Theatre as a Cultural Institution

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Author of the text/moderator: Alice Koubová (CZ) /researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences
Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca (NL) / Professor and Head of DAS Graduate School at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, Amsterdam University of the Arts in the Netherlands
Agata Adamiecka-Sitek (PL) / Senior Lecturer and Ombudsman at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw; theatre researcher, critic and publisher
László Upor (HU) / Dramaturg, literary translator, essayist and Rector of University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest
Martin Bernátek (CZ) / Assistant Professor, Area Head of Theatre Studies and Vice-Chair at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, Palacký University Olomouc

As part of a webinar focused on the role of theatres and theatre academies in the public space, we tried to speak not only about the current situation in selected theatre academies in Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, but to think together about important aspects of institutional politics in a European context, and also in terms of the interconnectedness of these academies. We identified the following common themes as key: deep care for the quality of relationships and institutions; the assumption of personal responsibility; the creation of alliances and networks; new possibilities for leadership and the use of initiatives from all levels of the institution; reducing the difference between proclamations and performativity; transparency and the willingness to take action in public. A discussion on theatre as a cultural institution, with Alice Koubová, lecturer and researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

#02_Theatre as a Cultural Institution

Alice Koubová

In late November 2020, as part of the Show Must Go On/Offline series and Green Thursdays, ATI held a webinar focused on the role of theatres and theatre academies in public life. We were interested in how these cultural institutions operate in the current European context, as well as how they might like to, or should, operate. The idea was not merely to reference particular cases from individual countries, nor to provoke a confrontation between conflicting opinions. Instead, the dramaturgy of the discussion aimed to gradually establish a shared field that would allow participants to think together, to collectively concentrate on topics beyond their own institutions, and to consider possibilities for collaboration. Representatives of four theatre academies or universities from different European countries took part in the debate: Agata Adamiecka-Sitek, a theatre researcher, lecturer and ombudsman for students’ rights, working at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw; László Upor, a playwright, dramaturg, translator and former rector of the University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) in Budapest; Laura Cull, a founding member of the Performance Philosophy network and director of DAS Graduate School at the Academy of Theatre and Dance in Amsterdam; and Martin Bernátek, theatre researcher, activist, member of the University for Climate Justice initiative and head of the Theatre Section in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at Palacký University in Olomouc. 

Our encounter began with a relatively open question about the most important issues the guests feel their institutions are currently facing. While the responses were all quite different and varied in urgency, there was also a common thread: the most pressing issue for all participating institutions proved to be institutional policy, or the manner in which the institution is run. Not once did the participants speak about what kind of art should be developed in the given institutions, or what topics are, or should be, studied. Rather, they asked who should be part of these institutions, and according to what criteria, who has access to them, who may or may not teach or study at them and which power relations and political perspectives frame their operation? The question not of what, but of how – both now, and in the long term – became the topic of the entire webinar. 

Laura Cull has only been in post as director at DAS Art Graduate School since September 2020, so spoke first about the differences between the situation of arts education in the United Kingdom, where she had spent the rest of her working life, and the Netherlands. According to Cull, British education is facing an acute financial crisis. British higher education is based on the capitalist principle of supply and demand. Student-customers pay huge  sums for educational products provided by school-suppliers. The British government’s lack of consideration for the intrinsic value of education and the arts, which makes them worth supporting for their contributions to society, not only their market value, has been made even clearer by the coronavirus crisis. In comparison, Cull sees the Netherlands as a qualitatively different environment. Here, state subsidies for the arts and education are incomparably higher than those in the United Kingdom and differentiated according to non-market principles. The Dutch debate on arts education is concerned with other topics, primarily the issues of diversity, access to education and inclusion. The discussion focuses on the openness of institutions to students of different social backgrounds, genders, religions, races, sexual orientations and nations of origin. Key questions include how to make arts education equally accessible to all interested parties and to create an inclusive space for their questions, topics, attitudes and values. Cull also pointed out the difference in considering white supremacy in a global context, as opposed to in the decision-making context of one’s own institution. Only through such decision-making processes, she argues, is the institutionalised whiteness, the whiteness of the structure, revealed. 

Representing the academic community and a university-style institution, Martin Bernátek addressed two issues. First, he questioned to what extent universities are able not only to describe and speak about the world, but also to change it. Universities generally provide expertise or critical analysis, or the popular dissemination of research. It is much harder for them to make large public gestures in favour of specific events, or to support specific democratic processes. Still, as Bernátek points out, such proclaimed apoliticism is not, in fact, apolitical, as universities are always involved in the negotiation of socio-political power relationships, a reality that they should take into account. The second matter that universities should clearly address is, according to Bernátek, the issue of climate change, and, again, this is a question of institutional responsibility. Universities and academic institutions must start to ask how to use their knowledge, status and, ultimately, their salaries, to help change awareness of the environmental crisis in society, to accept changes to their own operations and to influence executive power in terms of climate decision-making. 

Agata Adamiecka began her contribution by sharing a personal story about involuntary self-censorship. Before our conversation, for the first time in her life, she considered what aspects of Polish politics to discuss, if she did not wish to jeopardise the future of the school and its staff.  Adamiecka described the Polish situation as a transitional state between democratic and authoritarian regimes.  This is evidenced by the on-going growth in civil unrest over Poland’s abortion law, which has developed into wider protests against the anti-democratic government. The National Academy of Performing Arts has joined other institutions in issuing a statement in support of these protests. The Polish Minister of Culture responded by announcing, in a public television appearance, that he would punish the rectors of the institutions supporting the protests and also reduce public subsidies to the relevant universities and academies. Poland, Admiecka stated, is thus facing illegal interference in the operation of universities and academies and their autonomy is very much under threat. 

