Yesterday’s shows are today’s history!

The Berlin Academy of Arts was founded over 300 years ago. Yet its multi-discipline artists’ archive, built up over the last 70 years, remains something of a secret. The internationally unique archive, which is open to the public, currently comprises holdings on some 1100 artists. Director of the performing arts archive Stephan Dörschel talked to BTR about his trove and one of its current projects – exploring and documenting theatre during the pandemic, for prosperity.

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Since its inception, throughout the vicissitudes of history, the key tasks of the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) have been to advise the government and promote exchange between artists. In 1907 the Akademie took premises in a 1735-built residence close to the Brandenburg Gate. After the destruction of World War II and upheavals of German unification, in 2005, it gained deluxe new premises at the same location. In the meantime, in 1962, West Berlin had had its own Akademie premises built in the Hansaviertel neighbourhood of Tiergarten.

Now, both locations are used to offer exhibitions, readings, film screenings, and various other events to the interested public. The archive is based at Robert Koch Platz 10, near Charité hospital. Visitors can borrow material here and read and study in the reading room. This is where we find Stephan Dörschel, director of the performing arts archive. It is obvious at first glance that he is passionate about his job. The floor is covered with half-opened crates and there are piles of documents everywhere, not to mention shelves filled with archive boxes and portraits and posters for past theatrical productions all over the walls.

The artists’ archive is a unique facility. How did it come about?
It was a result of the Akademie’s policy in 1933 to align itself with the Nazi government. Gottfried Benn, a great poet and then Akademie member, was pivotal in getting people like Käthe Kollwitz, Max Liebermann, Heinrich Mann and many, many others thrown out or making them leave of their own accord.

The Akademie was re-founded in East Germany in 1950, and in 1954 in West Berlin. Both branches tried in different ways to get the work of artists who had been persecuted, murdered, or forced into exile under the Nazis back to Germany – which is of course impossible where stage work is concerned. This artists’ and art archive, which continued to grow in two separate academies after the Wall was built, is unique – no other institution has anything like it.

Since 1993 the Akademie has been merged into one, again, but it was a long and difficult process; some members left the Akademie and haven’t come back. Of course, from my point of view it’s wonderful because the combined archive is so fantastic. East and West and a harmony of genres. Dance, for example, can be found in almost every department of the archive; that’s one of the great things about this cross-disciplinary archive.

It must be a long journey – from the crate to the database. How is the first step, into the archive, taken?
As a rule, I visit artists offering us their archive, ideally during their lifetime. They usually donate their archives, otherwise an acquisition discussion like that can be over very quickly. That’s because we cover a very wide range. We have 20th and 21st century drama, spoken-word- and music-theatre, dance, cabaret etc. Within those categories we have directors, stage designers, sculptors, theatre scholars, critics ... We collect in contexts, that’s very important, and we collect the standard-setting artists in theatre (though it’s debatable who that is), but if we have Zadek, say, I try to get associates of his like the stage designer (and director) Wilfried Minks, too.

The database for this fantastic archive has been online since 2015 and anyone can register to research on it – an impressive feat! How much of the archive have you digitalized?
Hardly any. We’re not doing it systematically but as the need arises – for book projects, say, or if it’s written into the archiving contract for a certain group of works. I wish we had the means to [digitalize more]. So many archives today are expected to go digital and online, ideally free of charge, but nobody wants to pay for the rights. I think, when a filmmaker makes a movie on a shoestring, he shouldn’t give it away, that’s not right! That should be factored into the funding for digitalization projects!

Still, researching the database, you get an idea of the multitude of things that can be found there!
That was a big step, putting the database online. Our director Werner Heegewaldt put a lot of effort into getting it off the ground and we were forerunners there. But nobody thinks about how much work it was. Now we are facing another database migration into a new system that none of us are familiar with yet. It’ll take a lot of preparation and be a huge task. Things like that cost a lot of money and you need to think twice about whether it’s really worth it. I think it is! But then you should prepare it properly and do it well.

An ongoing project, then. Perhaps the key aspect of your job, though, is handling the contents of the archive, maintaining, and extending them. How does theatre come alive for you in the archive?
It’s true, every holding is a new adventure to embark on. And it’s great when different things work on and through each other. When Boleslav Barlog from West Berlin’s theatre heyday enters a dialogue with Max Frisch, George Tabori or even Samuel Beckett, that’s just fantastic – and the opposite of old and dusty! That’s partly to do with the fact that we’re relatively close to the present. We’re always close. Also, because we’re doing something that very few theatres and archives do: Our production documentation section documents rehearsal processes. We have up to ten sample performances per season documented. We send someone over to document rehearsals, conduct interviews, make videos, and film some of the rehearsals and certainly the dress rehearsal.

That is going way beyond archiving!
Yes, in fact it’s something that is considered a no-go for archives: We’re making our own archive material! But that way, we not only document the work of directors who don’t collect anything themselves. Now, because of the coronavirus, the theatres are in a situation where their survival is at stake – we want to document that. The artists who are being thrown out of their usual routines and work. Back in 1990 there was a documentary project on theatre after the fall of the iron curtain (Theater in der Wende), for which a lot of material was collected. That documented how the East German theatre system collapsed and was rebuilt. It had similar repercussions for those involved as corona is having now. ‘Theatre in the Pandemic’ is an interesting documentary project. We’re grateful for every cooperation and we let the industry know. We want to explore how theatre is reacting in this crisis – even though the cause is terrible!

BTR wishes Stephan Dörschel and his colleagues continued enthusiasm despite the adversity!

For further information see

BTR Ausgabe 6 2020
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 122
von Karin Winkelsesser

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