The relationship of the playwright to the theatre in the German-speaking world

Talk given by Marie Rotzer - Chief Dramaturg at the Schauspielhaus Graz, 23rd March 2006


There are two key points of understanding that need to be established before investigating the relationship of playwrights to theatre in German Speaking Theatres:

1. Theatre is heavily subsidised by the state and is regarded as very important for culture. A building such as the Schauspielhaus in Graz receives around €20million a year in subsidy (which funds a programme of nightly rep, with at least six week rehearsal periods). However, only around 10% of this subsidy goes directly to artists (actors, writers, directors). The remaining 90% is directed towards running the building, administration and maintaining the repertory system (which is very expensive).

2. The work of authors has always been regarded as the basis of theatre. Historically authors were the driving force of the theatre and in the past would produce and direct their own plays with their own troupe of actors (not dissimilar to Shakespeare). This system of working is still seen in Fringe companies today, but it should be noted that often, once a company has reached a level of success, they are absorbed into the State repertory system (this is seen particularly in Switzerland).

The Relationship Between The Repertory and the Fringe

It is important to note that the notion of Fringe theatre is a little different to that in the UK. Most of the fringe companies are in receipt of financial support (making them the equivalent of UK touring companies). The largest of these receives a subsidy of around €220,000, the smallest receives €35,000. Devised theatre is not traditional in Austria, and that movement is only just developing. There is also an attempt to develop links between the fringe scene and the amateur sector. Even still, the majority of the theatre budget in Austria and Germany is directed towards repertory theatres, whose strict production methods block innovation. The support that the Fringe gets is not enough to support it and this is reflected in the quality of production. The work of many of the fringe companies is modelled on that in the reps. There is an attempt to develop a better context for their work.

New Work, New Premieres: Considerations and Tensions

The climate for new work is influenced by a number of issues which are not wholly unfamiliar. They include:

1. Premieres more expensive than classic

2. Audiences especially in provinces nervous of new plays.

3. Theatres fight for new plays and new authors

4. Theatres think young authors have fingers on pulse and want to act quickly (contemporary situation and events)

5. Press – National Press pick up on new plays – want to be a part of discovering new authors, new plays but this is sometimes compromised by the small travel budgets allotted to critics wanting the get to premieres.


Getting your Play Produced

With the advent of the Director’s Theatre Movement, and the Repertory Theatre System, work in theatres was re-divided. This had the effect of removing the playwright from the centre of the theatre company and effectively pushing them out of the building.



The relationships between theatres and contemporary playwrights are managed by Verlagen. A Verlag is a publisher/ agent, a middle-man, through whom work is sent to theatre companies. This is the normal route that takes a play text to the stage.

There are many verlagen throughout Germany and Austria and they divide the market up between them, many having a speciality (the work of Eastern European Authors, for example, the specialism of Henschel). Authors select the verlag to send their work to through this speciality. There is really only one good theatre publisher in Austria, who are based in Vienna.

Authors send their work to the Verlag. If it is accepted and the author is taken on, then their work will be featured in a published catalogue of new and available work which the verlag sends to theatres in advance of their theatre seasons (September to June). This catalogue contains information on new plays and their authors, including synopsis and CVs. Work is often divided into subject areas (globalisation for example) to make it easier for theatres to find plays they might be interested in. Theatres then order copies of scripts from the list in order to make proper judgements. In the past these were posted, but email has now made it easier for theatres to received plays quickly.


Beyond the Verlag: Direct Submissions and Development Opportunities

A more unusual route is for a writer to cut out the middleman and send their text directly to the dramaturgy department of the theatre themselves. This poses problems though, as unread scripts pile up: there is often not the time or the resources to read them.

The Schauspielhaus in Graz is developing a writers in residence programme, a familiar practise in the UK, but relatively new in German speaking theatres. It has the advantage of exposing the playwright to theatre practise and enables the theatre to develop a meaningful dialogue with them. The theatre is also granted exclusive rights to the playwright’s work whilst they are in residence. It is expensive, however, and many smaller theatres are not resourced to do it. That said, there are some bursaries available to help with this.

