Who is afraid of the director? Expanding directing

Finnish Contemporary theatre practitioners have enormous freedom to try out and express themselves through various theatrical professions: directors and actors write plays, playwrights direct, lighting designers conceive performance concepts. In the future, everybody has the freedom to create and find his/her own “stage”/interface where to work. There is a plurality of options outside the traditional institutional frame.

But as regards theatre directing, what is the director´s space? What is directing? Who needs a director? One can sense the uncertainty of professional identity. This state of matters has consequences and causes some problems. 

There seems to exist a generation gap or perhaps an ideological and artistic gap. How much is there room for art in institutional structures? Institutional theatres have not necessarily been open to welcome young directors. Their artistic proposals have often been considered difficult to implement for the city theatre in a rather small municipality. Simultaneously, the young generation of directors has not necessarily been enthusiastic about working within existing structures and firmly fixed production processes.  

Theatre statistics convey this less encouraging picture. Newly graduated directors are seldom seen in institutional theatres. The problem concerns the director’s self-esteem and artistic desires, how to build healthy professional self-esteem as a director which includes honesty towards one´s artistic desires? The economic downturn has decreased risk-taking in theatres. A young director is a risk. NIMT = Not in my Theatre. The situation differs radically from that of theatres in Germany wherefrom traditional city theatres, the focus also extends out to the performing arts and the creators and works of artistic production platforms and beyond well-known theatre clusters. The diversity of artistic paradigms provides oxygen to radically different realities – even from outside the German-speaking cultural realm. Politically polarized time challenges different forms of expression.

What about the broad picture of the repertories in Finnish city theatres? They are quite traditional, entertaining avoiding risks or new forms. We can also see the lack of classics: hardly any dramas of Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Molière, Schiller, Ibsen or Strindberg… in the repertoires. This lack of foreign classics is symptomatic for the 21st-century Finnish theatre landscape. Is it an unconscious protest for directors´ theatre with its constant new interpretations? Is it the incapability, impotence, powerlessness, or fear of the directors? Is it the increasing entertainment, boulevard dramas which have invaded the territory? Who is afraid of classics? Who is afraid of directing challenging new plays? Who is afraid of directing/managing theatres? Who is afraid of artistic theatre? Does it still exist? 

The Finnish theatre reality – whose theatre is it anyway? Finland is a club, a solution-focused society of engineers. In this spirit of pragmatism, the theatre strives. But! No no! Not too much critical debate, not critical, opposing voices! Not too much disturbing questions on what kind of new competencies the artistic direction or management of theatres requires… – After all, Finland is a country of consensus!  

The profession of the director is burdened by the ballast of gendered and segregated tradition and distorted working methods. If directors were before alpha males, the contemporary directorship is more human-centred: sensitization towards the actor and designer and all your working partners. The professionalism of a modern director is that he or she dares to indulge in communication with the team and expose himself or herself. It is no more directing by fear. The work is very much true collaboration. However, collaborative ways of working are feared in large institutions. Production systems and schedules are ill-suited to a new kind of artistic-production thinking.

Simultaneously, there is an entirely new emancipatory potential of the artistic practices of contemporary performing arts collectives. The new collectives generate transformative encounters and transformative, collective subjectivity. The “works” are no longer clearly defined performances tied to a specific space and time, but rather resemble happenings, encounters, lectures, or city walks. Performing arts collectives are paving the way to new, free communities and radically alternative societies in an age of ecocritical reconstruction and posthumanism. 

On the other hand, perhaps the Finnish ethos of democracy and equality allows all flowers to bloom without sufficient pruning. What about the quality? What is artistic quality and how it could be evaluated? These are provocative questions! I should also speak about paradoxes and ambivalences.

We are having radically versatile theatre and drama realities depending on the region and city, or whether you work in the institutions or the free field. It is not necessarily easy for a young playwright to find intelligent and sensitive directors to direct his or her play –therefore the playwright more and more often takes “a make it yourself approach” and directs his or her texts. 

