Going to the theatre is just as important as going shop­ping

Dramaturgy of life

No applause, no laugh­ter and no tears: thea­tres lost their audi­en­ces over­night. Their seats were empty, their spot­lights dimmed. Audi­en­ces and the state, as well as dona­ti­ons and chari­ties, are ensu­ring that this expe­ri­ence can conti­nue once the crisis has passed.

‘Every theatre had the same expe­ri­ence: it takes no time at all to shut down,’ says Bene­dikt von Peter. The new direc­tor of Thea­ter Basel, he took up his post during this unpre­ce­den­ted time. ‘How can we put on plays now?’ he asks. After all, ever­yone has slowly come to the reali­sa­tion that the situa­tion is going to be around for a while. Despite all the chal­len­ges facing him, Bene­dikt von Peter has no doubt that ‘it’s right, and important, that we keep putting on thea­tri­cal produc­tions during this period. Going to the theatre is just as important as going shop­ping,’ he says. Society at large is curr­ently grap­p­ling with major uphea­val, he says. People need to be conso­led, and they need art and theatre. As a result, Thea­ter Basel’s troupe are thin­king about how they can put on plays in the present situa­tion. After all, it’s not just about the artis­tic task itself: they need to plan out the finan­cial situa­tion, too. Plan­ning is a long-term job, and that in itself poses a parti­cu­lar chal­lenge: commit­ments are made three years in advance. ‘We’ve already spent the money, in truth,’ he says. The theatre has plan­ned out a range of scen­a­rios for the new season, looking at various confi­gu­ra­ti­ons – inclu­ding what happens if things need to be cancel­led. In any case, they simply can’t wait for the curtain to go back up for the first time. As the direc­tor says, ‘We’ll kick things off with Saint Fran­çois d’Assise, which is a true tour de force. It will have a healing effect.’

Requi­re­ments chan­ging daily

TOBS, Thea­ter Orche­ster Biel Solo­thurn, had reope­ned opera­ti­ons to a limi­ted extent even before the summer break. ‘Thanks to the restric­tions being rela­xed at the start of June, we were able to offer an alter­na­tive programme that was very well recei­ved. It was small, but nevertheless top-class,’ says direc­tor of opera­ti­ons Florian Scha­lit. TOBS was able to see that their audi­ence had missed them: there was a good deal of demand. But the circum­stan­ces were chal­len­ging, with new plans requi­red every day and hygiene concepts needing to be adju­sted time and again. That said, art had enough flexi­bi­lity to bend to these new requi­re­ments: ‘For example, we came up with the idea of our musi­ci­ans putting on small concerts, in compli­ance with distancing measu­res, in gardens or care homes, so they could keep in touch with people.’ On a more opti­mi­stic note, TOBS is retur­ning to its regu­lar plans from the autumn and hopes that the situa­tion will return to normal soon.

Romeo and Juliet (William Shake­speare) | Thea­ter Orche­ster Biel Solo­thurn

Stagings from the previous season will be brought back into the programme, too. Romeo and Juliet was one play that fell victim to the lock­down. It was suppo­sed to feature authen­tic fencing scenes that Florian Scha­lit could talk about for days. Exter­nal funding is needed to enable a produc­tion like this to go ahead, and to this end, TOBS works with chari­ties large and small. ‘Our budget is often excep­tio­nally squee­zed, so we’re grate­ful for every extra franc we can get,’ he says. Dona­ti­ons and contri­bu­ti­ons from patrons make up a healthy share of this exter­nal funding. ‘Our seven suppor­ters’ asso­cia­ti­ons enable us to put on projects we wouldn’t other­wise be able to afford, thanks to membership contri­bu­ti­ons and project-based fund­rai­sing,’ he says. For example, the Friends of the Stadt­thea­ter Solo­thurn raised around 60,000 Swiss francs for the produc­tion of Romeo and Juliet. These addi­tio­nal funds made it possi­ble to put toge­ther a larger-than-normal cast – and hire a specia­list coach for the fencing scenes.

Bene­dikt von Peter, Thea­ter Basel (top left), Florian Scha­lit, TOBS (top right) and Hayat Erdogan (bottom centre) with Tine Milz and Julia Reichert, Thea­ter Neumarkt.

