to complain of a curbing of artis­tic free­dom. But this type of objec­tion is usually just an excuse to proclaim some­thing impos­si­ble. As Mathias Brem­gart­ner of m2act points out, para­me­ters of this kind exist ever­y­where. The exci­ting part is finding and using the artis­tic free­dom within them. m2act, the Migros Culture Percentage’s funding and networ­king project for performing arts, campaigns for struc­tu­ral change and fair, ecolo­gi­cally sustainable practices.

There are two key areas here. m2act aims to make an impact behind the scenes, seeking new approa­ches to working proces­ses and back­ground orga­ni­sa­tion. The hope is to break away from tradi­tio­nal rehear­sal sche­du­les with their rigid time frames. As in other fields of work, for exam­ple, solu­ti­ons are being sought to ensure art is compa­ti­ble with care respon­si­bi­li­ties. This extends to admi­nis­tra­tive staff. Mathias Brem­gart­ner points to the holo­cra­tic struc­tures he is fami­liar with from the Belgian and Dutch theatre world. 

Admi­nis­tra­tive and artis­tic staff are seated at the same table from the outset and deve­lop the programme toge­ther. As a result, admi­nis­tra­tive staff are not perma­nently sadd­led with the role of being the kill­joy. Instead, the artis­tic and admi­nis­tra­tive teams work toge­ther to see what is possi­ble. In addi­tion, the crea­tive process needs to become more open, with more exter­nal input. ‘In the spirit of a crea­tive process, artists are inspi­red by the exper­tise of others to expe­ri­ment with new formats for their art,’ Mathias Brem­gart­ner explains. How is it possi­ble to deve­lop a new project with this open-outcome approach? ‘We have seen that colla­bo­ra­tion between diffe­rent areas can produce very exci­ting results,’ he states. He is not talking here about an expert who is brought in to help deve­lop a play. Instead, the colla­bo­ra­tion needs to begin at an earlier stage. The colla­bo­ra­tive work starts with a ques­tion. The end result may be a play but could also be a diffe­rent kind of project or product that can be shown to an audi­ence. It is perfectly possi­ble, explains Mathias Brem­gart­ner, for the inspi­ra­tion to come from the expert rather than the theatre professional.

Inte­gra­tive approa­ches take time

The Poche works with the audi­ence to deve­lop its programme – the theatre has just announ­ced the Saison ÉC(H)O for this autumn. The process is labo­rious and begins over one and a half years before the first curtain rises. A commit­tee made up of repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the theatre and the audi­ence reads the texts. Each commit­tee member choo­ses the texts that inte­rest them most from a pool of around 200. Texts that are chosen by at least two people remain in the running. ‘Selec­tion isn’t based on a process of elimi­na­tion,’ Mathieu Bert­ho­let explains. On the contrary – if someone likes a text, it is up to them to convince others to read it too. The more readers who are convin­ced by a text, the longer it remains in the running. Ever­yone reads the final 20 texts. They are used to put toge­ther the programme. ‘We’ve been using this commit­tee approach for nine years and we’ve tried out diffe­rent formats during that time,’ Mathieu Bert­ho­let comm­ents. ‘We liked this selec­tion format because it’s posi­tive.’ It also shows how much time needs to be invested.

Danger of self-exploitation

New forms of working hold a risk of over­loa­ded sche­du­les. The cultu­ral sector is parti­cu­larly suscep­ti­ble here. It is charac­te­ri­sed by inner moti­va­tion for the work and a huge perso­nal invest­ment, crea­ting a latent risk of self-explo­ita­tion. As a result, auawir­le­ben has revi­sed its mani­festo. ‘There’s no deny­ing the mani­festo has made more work for us,’ Nico­lette Kretz comments. 