New challenges in the era of economic austerity – theatre in infarction? Disruption?

Just like in Germany, Finnish theatres have traditionally had a large number of permanent staff. The vast majority of (drama) theatres are repertory theatres with a permanent ensemble, however, the ensembles are getting smaller and smaller and replaced by freelancers´ short term contract.  Finnish theatres have a structural change in progress: production-specific working groups and non-permanent engagements are gaining ground. 

The field has also seen a new generation of theatre professionals working in new performance form for whom artistic freedom is a core value and a permanent contract in a traditional drama theatre, not necessarily a primary goal. The generation of millennials seems to value the meaningfulness of the job and a reasonable work-life balance. Money does not talk, meaning and significance do. This process will continue, maybe even escalate! 

At repertory theatres, fewer risks are taken in artistic planning and repertory, more small-scale productions are staged, less commissioning of plays from Finnish playwrights takes place, collaboration is more frequent. Institutional theatres are forced to fight over audiences. In the programmes of the largest stages, the role of musical theatre (including homegrown works, in a positive note) and other primarily entertaining (Anglo-American) productions has grown. 

Do we suffer from city theatre infarction? A stagnation? Ageing audiences? Declining audience figures. A legitimation crisis? A blockage? A disruption? There seem to be fewer and fewer directors or dramaturgs who would be willing to become artistic leaders of the city theatres, in the wide network of state and, city-subsidized theatre institutions all over the country. Why is that? 

We witness hardening circumstances to do artistic work. Who has the passion to fight with local politicians? We witness the class division of theatre professionals. We have those fortunate ones who still have a permanent job in the theatre. Additionally, there is the growing number of art/theatre precariat, freelancers – underpaid and underemployed “drifters”.

What will be the future? 

We have to talk about changing political landscapes and changed ways of “the politics” in the performing arts. Neoliberalism has for a long time had an increasing influence on the cultural sector. The arts and discourse and rhetoric around arts policy have been “captured” by economists and marketers. 

How “the political” is understood within the frames of performing arts in the situation where culture, in general, is now saturated with a market‐oriented agenda rather than an arts-driven agenda? Today, “the political” in theatre is presented very differently than in the Brechtian era and the auteur directors´ theatre era of the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s, during a period of a postmodern denial of politics that turned the personal into the political or compared to the resurgent political of the 1990s.

Finland has been rocked by a political and economic crisis. They have shaken identities and triggered nationalistic fears and more aggressive and conflictual expressions against the funding of the arts. The re-evaluation of the welfare state cultural policy doctrine was already contested for the first time by the economic downturn in Finland at the beginning of the 1990s when the country was shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In these circumstances, culture ceased to be a “protected area” when central government spending on culture was radically cut.  

Populist and extremist movements have been active in Finland. The parliamentary elections in 2015 brought the True Finns party into government. The success of the True Finns Party shows how populism and extremism have become more mainstream or acceptable. (Now the party has divided into two fractions). It has been able to spread simplistic and antagonistic images, fostered the idealized idea of the Finnish nation and its past haven, its anti-globalization discourse, xenophobia and openly racist attitudes and hate talk, even action. 

These debates were connected to the crisis of the welfare state, and the debating and questioning of the legitimacy of the policy. Another kind of criticism arose from within, related to not only the economic and fiscal problems but to increasing cultural and performative diversity. 

What does this mean? What do the millennials do in the field of performing arts? The current praxis of new performing arts collectives function as practical experimentation and application platforms for modern philosophy. The work is often tied to communal projects and artistic interventions. The influence is absorbed from thinkers in the fields of social politics and philosophy. The common thread is not only the critical re-examination of the modern tradition, but the critique of economism, rationalism and materialism, and the analysis of power.

