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Theatre structures in Europe.
Arts between economy and identity

In the context of the Conflict Zones Network programme of the UTE, the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, Italy hosted a conference on theatre structures in Europe and the Mediterranean on Friday, the 20th of May.

Six speakers gathered in a room of the theatre school dedicated to the late great stage director Luca Ronconi: Francisca Carneiro Fernandes (National Theatre São João, Porto, Portugal) Sergio Escobar (Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Italy), Enikő Eszenyi (Vígszinház Theatre, Budapest, Hungary), Michal Dočekal (National Theatre of Prague, Czech Republic), Fadhel Jaibi (National Theatre of Tunisia), Armin Petras and Jan Hein (Schauspiel Stuttgart, Germany) and Ilan Ronen (Habima Theatre, Tel Aviv, Israel). Various funding and management models, organizational systems, production structures, and theatre regulation systems were analysed and compared, with a view to better understand how the general principles guiding national and cultural policies can impact the way theatres are structured.
Whilst awaiting a more detailed report, here we try to collect the main topics and points of differences that came out of the presentations, proposing an overall comment.

A financial overview

It goes without saying that the general budget represents the biggest difference between the theatres. Nevertheless, as any member of the artistic world knows, money is not the only issue, and an insight into the lines of work of the single structures can compose a mosaic of many other details, revealing certain important cultural peculiarities.
The Staatstheater Stuttgart can count on a 100-million-Euro-state budget dedicated to the performing arts. And yet, with 94% of it bankrolling opera and ballet, according to Armin Petras “the drama season is financed with only six million.”
In the strategy adopted by the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, private sponsors play an important role: since only 17% of the general budget (around 20 million) comes from the Ministry of Culture and the Chamber of Commerce, the rest is provided by the municipality, private institutions and, according to Escobar, “50% of self-financing from ticket sales.”
Despite the presence of a Central State Funding (FUS), the management models of Italian theatres change radically depending on the regions, each one being characterized by a different level of private participation.
The Czech landscape, on the other hand, appears much more centralized and, in Michal Dočekal’s words, is subjected to “an out-of-date administration system that is fifty years-old.” Those theatres that are supported by the municipalities don’t receive money from the Ministry of Culture, but they are paradoxically more efficient than the national theatres, which are experiencing profound difficulties in programming the seasons due to a longer bureaucratic process that causes severe delays in the distribution of the funds.
As well as in the Czech regulation, the Portuguese system (with a budget of only 175 million for all cultural institutions) cannot count on a collaboration between national and municipal theatres either, with the latter working independently. This blocks the three Portuguese national theatres (one in Porto and two in Lisbon, including the opera house) and the smaller but active theatres.
A very delicate political situation in Hungary is responsible for the tough struggle of the Vígszinház Theatre in Budapest. Only 37% of the general budget comes from the state, and it’s necessary to raise a lot of money from sponsorships and ticket sales. According to the tax credit law, certain economic companies can deduct their support to culture from their own taxes, but only in December do they know if in the past year they were profitable or not, so liquidity is a huge question.

Independent companies and schools

Among the seven countries invited to present their theatre structures at the conference, Tunisia shows a strong presence of independent theatre companies (around 600). The National Theatre in Tunis is currently trying to find a way to invite some of them for collaborations and co-productions: Fadhel Jaibi’s artistic direction is hiring as many young people as possible and, at the same time, is fostering the establishment of a valuable training institution. According to Jaibi, founding a theatre school for actors, playwrights and stage directors represents the fundamental access to creation, as long as it has not a purely academic approach, but rather a very practical one, led by professional practitioners.
A theatre school seen as a nest for future talents is also the guideline of the Piccolo, where the school—founded by Giorgio Strehler and now named in memory of Luca Ronconi—is one of the best in Italy, a hotbed for the next generations of actors, directors and playwrights.
The interaction between professionals and theatre students is a core topic also for the Schauspiel Stuttgart that collaborates with two acting schools, with more than 40 students enrolled. As Armin Petras explains, “the aim is to promote a form of cooperate productions, thus the teachers also work as talent scouts. Exchanges between schools are very important and much easier than the one between theatres.”

