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by Jörn Etzold

Dramaturge, Curator, Post-Dramaturge: Towards a Change of Paradigm in German-Speaking Theatre and Dance Institutions and Infrastructures

In recent decades, the term curator, widespread in the visual arts, has increased in popularity in the fields of theatre and dance. As it is quite well known, the word derived from the homonymous Latin term that has a somewhat ambivalent meaning: the curator is the one who cares, but also the supervisor and overseer, or the guardian of a minor or ward. The verb at play here is curare, which means to take care of something and even to cure, to heal, but also to arrange for or to desire something. The curator hence has a double function—and this double function is inherent in the activity of care or caring itself. Caring seems to be and often is soft and attentive, but it maintains an uncanny proximity to emotional, epistemic, and even physical violence. The one who cares knows what the one—or the many, or the things—s/he cares for need and want. S/he even might know it better than the people in question.

In the field of theatre, dance, and performing arts, the curator partly adopts and transforms tasks that were previously executed by two other figures: on the one hand, the artistic director who, in German state and city theatres, is denominated Intendant:in and bears the overall artistic responsibility for an institution, decides on the repertoire, hires the actors and directors, sets themes for seasons, and oversees the productions; on the other hand, the dramaturge is a figure of particular interest for the institution of theatre and its critique. The dramaturge can be a Chefdramaturg—to quote another very German term coined in the Third Reich[1] when Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels even appointed the Reichsdramaturg Rainer Schlösser[2]—and as a dramaturge in chief, s/he is the advisor, right-hand wo/man or counterpart of the artistic director her- or himself, responsible for the general profile of one theatre. But s/he can also be just a simple dramaturge, either in a permanent position at the commissioning theatre and then assigned to certain productions or hired on a freelance basis by a director or a company. Smaller independent theatres have one or two dramaturges who generally do a lot of things as diverse as scouting performance groups, puzzling out hygienic seating arrangements during a pandemic, providing content for social media, explaining performances to the inquiring crowd before the first night, and, always, writing funding applications. In any case, s/he is a mediator. When the dramaturge becomes a curator, this does not only mean that s/he now bears a fancier title: it marks a transformation of the institution of theatre and its role in society.

What is or has been a dramaturge? The profession was invented in Germany and has been deeply Protestant and civil from the very beginning. The first dramaturge bearing this title was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, writing plays for the German National Theatre in Hamburg and simultaneously reflecting and criticizing his and the company’s work in the famous Hamburg Dramaturgy. A little later, Friedrich Schiller became a dramaturge in Weimar. Lessing’s approach to theatre was steeped with Protestantism: he went back to the original text of Aristotle, interpretating it, however, in a modern way that did not have so much to do with the Greek original’s definition or pity and fear. By following Denis Diderot, Lessing wanted the bourgeois spectator to commiserate with people/individuals equal to her- or himself, that is, with a human being as a member of civil society. This commiseration has a political and societal function: Nikolaus Müller-Schöll compares the role of the dramaturge to the that of the police during the rise of bourgeois society.[3] After the sovereign was decapitated or at least had left the stage of representation, there was the need to create new forms of association of the members of civil society and new “techniques of government”—as Joseph Vogl shows in his reading of Lessing in Calculation and Passion (Kalkül und Leidenschaft),[4] referring, like Müller-Schöll, to Michel Foucault’s historiography. In theatre and dance, spectators come together to gaze secretly at virtuous maids who are hidden behind an artificial fourth wall and then unite in pity and weeping. The isolated members of civil society that Michel Foucault analyzed as “subjects of interest”[5] are banded together by means of the affect of pity (with their equals, or with themselves), and the dramaturge steers and channels these affects as the flock’s herdsman.

