Theatre in crisis in Europe Call for Papers

07 July, 2017 by Christopher Balme | 0 comments

Theatre in crisis in Europe Call for Papers

Systemic Crisis in European Theatre Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London) and LMU Munich location: The Goethe Institute, London Dates: 27th-28th April, 2018

‘Theatre is crisis’, Heiner Müller often remarked. If this is so, can one speak of theatre in crisis in any kind of useful theoretical or empirical fashion? If in the case of theatre the exception is the norm, what can the focus of research be? Etymologically, a crisis (Gr. krisis) refers to a turning point in an illness, with one possible outcome being the patient’s death. Most definitions emphasize a moment of dramatic intensification, where alternative courses of action are demanded. German historian Reinhardt Koselleck has argued that crisis is intimately bounded up with a new way of conceptualizing futurity that arose during the enlightenment and the French Revolution:


It is in the nature of crises that problems crying out for solution go unresolved. And it is in the nature of crises that the solution, that which the future holds in store, is not predictable... The question of the historical future is inherent in the crisis. (Critique and Crisis, ([1959] 1988)


The key idea here is that crises are a productive way to think about the future, or as Koselleck argues, European culture redefines in this period its conception of the future away from an eschatological model and towards a secular one in which the future can be planned for and in some way controlled. To think in terms of crises is to plan the future.

Theatre crises refer to significant institutional challenges and transformations, usually brought on by a combination of factors: demographic changes, media and technological innovations, political interventions (with legal, juridical consequences), movements in the public sphere, shifts in aesthetic tastes and moods. Each alone is seldom enough to cause a crisis, but in combination they do. The result is usually significant institutional transformation, in extremis even severe dysfunction.


The organizers of this conference – a collaboration between the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and the Department of Theatre Studies, LMU Munich – argue that theatre in Europe is indeed beset by a crisis on an institutional level and that there is a pressing need for robust research into the complex configuration of factors at work that are leading to significant shifts in the way theatre is understood, organized, delivered and received. The conference is intended to bring together scholars from different disciplines and countries to examine factors that are common across Europe.



One way to think of crisis is in terms of a structural ‘configuration’ subject to dynamic transformation. At LMU Munich against the background of Germany’s still intact repertoire system crisis is analysed in relation to four systemic ‘figures’, all of which are subject to or are themselves agents of such transformational power:

A. enculturation breakdown, precipitated by demographic changes (the age pyramid as well as migration);

B. increasing pluralisation of the public sphere (through the multiplication of media);

C. the heterogeneities of the labour model (the precarious effects of economic liberalism on patterns of work and employment);

D. the emergence of new aesthetic techniques or production processes entailing ‘reformatting’ (that do not fit the old model of the theatre as repertoire).


It could be argued that these factors are by no means particular to Germany but can be generalized as a way of investigating the crisis of theatre in Europe from a comparative perspective.


A key issue is the relationship between theatre and the state, the latter represented primarily through public spending on theatre. Public support of the theatre was one of the achievements of post-war Europe that united both sides of the Iron Curtain. With the increasing dominance of neoliberal thinking, this consensus has begun to unravel and the consequences are making themselves felt across the continent. Has the growing political ambivalence towards supporting the arts created a legitimation crisis where public support of the theatre is now framed against the context of spending cuts and austerity?


Another key question is what do crises produce?  Rather than seeing crisis through its negative or detrimental effects, the issue here is to also understand in what way a crisis might have a ‘positive’ effect – namely, how crises induce institutional change, transformation – whether incremental or more radical, or even revolutionary.  To what extent might crisis be grasped as a crisis of institutional historicity – a crisis at the level of its structures of permanence, traditions, enabling it to subsist as an identity through time – to possess ‘continuity’? 


What factors are precipitating institutional change in theatre institutions?  For instance, technological innovation?  Artistic practices?  Changing demographics? In what sense might these social, historical, cultural transformations engender various crises of legitimation for theatre institutions themselves?


We invite abstracts for 20 minute papers that are addressed to one of the four following areas:


1.     Theories of theatrical crisis

What theories and concepts of crisis do we have at our disposal? The objective is not necessarily to identify the symptoms of a specific crisis but to ask: what does crisis itself mean for a given structure that is ‘in crisis’?  Can one understand crisis as having certain meanings, modalities, effects, causes, consequences? Can we think of crisis in narratological terms? How is crisis articulated discursively around its effects on the control mechanisms of institutional power, its forms of knowledge, its modes of truth – its ability to operate as a self-regulating system, etc.?


2.     Theatre institutions between path dependence and transformation

Can one apply neo-institutional theory, with its differentiation between institution and organization, to describe more precisely the transformational power of crisis? When, for example, does a discourse construct a crisis, at the institutional rather than organizational level? The theory of path dependence proposes that existing structures may be the result of arbitrary decisions a long way in the past that create institutional ‘lock in’. Are discourses of crisis a means therefore to break open fossilized structures?


3.     Breaking points: case studies of theatre(s) in crisis

If crisis means a dramatic intensification of a situation, then it is necessary to identify possible ‘breaking points’ that require urgent attention/redress. A crucial question concerns labour, as working conditions in the performing arts denote precarity for the vast majority of employees. Another one is the growing disparity between metropole and region, where the latter run the risk of being completely detheatricalized.


4.     Institutional Critiques

How is the crisis itself being reflected in artistic work? Are there comparable initiatives in theatre and performance resembling Institutional Critique in the visual arts? Can we see the rise of postfictional performance that often eschews the use of actors for example (Rimini Protokoll, SheShePop, Jerôme Bel)) but is often enacted inside theatres as a form of critique?  Is this ‘critique’ a luxury only possible in highly subsidized systems such as Germany where there are less explicit connections to the cultural industries? Are such developments and critiques the formulation of futurity, a way forward out of the crisis?


We encourage contributions that use methods drawn from systems theory, social-scientific approaches, economics and statistics, theatre and performance and other interpretative approaches (hermeneutics), and labour studies. The multi-disciplinary approach could combine histories of institutional practice, empirical data, heuristics, interpretative strategies, as well as critical theories. Papers can be either theoretical or case-based but should endeavour to address the questions raised from perspectives that encourage dialogue across disciplines and regions.


Please send abstracts to: Christopher Balme (LMU Munich/ Leverhulme Visiting Professor RSCCD) -

Tony Fisher (RCSSD) –


Deadline for receiving abstracts: Monday 2nd October 2017

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