The play, the social envi­ron­ment, the reality of theatre

The world’s a stage

Theatre grapp­les with our society and is yet part of it: it inter­acts with the audi­ence and its loca­tion, and choo­ses its actors.

«‘It’s simply wonderful to be able to perform in front of an audi­ence again. We were deligh­ted to be able to unveil the first premie­res,’ says Florian Scholz, Direc­tor of Bühnen Bern, form­erly Konzert Thea­ter Bern. ‘We recei­ved an enthu­si­a­stic response from critics and the gene­ral public alike.’ This is the second season to start under the pande­mic regu­la­ti­ons. And although the current situa­tion allows the theatre to operate once again, it takes some getting used to – parti­cu­larly for the audi­ence. ‘With sales, we notice that people first need to get used to a “normal” life again. But we’re opti­mi­stic: season ticket holders, for exam­ple, are turning up just as before.’

Taking theatre to its audience

Theatre needs an audi­ence, direct cont­act and an authen­tic response. Bühnen Bern is hitting the road with a format that makes it easier for people to access: ‘Thanks to “Schau­spiel mobil”, we are now able to perform on the frin­ges, too,’ says Scholz. ‘We travel there in a van, unload and put on a play.’ The aim is to reach people who have not (yet) found their way to the theatre, with a small team taking the theatre across the entire canton. ‘It is very important to take theatre to the frin­ges, so we can lower the thres­hold for it and poten­ti­ally even to encou­rage these people to visit our theatre. After all, our theatre is there for all the whole area, not just the city,’ says Scholz. The theatre targets youth centres, churches, synago­gues, mosques and asso­cia­tion halls. These perfor­mance venues chall­enge the actors, demand respect and enable new things. There are requi­re­ments for the loca­tion in terms of capa­city; it must have room for an audi­ence of at least 80. The mobile theatre remains secon­dary to the impo­sing theatre itself in Bern. ‘This theatre should also be a low thres­hold place,’ says Scholz. Appro­priate pricing is requi­red to ensure it is acces­si­ble to ever­yone, as he explains: ‘Our pricing struc­ture is inten­ded to ensure that anyone who wants to attend a show can do so. But of course there’s room for impro­ve­ment here.’

‘Inside’ versus ‘outside’

Ausbruch takes its audi­ence to a very special locale: named after the German word for ‘outbreak’, this is Switzerland’s first prison theatre. When it laun­ched in 2012, it was not easy to involve prisons in the project. ‘A great deal of trust is requi­red on the part of the prison,’ says Anja Schmit­ter, who is in charge of text and commu­ni­ca­tion at Ausbruch. The reluc­tance is under­stan­da­ble, as letting a theatre group through an institution’s doors repres­ents a major chall­enge in terms of secu­rity. To make things harder, Ausbruch was Switzerland’s first, and is still the only, prison theatre. ‘Prison direc­tors had no compa­ra­ble expe­ri­ence,’ she says.

But with every comple­ted project, levels of mutual trust increased. The team is curr­ently working on a series entit­led ‘The 10 Commandments’, with which it hopes to take these millen­nia-old instruc­tions and rework them in a fresh artis­tic (and social) context. ‘We chose this topic because we think it is full of poten­tial in terms of talking to prisoners about crime, guilt, society, rules etc. within a thea­tri­cal frame­work,’ says Schmit­ter. The plays are deve­lo­ped through a colla­bo­ra­tive approach. ‘Inside’ versus ‘outside’, ‘before’ versus ‘now’ – the reali­ties of daily life always come to bear. ‘Once rehear­sals start, both we and the prisoners forget the prison setting,’ she says. Along­side artis­tic skills, this theatre work also requi­res social skills on the part of the prisoners, such as team­work, lear­ning how to display confi­dence, etc. As a result, the Ausbruch team belie­ves that theatre can at least make a small contri­bu­tion to the reha­bi­li­ta­tion of prisoners. ‘Howe­ver, we see oursel­ves first and fore­most as theatre acti­vists who work with people to put on a show,’ says Schmit­ter. That said, trans­pa­rency is important to them, too: ‘When visi­ting the prison theatre, the exter­nal audi­ence recei­ves a unique insight into the reality of the penal system, and thus also the reality of life for part of society that is locked up,’ she says. ‘Theatre has an impact on the audi­ence, but it’s also an intense expe­ri­ence for the artists.’