Nevertheless, the dramaturge remains some kind of sidekick: in the old days of Regietheater, the director often still behaved like the sovereign that had elsewhere disappeared long ago, being moody and ingenious, intrusive and tyrannical. The dramaturge, instead, had the text and the rehearsal schedule at hand, calmed the moods, and communicated with the artistic director, the media, and the audience. However, the administrator or functionary might have always been more powerful as the sovereign her- or himself who, due to his absolute power, is not even able to decide. This is something that we can learn among other things from Walter Benjamin’s book on baroque theatre: besides the Janus-faced figure of sovereign and martyr, Benjamin places the intriguer that he calls the “forerunner of the ballet master” at the side of the sovereign; the intriguer sees “human emotions as calculable mechanics.”[6] When sovereigns go mad, the administration still has its routines and protocols. The intriguer as well as the ballet master are experts in affective economics. They stay calm and are powerful because they never even want to be in the sovereign’s place. Later, Arnold Gehlen will state that institutions provide relief (Entlastung) from all the exigencies of modern life.[7] Generally, the institution remains when the sovereign is gone; institutions continue to exist if nobody decides that they should. The dramaturge who is not the sovereign is usually on the institution's side. S/he can try to change it from within, criticize it, but is still tied to its functioning.

But what happens when s/he becomes a curator? Of course, this shift shows that contemporary forms of theatre are less and less text-based and are often closer to visual arts than they are to literature. The development of contemporary dance plays an important role here. Dance can critically examine communal and political spatial structures, power and gender relations, and concepts of health, ability, and beauty without a word being said. Spoken language on stage, if it occurs, is just one element among others, and the physical act of speaking can become as visible as the question of who is allowed to speak and who is not. Institutionally, the emergence of the curator in dance and performance arts also has to do with a fundamental shift in the functioning of dramaturgy itself, leading to claims of postdramaturgy as the “outcome of manifold conversations of shared experiences.”[8] This change comes with the institutionalization of independent theatre. “Production houses”—the translation offered by the network of seven important German institutions itself[9]—do not have an ensemble; they cooperate with each other, the artists, or groups and their respective dramaturges to acquire funding for productions. Those institutions often undertake efforts to be rooted in their particular quarter, city, and region, but they act nevertheless in a national and even international frame. They do not show repertoires, but generally pieces that tour several partner institutions. They often host or cooperate with festivals, intense get-togethers of the mobile network of professionals and afficionados. We should keep in mind that one of the key endeavors of the unlucky interim artistic director of the Berlin Volksbühne, Chris Dercon, was to replace the dramaturges with curators and to include a lot of dance performances in his program. The protesters from the Berlin Mitte crowd claimed that, in doing so, Dercon somewhat connived with neoliberal capitalism to accelerate the transformation of their neighborhood what was former East Berlin into a multinational tourism destination. The institution of a regular city or state theatre specialized in spoken theatre—with its ensemble, its workshops, and all the expert artisans for costume, lighting, and stage design—suddenly appeared as some kind of bulwark against neoliberal gentrification. The curator became the symbol of an international, soulless post-Fordist capitalism whose actors saw both arts and real estate as mere means of investment.

From Lessing on, the dramaturge was a copy editor: s/he sought to reveal the meaning and the current relevance of a dramatic text or libretto and told the spectators what the story told in it had to do with their own lives. But dance, performance, audio walks, and site-specific works rarely need an excerpt from the drama compiled by a dramaturge. However, there is seldom any performance or dance piece without language, although it does not necessarily have to be spoken on stage: the new formats of theatre and dance which a curator invites, hosts, and accompanies are deeply interwoven with a textual infrastructure of contemporary theatre and dance, an infrastructure that does not only serve to inform the audience about the piece, its (theoretical) background, and its supposed impact, but that is also basically connected to and implemented into the funding system. Valeska Klug has examined some criteria for regional, supra-regional, and national funding in North Rhine Westphalia and Germany in the wake of a professionalization of the independent scene: according to the criteria formulated by the administrations in charge, eligible performances had to be new (generally, neither the restaging of an existing production nor the revised submission of a formerly rejected proposal were permitted) and innovative. However, the outcome was to be “projectable, calculable, and describable”[10]—and to be available for evaluation. Klug also observes that the calls very rarely talk about artists but rather of the funding institutions themselves, which enable “innovation and internationalization,” “highlight” themes and issues, “encourage artists,” “initiate” projects, and “accelerate” their development. Artists are invited to “participate.” The calls also outline the expected effects on a “public,” i.e., “public spaces and buildings” that enable the creation of “spaces of cooperation and encounters between different generations, cultures, and social backgrounds.”[11] Klug concludes: “The program itself becomes the subject.”[12] In this cosmos, the dramaturge hired by a company or an artist is often the one who helps them fulfil the various yet monotone requirements of the funding institutions, to provide appropriate wording, and to sketch the desired social and political effects.