This has led to opportunities to try out plays in development, and rehearsed readings, which sit alongside other wider opportunities such as festivals and competitions. It’s a cheap way of developing new plays and grows a public awareness of new work, giving writers the opportunity to showcase their work. A downside is that many festivals happen all over the country. The ongoing frustration is that there is not a lack of new plays, but a lack of good new plays.


Publications and Magazines

In contrast to the UK and Finland, where plays are rarely published before they are performed, plays are regularly published in German speaking countries by the verlags before, or in spite of, performance. It is common for plays to be published and never performed. Sometimes it is acknowledged that work is published not to be performed at all, only read.

There is also a tradition of literary magazines, including Theatre Heute, which, published monthly, specialises specifically in theatre. Theatre Heute introduces young authors, publishes plays, and offers award for best author (and with it a guarantee that your play will be performed in numerous theatres).

Information on Theatre Heute (which includes an English language version) can be found on their website:


Becoming a writer - learning and development opportunities

The perception of the playwright in German speaking theatre is that the author is an artist and, therefore, a genius. This belief dismisses the notion that playwriting can be taught.

It is only recently, therefore, that it has become possible to study as a writer. Courses in scenic writing have been set up which focus on the development of craft (rather than ideas, which is assumed participants have)

There is a strong link between theatres and courses. The courses are taught by well-known authors who create these links. Dramaturgs also learn through these courses.

Three years ago the theatre set up a writers’ night. Four writers wrote 20 minute plays which were presented during the day. Two of these writers came from Edith’s course at Uni-T. It was a good way for the theatre and audiences to get to know new writers and marked the beginning of a collaborative process aimed at bringing writers back into theatres.

Out of these four, two have written full length plays for the theatre, one which was staged last year and the other to be staged this year.

The Schauspielhaus has a good working relationship with Uni-T and Steirische Herbst. They are developing processes of working together. The dramaturgical department at the theatre assists the playwrights in the development of their texts: helping to guide the play through to production, making cuts and so on. It is an ongoing working process and it’s important that these collaborations continue. Working together is what theatre is all about.


What is a good play for German Theatre?

Marie offered some thoughts about what makes a good play for a German Theatre:

Questions and Discussion

How do you know what your audience want?

This is a difficult question. If you are in the same theatre for a long time you begin to get an idea of what your audience want. Graz audiences go for more emotional plays such as Schnitzler or Shakespeare, and are less keen on Heiner Muller or Brecht. A recent example of a successful play is Lukas Bärfuss’s The Sexual Neuroses of my Parents. It’s a play about a a mentally disabled young woman who sets about breaking sexual taboos. It’s a wonderful, emotionally charged play and has been very popular in Graz.

What is the make-up of your core audience?

The audience is predominantly drawn from the educated, slightly aging, middle classes. It is a battle to get young audiences, especially students, in.

Do you have any specific strategies to encourage younger audiences?

We try to have younger artists, directors and actors, here who make powerful theatre and with whom a younger audience can identify.

Do contemporary plays make it onto the bigger stage?

Usually contemporary plays are on the smaller stage. In a repertory system a successful play will play for 20 performances on the bigger stage (540 in the audience), and 30 on the smaller (99).

How do you combine directors’ theatre and taking care of new playwrights?

It is true that German directors have an interpretive approach to text, but the key is to really look at where the play has come from. The work of classical authors is unprotected, and so subject to cuts and changes. In the case of new plays, all premiere texts are protected by the publisher, so the entire play has to be performed as written.

Is there a collision between writers and directors?

Yes, and that is why the role of the dramaturg is so important. The dramaturg sits between the author and the director. In the rehearsal room the dramaturg acts as the author’s agent. As rehearsal process continues you may begin to identify areas of the text which are redundant, and will have to negotiate that with the author. This is why a good relationship between a theatre and a playwright is so critical.

Is there a new writing theatre in Austria? And if no, do you think there should be?

There is no designated new writing theatre. There is one theatre which has a specific focus on new work, but it is not exclusive. Other theatres are also interested in new playwriting. I think that rather than an exclusive focus, the tendancy will be towards developing the writer in residence model. I don’t know if its possible for us to have a complete emphasis on author’s theatre.

What about fringe groups, are they still author led?

