Remarks by Lisa Lucassen on the Occasion of the Third Industry Get-Together of the Independent Performing Arts Community on October 8, 2015
Hi. I am very pleased to be able to welcome all of you to the Industry Get-Together. Welcome to our niche and how wonderful that you’re all here to exchange experiences, reflect together, network and maybe even join forces.
The first time I ever stood on a stage, the text that inspired the evening was Candide by Voltaire. A text in which the author makes fun of his optimistic colleague Leibniz who constantly holds forth about the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire’s text is cynical commentary, it teems with acts of violence and natural disasters. I find that things are similar within the independent performing arts community: the external circumstances leave a great deal to be desired, but I would describe it as the best of all possible communities without hesitation.
First of all, I would like to introduce myself so that you know who is speaking to you here. I’m Lisa from She She Pop. That may sound like an aristocratic title, but it’s actually the short version of: Lisa Lucassen, member of the women’s performance collective She She Pop.
In our productions, in which we often use autobiographical material, we use ourselves as examples through which something can be recognized about a societal situation. I would also like to use this method here and so I’ll tell you briefly about how the history of the working conditions at She She Pop more-or-less came to be.
She She Pop was founded in 1993 by students from the Institute of Applied Theater Studies in Gießen. The institute that a renowned, very conservative critic once designated the “the forge of unhappiness of German theater” with its “babble of theory contemptuous of people and drama”. A lovely sentence, one which I have learned by heart. He did not only refer to us, She She Pop, with this sentence, but also our friends and colleagues from Showcase Beat Le Mot, Rimini Protokoll and, I think, René Pollesch as well.
In 1998, we produced our first production with a budget, if you’d like to call it that: since I was already interested in our producing conditions back then, I calculated our hourly wages. During the three weeks of rehearsal, we earned about 50 pfennigs per hour per person. Things did not stay like that. For many years, we lived in Hamburg as well as Berlin, applying for Einzelprojektförderung, or individual project funding, in both cities and producing a production about once per year. We then traveled between a small group of co-producing theaters throughout the German-speaking world with these productions.
During this phase, we introduced an hourly wage for administrative work: we distributed the meagre income we had within the company so that no one had to write applications for free, do the bookkeeping and drive the trucks while the others had time to wait tables or work at call centers.
For 10 years, since we have been able to conduct more long-term planning thanks to the two-year Basisförderung, or basic funding, we have maintained an office and a storage space in Berlin. In this office, there sits a person who does not stand with us on stage and whom we respectfully call our Managing Director.
For 5 years, our Managing Director has had so much to manage that we have outsourced the majority of our financial concerns and our press and PR to a friendly cultural management company (which, by the way, is also a women’s collective). And, since we’re on the road so much, we have had a tour manager for the last 4 years. Beginning this year, we have a new form of funding, the four-year Konzeptförderung, or concept funding, which requires very complicated accounting. To deal with this, we have employed an accountant for the last year. This is the only person in the She She Pop universe who has a contractually regulated vacation entitlement.
We meet regularly in the office since we have to make all important decisions collectively. In doing so, the rule is not to achieve majority decisions, but instead consensus. In these meetings, we make joint decisions regarding possible collaborations with institutions, about the rough artistic direction and about payments, which is always exciting.
Alongside the artistic work, all member of She She Pop work within workgroups with administrative tasks. We have realized that we do not have enough time for everyone to do everything and so we work with specializations that are not written in stone but instead alternate occasionally. There is the finances workgroup, the press workgroup, the technical workgroup, the staff workgroup, the gift officer, the contact workgroup and many other little groups that do something. Since this summer, the hourly wage for all of these activities is at the same level as what I request when I type out interviews out there in the free market and applies to everyone.
We have been very successful in recent years and have made it to what must count as the Bundesliga of the independent performing arts community. We are a women’s collective, but ironically, the production with which the international success really began 5 years ago was one where three old men appeared on stage (these were our fathers, with whom we had created an adaption of Shakespeare’s King Lear). Our co-producers are located around the world, we tour everywhere, we win prizes, we are solidly funded, things can’t get much better than this.
You see: a privileged person is speaking here. In every respect: a white middle class daughter who enjoyed a good education and then had a whole lot of luck. I have a pretty permanent residence in this best of all possible communities.