With Lessing, the dramaturge emerges as the one who steers the affective economics of the civil society: through his techniques, he brings together its isolated members and unites them as they cry. They see themselves in the characters on stage. In the modern funding system Klug describes, the function of the dramaturge or post-dramaturge somehow has been taken over by the institution itself. The institution reproduces itself—it assembles progressive and innovative fractions of the civil society that claims to be one of the motors of ongoing development. What is more, the funding schemes acknowledge that civil society is made up of isolated “subjects of interests”—with their ideas, their creativity, the desire to innovate and to invent, to optimize, and to develop. The artists who apply are urged to cooperate, yet they all apply in concurrence with others. Here, as in Lessing, the aim is the affective binding of the dispersed “human beings.” Whereas Lessing though of pity, the institutions rather award innovation and participation. However, the overall task remains the same: uniting civil society. This is the task of the institutions and the (post-)dramaturges: provide it with content. S/he embeds the artistic work in a textual infrastructure provided by the institution and kept alive by every contribution from artists. This is not something done ex post: the funding procedures decide what project can be produced and what cannot.

What, then, can be the political, social, and aesthetic role of a “post-dramaturge” or a curator—or, even better, a team or collective of them—in contemporary dance, performance, and independent theatre? On the one hand, there is the danger that s/he acts as a ward or a gatekeeper who exercises the epistemic violence of care in deciding what piece is “innovative” or “contemporary” and what piece is not, what applies to the funding criteria (the aesthetic criteria, the political criteria) and what does not. S/he mediates and translates the artistic endeavors that are driven by various imaginary, political, and libidinous forces into something that the institution can develop, that it can work with. This activity can be exclusive on several levels. Theorists, but even more so artistic directors like Matthias Lilienthal, have scrupulously contemplated the ongoing coloniality that a concept like Theatre of the World (the idea behind the eponymous festival, Theater der Welt) implies: who invites the “world” here and presents its own fenced territory, dependent on raw materials, energy, and labor extracted elsewhere as some kind of neutral space where mankind can unite? What is the “epistemic violence” executed by the European stage: who can appear on such a stage, who is able to speak on it? Is a performance by African dancers “contemporary” enough for a European festival?[13] Exoticism and moral extractivism (that adds the extraction of moral resources to that of commodities) are possible dangers. But the post-dramaturges and curators can be exactly this person—or: the collective dramaturgical and curatorial process in devising a performance can be exactly the procedure—reflecting the restrictions, framings, and violence inherent in the process of producing contemporary performance.

In a text from 2017, art theorist Marina Vishmidt examines and announces a shift from “institutional critique” to “infrastructural critique” in the art world: infrastructure, she states, "can be considered a conceptual diagram that enables thought to develop.”[14] Infrastructural critique cuts through this development, making other notions of time possible. This critique necessitates “an engagement with the thoroughly intertwined objective (historical, socio-economic) and subjective (including affect and artistic subjectivization) conditions necessary for the institution and its critique to exist, reproduce themselves, and posit themselves as an immanent horizon as well as transcendental condition.” Hence, infrastructural critique concerning the role of a curator in dance, performance, and theatre does not only address the institution and try to change it from within, but it also cares for the underlying structures (“infra” means “under”) that nourish and supply the institutions. In the first place, these structures are material: stages need electricity, even dancers have to eat, and people should be able to visit the performance in good conditions. But the notion of infrastructure can also be expanded: the institutions also rely on a textual infrastructure that keeps them going. These infrastructures form subjectivities and their ideas of the new and contemporary, they decide on the things you can do and the things you cannot, they ensure the affective organization of capitalist society—or, more precisely, of its well-protected democratic segment that Vishmidt refers to as “the former West”—that needs art to innovate and to develop. When curatorial practices address and try to change the institutions they work in and with, they might only help to optimize them. But they can—and often do—also keep in mind the infrastructures they depend upon; they can interrupt their flows, try out new ways to make them perceivable, ask for the imaginary drive that lets them emerge and the very unequal prices a society is willing to pay for their maintenance. It can work with “the basic, the boring, the mundane, and all the mischievous work done behind the scenes.“[15]