In Switzerland the fringe is subsidised and also given sponsorship. Here it is rare that a text born out of this system will get to a publishers, which is where it needs to be to be recognised. The fringe is not seen as having a mainstream, literary focus. The work is often more physical/ visual.

How many openings do you have a year, and of this, how many will be new plays?

There will be ten openings on the big stage, and six on the small. Of these, one on the big stage, and two to three on the small stage, will be new. There is also a small 50 seater room where new plays are produced. This is normal for Austria. Of all the new plays one is usually Austrian, although they are not dogmatic about it.

Can a playwright in Austria make a living?

It depends. You can live from writing, but normally not just for theatre. Bernard Stutler (one of the translators of the Janus plays) trained as a playwright in Berlin for four years. He makes a living from writing but writes not just for stage, but by writing in other mediums including translations and novels. There are a few scholarships around to boost income if you are successful. Writers who have early successes can often be marauded by the press for subsequent work. This is why marie thinks it’s important to develop ongoing relationships with playwrights.

Why is it impossible to have a new writing theatre in Austria?

Traditionally the audience is drawn from a maximum of 20% of the population. These people want to see work that they are familiar with. We have to work hard to educate these audiences about new work.

How are playwrights developed? What do playwrights coming out of university programmes do next? What opportunities are there?

To a small extent, theatres are trying to bind a playwright to them. The National theatre of Vienna offers a programme of development (gives access to resources) to playwrights to develop their second play. But again, the tradition is different.

Uni-T is trying to develop a programme. One question is always how close relations to the university should be. But there is only really one university in Berlin that has a special playwrighting course. Don’t want courses teaching you ‘how to write a good play’ – this can’t be done. But more in order to create a forum for writers to talk and learn from each other perhaps.

The situation is much better here than it was ten years ago. Then the writer would only be invited to the last rehearsal and it would often be very confrontational. The main state of play is:

The dramaturg's role in production is that of ‘intellectual policeman’ of the production, in the face of the director-‘artist’ with a full-blown artistic interpretation for this particular production of this particular play. There are discussions in the theatre now as to how far the director should go in deconstructing the text vis-à-vis maintaining a fidelity to the text. The director will often makes cuts in the script and alter it in order to make it relevant to contemporary audiences. Ideally this is done with a dramaturg but not always. The dramaturg brings in the context of the play, it would seem in order to ensure that the director does not completely bastardize the text, and to make sure that the interpretation makes dramatic sense with regards to the original function of the text and how the audience will receive it.

What are the elements that will help new writing to grow?

Education – forging links with schools and teachers. Grasz often holds an open rehearsal for schools and sometimes hold schools only matinees. Getting audiences in in general! Very hard to get young people in the theatre – they have so many other distractions! Of course we want to produce contemporary plays for them. But this is difficult, Grasz in the main is a conservative town and subscription audiences prefer old-fashioned theatre. But it is an honour to have new plays in programme. Marie is very proud to have staged 3/4 world premieres. But you have to watch your audiences’ reactions.

There is no educational department as such. Teachers can lead tours around the theatre and dramaturgs, directors and actors sometimes go to schools, but it is hard finding an actor willing to get up for 8.00am! Hold post-show talks.

Maybe throughout eternity teenagers have never gone to the theatre! Usually fetched there by school.

Developing writers and audiences in Leeds

Alex Chisholm talks of the investment that has been put in to develop regional writers – audiences have followed the plays, rather than the plays following the audience necessarily. Once they had the money and the time invested, they could begin to lead. The WYP has two spaces, one 750, one 350 and they can fill the theatre to 60/70% capacity for 2/3 weeks. An investment in work has led to the development of an audience (£5 tickets mon/tues/wed for those under 26).

Do you have many productions of contemporary plays which are not English?

France, Serbia… no, not many!

Thoughts on Finland

In Finland, writers are actors and directors and dramaturgs as well as playwrights – they are part of a whole theatre society (and are all trained in the same academy pretty much – v. closed scene it would appear) and will have to write a few plays in their time while training (question of how you develop and maintain an original voice?). In Austria this is not the case, although some dramaturgs are beginning to write plays.

More information on the Schauspielhaus in Graz can be found on their website