The German Theatre System Has a Problem With Power and Discrimination


The German theatre system has a lot of structural problems: it is defined by the demand for unlimited availability of all artists and employees by their theatre directors. The “theatre director” (Intendant) is by far the most powerful person in the German public theatre. As the artistic director and CEO in personal union, he is responsible for all major decisions in the theatre. He is an arbiter of fees and contracts, and an enabler of artistic development on and behind the stage; he serves several essential functions in one. Most directors are not specifically trained to fulfill the requirements of this function and also resist the temptations of power.

Most theatre directors no longer receive training. Any qualifications they may have received earlier in their careers have not equipped them for the multitude of complex and significant cultural shifts that have occurred.

Theatres are big employers and in smaller, especially East German cities, quite often on top of all local enterprises. There are between one hundred and one thousand employees working depending on the size of the theatre and the public funds given.

The absolute power of the director leads to a hierarchical theatre organization. Currently, everybody in the 140 public theatre companies works for the director, who excessively aims at developing his artistic profile and brand. The typical aim of a theatre director is to preserve and augment his power and, after a contractual period of about five years, to become elected to the next level in the hierarchy of theatres. The bigger the cities, the bigger the theatres, and Berlin is at the very top with eight state-run and dozens of smaller free and private theatre companies.

The abuse of power manifests in verbal discrimination, physical abuse, and a high gender pay gap of 34 percent in the artistic theatre professions. It also manifests in the glass ceiling that makes it difficult for women and people of color to get a position in top management. The number of women advancing into executive positions in theatres is still much too small. Taking into consideration the last fifty years, only 10 percent of all theatre productions invited to the renowned German Theater Meeting (Theatertreffen) were helmed by female directors.

The devaluation of women and people of color in the theatres is a structural problem in the German theatre industries. Numbers are not lying, they show that the slogans of inclusion and diversity are just marketing—the rest is pretending.

76 percent of all CEOs on top of the theatres are male and white, 24 percent are women. Only one out of 140 theater directors is a person of color. This low share is shameful for a country that has been open to immigration for more than seventy years and with a share of 28.7 percent of immigrants living and working in Germany in the second and third generation. This says a lot about a male power system in which women, and people of color can only reach top positions if they have sufficient connections to high-ranking members of the so-called Stage Association or other influential networks.

9.4 percent of women were affected by sexual assault, which was often disguised as offers of “help accelerating the artistic future” by offering a good role in an interesting production, where the artists could be seen by international casters, producers, and directors. In 37 percent of cases, the artists rejected this offer and suffered severe consequences: they were no longer cast, and when they wanted to leave the theatre for another company, the mostly male artistic directors called their male colleagues in other theatres and made sure that this “disobeying” artist could no longer get a job in the theatre business. This could be the end of the career.

At the very heart of every theatre there is a vast, dark tomb where all the dreams of its artists are buried. And the gravediggers were mostly the theatre directors.

82 percent of all mentioned cases of abuse and discrimination took place in full responsibility of male theatre directors, who were neither democratically selected for their position nor acting in the interests of their organization and employees. They have no code of ethics and/or do not work from a “good governance” perspective. Even though the abuse of power has led to the dismissal of five German theatre directors so far in the last three years, the problem is not solved. Most directors who committed discrimination and abuse of power will never be accused because the affected colleagues are afraid of losing their jobs.

There is another saying that at the very heart of every theatre there is a vast, dark tomb where all the dreams of its artists are buried. And the gravediggers were mostly the theatre directors.

I spoke personally with more than one hundred actresses, opera singers, and dancers who had to end their career, and even the best lawyers could not restore the lost reputation of these artists. You are “in or out”—forever.

The problem can’t be solved by dismissing an abusive director, because often the next male director, who was probably his assistant or colleague on a lower hierarchical level, has learnt to copy the “classical,” unethical behavior of their predecessors who are his role models.

The average theatre director is starting his career as an assistant, a scenic director, or dramaturg and is working his way through the institution. After about twenty-one years of service in the theatre landscape, one in thirty is reaching his goal and becoming elected as a director of one of the public theatres. On average, they are starting at the age of fifty-four as a theatre director in one of the thirty smaller and middle regional theaters. After one or two successful terms of about five years each, they usually become promoted to the next level, the so-called city theatre (“Stadttheater”), where they stay about another one to two terms of five years.

Theatre directors of city theatres are responsible for about three hundred to five hundred employees, and for a budget of about 30 million USD. Finally, the directors with the most outstanding artistic oeuvre are becoming rewarded with a post at one of the highly respected and outstanding metropolitan theatres.

My recommendations to address these issues are structural in nature. First and foremost is the democratization of the selection processes of new theatre directors, which includes a necessary psychological review with the question: are they humble and empathetic enough to lead people who dedicate their lives to the service of art? This kind of assessment exists only in Zurich, Switzerland. I would suggest codes of conduct to introduce ethical and fair, as well as diverse and inclusive, thinking and acting into theatres. Transparency between all levels and spheres should ensure that all important information and decision-making bases are available to everyone. And finally, participation should guarantee greater involvement of artists on the employee level in key decisions and in supervisory boards. In Ethical Theater, I propose transformation processes in the organization of the theatre, including breaking down its classical architectural barriers, making it more inviting for the public—theatre must be an open and inviting place. Finally, I suggest that employees and artists should also have voting power in board and management meetings and establish Ethics Councils that have the power to veto toxic decisions of the management and propose immediate measures for improvement. This would include great solidarity and collaboration between all artists in a theatre. I believe that these structural changes could significantly address the problems of abuse and discrimination within German theatre and open up a path to a kind of “theatre of the future.”

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