I went along to Encounter#1 in Munich. Running over three days, it kicked off with an introduction by the six key companies – see separate article. This was followed by a work meeting, split into two groups, one focussing on Aesthetic Practice, the other on Cultural Policy and Funding, a symposium with academics and practitioners, also open to the public, and a ‘mobile’ performance of the first production of Münchner Kammerspiele’s mixed Syrian and German company, the Open Borders Ensemble.
Jonas Tinius, an anthropologist from Berlin’s Humboldt University who also works with Ruhrorter, opened proceedings. “We want to share successes and challenges,” he said. “The funding streams people have found, what aesthetic practices they’re using, how they’re dealing with bringing culture and language together, ensuring that all parties have an equal voice. We want to create a network, a sustainable conversation, maybe even a mini-manifesto.” And as the six companies made their presentations, a fascinating and inspiring picture began to emerge, along with a realisation that this proposed network should be crossing borders far beyond Germany. The work ranged across generations, across cultures, across aesthetics. Committed and ambitious. An ambition challenged by issues of language and cultural translation and by resources and funding, but undimmed for all that.
Next day, we broke into groups to debate Aesthetics and Funding. There were various practical issues around operation and sustainability, many of which could start to be addressed through this consultative approach and strategic partnerships. As ever, funding was a problem, particularly as without regular revenue funding, the continuity that is so vital for ensuring the trust of participants is threatened. There were organisational issues – many participants have other commitments so individual productions can take a year or more to fruition. Everybody agreed that diversity should apply at every level, not just on and around the stage but from administrative and aesthetic decision-making to festival juries too, but the practicalities of this are complex. So much of the funding currently goes to people organising “the other” rather than “the other” directly. Operationally, much of the work is produced under the umbrellas of established theatres because they have the local understanding, the resources. And however well-intentioned, this must beg a question: where is the power? Whose voice is speaking?
And in a truly intercultural group, it’s not just about developing training and familiarisation programmes but also about finding a common set of criteria for aesthetic and organisational quality and process in looking for new perspectives. Ultimately don’t we need to find a new idea of what theatre should be, a new aesthetic?
On the aesthetic and practical level, there were concerns about communication, particularly around translation. “Think about the power that the translator has over the non-Arabic speaking audience – what if it’s wrong?” said one participant. Language alone is difficult enough to deal with, especially in an aesthetic environment, but what about the semi-unconscious understanding that comes from being part of a culture? It becomes very difficult to communicate everything effectively. And then there’s the audiences – they’re a vital part of any theatre piece. How to we get them to engage? And how can we work with the communities that are hostile to diversity, some of whom feel ignored themselves?