Sandra Chatterjee and Cynthia Ling Lee, Back to the Beautiful (Water Memories), performance produced for group show co-curated by the students of the Curating in the Performing Arts university course, 2017, SZENE Salzburg. Photograph by: Hubert Auer.

Jörn Etzold is Professor of Theater Studies at Ruhr University Bochum. He has taught and done research at the universities of Giessen, Frankfurt, Erfurt, Weimar, and at Northwestern University, Evanston. In 2023, he will be Senior Fellow at the Maria Sibylla Merian Centre Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America (Mecila) in São Paulo, Brazil. Etzold is the author of Die melancholische Revolution des Guy-Ernest Debord (Zürich/Berlin 2009); Flucht. Stimmungsatlas in Einzelbänden (Hamburg 2018); Gegend am Aetna. Hölderlins Theater der Zukunft (Paderborn 2019); he has also written numerous essays. Prävention. Stimmungsatlas in Einzelbänden is forthcoming (Hamburg 2022). In addition, Etzold has also worked as a theater-maker and translator. Currently, he is preparing a joint research project on Infrastructure – Aesthetics and Supply.



[1] See Evelyn Deutsch-Schreiner, Theaterdramaturgie von der Aufklärung bis zur Gegenwart (Weimar/Vienna: Böhlau, 2016), 154.

[2] See Evelyn Deutsch-Schreiner, “The Educators of Theatre. Dramaturgy between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment,” in Dramaturgies in the New Millennium (Tübingen: Narr, 2014), 39–47: 48.

[3] See Nikolaus Müller-Schöll, “Polizeiliche und politische Dramaturgie,” in Postdramaturgien, eds. Sandra Umathum and Jan Deck (Berlin: Neofelis, 2020), 209–229.

[4] See Joseph Vogl, Kalkül und Leidenschaft: Poetik des ökonomischen Menschen (Zürich, Berlin: diaphanes, 2008), 83–138.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 19781979, Houndmills (UK, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 274.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Origin of the Baroque Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA, London: Harvard University Press, 2019), 85 et seq.

[7] See Arnold Gehlen, Anthropologische und sozialpsychologische Untersuchungen (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1986).

[8] Kirsten Maar, “P.S.—Postscriptum zur Post-Dramaturgie zwischen choreographischer Praxis und der Reflektion von Produktionsverfahren (a Dialogue),” in Postdramaturgien, eds. Sandra Umathum and Jan Deck (Berlin: Neofelis, 2020),165–181: 181.

[9] See Alliance of International Production Houses, accessed August 8, 2022, https://en.produktionshaeuser.de/

[10] Valeska Klug, ”Zwischen Anforderungen und Zuschreibungen. Freie szenischen Künstler*innen und Künste in Förderdiskursen,“ Cahier d’études germaniques 80 (2021): 117–120.

[11] Ibid., 113 et seq. Klug cites various calls and programs.

[12] Ibid., 114.

[13] For the question of epistemic violence, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, ed. Rosalind Morris (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010), 21–78 [1999], 237–291 [1988].

[14] Marina Vishmidt, ”Between Not Everything and Not Nothing: Cuts Toward Infrastructural Critique,” in Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989, eds. Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 265–269: 265.

[15] John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2015), 33.


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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance