Justus-Liebig-Universität GießenInstitut für Angewandte Theaterwissenschaft


Justus Liebig Universität Giessen - A New Direction in German Theatre Training

Since the post-war reorganization of German education that began in 1949, there has been a clear distinction in the purpose and nature of educational offerings in the area of Theatre. German universities offer academic degrees in Theaterwissenschaft, or Theatre Science, gearing their graduates for positions as dramaturgs, university professorships and other related positions, while training for performers, directors, choreographers, scenic artists and other artistic personnel has been provided by theatre hochschulen, vocational institutes for the practical study of theatre. Degree programs at both the university and hochschule level require an initial four years of study with graduates receiving either a Bachelors degree from the university or a Diplom from the hochschule. Masters, and Doctoral degrees are offered at universities and many hochschulen offer Masters (or Magister) degrees as well. There has been little exception to this rule; generally speaking, graduates of a German Universität could not expect to receive the type of training needed to embark on a career in professional theatre. By the same token, graduates of a theater hochschule cannot ordinarily undertake masters and/or doctoral studies at a German university without some additional coursework omitted by the more practical hochschule training. Unlike students at American universities, most of whom take a program of study that balances practical and theoretical studies, German students wishing to study theatre have had to choose between the two basic options of theory or practice. One of those options - entry into the dozen or so best theater hochschulen in the region - is unattainable for most. Chances of acceptance into the best theater hochschulen, such as the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst 'Ernst Busch' Berlin and the Hochschule für Musik und Theater 'Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy' Leipzig, are not likely. Each of the schools receives more than one thousand applicants per year, with only twenty-five to thirty applicants accepted at each school.(1) Positions in a university program are not automatic either - it is very difficult to qualify for entrance, and then one must secure and retain a "place" within the chosen department. Nevertheless, it is far easier to gain admission into a university program in Theater Science than into a theater hochschule. Situated between these two traditional approaches is the Angewandte Theaterwissenschaft or ATW (lit. Institute of Applied Theatre Science) at Justus Leibig Universität Giessen. Located some sixty kilometers north of Frankfurt, the University, founded in 1605, has offered programs in literature and languages since 1971 and added a program in theater science in 1982. Though the academic program began with a fairly typical German approach (i.e. no production or performance courses), during the past twenty years a "hybrid" approach to theater studies has developed. According to Gerald Sigmund, professor at the Institute of Applied Theatre Studies, the current program is similar to an American theatre department, due in response to what they considered to be a real need in the German system and (in part) to widespread "westernization" across the region, including a large influx of Americans at the local military base. According to Sigmund: The curriculum for Applied Theatre Studies (Drama, Theatre, Media) at Giessen University is a combination of both artistic and academic orientation; practice and theory are integrated into a coherent training program, thereby taking the drama departments of Anglo-American countries as a model. The program includes theoretical seminars and lectures in addition to practical courses and performance projects under the leadership of instructors whose primary background is in theatrical practice as opposed to purely academic matters.(2) The program at the university is literally the only one of its kind in Germany. To that end, many purists (from both the University and Hochschule 'camps') have reportedly expressed their distrust for any program - such as the one at Giessen - that attempts to deviate from established standards and cross borders in the way that it does.(3) However, there is some sense that the approach is catching on - by 1998 there were a total of 119 students in the program and practically all of its graduates were working in some area of professional theatre.(4) Additionally, several students that I interviewed at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater 'Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy' Leipzig in 2001 said that had they not been accepted into one of the two or three best theater hochschulen, that their next choice would have been the program at Giessen.(5) The programs' commitment to practical work in theatre was strengthened in 1984, when they received two permanent distinguished guest professorships, allowing them to hire major figures to remain in residence for a period of one year. Since that time guest professors have included Heiner Müller, Robert Wilson, George Tabori, Michael Kirby, Richard Schechner, Patrice Pavis, and John Jesurun. Müller taught at the school during the winter-semester of 1984/85, giving a workshop on his play Hamletmaschine and a subsequent on campus production with the students in February 1985. The workshop literally served as a site for the development of his now famous Hamlet/Maschine that premiered at the Deutsches Theater in March, 1990 (just after the fall of the Berlin Wall) and remained in the repertory until 1994. To prepare for the Hamletmaschine project, students were given the task to study the play in relation to other Müller texts, such as Tractor and Cement, and incorporate them into Hamletmaschine with the expressed goal being to "make the texts comment on each other".