Lázló Upor followed Agáta Adamiecka, describing the current situation in Hungary as a culture war taking place between the conservative government and various segments of society, the result of which is approaching totalitarian rule. This situation is evidenced by current developments at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. During the summer, it went through a forced transition from a public institution to a “private institution” governed by a Board of Trustees.  Nominated by prime minister Viktor Orbán, the trustees were given life-long appointments.  The university continues to be publicly funded, but as a private institution with a Board of Trustees, all public oversight has been stripped away.  Members of the University Senate and the institution’s leadership resigned from their posts in protest of these steps and students occupied the university. The response from the institution’s new leadership has been repressive. It physically closed its own buildings, using measures associated with the pandemic as a reason to disrupt the student occupation,  prevented access to the university’s central information system and disrupted internet access for the students and lecturers. These actions have made it impossible for any form of education to take place at the university. The leadership has also announced that, by spring 2021, the University will look completely different than it does today.  As a resigned rector, Upor remains a lecturer at the school, but sees a very cloudy future ahead. 

From these points of departure, a discussion developed, and led to several important collective conclusions. I will now try to summarise these in the form of individual points: 

Theatre academies as actors

  1. Theatre academies should be able and prepared to express themselves in the wider socio-political context, to make statements, and to express their views. In so doing, they would take explicit responsibility for their position in socio-political power relations, which already renders them inherently political. The logic of power is the logic of conflict, including the conflict of institutional power, and it is, therefore, appropriate to be aware of what a particular organisation stands for and why. 

Institutional and transformational care

  1. In times of crisis and when democracy is fragile, social institutions are precisely what is most needed. On one hand, institutions are strong, but they are also vulnerable if we do not try to protect them, stand up for them and speak on their behalf.  If we are, however, to stand up for them, institutions must be worthy of such a gesture, and this requires that they be open to potential transformation.  We will support democratic social mechanisms primarily through an emphasis on the democratisation of our own institutions, which we will protect and support during periods of transformation and relative stability. 

Deep care as a strategy within institutions

  1. The democratic transformation of institutions is impossible without procedures and strategies that are based on deep care for mutual relationships, rather than competition. It is necessary to address the question of how to set up environments and modes of communication and practice that will lead to mutual benefit, instead of individual profit at the expense of others. For example, the issue of racism should not be viewed as competing with issues such as gender equality, authoritarianism or climate justice, because these problems are deeply interconnected. Urgent issues are also linked to immediate threats to institutional autonomy; in this sense, they must be viewed from an intersectional perspective, alongside less immediate or global contexts. In times of crisis, particularly when resources of time, energy and finance are in ever shorter supply, it is harder to resist the tendency to fight for one’s own interests. While the first instinctual response might be to save oneself, this proves to be a self-destructive gesture.

Alliances and networks

  1. We can support these forms of crisis management and institutional policy through strategic partnerships, alliances, networks, ongoing discussions, dialogues, comparisons and concrete inter-institutional assistance. For example, should students from SZFE be unable to complete their studies, they can be offered the possibility to do so at an allied foreign university.

The openness of institutions

  1. Another important aspect is maintaining the openness of institutions.  If institutions are to maintain their power, they must be able to transcend their understandings of themselves as closed entities.  This is a sensibility which must be continually cultivated, at a structural level and in terms of the power relationships that shape it from within.  An open institution is one that acts, it manifests itself in action and self-transformation.  

Proclamations and performativity

  1. The difference between the proclamatory and performative sides of the institution has also proved important. The institution must remain aware of its objectives and how to achieve them via actual practices. How to ensure equality between actors inside the institution, who have different roles, different responsibilities, and who are paid to evaluate one another? How to change ethical habits and bridge the gap between formally established democratic institutional mechanisms and the lived reality of what Agáta Adamiecka describes as brutal hierarchisation? How to deal with the paradox of autocratically-controlled artistic teams creating art about democracy and open ideas?

Bottom-up initiatives

  1. Effective processes for transformation are defined, to a certain extent, from below.  Individual initiatives have a chance to gradually change institutional practice, even if such change can long appear hopeless. Still, persisting with such initiatives creates a sense of inner preparedness, which can subsequently lead to transformation in response to a particular provocation. 

Approaches to institutional leadership

  1. A second effective approach is the redefinition of leadership, as one that positions itself to not only facilitate the activities of all members of the institution, but also to develop and support them. The leadership of theatre academies should not look to subvert their own institutions, nor look down on them as bureaucratic tools. Through its actions, leadership should not establish manipulative tools of pastoral power. It is the responsibility of the leaders of democratic institutions to search for supportive forms of mutual relationships and cooperation. 

Quality of relationships

  1. The quality of the relationship between those who build institutions has clearly emerged as a source of positive evolution. Relationships based on mutual trust, even in instances of conflicting views, differences of opinion, or necessary compromise, and the energy these produce, are key prerequisites for a functional institution. Instead of a systematic, disciplined focus on comparisons, performance and the overproduction of publications and other works, it is necessary to create platforms for collaboration, collective thinking and creation, the definition of responsibilities and the search for common understandings of shared concepts and terminology.