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When juxtaposed with the theatre systems of Eastern European countries at the UTE Conference on Theatre Structures in Belgrade, Austria’s situation seems nothing short of luxurious. In every way. Andrea Ruis of the Arts and Culture Division of the Federal Chancellery of Austria and Anna Badora, artistic director of the Volkstheater in Vienna, gave in-depth talks that powerfully demonstrated the significance and prosperity of theatre in Austria. 

The Volkstheater in Vienna © www.lupispuma.at

6.09 million tickets were sold in more than 15,000 performances in the 2014/2015 season. With just over eight and a half million inhabitants, this is categorical evidence of Austria’s obsession with theatre. The great theatres of Vienna sold more than 3.8 million tickets, with a population of just 1.8 million inhabitants. In 2016, the Republic of Austria gave an impressive 200 million euros in funding to its theatres. With such a high level of the Austrian “theatrical obsession,” it’s no wonder the federal government passed legislation (Kunstförderungsgesetz) in 1988, making it mandatory to perpetually fund the arts.

It’s no surprise that Austria incorporates all forms of theatres in their national repertoire; everything from the internationally renowned National Theatre to countless cabarets, intimate cellar theatres along with an array of independent artist performances occurring on professional or impromptu stages. With regards to the large theatre institutions, there are state, regional, municipal and private theatres; which together employ more than 5,000 actors, directors and administrative staff that work almost year-round to put on acclaimed works. The terms for these different theatrical institutions have developed historically, and allude to the financial structure behind them.

State theatres evolved from the former Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Court Theatres (k.u.k. Hoftheater). Some of the most recognized names in this imperial branch of theatre include the world-renowned Wiener Staatsoper, the Volksoper, and the Burgtheater, which is the second oldest straight theatre in Europe. In 1999, the Austrian parliament passed the Federal Theatres Organisation Act (Bundestheaterorganisationsgesetz), which required state theatres to be removed from the federal administration. Thus resulting in the creation of the Bundestheater-Holding company (Federal Theatres Holding).

The Bundestheater-Holding group is owned by the Republic of Austria. Its purpose is to facilitate the contact between its four subsidiaries and political players in the cultural field, the business community and the public. The holding company is furthermore responsible for strategic management and operations of its subsidiaries. This includes everything from financial and legal support to contract handling and upkeep of the historical theatre buildings. In addition to three independent theatres (Wiener Staatsoper, Volksoper, Burgtheater; all of them are in Vienna), the Bundestheater Holding also incorporates an association called “ART FOR ART,” which provides creative shops and ticketing, building management and IT services. With a budget of 246.2 Million euros and 2,400 employees, the Bundestheater-Holding is the largest theatre corporation in the world. Its three member theatres attract an impressive 1.3 million spectators every year. Lending such comprehensive support in business management to its subsidiaries, the Bundestheater-Holding allows its theatres to focus on the core of their work: creating high-quality theatre productions.

The second category of theatres includes regional and municipal theatres, which are the main stages in the federal states and its cities, respectively. Federal states also have holding companies, such as the Vereinigte Bühnen in Vienna (Vienna is not only the capital but a federal state of its own), which is composed of the Theater an der Wien, the Ronacher and the Raimund Theater. These three theatres primarily offer different forms of musical theatre in its three venues of 1070, 1040, and 1255 seats. With a combined 644 performances each year, the Vereinigte Bühnen reaches a sizeable audience of musical lovers. In the Styrian province, which is home to Austria’s second largest city, Graz, the Theater Holding Steiermark unites the opera house (including the ballet), the municipal theatre and the children’s theatre and is financed at 50% by the state and at 50% by the city.

Eight out of the nine federal states have a regional or municipal theatre, most of which are former court theaters and date back to the 18th and 19th century. (Court theatres used to be funded and managed by the court, as opposed to the people’s theatres, which were privately funded and publicly accessible). More often than not they are so-called “multi-branch” theatres, which usually comprise opera, drama, ballet and children’s theatre. They are primarily financed by the federal state and the municipality. These theatres are part of the Society of Theatres of the Austrian Federal States and Municipalities. Its purpose is to protect the interests of its members, as well as to propose how to divide federal government funding of 18.7 million euros over the course of five years. Its members, which include the Salzburger Landestheater, the Oper Graz, the Tiroler Landestheater and the Stadttheater Klagenfurt, offer more than 3,000 performances a year to over one million spectators. Altogether, these theatres receive collective subsidies of 136 million euros.

In the 19th century, municipal theatres were flourishing and inspired the architects Fellner & Helmer to specialise in representative buildings for municipal theatres, which they erected in various cities across Central and Eastern Europe. In Austria alone, they designed the opera house in Graz, the Landestheater Salzburg, the Stadttheater Baden bei Wien, the Stadttheater Klagenfurt, the Akadmietheater (part of the Burgtheater), the Konzerthaus, the Ronacher, and the Volkstheater in Vienna. With countless enthusiastic audience members flocked in front of these architectural landmarks each night, municipal theatres prove to be the central theatrical institutions in Austria’s state capitals to this day.