Networking and international communities

When an event for networking such as this conference casts a light on all these differences in structures and funding possibilities, one can wonder about the opportunities for various countries to work together in co-productions and exchanges.
For Jaibi, this “could help establish new synergies and put the younger generations in touch with international opportunities, considering their profound difficulties in traveling.”
Indeed, an international exchange policy—along with an attentive activity in hosting foreign performances—might be useful so balance and refresh the repertoires of the national theatres that differ from one another also by the presence or absence of a resident ensemble.
Italian state subsidized theatres have no such stable companies, and the same goes for the national theatres in Porto or in Tunis, while Prague employs 50 people only for the drama ensemble alone, and the Habima—even without a permanent repertoire—does have a stable company as well.
As much as the general economic situation and access to public funds, these different sets of resident artists and technicians sometimes influence artistic views, because they dependent on severe regulations in terms of contracts and employment arrangements.
The Schauspiel Stuttgart is challenged to safeguard “a sort of equilibrium between avant-garde and tradition: to satisfy the audience it takes a conservative repertoire, but in order to keep the actors in the city, a clear vocation to the experimental languages is needed. Some Schauspiel Stuttgart productions are well known and appreciated abroad, able to gather much more audience than in Stuttgart itself.”
In Ilan Ronen’s words, “one of the most important steps for me as an artistic director was to understand how crucial it is for a national theatre to work with international communities, which improves the level; and to work with young people.” For the Habima, collaborations between theatres and international co-productions have become frequent.”

National identity and political intervention

Another interesting difference lies in the history of these theatres; that sometimes defines their identity and influences their line of work.
While the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, with its almost 70 year-long history, is the oldest and the first public theatre in the country (before 1947 there were no public theatres in Italy), the Vígszinház Theatre in Budapest is a 120 year old theatre founded and funded by private people, where the director is not nominated by the government but designated by the previous director.
As for the Habima National Theatre of Israel, that derives from the work of an independent group of twenty young students in Moscow during the Communist Revolution in 1917, founding an avant-garde Hebrew speaking theatre in Israel was a primary aim that still stays at the top of the list of intentions since it guarantees a national identity.

Speaking of identity, for every state subsidized institution, that thus must rely on governmental support, there is the crucial issue of freedom of speech, once again related to the history of the single theatres and their relative countries. As mentioned above, the situation of strong privatization lived in Hungary forced the public theatre to be dependent on private companies; the Habima, instead, depends on government loans, which threatens their independence. Recently, the newly appointed Minister of Culture in Israel made some dangerous public declarations about the political issues that must or must not be addressed by theatres. With special reference to the long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “any discourse that even loosely put the integrity of Israeli government under critique”, reports Ronen “is to be banned or discouraged. So the Ministry announced a form of supervising process over every arts institution.”

Dočekal denounces a different form of political intervention: “Some traces of the nationalistic thought that was characterizing Europe at that time seems to be kept alive nowadays and inspires our politicians. The national theatre is not censored or obstructed by political orientations, but the system of hiring and dismissing general directors is not properly regulated.” In Dočekal’s opinion, this doesn’t put the artistic direction in the position of programming a coherent season.
The political situation in Tunisia is also critical, albeit in an entirely different way. As Jaibi puts it, “the theatre that we inherited from the revolution was almost completely lacking an identity”. The Arab Spring (between 2010 and 2011) complicated many things someway, since it had conveyed no artistic or cultural projects. Even though the newly gained freedom of speech has had an effect on media and theatre, the means to foster such a freedom appear very poor. As Jaibi explains, worse than the state censorship is the one that comes from the audience: it’s a sort of ideological, moral and religious censorship.


Published on 24 June 2016 (Article originally written in Italian)