Bühnen Bern: Direc­tor Roger Vonto­bel with the Schau­spiel­mo­bil (left). Produc­tion of “Rose Bernd” (below)

Parti­zi­pa­tive Kulturprojekte

The content of the play, the world of the audi­ence and the reality of the people making the art: a produc­tion compri­ses many elements that relate to each other in diffe­rent ways. Leti­cia Laba­ronne, Direc­tor of the Center for Arts Manage­ment at ZHAW, says: ‘For the performing arts in parti­cu­lar, inclu­ding drama, there can be major discrepan­cies in terms of the social dimen­sion of sustainable thought and action.’ As far as social issues go, the theatre world is lagging behind, not just in terms of a parti­ci­pa­tory culture, but also in terms of social secu­rity for cultu­ral profes­sio­nals, as the pande­mic made abun­dantly clear.

Howe­ver, cultu­ral orga­ni­sa­ti­ons can also have an outward social impact, taking on the role of media­tor: ‘Artis­tic and crea­tive enga­ge­ment with socie­tal issues create the space within which to reflect on these topics.’ At the same time, theatre work itself can have a major impact. Laba­ronne is curr­ently invol­ved in a rese­arch project inves­ti­ga­ting the inte­gra­tion poten­tial offe­red by parti­ci­pa­tory cultu­ral sites and projects for people from diffe­rent back­grounds and cultures. The results show that ‘working on parti­ci­pa­tory cultu­ral projects has a posi­tive impact on how parti­ci­pants engage in society’. Howe­ver, the versa­ti­lity of theatre when it covers both cultu­ral and social aspects does not neces­s­a­rily make it more successful in terms of gene­ra­ting funds. ‘Often, projects like this are not allo­ca­ted inte­gra­tion funding, or the poten­tial appli­cants are not aware of appro­priate funding,’ says Laba­ronne. The unique­ness of Ausbruch has both advan­ta­ges and disad­van­ta­ges when looking for funds. Foun­da­ti­ons reco­g­nise the added value of the project. ‘Nevert­hel­ess, this does not make it any easier for us to find funding or support from foun­da­ti­ons,’ says Schmit­ter. Their special chall­enge? There is a lack of regu­lar support from cantons because this support is often connec­ted to a perfor­mance space. As a chari­ta­ble asso­cia­tion, howe­ver, they are subsi­di­sed by the Fede­ral Office of Culture.

AUSBRUCH prison theatre during rehearsals

Cultu­ral enter­pri­ses of the future

Laba­ronne obser­ves that cultu­ral orga­ni­sa­ti­ons can be successful in terms of fund­rai­sing if they take a profes­sio­nal approach. It is crucial to link the right case for support with the right projects and target groups. ‘The coro­na­vi­rus crisis has shown that the cultu­ral enter­pri­ses of the future will survive only in close part­ner­ship with the public sector and private cultu­ral foun­da­ti­ons, and, incre­asingly, thanks to the invol­vement of private indi­vi­du­als and compa­nies. Successful colla­bo­ra­ti­ons have a strong focus on deve­lo­ping syner­gies between both parties and new narra­ti­ves,’ she says. Howe­ver, the pande­mic has shown how cultu­ral insti­tu­ti­ons can take extra­or­di­nary steps to try out new things.

For exam­ple, Zurich Opera House made a strea­ming service available free of charge under its ‘Digi­tal opera for all – replay’ banner, and tested out a ‘pay what you want’ approach. ‘This was inten­ded to provide rele­vant insights into the willing­ness of digi­tal cultu­ral visi­tors to pay money for this, which, in turn, can contri­bute to accu­rate pricing for digi­tal formats,’ says Laba­ronne. Bühnen Bern was not spared the conse­quen­ces of the pande­mic: ‘On a finan­cial level, the oppor­tu­nity to regis­ter for short-time work lite­rally saved us,’ says Scholz. Soli­da­rity was extre­mely important in this extreme situa­tion, he says, and it helped that Bühnen Bern is a foun­da­tion. ‘A foun­da­tion aligns nicely with the gene­ral way of life in Switz­er­land: we do things toge­ther,’ says Scholz. ‘For me, as I have just come from Austria, this has been a new and highly enri­ching expe­ri­ence. We’re stron­ger together.’

Ausbruch’s next performance:

Lieben­fels Crema­to­rium, Baden AG: 17 and 25 Febru­ary 2022

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