In a third category, there are the so-called private theatres, such as the Volkstheater, the Theater in der Josefstadt and the Theater der Jugend.  They collectively show more than 1,500 performances a year for more than 600,000 spectators. Broadly speaking, the Volkstheater offers more innovative approaches to critical spectators, while the Theater in der Josefstadt caters to a more conservative and traditional audience. Meanwhile, the Theater der Jugend shows ambitious literature for young people.

The private theatres were originally founded by benefactors as an antithesis to the court theatre. However, today their money no longer comes from benefactors but from the municipality and the federal government (approximately 60% and 40%, respectively), which effectively renders the term ‘private theatre’ obsolete in Austria. From a legal perspective, private theatres have been transformed from private corporate entities into foundations, associations, or limited liability companies.

Since, the majority of funding for these theatres comes from the federal government and the municipality, the artistic directors are nominated by the culture secretary (as of 18 December 2017 it’s Gernot Blümel) and the city councillor for cultural affairs (currently Andreas Mailath-Pokorny). One of the major benefits of having these private theatres registered as limited liability companies is that legally the artistic and managing directors are entitled to make independent decisions. That means they can manage their budget completely freely; they can autonomously hire and fire their staff; and they have complete control over their programme. As Anna Badora, Artistic Director of the Volkstheater in Vienna stated, “I may be as bold as to argue that this is the best system for theatres in the world.” Indeed, the Volkstheater’s strong financial position coupled with vast managerial and artistic independence is a privilege most theatres in the world would envy her for.

However, the seemingly ideal Austrian theatre system comes with understated flaws. Subsidies for theatre institutions remain the same every year, while fixed costs, such as rent, electricity or fees and salaries increase every year. Each theatre has to cover this gap in costs with money from their own pocket, usually through ticket sales. However, most of them already reach a high percentage of seats sold. Theatres therefore have to come up with new ways of generating money—which can easily become a distraction from fulfilling their original purpose.

Furthermore, the competition amongst theatres is big, especially in the capital, and relations amongst each other as well as with political stake holders need to be carefully handled. Subtle ambiguity and scheming happen of course, like anywhere else, inhibiting the productivity of theatre managers.

From an employee perspective, theatre contracts, although decent by international standards, are still not perfect. Actors, especially young ones, have little protection, much less so than stagehands, for example. It is customary that a change in directorship goes hand in hand with an exchange of the permanent acting company, thus customarily leaving actors, especially newcomers, without a job whenever a new artistic director takes over. Nonetheless, even young actors have a privileged situation in Austria in comparison to a lot of the countries present at the conference in Belgrade, where a permanent contract for an actor is something you can only dream of.

Back to Austria’s theatres, though. Vienna is, of course, the centre of the country’s diverse and compact theatre landscape. The capital’s culture budget amounts to 84 million euros, which far exceeds the rest of the federal states. Its main three theatres alone attract more than 1.3 million people a year. Vienna has more than 90 theatres, and an estimated 500 independent groups. It is home to the most prestigious theatres of the country and has multiple theatres that are considered as highly significant.

Often simply referred to as “Die Burg” (the fortress), the Burgtheater is a unique cultural phenomenon. Under the reign of Josef II, the theatre world in Vienna flourished, and he declared the Burgtheater “the German National Theatre”. Instead of opera and ballet, drama was now put into the limelight, with a particular emphasis on European literature. Austria’s National Theatre is the largest and one of the most prestigious theatres in the German theatre realm: the Burgtheater employs approximately 550 people, 74 of which are permanent actors. Additionally it regularly hires 38 guest actors. For comparative purposes, Germany’s largest theatre—the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg—has 47 permanent actors, and approximately half the Burgtheater’s budget.

Based on the sheer volume of its permanent actors and budget, the Burgtheater has the largest company and is the most well-funded theatre in the world. Specifically, this goliath received more than 46 million euros in public funding during the 2015 season. It attracts the highest number of spectators in continental Europe with an average of 850 performances a year on four different stages (one of these stages is located in a different theatre building altogether). After the Comédie Française, it is the second oldest straight theatre in Europe, and the largest German speaking one. Currently, Karin Bergmann is the artistic director of the Burgtheater, and will be followed by Martin Kušej in 2019.