In several works, the focus in on “the fragility of performance” or ”attuning to others” 

Modern theatre might join the conversation between Félix Guattari and the artist, psychoanalyst, and feminist theoretician Brocha Ettinger on what kind of mechanisms of value assignment, power and control are contained within art. Like Guattari and Ettinger, artists perceive as necessary the creation of new kinds of aesthetic methods rooted in the idea of the shared economy, degrowth (décroissance), sustainability, and resilience.

Performance-political action uncovers a potential new avenue for politics (Giorgio Agamben). Questions of community and ”being-with” can be derived back to the ideas of Jean-Luc Nancy or Denis Guénou, to the analysis of performance and ethics (Hannah Arendt, Emmanuel Levinas), or feminist theories (Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Rosa Braidotti). 

Ethics play a strong role in what your director students are currently doing. That is because of what is going on in the world right now, how we react and what we care about. Contemporary theatre and ethics are entwined in so many ways. 

Many share Emmanuel Levinas’ thought that we are vulnerable, susceptible to becoming hurt, to pain and erotic movement and that we can be ethical. In performances, we create a temporary community and for a moment we are together, watching and trying to understand the Other. Among student directors and recently graduated directors some have assumed a dual role of activist and artist, bringing their two worlds together. 

But are we simultaneously witnessing a wave of new moralism and a kind of purism or fundamentalism in the disguise of ethics or equality? This may be a taboo question. However, this has profound consequences on the professional identity and working methods of theatre directors. Is there a danger that theatre directors will become hostages of new moralism? 

The time of the great ideas, structures and corporations and operating models based on economic growth are over. In this situation, the theatre professionals take control of art and their lives and place their values on what they do. They defend autonomy, freedom, and self-control. They practice their profession as forms of self-organisation that proceed from the bottom up. They create artwork and working methods that criticise growth ideology. They are aware of what it means to live in a world of meagre resources and the declining availability of energy and matter. 

Many are not content with being simple “animal laborans” (Hannah Arendt) that produce branded art products for the market at exhausting speed. They defend the right to make slow art and sustainable and long-term processing. 

Authorship seems to increase involve utopian thought that presents an opportunity for change. Artists’ identities are often associated with criticism of neoliberal and managerial politics. Many young theatre professionals are not willing to perform as mannequins for the creative economy and struggle as hostages of the competitor economy and work in institutions with “one size fit for all” approach. Many of them agree with the call to disobedient thought about art and its making made by the philosopher, dramaturge, and performance theorist Bojana Kunst in her book Artist at Work – Proximity of Art and Capitalism. They agree with Kunst that the essence of art is its potential to be less. Art makes it possible to live by doing less. In a world where we are expected to be more and more productive, art must be disobedient and lazy.

The practitioners call attention to the new terrains of performing arts in the current age of the ecological turn and the framework of post-humanism and to call forth new forms of practice. 

The performative activity focused on artistic research, performance and the visual arts considers the relationship of human beings to the non-human, to other animals and plants especially, and presenting possibilities for interspecies performances (to be understood as collectives encompassing both humans and non-humans), reflecting on their meaning, consequences and the possibilities inherent in them.  

According to researchers of citizens’ movements and organisations, the new culture of movements, such as the radical environmental activism that became organized in the mid-1990s, is based on the Do-It-Yourself principle. They emphasize direct action and personal choices. The same applies to the various performing arts collectives. Many of the performances in the expanding fields can be considered as forms of micropolitics as an opposite to the macro politics. The macro politics is based on public opinion, whereas micro-politics as opposite to that is politics of desire which takes into consideration diversity and differences thus contesting the prevailing opinions. 

Thus, political potential has been redefined. The potential political needs to be looked for in the ways the performances give space to the audiences to experiment and imagine themselves differently. This collective imagination has ultimately to do with the imagined citizenships, new spheres for activities. 

Perhaps this micropolitics of spectatorship resonates a larger question of utopian citizenships. 

This is part of the post-theatre and post-human movements which are on the move. How marginal are these movements? Will these emerging movements become hegemonic in the future?  

(2016/17, Junge Regie Hamburg, modified)