This community is able to present valid descriptions of the society in late capitalism because it is located right in the middle of it and has to struggle with it every day. And this community is able to work in a utopian manner. People like us, as we have come together today, can create evenings of theater (in the broadest sense) in which misogyny and homophobia prevail less than in the rest of society, in which more inclusion takes place and less discrimination, in which “small themes” are dealt with, that deal with self-empowerment and with failure, with the lack of resources and with professionalism.
I am convinced that every production reflects the conditions under which it was produced. This is generally not denied in the independent performing arts community since it is visible anyway, for example, in the selection of the aesthetic tools. (There is the fairytale from one of my colleagues who claims they saw the following notes from a critic on the critic’s blog in 1998: “Can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t rap.” Back then, we still decided to do everything and began to find our euphoric-dilettantish style). The distribution of the financial means also remains visible in every production. And, of course, you can see in an evening of theater whether the vision of a single person is realized within it or whether a chorus of multiple voices may be making contradictory statements.
And, this community, are not dependent upon a wide majority of people interested in culture find our forms and themes to be relevant. (It is, of course, lovely when this happens – but it’s also not awful when this doesn’t happen.) And in doing so, we enjoy the privilege of working in an unalienated manner. For this, in turn, many of us pay a high price in the currencies of self-exploitation and a lack of a social safety net.
With She She Pop, here is how things are: we have left the phase of self-exploitation – for the moment at least – behind us. We pay ourselves and the people who work with us acceptable wages. We are now employers within a medium-sized company and employ a not so small number of people. (An excellent measuring instrument for this is always our annual holiday party – yes, our company has one of these – to which everyone who has worked for during the year is invited: there are 64 people on our guest list). And to my shame, I must admit: we are employers under the conditions of neoliberalism. If we need costumes, then we hire a costume designer. If we don’t need costumes, the costume designer has to take care of herself. If we damage a costume, we ask her to repair it or replace it as quickly as possible. We assume no responsibility for her in the time in between. This is the counter model to the working world of state theaters, where there are employees in the workshops who have a right both to employment as well as free time. Our model can react very quickly, it is ridiculously efficient, but also tough as nails. I do not like being a part of this system, but I can’t stop it. The responsibility that we find proper to bear as a company is too big for us. We lack the financial means to meet our own standards.
We only fulfill our utopian dreams while we are making art. In rehearsal rooms and on stages we realize our imaginings of a place without hierarchies in which we achieve the conditions for a type of communication that is not possible in the rest of the world. For the length of a rehearsal process or an evening of theater, something comes into being with which we are very much in agreement, and then it disappears again afterward.
And then we are suddenly standing at a birthday party where an artist friend has turned 50 and tell us that he has cancelled his private pension fund that he has paid 100 euros a month into for years that he actually can’t really afford to because he had realized that his pension would be under the poverty line if he kept on going like he has. And so he has decided to stop paying into the fund and instead start living better now.
With this entire project, working as a freelancer in the performing arts, we are jointly venturing into unchartered territory. It is simply not intended for people working as freelancers to not be doctors, engineers or lawyers and correspondingly to lack such high incomes (why this is the case is an entirely different question). If we do not want to become truly impoverished senior citizens, this is a great place to reflect and then work politically. Now this sounds terribly bourgeoisie and like the protection of vested rights, but I think that is important to not always act like time in the independent performing arts community were a temporary condition. Over the last 20 or 30 years, it has turned out to be the case that the independent performing arts community is not some kind of nursery where the next generation grows into working for the state theaters, but instead where people set themselves up and want to stay. Here is the loveliest thing about it: we can shape this uncharted territory – within certain boundaries – so that it works well for us. And making these boundaries larger and larger is a task I think we should pursue.
After all: we are independent. On the one hand, we are independent from having sufficient financial resources for all of our needs, and that is stupid. But we are also independent from institutions that can limit us in what we think about ourselves and what we trust ourselves to achieve. We are independent to make our little, modest world into the best of all possible worlds.
To do so, we have to look beyond our individual needs, aesthetic prejudices and special interests. We have to be generous and solidly united, since people are lost very easily. If group X or choreographer Y does not produce a production during a given season there is not an initial outcry, since the absence of individual members are lost in the tumult and no one asks about them. This is why it is all the more important for us as the independent performing arts community to exchange, meet, network and hold together. Competition within the independent performing arts community is not something that we have to be afraid of. It is essentially friends & acquaintances who see the finished product with whom you may well have previously shared a rehearsal space, technical equipment and professional knowledge with. These are people with whom you can argue the best. It is definitely no longer lonely in our niche. We are many!
Which brings us back to the beginning: how wonderful that you’re all here.