Stefan Bachmann, Andrea Breth, Roland Schimmelpfennig and Michael Thalheimer are just a few of the renowned directors to work at the Burgtheater in the past. Paula Wessely, Attila Hörbiger, Josef Meinrad and Paul Hörbiger were once some of the most famous names to perform at the Burgtheater. Today, Kirsten Dene, Maria Happel, Klaus Maria Brandauer, or Peter Simonischek must be mentioned when talking about the prominent cast members of the “Burg”. The highest honour for an actor in the Austrian theatre world is to be called a “Burgschauspieler,” which solely connotes that you are a permanent actor at the Burgtheater. In fact, Thomas Bernhard dedicated one of his most famous novels, “Woodcutters”, to the high social status of the “Burgschauspieler.”

Demand to see the creme de la creme of Austrian theatre live on stage is extremely high, and there’s usually a long line meandering from the ticket booth inside all the way to the front of the building. While the Burgtheater was once only frequented by the aristocracy, today it is accessible to anyone, with a standing ticket as cheap as €3,50.

Historically, the Volkstheater was founded with the mission of being the exact opposite of the Burgtheater. Its name says it all: “People’s Theatre.” Its purpose, as Mrs. Badora pointed out during the UTE conference in Belgrade, “is to bring theatre to the people on its main stage as well as on its second stage and its 19 theatres in the districts.” The Volkstheater includes both entertainment in its repertory but also, and most importantly, innovative theatre that is critical of socio-political developments.

Complementing the two biggest straight theatres in Vienna, there are other important institutions that also need to be briefly considered. These theatres offer different content and aesthetics than the Burgtheater or the Volkstheater, and partially cater to a different audience altogether. The Theater in der Josefstadt, which opened in 1788, is the oldest theatre in Vienna to continuously have been in use since its founding. Its focus, as suggested earlier, is on classical Austrian theatre, including contemporary literature and light comedy. Since 2006, Herbert Föttinger has been the theatre’s artistic director.

The Theater der Jugend, with Thomas Birkmeir as its artistic director, has two stages, the Theater im Zentrum and the Renaissancetheater. It mainly produces plays for children and adolescents, although the theatre has also had the responsibility of generating audiences for other theatres.

Next to theatres that have a greater focus on music theatre (Theater an der Wien, Ronacher, Raimundtheater), there are numerous other theatres in Vienna, such as the Schauspielhaus Wien and the Rabenhof Theater, to only name two famous ones. Smaller stages are also very frequented by Austrian theatre goers. One of the most highly respected and popular types is the socio-politically charged cabaret genre. The most renowned stage is the Kabarett Simpl, the only cabaret that dates back to the 19th century that is still open today.

The diversity of Austria’s theatrical institutions delineated here demonstrates the high demand of Austria’s adept theatre audience that enjoys this art form in all its shapes and sizes. Accordingly, Austrians also highly value their independent theatre scene. Since the 1990s, the scene has boomed tremendously, especially due to the high influx of students of theatre who opt to stay in Austria after graduation. Even though Austria’s most prestigious drama school, the Reinhardt Seminar, only accepts 3-12 students a year, there are still more than 50 drama and music schools which attract a high number of students from abroad. The (former) students’ sundry backgrounds, and their offbeat and experimental approaches, make the independent scene particularly attractive to the versed spectator.

Federal and municipal funding for the independent scene occurs in three ways: for a year-long programme, a specific project, or for production exchanges or tours abroad. An external advisory committee is made up of individuals who are active in the arts. The committee members’ primary responsibility is to select viable applicants from the countless proposals that come in every year. This committee studies all incoming applications based on a series of rigid criteria (quality, target audience, innovation, new forms of theatrical creation, realistic budgeting, etc.), reaching an exclusive selection of productions and projects that promise the highest artistic quality and greatest sustainability. In 2016, these projects were funded with approximately 1.5 million euros. Roughly 400,000 euros were used for fourteen one-year long projects and a little over one million euros was awarded to 120 troupes. Additionally, the city of Vienna funded the independent scene with four million euros.

Vienna offers “co-production locations” to the independent scene, which are companies that don’t produce themselves but offer their premises to independent artists. The most famous of these are the Tanzquartier, the brut, and the Dschungel Wien (the latter being for children’s theatre). While rehearsals often last up to six weeks, “productions frequently aren’t performed more than two or three times”, Ms. Ruis lamented at the conference in Belgrade. This is why the federal government encourages independent artists to take their shows abroad, as tours can be granted additional funding.

Many independent artists are members of the IGFT, the League of Independent Artists, which was founded in 1989. It’s a network of more than 1,600 independent theatre and dance artists that lobbies for the independent scene. The IGFT covers cultural politics, consulting, public relations, infrastructure, networking, and controlling of funding and social security allowances, as well as general services to independent theatre makers (taxes, dues, etc.) The league receives funding of 300,000 euros from the federal government.

