What kind of theatre for what kind of city?
What kind of theatre does Frankfurt-am-Main want? For the last seven years, the West German city has been debating what to do with the run-down building on Willy Brandt Square housing the municipal theatre: Renovate it? Tear it down? Rebuild it in the same place? Or somewhere else? With or without an interim solution? As a ‘dual purpose’ venue for opera and drama again or as two separate ones? On two sides of the square, as the Green Party would like, along a yet-to-be-built avenue leading from the river to the Alte Oper, as Ina Hartwig, Social Democrat head of the Department of Culture
has suggested, or in the Osthafen industrial dockland area following redevelopment, as the Christian Democrats of the CDU favour?
Four years after a survey found that – whatever happens – the city will have to spend almost a billion on the premises of its two major municipal theatres, and one-and-a-half years after a reappraisal convinced the city council to tear them down and rebuild, the tide is turning again – because the mayor chose to prioritize other fields during the pandemic, the monument preservation office prevented demolition, and the Christian Democrat/Green regional government blocked relocation to Osthafen. And because all planning was brought to a standstill by a public protest initiative, until it was stopped on legal grounds. In the meantime, ideas for alternatives to demolition have been suggested that, though leaving some wishes unanswered, might be cheaper and more advisable in terms of monument and environmental protection. And in March, local elections reshuffled power relations in the city, and everything seems open again.
Once you have got to the bottom of the many-layered architectural debate, in which various parties are fighting hard to pursue their interests, some upfront, others covert, you get to the no less complex institutional debate. Behind this lies the question of the function of theatre in the city. And that raises the question of what kind of theatre is right for what kind of city – a controversial issue that needs to be discussed.
With the theatre question, Frankfurt is facing a once-in-a-century decision. Plans concern not only the drama and opera venues, but also a new children’s and youth theatre and a ‘culture campus’, with a Zentrum der Künste (centre of the arts) in Bockenheim, i.e., four out of six venues in the city dedicated to publicly-funded theatre.
It’s a chance to put into practice Hilmar Hoffmann’s legendary demand to provide “arts for all”. But the prospects for this once-in-a-century opportunity are by no means assured: Frankfurt has a history of abandoning experimental projects and arts such as theatre to short-term cost-cutting measures and attempts to pander to mainstream tastes. In recent decades, Theater am Turm (TAT), the previous children’s and youth theatre, and the stand-alone ballet were all phased out.
Frankfurt’s financial resources have of course been depleted by the pandemic. But in the interests of its own future, this city – centre of European banking, home of the busiest airport and trade fair in the country – would do well to continue to develop and change. If it veers toward preservation, which is where the theatre debate currently seems to be heading – regardless of whether it renovates and extends the old building or puts up one or two new buildings – there is a danger that the venues – wherever they are and whatever they look like – will become monuments to bygone ideas of theatre.
Rather, the city needs to develop an overall concept to embrace all aspects of city life and enable its theatres to become sites of encounter for the entire spectrum of urban society. It should embrace new aesthetic forms, including urban performance projects, installations, audio-walks, VR simulations and immersive formats, as well as discussion formats, workshops, academies, pop events, club culture and digital productions, in addition to drama, opera, ballet and dance. A cinema for opera films should be just as much part of the new theatre landscape as production studios for social media channels, non-commercial places for encounter, and production spaces for the independent scene.
Recently, artistic director of Mousonturm Matthias Pees collaborated with Frankfurt LAB and several other Frankfurt institutions to set up a spectacular open-air theatre complete with boxes and balconies in Kaiserlei, a cultural no-mans-land between Frankfurt and neighbouring Offenbach, to provide a pandemic-friendly summer programme. This temporary structure demonstrates what every new theatre project in the city should be about: Opening theatre to the realities of the 21st century industrial city. The opening performance, featuring the internationally renowned Ensemble Modern together with the local independent company Volksbühne am Hirschgraben, was accompanied by the noise of passenger planes thundering overhead, to and from the city airport. Meanwhile, swooping bats were reminders of the wildlife inhabiting the nearby riverbank, and anyone who had cycled to the venue on the outskirts of Offenbach from the centre of Frankfurt had already journeyed through the entire social and cultural microcosm of the two cities, which have long since merged into one metropolitan area.
Much remains to be discussed in Frankfurt in the coming years: Whether the city needs a major theatre at all or whether more adaptable spaces would be better, like Strasbourg’s Maillon Theatre or Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, enabling multiple solutions with auditoriums and spatial concepts that can be reconfigured according to whether the focus is on the visual or the acoustic. This urgently needs to be considered, especially in view of most young artists’ lack of interest in producing work for major theatres, as does the opera repertoire’s orientation toward the European tradition. In short, after discussing all the fragmented, special-interest arguments, it’s time to address the core issue: What does this city want from its theatre?
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