Brea­king the fourth wall

The conse­quen­ces of recent events have been felt by Switzerland’s smal­lest perfor­ming arts venue: the Neumarkt Thea­ter in Zurich is expan­ding what it offers so it can break through the fourth wall, as it were. ‘Our work in the digi­tal sphere uses the inter­net as the stage for pre- and post-perfor­mance events, as a space for trans­me­dia story-telling, as a format that tran­s­cends bounda­ries,’ says Hayat Erdoğan, one of the three direc­tors. In addi­tion, their website is being refres­hed and souped up. The theatre has put toge­ther a film for people to watch online. This doesn’t just look at the seasons of the past, inclu­ding lock­down: it also offers a glim­pse into the season to come. It’ll all kick off on 3 Septem­ber with a video instal­la­tion. ‘Three genera­ti­ons of acti­vists come toge­ther in this piece, Protest 1980, which was a chal­lenge in terms of produc­tion,’ explains Hayat Erdoğan. ‘Some of these actors fall within the high-risk group,’ she explains, refer­ring to the addi­tio­nal chal­len­ges posed by the present situa­tion. There is a clear message for the upco­m­ing season: masks on, curtain up! There is no going back to the time before coro­na­vi­rus. The same applies to their work in the digi­tal sphere, which is being taken seriously. ‘It’s not just about brid­ging the coro­na­vi­rus period,’ says Hayat Erdoğan. Invest­ment needs to be made in this area. At the moment, there’s hardly any mobile phone recep­tion in the theatre: it’s basi­cally a dead spot. They desper­ately need to spend money on tech­no­logy, with invest­ments in tech­ni­cal exper­tise plan­ned, as well as in video art and podcasts. Hayat Erdoğan says: ‘We’re going to approach chari­ties so we can make this happen.’

Basel laun­ches new season with picnic at the ‘Utopian Table’: the table extends from the inside of the theatre onto Thea­ter­platz.

Socio­cul­tu­ral spaces

Thea­ter Basel also relies on exter­nal funding. ‘We’re part­ne­ring with an array of chari­ties,’ says Bene­dikt von Peter, discus­sing the execu­tion of the Foyer Public project. These part­nerships have been lined up since the begin­ning of the year. The project will launch on 20 Novem­ber, when the theatre’s foyer will be opened to the public. ‘It’s about using the space for socio­cul­tu­ral purpo­ses,’ he says. When he was putting toge­ther the funds for the project, he met lots of chari­ties’ repre­sen­ta­ti­ves in person. ‘It was a really lovely chance to get to know these people,’ he says. He had lots of meetings and lots of exci­ting encoun­ters, even if not all of them ended in support being provi­ded. It would also be going too far to reduce colla­bo­ra­tion with chari­ties to purely the finan­cial aspect. That wouldn’t reflect the added value that these discus­sions bring. Florian Scha­lit agrees with this multi-laye­red effect: ‘We have regu­lar, fruit­ful discus­sions with various chari­ties’ repre­sen­ta­ti­ves.’ To illu­strate this with a concrete example, he menti­ons the support offe­red to young, talen­ted indi­vi­du­als at TOBS, which is made possi­ble by a charity. Perso­nal connec­tions are frequently forged. ‘Our audi­ence and our suppor­ters’ asso­cia­ti­ons know that we rely on chari­ties’ support, so they pass on valu­able tips time and again,’ he says. These chari­ties get invol­ved in various guises, whether on an indi­vi­dual project or on a regu­lar basis. TOBS has the advan­tage of having its own charity as an umbrella for its theatre, opera and concert opera­ti­ons. As a chari­ta­ble foun­da­tion, it is tax-exempt and can accept direct dona­ti­ons. This has paid off over the last few months in parti­cu­lar. ‘Nume­rous tickethol­ders deci­ded not to accept a refund for cancel­led perfor­man­ces and instead dona­ted the amount to us,’ says Florian Scha­lit.

Uncer­tain start for the new season; Thea­ter Neumarkt with Protest 1980 (top left), TOBS with Romeo and Juliet (top right), La traviata at Thea­ter Basel.

Expen­ses and reve­nue

Bene­dikt von Peter in Basel sets great store by perso­nal contact when it comes to genera­ting funds for projects. Despite the effort requi­red, he takes the time to present his projects hims­elf. ‘You’ve got to meet people at some stage,’ he says. It’s about getting to know them: it’s not always immedia­tely obvious what chari­ties’ crite­ria are. Filling out an appli­ca­tion can take a lot of time and be a very abstract process. By contrast, recei­ving assi­stance during the project, exch­an­ging ideas, and enga­ging in regu­lar discus­sions have the bene­fit of buil­ding up a sense of under­stan­ding. ‘You both get to under­stand how the other works.’ Exter­nal funding is taking on an incre­a­singly important role. How will thea­tres finance them­sel­ves in the future? Approa­ching projects with grea­ter nuance will be key. ‘Just putting on plays isn’t enough anymore,’ says Bene­dikt von Peter, discus­sing how requi­re­ments have become more complex. The aim is for thea­tres to handle some of the teaching work for schools, putting drama across to students. This is inten­ded to take the form of a work­shop, with a parti­ci­pa­tion-based approach: it’s about the expe­ri­ence. Expe­ri­ence-based dining is in demand, and so too are inter­ac­tive expe­ri­en­ces for view­ers. It was possi­ble to pick up on these trends during the coro­na­vi­rus crisis, as well, with lots of thea­tres offe­ring produc­tions online. ‘People showed a lot of inte­rest at the start, out of curio­sity,’ says Bene­dikt von Peter. But it disap­peared. ‘Nobody’s watching them anymore. After a month, the number of hits had reached rock bottom. People are missing the physi­cal space of the theatre itself,’ he says.

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