What is popular theatre? – There are two theatre perspectives. Theatre is for the people when it sees the world from the perspective of the people, i.e. understood in constant transformation, with all the contradictions and movements of these contradictions, when it shows roads towards the emancipation of human beings. [...] It is of paramount importance to push forward those changes.1
Projekt Theater STUDIO/FLEISCHEREI is a multicultural experimental theatre company which in 1998 grew out of the international collective, Projekt Theater-Vienna/New York (founded in 1991). Until 2011 it has deployed STUDIO-spaces for political theatre and performance drawing on the heritages of historical avant-gardes, Physical, and ‘Poor Theatre’ (Brecht, Artaud, Grotowsky, Müller, Wilson, Schechner, Boal and Brook). Since 2012 – when the company lost its last laboratory space due to funding cutbacks2 – work has continued in the form of itinerant theatre performing throughout Vienna and abroad. Within a matter of years, the group established a sizeable body of work and reputation as a classical avant-garde theatre with productions of Beckett, contemporary women’s plays (Marlene Streeruwitz, Elfriede Jelinek, Hannah Krall, among others), and collective creations.3
The space owes its name to its history as a former butcher shop, yet also signalled protest against the notorious Vienna ‘Theatre Reform’, referring ironically to undemocratic evaluation and de-funding procedures intent on ‘butchering’ small, non-market-oriented cultural initiatives.
Ten years after its institution, Vienna’s controversial ‘Theatre Reform’ has been revealed as a grave failure of the ruling Social Democratic cultural politics, a failure which broke a longstanding taboo. Following the battle-cry ‘less is more!’ – signaling the intent to fund less theatres with better subsidies – the Reform is today largely seen as tantamount to a destruction of the city’s widespread and thriving ‘free’ or alternative cultural scene consisting of hundreds of small cultural organisations, theatres and art spaces built over the course of 30 years of Social Democratic development. Far from providing higher quality work or better working conditions for ‘free’ artists, it set off a process of concentration, monopolisation and festivalisation which, in the interests of cultural managers, resulted in the closing of spaces, disbanding of companies, the rise of unemployment, precariousness, and de-solidarisation among artists. A series of highly controlled submission and ‘evaluation’ processes were installed and paid expert committees appointed to carry out a reorganisation of a formerly participatory (peer review) funding system, the formation of new ‘co-production houses’, fusions of spaces, and ‘cultural clusters’, while small, experimental, non-commercial companies rooted in local communities suffered severe funding cutbacks and the reduction of budgets and infrastructures.4
The ensuing decrease of cultural diversity goes along with enforced private sponsorship at the expense of public involvement. Within a matter of years, Vienna’s Social Democracy has dismantled its own cultural policy which for decades had supported (post-) 68 sub-cultural life, giving way to a neo-feudalist art scene for the rich and famous. The remaining selected companies which enjoy the acceptance of cultural curators favour the formalistic approaches of post-modernist ‘corporate art’ which lacks political content and neglects the interest of ordinary working people while catering to elitist audiences of the new middle-classes, tourists, and managers. ‘Reform winners’ have since been condemned to cooperate in institutionalised clusters of high-brow cultural venues competing for steadily diminishing funds within a scene now helplessly spilt between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.5
In order to transcend hegemonic post-modernist performance works, and in response to the pitfalls of the ‘Reform’, the FLEISCHEREI team turned towards the development of new socio-theatrical concepts under the catch phrase of ‘Theatre of Empowerment’6 positioned at the crossroads of intercultural performance, community activism and new social as well as anti-globalisation movements. Infrastructural costs were reduced and entrance fees abandoned while the group sought out community networks, integrated amateurs, expanded into public space, gained new audiences by opening its doors to immigrants, refugees, civil and human rights groups, local media, and small businesses.7
We must redirect the future organisation of all areas of life towards human beings. Human beings must be at the centre of our concern and not […], the forces of economics in totally isolated ways.8
The FLEISCHEREI’s socio-theatrical projects since 2004 – right after losing a first studio space under the impact of the ‘Theatre Reform’ – expanded from immigrant cooking shows to theatrical wedding parties, from community fiestas to large street-theatre processions involving hundreds of artists, activists, and small local businesses in colourful cultural celebrations. Such projects aim at re-politicising and emancipating art and artists as well as audiences to face the challenges of a new century focused on issues of empowerment, participation, the use of public space, inclusion of the grass roots, of local media and of immigrant and refugee organisations. Collective working processes are privileged over market-oriented production and accompanied by a reinvestigation of the heritages of 20th-century political avant-gardes while the unconventional funding of cooperatives is to allow for artistic autonomy and subsistence.9
An outstanding example is the group’s signature-project ‘On Axis/City Place’ – an annual street theatre event and community fiesta which for the past five years has brought together artists, immigrants, refugees, small businesses, neighbours and refugee and human rights groups in shared acts of performing, singing, dancing, discussing and playing together. Here, a theatre performance turns into a journey through a local community, reclaims public space, and engages participants of all walks of life in a collective experience, a process of reflection and an appreciation of peaceful coexistence.
Such unorthodox projects are based on new modes of (mixed public/private) funding and new production modes, while collaborations target new audiences in a communal protest against capitalist globalisation, unemployment, precarious working conditions, the dismantling of the European social welfare state, a rise of enforced refugee laws, of sexism, xenophobia and the destruction of urban space – all resulting in a loss of cultural diversity.10 In the words of a sub-cultural and media expert, projects such as ‘On Axis’ offer contexts where the notion of ‘community’ acquires new meaning.
