Freiestheater Equals Deadend

In z’Germaninland, that little place in the middle of Eurowasteland, Freiestheater is almost comparable to New York “Off” and London “Fringe”. I say “almost” because at least NY and LN have produced works from their venues that are worth a hoot. With that bit of frustration in mind…

For a struggling writer rejection is good. It means more than being just worst at what you do. It means, at the least, you’re also doing something. Seriously. As a prose writer that cannot get published or as a playwright rejected by every theater I sent my plays, I think it very important, no matter what, to absorb all the failure, learn from it, keep going, and, most importantly, stick to your beliefs, don’t change for others, develop your style, blah blah, blah blah… The scary thing is, I will stick with it, and the way it’s gone thus far, I’ll die a complete failure. Drinks anyone?

Did you know that between Berlin and Munich there is no place in the world with so many theaters? Yeah, there’s actually some kind of UNESCO historical recognition of the German theater landscape. But that’s neither here nor there. It was a big mistake for me back in the late eighties to think that I should go to Germany to kick off my playwriting career. It was also terribly naive to think that I didn’t need to go to New York to make it. Seeing how things turned out in Eurowasteland probably means that I would have been literally eaten in NY. Still. At the time I thought: why not do something different?

The idea back then was if I’m gonna be a playwright I need to learn all about theater. There was no opportunity to do that in the US. At least not where I’m from. Since I had relatives in Germany, the move wasn’t that difficult. Living here with proper credentials, though, was – but that’s for another post. I quickly realized that I could also produce my own plays in Germany – hence, jump-start my dream career as a theater producer and/or director. I met a few intelligent German chicks and got them to help me with translations. I got to know some actors and technicians. Heck. I even found a theater. Then I financed the projects with the money I was making from working as a research consultant for the corporate world and… Bang. I got laid and made theater.

As any creative person eventually figures out, achieving the slightest success in the arts is really, really hard work. It’s not comparable to a career in the mindless corporate world. In theatre I suspect this is compounded by the fact that there are many instances of creativity. Perhaps in the early stages of becoming a playwright, dealing with the various creative elements is what determines success or failure, especially in a wholly government subsidized community, as is the case in Germany. In my opinion, theatre has three main pillars: actors, directors and writers. The subsidized German theatre has basically annihilated the writer as one of those pillars. Oh my, the actors and directors have taken over. Does a lonely writer among beautiful and powerful people have a chance?

I heeded advice from “career” theatre people (dramaturgs, directors, etc.) working in state subsidized houses and sought other venues for my work. I eventually produced two relatively successful plays in the early 90s and two more in early 2000. When I went with these “dues” back to state houses I was still rejected. No one was open to new writing, although I could prove that my plays worked, i.e. that they were ready for the stage. I was then told that you have to be a name first if you don’t write in German. What? Seriously? But I live here and speak your language and… They were absolutely right. I guess.

Why do I stay here? Because I enjoy being shunned as though I were a leaper. Plus, I’m getting old. Life is over. I don’t have the energy anymore. Loser.

From a writer’s point-of-view – yes, even a failed one – German theatre sucks. (Except for the work of the above mentioned Ms. Kettering, of course.) My reason for this generalization is not because Germany has rejected me or because I’m becoming a bitter old man. It’s because German theatre hasn’t produced a world-class play, actor or playwright in probably thirty years. Productions today are wonderful and exuberant, see my post here – but there is nothing new. Instead it swallows more than 1 billion euros in state subsidies. You would think, with that kind of money, there would be some fantastic funky German play known to the world or some fantastic funky German playwright.

The market for German-language theatre is huge. And it is self-indulgent. It has become nothing more than an Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahme comparable to Germany’s struggle to rebuild autobahns with a day-late-and-euro-short budget. Of course, one could argue that writers like Botho Strauss and Moritz Rinke and Ms. Kettering are great German playwrights. But they are no where near the likes of Pinter, Albee or even Brecht because their work doesn’t transcend German-ness. What a shame, eh. With that in mind it is hard for me to swallow all this rejection, which btw, has left me to only writing and no more producing. The advice of the privileged subsidy pay-check clan:

I waddled around Freiestheater for about ten years and learned that ALL German actors, directors, stage hands, lighting technicians, electricians, carpenters, etc., who were not privileged enough to get a “contract” with a state subsidized house, all worked in Freiestheater. It was a smorgasbord of wannabe Liza Minnelli’s, pseudo intellects who made fun of politicians, rejects. The layers of creativity here, it is very creative!, was suffocating. Beyond that, unlike New York “off” and London “Fringe”, there was no proof of bottom-up success with German Freiestheater. It took me those ten years to realize this. And now, I believe they should take the word “theater” out of Freiestheater. Replace it with hobby.

I am proud of one aspect of all this failure: of the four plays I originally wrote in English and translated to German and then produced in the dead-end Freiestheater scene – none of them received any state funding, even though I lived, worked and paid taxes in Germany. I financed them myself and owe a lot to the participants, actors and theater managers. Hundreds of people saw my work. And I consider that a privilege! Ironically, state and city theater budgets were being cut yet all Freiestheater stages that I tried to get into were still receiving subsidies and they all said NO to me. Ouch.

For posterity, here is a rejection letter for funding from the city of Düsseldorf in 1992 for my play Flight of the Dodo. Luckily I was able to put the play on anyway.

I consider it a fun reminder of having made a big mistake. And I’m not bitter. Seriously.