**Each month we speak with two member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspirations with the community. During our latest Caucus Meeting, PGC Member, David Craig, arranged for a discussion contrasting between Canadian and German theatre practices with dramaturge, Ute Scharfenberg.
Dramatist David S. Craig has served as an Artistic Director, playwright, performer, director, writer of radio, and producer of plays for over thirty-five years. As a passionate promoter and creator of theatre art, his work has reached millions of people, particularly children and their families. In 1976, he founded Theatre Direct; In 1983, with Robert Morgan, he founded Roseneath Theatre; and has written countless works.
Given his perspective as a successful Canadian dramatist and his experience with German Theatre we wanted to view the caucus meeting through the eyes of David Craig and asked his thoughts for the article below.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my career as a playwright has been watching my plays performed in other countries. I have been particularly lucky in the German speaking world where my play “Danny, King of the Basement” was, translated by Anke Ehlers, nominated for the German Children’s Theatre Prize (I was astonished to get the nomination and the German jury was astonished to discover they’d nominated a Canadian!)
“The first theatre to produce the play was the state theatre in Magdeburg where the senior dramaturge at the time was Ute Scharfenberg. We stayed in touch and when I discovered that Ute, who takes a keen interest in Canadian theatre, was coming to Toronto, Lawrence Aronovitch (PGC’s GTA Caucus Rep) and I arranged an evening where she could meet Toronto area members.
“The focus of the evening was around how theatre is created in Germany in comparison to Canada. In both countries theatre happens at 8 pm with professional actors presenting a play to a paying audience. But how our two countries create that evening of theatre is often strikingly different.
“For example, in Germany there are 142 City and State theatres. These large companies produce live theatre as well as opera, ballet, orchestra and Theatre For Young Audiences. Our National Arts Centre is the closest we come to such an arrangement but imagine having 95 National Arts Centres scattered across the country. Wow.
“But unlike our theatres, which are all independent, incorporated, not-for- profit corporations, German State and City theatres are owned by the governments. This means the ‘Intendent’ or Executive Director is not chosen by a volunteer board of directors but by professional cultural bureaucrats. It would be like the Canada Council deciding who would replace the Artistic Director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Good? Bad? Who knows but certainly different.
“Now of course this costs money. 1.7% of the overall German public budget goes to culture. 123 Euros per citizen (194.10 CAD). On one hand, European countries have always enjoyed theatre, orchestras, ballets and opera but, Ute explained that German culture is seen as being a vital part of nation building. Hence the support.
“In addition to the State and City Theatres there are also many independent theatres. These are similar to our Tarragon, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Centaur theatres in that they only produce works for the stage, receive grants from cultural agencies but run their own affairs. The big difference is that independent theatres can actually be owned by an individual. The GRIPS Theater in Berlin, which is a TYA company that receives a million euros in subsidy, is owned by Volker Ludwig. Having founded a couple of theatres myself, I found this information riveting.
“The first questions I asked Ute at our evening was, “what is a dramaturge in the German theatrical tradition”. She said this was a big question because dramaturge’s do so much. First and foremost, the dramaturgical department (Ute is the Chief Dramaturge and has a staff of four plus a publicist) is responsible for recommending programming to the Intendent (the CEO). Ute is now at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam which produces 21–22 new productions per year for two theatres (450 and 180 seats). There is a resident acting company of 25 plus guest actors. The actors work 46 weeks a year. They are government workers. They get a pension. Every play has a dramaturge assigned to it. He or she will research the history and background of the play, liaise with the director (often a guest), animate educational events, lead Q&A’s, do workshops in the community, and read, read, read plays from all over the world. When you visit the theatre you will meet the dramaturge and, if you’re lucky, the director. They are very important people.
“So what role does the playwright have in this mix? Well… not much. The dramaturge gets programming ideas, not from the playwright, but exclusively from a publisher. A publisher is an agent but, often, also an expert in script development. Unlike our agents, whose job is just to promote and sell, German publisher’s will discover playwrights and provide feedback on works in development. When the publisher thinks the play is ready, it is listed in the publisher’s line up. Playwrights rarely, if ever, attend rehearsals. I have never had a dramaturge contact me to ask a question.
“Ute says that for premiere productions, no changes in the script are allowed but after that… well… here we come to the biggest difference between German and English theatre. Ute explains that in English theatre (including Canadian, American etc.), the play, the text, the playwright’s vision, is the focus of the director, actors and creative team. This is our gospel. The playwright is the creative artist. The actors are interpretive artists. In Germany, they simply don’t believe that. They see the play as raw material
for the creative team. In their tradition the director’s vision is most important as then the creativity of the actors. I have seen a play which runs 55 minutes in Canada run for 80 minutes in Germany. And why? The actors created 25 minutes of stage business. They think being creative is their job. When I
tell them a Canadian theatre can’t change a word of any play without the written permission of the playwright they are aghast. They say, “How can you work like that?!” On one visit to Germany I saw 6 different productions of “Danny” in 20 days. Everyone was very different, everyone was exciting and
every one had made changes, in one case egregious changes, to the script.
“Nearing the end of our evening with Ute, a number of playwrights asked me how to get their plays produced in Germany. Clearly, the approach is through a publisher, not directly to the theatres unless you have a contact. The publisher will arrange for a translator unless you have your own. I was introduced to my publisher by a colleague who had seen one of my plays, liked it and asked if he could send the publisher a script. He never told me who he was sending it to but six months later I got an email with a contract. In my case, the publisher takes 25% of royalties and the translator takes another 25% but this can vary slightly). If you have a Canadian agent with contacts in Germany then you could ask him or her to recommend you. It’s wonderful when it works.
“As our evening with Ute came to a close, I thanked her for taking an interest in Canadian theatre and Canadian playwrights. When someone (Marcia Johnson?) asked why she liked us, she said it was because Canadian theatre hadn’t lost its love of narrative. We still, she thought, told a good story in a
way that was accessible to audiences, stories which related to people’s lives. It was a great way to end the evening and I hope these reflections capture some of the stimulating conversation we had.”
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.