(6) Robert Wilson was in residence at the ATW during winter-semester 1989/90, teaching a course in the aesthetics of performance and developing a production of Shakespeares's King Lear (entitled simply Lear) which was presented at Schauspiel Frankfurt in early 1990. Initially performed on the Giessen campus with a mixture of ATW students and professional actors, Lear was later transported south to Frankfurt where it was booked as a guest production. Program director Helga Finter, who has researched and written several articles on Wilson's work, was largely responsible for the collaboration. Wilson's effect on the program was very substantial with continual references to his tenure there and a number of subsequent on campus productions given a "Wilsonian" vision. One of the most successful was Shakespeare's Macbeth, directed by student Peter Oberdorf in March 2001 with a minimalist, icon-heavy, expressionistic Wilson approach. Other guest professors have included American professors Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner from Tisch - NYU. Kirby was in Giessen during Summer 1988 teaching a seminar on "Self and Auto-performance" as well as giving a workshop on deconstructivist theatre, while Schechner visited during summer of 1991 giving two seminars on "Theatre Anthropology" and "New York theatre in the 60s and 70s." Herbert Blau taught Performance Theory during the summer of 1992, and another New York director, John Jessurun, was in residence three times. Jessurun was actually suggested to the department by students who had seen his work in New York and liked his use of popular genres like TV soap operas. In the summer of 1985 he staged Horse Without Rider, an examination of the conquest of the American West. Developed and presented in the campus theatre, Jessurun's Horse Without Rider explored myths of patricide, mistaken identity, and the destruction and reconstruction of the family unit. The performance installation included extensive use of multimedia and was noted for its incorporation of sculptural and cinematic ideas. During winter semester 1987/88 Jesserun staged his play Sunspot (which would premier the following year at The Kitchen in New York City) with the students, and returned during winter of 1998/99 for another staging of Sunspot. Beginning April 1st 1999 the composer and (music) theatre director Heiner Goebbels was granted permanent residence as a Distinguished Theatre Artist at the University. A major figure in both the international music and theatre scenes, Goebbels artistic practice as a director is distinguished by interdisciplinary border crossings between theatre, music, literature and performance art. Having studied sociology and music in Frankfurt am Main, Goebbels served as musical director of the Frankfurt State Theater from 1978 to 1980. Since that time, he has worked since as a composer, director, and musician, creating the experimental rock group Cassiber in 1982. Goebbel's theatre works are best described as multi-layered performance installations, resembling live musical paintings rather than traditional theatre pieces. Marked by the use of multiple languages (principally German, French and English), his works deal with themes of fear, jealousy, race, and colonialism and are riddled with intense ambiguities created by constant shifts between foreground and background. At the Institute of Applied Theatre Studies Goebbels has developed several projects that "investigate the bridge between theoretical and artistic theatre practices" 7. According to the faculty members that I spoke with (Goebbels was in France at the time) his main interests are in "artistic practice and its theoretical reflection - also the practical and theoretical study of text, language and sound on the theatre."8 Projects at the Institute of Applied Theatre Studies have included "The Making of"¦" (1999) with text by Gertrude Stein and "Präsenz und Virtualität - The left hand of Glenn Gould," a project with students from both Giessen and the La Fabrica Company in Italy. The "Glen Gould Project" was performed in Giessen, London and Taormina in 2001. Additionally, 2001 saw the genesis of a project entitled Hashigakari which was presented a various European venues throughout the academic 2001 - 2002, appearing in Los Angeles (UCLA Royce Center) in December 2002. Given the mission of the program, the main focus is theatre research as much on an academic level as on the level of theatre practice. Applied Theatre Studies at Giessen consists of two almost equal parts: practical studies and component studies. The students (and faculty) investigate the foundations, basic functions and historical forms of theatre, at the same time experimenting with practical issues - historical and contemporary languages of the stage, traditional and non-traditional staging techniques, theatre criticism, dramaturgy, directing, theatre management, body and voice training, stage design and technology including mixed genres such as dance theatre and music theatre. In addition, component subjects such German philology, Romance philology, Anglo-American philology, Slavic philology, classical philology, art history, musicology