For theatre institutions, funding is tied to the principle of subsidiarity. That is to say that a theatre must receive subsidies from the municipality and the state in order to receive funding from the federal government. This way of financing is firmly established in the federal constitution, and aims at decentralizing accountability and forwarding it to those closest to the subsidized institution. Therefore, the main responsibility when it comes to theatres lies with the state and/or the city, and only to a lesser extent with the federal government; thus granting more freedom to the local institutions themselves. The subsidies for state theatres, regional and municipal theatres, the Vereinigte Bühnen Wien and the Viennese private theatres amounted to around 353 million euros in the 2014/2015 season.

To receive federal funding, theatres are held accountable for their cultural responsibility. Tending to classics of the German language and of international theatre as well as fostering contemporary and innovative art are amongst their core responsibilities. Furthermore, the Federal Theatres Organisation Act states that theatres should embrace artistically risque productions; should transmit art and theatre to the young generation; should enable a vast variety of people to have access to theatre; should fight for international collaboration; should be active year-round; and should offer a repertoire based on having a permanent company of actors.

This funding system does go a long way, as Austria proves to have a high number of new openings each season: the Burgtheater alone started the season with a programmed 21 premieres on top of its regular repertoire, the Volkstheater will have 18 opening nights, the Schauspielhaus Graz 22, the Stadttheater Klagenfurt 10 and the youth theatre of Graz, Next Liberty, has 15 scheduled. This productive output is definitely only possible thanks to the theatres’ high and effective public funding.

Each year, the theatres’ efforts are rewarded when their artistic contributions and creative minds are nominated for a “Nestroy”—the Austrian theatre prize. Inspired by the Parisian theatre award “Molière”, the “Nestroy” aims at highlighting Austria’s artistic ability by honouring the most creative and innovative actors, directors and playwrights as well as in-house productions by festivals.

Festival season is what makes the culture-loving Austrian survive the summer, when theatres are generally on a break. That’s why the majority of festivals take place in the spring and summer. With Austria being a country known for its rich musical tradition as well, a lot of these festivals combine the disciplines of music and theatre, such as the world-renowned Salzburger Festspiele.

Salzburg almost triples its population during the six weeks of its festival, which takes place every year in July and August. More than 250,000 people flock to the city to see the legendary festival’s 200 events. Max Reinhardt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal are the forefathers of what is today considered one of the world’s most relevant festivals for music and contemporary art. At its foundation in 1920, Reinhardt and Hofmannsthal envisioned a festival that would contrast the renowned Bayreuth festival by not only celebrating one single artist, but a myriad of artists from opera, orchestra music and drama. Ever since the very first edition of the Salzburger Festspiele, the festival has opened with its flagship production: Hofmannsthal’s “Everyman”. Today, the festival’s artistic direction is in the hands of Markus Hinterhäuser.

Since 1946, the Bregenzer Festspiele, artistically directed by Elisabeth Sobotka, has offered a vast variety of productions in five venues, drawing in roughly 200,000 people every year in July and August. It is most famous for its floating stage on Lake Constance, where a larger-than-life set that usually incorporates the lake in one way or another is the backdrop for a massive operatic undertaking. Drama performances and concerts are held in nearby venues.

Another highlight of the festival season is the Wiener Festwochen festival, which attracts 180,000 people with a programme of drama, opera and dance during the course of five weeks in May and June. Tomas Zierhofer-Kin, artistic director of the festival, and his team manage around 175 performances and 70 concerts each year.

Innovation is the first concept that comes to mind when thinking of the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, whose artistic direction is in the hands of Gerfried Stocker. The festival is at the interface between art, technology and society. It is one of the world’s most important media art festivals that attracts around 35,000 visitors each year.

The steirischer herbst is another internationally acclaimed festival for contemporary art. Founded in 1968, the festival brings together all forms of art, from theatre to visual arts, film, literature, dance, music, architecture, performance and new media. The programme of the steirischer herbst exclusively shows original works, world premieres and commissioned works. Since 2006, Veronica Kaup-Hasler has managed this renowned festival, but will pass the baton to Ekaterina Degot next year.

Other relevant but smaller festivals include La Strada (street art festival in Graz), ImPuls Tanz (Vienna’s prestigious dance festival), the Festspiele Reichenau, Sommerszene Salzburg, SCHÄXPIR and spleen*graz (the international theatre festivals for children and youth theatre in Linz and Graz). The list of festivals goes on and on. What would otherwise be a theatrical dry spell in the summer turns into a sea of artistic events to quench Austrians’ thirst for theatre.

Since the Baroque age, and in particular since the era of Joseph II, theatre has been a central cultural institution in Austria. But it’s the combination of tremendous respect for this art form as well as a happy financial position that allows for the continued prosperity of Austria’s creatively (and otherwise) rich theatre landscape—a privileged situation that everybody at the Conference on Theatre Structures seemed to long for. That became blatantly obvious when Alexandru Darie of the Bulandra Theatre in Romania asked, “Can we all move to Austria?”


Published on 5 January 2018 (Article originally written in English)