The team ther­e­fore added the clause about self-explo­ita­tion because this threa­tened the imple­men­ta­tion of the mani­festo. The new forms of working are also very time-consum­ing in their own right. Colla­bo­ra­tion takes time. Fatiah Bürk­ner, mana­ging direc­tor of the Max Kohler Stif­tung, was aware of this when the foun­da­tion laun­ched project ami – Art + Muse­ums Inter­ac­ting – in colla­bo­ra­tion with the US game design studio Fable­Vi­sion Studios. Mana­ging the project added extra hours to Fatiah Bürkner’s sche­dule. She speci­fi­cally looked for project parti­ci­pants who enjoyed expe­ri­men­ting with scalable formats.

Because expe­ri­ence has shown that in the arts sector one thing that is always in short supply is time: an exhi­bi­tion is barely over before the next produc­tion needs to be ready to go. The muse­ums taking part in project ami are trying out new game-based forms of art educa­tion and a diffe­rent way of working in the museum.

The auawir­le­ben Thea­ter­fes­ti­val Bern has enshri­ned its colla­bo­ra­tive values in a mani­festo, one which includes guest artists as well as the audience.

Perfect too soon 

One problem with the lack of time is stri­ving for perfec­tion too early. Art educa­tion projects some­ti­mes fail to reach as many people as hoped, Fatiah Bürk­ner states. Ami aims to change this. The parti­ci­pa­ting muse­ums in Switz­er­land – the Riet­berg, Fonda­tion Beye­ler and Crea­viva at the Zentrum Paul Klee – along with the guest museum, the San Fran­cisco Museum of Modern Art, are working with rapid proto­ty­p­ing and deve­lo­ping projects in an itera­tive process that invol­ves the target group at an early stage. The first year of the three-year project has seen one museum a month deve­lop a proto­type and share it with the others. ‘Peer-to-peer exch­ange is a central element of the project,’ Fatiah Bürk­ner explains. Under the motto ‘embol­den – connect – empower’, the focus is on explo­ring and discus­sing the methods rather than on actual imple­men­ta­tion. And the project has another change in its sights: colla­bo­ra­tion in-house. The aim is to inte­grate other areas within the museum, for exam­ple social media editors or repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from cura­tion or exhi­bi­tion archi­tec­ture. Working toge­ther, they deve­lop new approa­ches, take on board diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves and learn more about the networks they can tap into in-house. ‘Even if we are alre­ady fami­liar with some of the methods, it is prima­rily about ques­tio­ning conven­tio­nal patterns of thin­king among friends – the amis,’ Fatiah Bürk­ner comments.

Step­ping into schools

Dancing Class­rooms is desi­gned to encou­rage move­ment and inte­gra­tion through the medium of dance. The programme visits schools in order to realise its mission. Through dance, the aim is to inspire lear­ning and enga­ge­ment and streng­then colla­bo­ra­tion in the class­room: exis­ting teaching methods are expan­ded to include dance. In 2010, direc­tor Susanne Schnorf brought the idea to German-spea­king Switz­er­land from the US, and the follo­wing year the nonpro­fit asso­cia­tion Verein Dancing Class­rooms Schweiz was foun­ded. ‘In schools with a high propor­tion of child­ren whose first language is not German, it is parti­cu­larly important to show that dance is a language in its own right and that lingu­i­stic diffi­cul­ties are not a barrier,’ Susanne Schnorf explains.

Class­room inspi­ra­tion: Dancing Class­rooms wants to take dance into schools to get child­ren moving and help with integration.

‘We often see child­ren with a poor school record excel at dancing, which can boost their self esteem. In our expe­ri­ence, every child can dance.’ Dance forms a basis for a diffe­rent form of colla­bo­ra­tive deve­lo­p­ment. The programme is inte­gra­ted into the stan­dard curri­cu­lum. The class teachers also take part. This streng­thens team skills and social confi­dence. All students take part in the same programme and work towards the same goal – the party at the end. The beha­viour of each indi­vi­dual has a huge impact on the sense of commu­nity. ‘Our dance programme isn’t about leading and being led. It’s about harmo­ni­s­ing in twos or as a group,’ Susanne Schnorf explains. ‘We place a lot of empha­sis on respect and support for one another.’ 

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