Reflections on a different kind of theater

12 Mar 2021

What effects have the coronavirus crisis had on the theater? LMU researcher Christopher Balme reviews the "unprecedented extent" of the changes wrought by the measures taken to control the pandemic.

Prof. Dr. Christopher Balme


Professor Christopher Balme is the spokesperson for the DFG-funded Research Group on "Constellations of Crisis", which will hold its annual conference on 23 and 24 March 2021. In the following interview, he talks about the consequences of the corona crisis for theaters and their productions.

You stated in a previous interview that debates devoted to signs of crisis serve to drive institutional change. What sorts of change has the advent of the coronavirus triggered in this respect? What transformations are theaters now undergoing?

Christopher Balme: At the moment, several types of discourse are underway. One concerns the issue of digitalization. At the beginning of the crisis, some very interesting informal attempts were made to work with digital media. - And theaters that already had a stock of pre-recorded performances, including the Kammerspiele in Munich and the Schaubühne in Berlin, made these available online. So people suddenly had access to productions that had originally reached only a small audience. This development could be seen worldwide. In the second lockdown, which began in November, theaters switched to streaming new productions, and artistically challenging and creative formats were developed.

The second, and perhaps the most important question, relates to the plight of freelancers. The independent scene has essentially been brought to a standstill and it has become clear to everyone that publicly subsidized theaters also work with freelancers, with directors, stage and costume designers, all of whom work on a contract basis. This whole structure has collapsed. Indeed, in some cases, contracts have not been fulfilled owing to the pandemic. Moreover, there is a further category of artists – actors above all – who are neither independent agents nor permanently employed. Their status lies somewhere in between. They are the so-called 'inconstant' ("unständigen") artists. They belong to no recognized category and, for this reason, they have as yet received no State support to compensate for the loss of their fees.

Why has the situation given rise to so little creative protest by theater professionals against the shutdown?

There have been some protests, such as the campaign under the slogan "Without art and culture, the rest is silence" (Ohne Kunst und Kultur wird‘s still). But in the end, the whole country has had to accept the situation. In my view, the interesting question now is what is going on backstage, so to speak. The subsidized theaters remain active – and I assume that the same is true of the independent sector, although its economic position is much more precarious – but they are still mounting productions, albeit in different, novel formats. And there again, I see signs of creative efforts to adapt.

What effect do you think the experiences over the past several months are likely to have?

On the theatrical scene, we have noticed an upsurge of reflection on the future of the theatrical scene, including ideas for quite a different kind of theater in the future. This question has never provoked as much soul-searching as it has in the past year. An almost utopian concept of theater has emerged, particularly in the independent scene, which envisages entirely new working conditions. On the other hand, there is a countervailing tendency, which is expressed in a pronounced desire for a restoration of the old order.

Are there any positive lessons to be learned from this unhappy period, which the theatrical world can take to heart?

If there are any positive aspects of the current situation, they lie in this forced hiatus. That in itself is an interesting experience for the theater, and it can be observed worldwide. In England, for example, the situation is even more extreme than in Germany, because theaters there are far more dependent on their box-office receipts. Some theaters in England have actually been converted into vaccination centers. They have redefined themselves as social facilities, often in a very emphatic and affirmative fashion: "We are part of the city, we are here to serve its inhabitants, and if we are not allowed to put on plays, then we will use these premises for some other purpose." This is an attitude that I have rarely encountered in Germany.

In London there is talk of a "cultural catastrophe" owing to the pandemic. Would you describe the repercussions for the theater landscape in Germany in these terms?

No, I don't see the situation here in that light, because we have a completely different financial model. I still assume that, with the gradual relaxation of lockdown conditions, which will certainly ensue with further vaccination efforts, we will witness a restoration of the old regime, even though it will perhaps take some time. But in a country like Great Britain, where the system does not have the same degree of financial security, I would expect some significant changes in the future.

What does the months-long closure of theaters have to tell us about their role in our society?

That question can also be raised with respect to the whole cultural domain, including cinemas and museums. All these forms of cultural activity, which are predicated on close social contacts, have themselves been placed in quarantine. Skeptics would argue that this will have negative effects in the long term. On the other hand, there are the optimists who believe that people can't wait to flock to the theater again. And indeed, this forecast is supported by what happened during the short period between the end of September and November, when theaters were able to open once more – albeit under very constrained conditions. Admittedly, audience capacities were reduced by more than half, but all available seats were occupied. It was never as difficult to get hold of theater tickets as it was in October and November 2020. That is a reason for optimism, and nurtures the hope that we will, in the not-so-distant future, see a great demand for what theaters have to offer.

How are digital formats likely to develop by the time we are permitted to go to the theater again?

In my view, theaters have realised that streaming can be a very useful supplementary service. Some theaters have upgraded their equipment, and taken on new personnel who are capable of presenting interesting digital versions of plays. This trend is both creative and novel. Will it be forgotten when theaters open again? I hope not. I believe it will survive.

Your research project on "Constellations of Crisis in the Arts", which began in 2017, obviously came at the right time.

Someone did say, rather cynically, to me: Now you have a real crisis! But the situation has also been difficult for our research group. For a research project which is devoted to the study of contemporary theater, the closure of all theaters at once constituted an enormous handicap. We had completed our proposal for the second phase of the project shortly before the corona crisis started, and we then rewrote some of it. I am now in charge of a kind of cross-sectional project, which will study how theaters have changed in response to the pandemic. We are indeed in a very unusual situation, which will probably result in structural changes on a previously unimaginable scale. We assume that the structural crises that we investigated in the first phase of the project will be exacerbated. And that will have repercussions for working conditions in the theater, for the demographic structure of its patrons, and it will add to the financial difficulties. Our hypothesis is that the coronavirus is likely to act as a catalyst that accelerates the progression of the crisis in theater.

The annual meeeting of the DFG-funded Research Unit on "Constellations of Crisis" will take place as an interactive online conference on 23 and 24 March 2021.
To register for the event, free of charge, see

Prof. Dr. Christopher B. Balme is the Director of the Institute of Theater Studies at LMU Munich and Spokesperson for the DFG-funded Research Unit on "Constellations of Crisis".

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