In an interview with a reporter from the Dresdner Morgenpost, a delighted Wilfried Schulz (at that time, administrator of the Dresden State Theater) said he had pulled off a “veritable theatrical coup”. That was in 2009, and Schulz had just persuaded the gifted director Miriam Tscholl to come to Dresden. She had been asked to establish a ‘civic’ theater company – a public stage. Amateur theater in the middle of a new concept in 2009. A group going by the name of Rimini Protokoll Volker Lösch was already integrating amateur choirs into his productions.
But no other city went as far as Dresden, where the ‘Bürgerbühne’ was given own slot on the program of the Stadttheater. These meant they had the same number of support staff and the same budget as their professional colleagues. The productions were billed as part of the regular repertoire.
The experiment was an instant success. In the interview, Schulz puts his finger on the reason why: Miriam Tscholl’s “incredible energy”. Today, ten years later, Tscholl’s Bürgerbühne is considered a model of success. Last September, it was awarded the Commerzbank Foundation’s Future Good Prize worth 50,000 euros.
Anyone wishing to visit the 44-year-old at work has passed through a maze of corridors and staircases to the furthest corner of the Little House, the second of the two state theater stages. “Nobody bothers you here,” she says. The office is in the middle of the floor, a bookcase and white walls almost devoid of decoration. On one of the walls a few stage photos. “Our shortlist, but there’s more to come.”
Tscholl is busy selecting productions for the 4th European Civic Theater Festival. In the months leading up to the event, she is making a lot of phone calls and traveling around Europe to gain an overall impression. Most amateur theater groups are part of the independent scene, and are not listed anywhere “I’m more or less doing primary research; there is a lot going on all around Europe at the moment in the field of participatory theater, “she says in this vivacious way she has when she is waxing lyrical about something.
The basic idea of the Dresdner Bürgerbühne is that a director works with local community associations to sketch out a play on a theme that has relevance to ordinary people. That might be poverty or love, aging or immigration. Casting takes place in workshops; the lines the performers want to speak emerge from interviews the staging evolves from improvisation.
“I’m always afraid that things will go wrong,” says Tscholl. Because the process begins without a script already in place. Because the actors need the absolute basics of how theater works explained to them. Because the rehearsals take twice as long as usual, which is exhausting. But she is in no doubt that it is all worth the effort. “The issue of who speaks on behalf of who is becoming increasingly relevant to our society.” In the public stage, everyone speaks for him or herself. And in the end, there are many different answers and opinions.
“The Citizens Stage is a Plea for the Difference, for Participation.” Tscholl breaks off for a moment, does a search on her computer and reads out: “Everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community … ‘
Miriam Tscholl grew up in the Black Forest, “in a 6,000-soul village”. Every two weeks, there was a cultural event: “I just could not wait for it to come round”. The idea that she might make one day work in the theater was unimaginable. She went to university to study architecture but then dropped out to enroll in Applied Theater Studies in Hildesheim.
Later that evening, she is sitting in a rehearsal of Pictures without Purple, with a play, with and about the visually impaired. There are two weeks to go to the premiere. It wants to be one of the last productions under tenure; in the summer of 2019, the director Tobias Rausch wants to be taking over.
“Anything is going disastrously wrong,” says director Adrian Figueroa. Tscholl is meanwhile concentrating intensely, laughing loud at the funny bits. And there are indeed plenty of comical passages, even though the characters are talking about what it’s like when your own daughter goes blind, or about the problems that arise when you can barely see the other person on a literal ‘blind date’. The characters seem strong and confident.
In our earlier conversation, Miriam Tscholl had said that working with lay performers is more difficult than working with professionals. That amateurs were unable to play out of character. “That’s why I cannot dictate to them; everything has to come from within the players themselves.” That is the limitation of the amateur dramatics.
However, one other limitation is absent – what Scholl calls the ‘as-if’ factor. What the audience sees being played out on stage are identities, appearances and truths, as is always the case in the theatre. But here, the audience knows that the script encompasses the real experiences of the actors. “This creates a certain vibe, a special intimacy,” says Tscholl. Because the actors on the stage and the audience watching them are essentially the same people: ordinary members of the public.
Under the artistic direction of Miriam Tscholl “Our Stage – 4th European Citizens’ Festival” wants to feature some of the finest amateur productions from all over Europe. Dates: 18/05/19 – 25/05/19
Festival Center: Small house Glacisstraße 28, 01099 Dresden
Venues: Small House 1, 3, Mitte Glacisstraße 28, 01099 Dresden; Schauspielhaus, Theaterstrasse 2, 01067 Dresden; HELLERAU – European Center for the Arts Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 56, 01109 Dresden; Societaetstheater, at the Dreikönigskirche 1A, 01097 Dresden; Residenzschloss, Taschenberg 2, 01067 Dresden; Probebühne Post, Königsbrücker Straße 21-29, 01099