and philosophy are requirements of the degree. The classes of the component subjects cover a broad spectrum of fields related to theatre, but also aim at conveying special knowledge to the students. The faculty is very sensitive to the opinion fostered by several German universities that theatre is simply the "poor relative" of dramatic literature, instead believing that performance is the center of all academic and practical studies in theatre. Unlike other theatre departments in Germany students at Giessen can study only theatre as their major and exclusive subject; it cannot be studied in combination with another major subject. Studying theatre at Giessen certainly is demanding (60-80 hours per week during the term) and challenging as the comprehensive program is intended to convey insight into many different subjects, integrating these subjects into an interdisciplinary co-operation. At the end of each semester, students are required to present a major project in integrated studies presented to the faculty. These extensive, original projects are geared to "force the students into becoming independent creators of theatre"(7) Projects may be presented live or on videotape (in which case an archival tape is also made), must be edited for clarity of picture and sound (if presented on tape), and are followed by a lengthy oral examination given to the presenter concerning the thematic and aesthetic elements contained in the production. Examples of the student projects vary as widely as the backgrounds and experiences of the individual students. A Woman With a Lamp, was a very slow moving scenario of a woman in a small dwelling, staring at a lamp, who begins to take off her clothes and cover the lamp. By the time she is completely naked, the light has been completely extinguished, thus diminishing the voyeuristic quality of her "strip tease." Fish, featured a very carefully framed still of a female student, holding a fish tank in front of her with a small fish within. The fish was then magnified (way out of proportion), allowing it to block her partially unclothed upper torso. Near the end of the piece she reached into the bowl and grabbed the fish, stuffing it quickly into her mouth. Once in a While a Lord's Supper Night featured Viviane de Mynck at the end of a long conference table, dressed in something like a nun's habit (though not an actual one), reading selected verses from the bible and taking holy communion - actually drinking wine and eating bread - after each verse. The basic "punch line" of the work was the level of drunkenness she reached after 15-20 verses of scripture, which continued until she was unable to make sense of the lines. The work was a bizarre example of fanaticism - trying to cram all of religion into one session and ending up "drunk with it." Looking for a Small Story was a project by two students (Melanie Mohren and Bernhardt Herbordt) that won the Nordrheinwestfälischer Hörspielpreis (highest prize) in 2001. As the title suggests, it was a work on how to tell a story through the use of stunning images (e.g. a diver walking through a car wash system) again in a style reminiscent of Robert Wilson. Overall, I was able to witness over ten projects, each of which served a number of functions. The various projects allowed the students to create original works of theatre, to experiment with lighting for stage and camera, to creation a "frame," and learn to control what the audience sees within that frame, to realize the project through its completion and, finally, to experience an in-depth critical evaluation of the work by the departmental professors. After eight semesters of full time study, students must present a final project of a substantial nature (such as directing or designing a full length play) and by passing both an oral and written final examination. Upon successful completion of these two final projects the academic title Diplom-Theaterwissenschaftler ("Diploma Theatre Scholar") will be awarded - a different degree than is offered at other German universities (who normally offer only the B.A.). The introduction of the diploma as a degree of theatre studies stresses the practical dimension of the program in relation to the more theoretically and historically orientated B.A./M.A. programs. The possibility to undertake a postgraduate research leading to a doctoral degree may be offered to graduates whose level of work is deemed "excellent." Graduates of the program work in a variety of theatrical careers, with the majority creating new work. For example, a collective of six female graduates created the group She She Pop which has performed at several major theatre festivals including the Hope and Glory Festival in Zurich; others have performed and created works for theatre festivals in Hannover, the prestigious Theater der Welt festival in the Ruhr area, and for the Podewil Theatre in Berlin. Most are engaged in site-specific work and are actively engaged in exploring "the theatricality of everyday life by mixing fact and fiction to explore their experiences within a theatrical framework"(8) Works Cited [list]

  • Bender, Ruth. "Willkommen in Club." Die Deutsche Bühne, No. 6, June 2000. P. 25.[/li]
  • Interview with Helga Finter, Professor, Universität Giessen, December 2001.[/li]
  • Interview with Gerald Sigmund, Lecturer, Universität Giessen, December 2001.[/li]
  • Interview with Petra Bolte, Lecturer, Universität Giessen, December 2001.[/li]
  • Lennartz, Knut. "Kein Theater ohne Schauspieler." Die Deutsche Bühne, No. 5, May 2001. P. 11.[/li] (c) by Cambridge University Press