Concomitantly with this practical process, a new concept – called ‘Transformance’ – took shape and strategically positioned itself in contrast to the ubiquitous avant-garde, postmodern, post-dramatic genres by providing as a roadmap the transformation of political ‘performance’ for our age and by addressing the current overall cultural decline witnessed across Europe as part of the worldwide crises since 2008.
‘Transformance’ as a model departs from socio-theatrical pilot projects and suggests a fusion of artistic ‘performance’ and activist ‘transformation’, that is, transformational processes forging new socio-political contexts of empowerment, emancipation and co-existence. It calls for theatrical work in public spaces in local communities, an active dialogue with civil society, political activists and new audiences and the location of performance within a decidedly left political framework.11
‘Post-dramatic theatre’ was introduced into critical debates by West-German theatre scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann who in his 1999 standard work of the same name presented a broad overview of thirty years of radical avant-garde theatre in Europe and the US (from the 1970s to the late 1990s).12 Since then the term has become hegemonic in Western cultural studies and interdisciplinary art criticism as a new theatrical paradigm encompassing experimental, avant-garde, subversive, radical, risk-taking, and post-modern strategies.
In contrast to traditional theatre, which since Greek drama has been oriented fundamentally to its texts, the ‘post-dramatic’ genre uses such diverse inspirations as visual imagery, music, dance, poetry, newsreels or oral histories for source materials. While favouring non-linear structures outside of ideological constraints, aesthetic ‘practices of exemption’ are meant to produce states of heightened perceptivity and overrule social norms and traditional theatrical principles of character, theatrical space, time, and story-line.13
Theoretically, ‘post-dramatics’ reflects the ‘performative turn’ of the 1990s and is indebted to new French philosophy with strategies of deconstruction, destabilised meanings and ambiguous constructions of identity (‘simulacra’).
In Lehmann’s eyes, contemporary theatre has lost social impact and efficacy, which leads him to assume that the revolutionary potential of art has become obsolete in an ‘information society’. Furthermore, he asserts that theatrical ‘message-production’ is inherently non-artistic, which implies that showing the oppressed onstage does not render theatre political at all: ‘Theatre for the purpose of class-specific propaganda or political self-affirmation (as in the 1920s) has been sociologically and politically transcended.’14 By holding that art always stands in opposition to ‘politics’, post-dramatics foregrounds an ‘aesthetic behaviour of transgression’ where stakes are no longer found in parameters of content but in ‘in ways of perception’ where Guy Debord’s criticism of a ‘society of spectacle’ is brought full circle.15 ‘The "political" resides in the artistic approach to the material’.16
Recently, younger theatre scholars, including Lehmann disciples, have promoted an even more apolitical stance towards post-dramatics and have announced that the ‘engaged intellectual’ of the 1960s and after has – in our era of neoliberal capitalism – lost his arena of discourse. They transfer Jean Luc-Godard’s credo – to ‘make film politically instead of making political films’ – onto theatre and mark a shift towards ‘performances of ways in which theatre is produced’,17 of a new kind of ‘meta-theatre’ of reflexivity which de/constructs its own aesthetic preconditions. A theatre out to ‘change itself’ means something ‘completely different than simply articulating political beliefs’.18 Here, Lehmann’s ‘theatre of exemption’ is once again summoned up, and new philosophers such as Rancière and Žižek have called for the linking of political and aesthetic theories: ‘The political ... can only be the interruption of politics’, that is, theatre must be capable of going beyond ‘pseudo-critiques’ of the spectacular.19 Accordingly, traditional avant-garde and post-dramatic principles – particularly the physical co-presence of actors and audiences as constituents of ‘performance’ – are rejected and categories of drama, communality, participation, authenticity, and empathy declared irrelevant. Thus, performers in post-spectacular theatre may appear onstage as entities refusing face-to-face encounters, i.e. in self-obscuring costumes, fully masked, in complete darkness, or not at all.
To this day, post-dramatic paradigms resonate strongly in academia and cultural criticism while at the same time expressing sarcastic, pessimistic, sometimes outright cynical views of life, in performance works devoid of ‘principles of hope’.20 Formulating, unconsciously or not, the predicament of an ‘aesthetics of surrender’, post-dramatics as well as its offspring ‘post-spectacularism’ fit neatly into ideologies of neoliberalism. By promoting hostility towards progressive history, lacking theoretical foundations, encouraging anti-social, anti-working class positions, formulating abstract constructions, addressing elitist audiences, discounting the social efficacy of art, post-dramatic strategies tend to expropriate ‘first- and second-wave’ avant-garde formal innovations – interculturalism, interdisciplinarity, environmentalism – while rejecting their progressive, leftist and anarchist politics. As such, post-dramatists refute strategies for emancipation, empowerment and social change.
I contend that by resting on signifiers of ‘non-orders’ which exist outside societal rules, agreements and conventions a socially adapted ‘avant-garde in the mainstream’ is incapable of effecting progressive transformation.21
In contrast to variants of post-dramatic and post-spectacular theatre abounding in mainstream institutions which remain ambivalent or outright hostile towards actual social struggles, ‘transformance’, as a suggested new category for cultural transformation, aligns itself with concrete social issues and revolutionary organisations working towards a new political theatre for our age – an era in which radical and left movements are once again on the rise in the wake of world-wide crises.