Theatre in Illiberal Regimes after 1989 – Workshop, 7-8 September, 2023

The war in the Ukraine has accentuated the globalising propensities of states such as Russia, China and Iran. In the past year, we have seen Cold War alliances and networks resurface and soft-power strategies employed to receive support in international fora. There is a strong sense that alternative, illiberal, global interconnections are being (re)forged.

Recent scholarship on the Cold War emphasises the spatial and conceptual diversity of illiberal interconnections in the realm of cultural diplomacy under the term of ‘alternative globalisations’. However, patterns of the late-Cold War have carried over into the post-1989 period, as Western-guided globalisation has hardly been ‘the only game in town’ in recent decades. This phenomenon raises the question of how to approach theatre history and non-Western-centric interconnectedness after 1989. The workshop will address this central question by proposing the post-Cold War as a period in which new polarities have emerged. These novel alignments and their impact on theatre and the performing arts have yet to be comprehensively studied.

Globalisation has pushed many illiberal states to venture into market economics, sometimes radically changing the landscape of subsidised cultural production and its international distribution. The new synthesis of market and command economies has affected national theatre communities, engendering new partnerships between states and artists as well as new modes of resistance. While independent and private theatre initiatives may persist alongside state-led engagement with the international theatre community, governmental involvement remains crucial in illiberal regimes. It shapes the careers of local practitioners and influences choices about performance production, international tours and participation in festivals.

During a two day workshop entitled “Theatre, Globalisation and Illiberal Regimes after 1989”, international scholars will debate and map various cases from the illiberal spectrum – from one-party states to theocracies and various forms of authoritarianism (competitive or one-person rule) to elaborate commonalities of illiberal engagement with globalisation via theatre. The workshop’s aim is to conceptually frame the role of theatre in illiberal regimes’ international relations as a global, post-Cold War phenomenon. The workshop is curated by theatre historian Viviana Iacob, currently fellow at the Käte Hamburger Research Centre “global dis:connect” (Munich).

The programme can be downloaded here.

Attendance is possible upon request via .

Fresh from the Press: C. Balme (ed.) “Performing the Cold War in the Postcolonial World”

Bennewitz in India, Three Penny Opera, 1970.

I am delighted to announce the publication of  Performing the Cold War in the Postcolonial World, edited by Christopher B. Balme, former PI of the ERC project Developing Theatre at LMU Munich.

This volume, published with Routledge, London, explores how the Cultural Cold War played out in Africa and Asia in the context of decolonization. Both the United States and the Soviet Union as well as East European states undertook significant efforts to influence cultural life in the newly independent, postcolonial world.

The different forms of influence are the subject of this book. The contributions are grouped around four topic headings. “Networks and Institutions” looks at the various ways Western-style theatre became institutionalized in the decolonial world, especially Africa. “Cultural Diplomacy” focuses on the activities of the Soviet Union in India in the late 1950s and 1960s in the very different arenas of book publishing and the circus. “Artists and Agency” explores how West African filmmakers (Ousmane Sembène and Abderrahmane Sissako) and European authors (Brecht and Ibsen) were harnessed for different kinds of Cold War strategies. Finally, “Cultures of Things” investigates how everyday objects such as books and iconic theatre buildings became suffused with affect, nostalgia, and ideology.

The book came out just now and will be of interest for students and researchers of the Cold War, postcolonial studies, theatre, film, and literature. Research and publication for this book as well the workshop preceding this publication were funded by the European Research Council Project “Developing Theatre”

Chapters 1, 4, 8, and 11 of this book is freely available as a downloadable Open Access PDF at under a Creative Commons [Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivatives (CC-BY-NC-ND)] 4.0 license.



ERC Project “Developing Theatre” – PhD theses successfully defended

We are very pleased to announce that Rebecca Sturm and Abdul Karim Hakib, both PhD students in the ERC project Developing Theatre. Building Expert Networks for Theatre in Emerging Countries After 1945, successfully defended their dissertations this week. Rebecca Sturm wrote about Theatre Experts for the Third World. East Germany’s ITI and the Globalization of Theatre in the Cold War. Karim Hakib‘s dissertation is on Theatre for Development. Historical and Institutional Perspectives.

Their work is the result of years of intensive international research in the context of the ERC project. Both dissertations break new ground in theatre studies, and so we can’t wait to see them published.

Very warm congratulations!



New Book Out: Theatre Across Oceans. Mediators of Transatlantic Exchange (1890-1925) (N. Leonhardt)

We are delighted to announce that a new monograph developed within the framework of the Centre for Global Theatre History just came out. Theatre Across Oceans. Mediators of Transatlantic Exchange (1890-1925) by theatre historian Nic Leonhardt was recently published with Palgrave Macmillan. The book allows the reader to enter and understand the infrastructural ‘backstage area’ of global cultural mobility during the years between 1890 and 1925. Located within the research fields of global history and theory, the geographical focus of the book is a transatlantic one, based on the active exchange in this phase between North and South America and Europe. Emanating from a rich body of archival material, the study argues that this exchange was essentially facilitated and controlled by professional theatrical mediators (agents, brokers), who have not been sufficiently researched within theatre or historical studies. The low visibility of mediators in the scientific research is in diametrical contrast to the enormous power that they possessed in the period dealt with in this book. 


Nic Leonhardt: Theatre Across Oceans. Mediators of Transatlantic Exchange (1890-1925). London: Palgrave Macmillan (Transnational Theatre Histories)

“It is crucial to learn, research and explore with self-reflection” – Interview with Chinese Theatre Researcher & Manager Sun Xiaoxue

SUN Xiaoxue (photo: private)

Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable facets of my work in international research contexts is meeting wonderful, inspiring colleagues from different countries. Currently, SUN Xiaoxue  is a guest in our ERC project Developing Theatre as well as at the Centre for Global Theatre History. With a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), she is researching the reception of German theatre in China for the next six months. Sun is an impressive personality. She has a degree in law from Peking University, is a theatre researcher and, in her main profession, a theatre manager. Sun received her PhD in Arts from the Chinese National Academy of Arts, with her study on the transformation of public and commercial theatres in China.

Before turning towards theatre management, she worked in public cultural sectors experiences in policymaking and public cultural events. As programming director and operation director, she was involved in the planning and management of several Chinese public theatres, including Jiangsu Centre for the Performing Arts in Nanjing, Shandong Grand Theatre, Qinghai Grand Theatre, Guangzhou Opera House, etc. with CPAA Theatres. Since the end of 2018, she has been working on the opening of Ocean Flower Island Performing Arts Centre as managing director, exploring new possibilities of theatre models in China.

Her research interests include cultural policy, audience study, transcultural theatre and theatre in transitional society. She is currently conducting her post-doctoral research on curation in contemporary Chinese theatres and festivals with Sino-German theatre interaction as a significant component.

Nic Leonhardt: Sun, welcome to Munich! You recently returned to Munich on a DAAD scholarship for sixth months to work on a project. What is this project about?

Sun Xiaoxue: Thank you, Nic. It is wonderful to be back. My current project involves politics and curation in contemporary Chinese theatres. Although this may sound like a local topic, the history and recent developments of theatre practices in China make it a topic of globalisation with particular ties to Europe. If one picks up a programme of some leading theatres and festivals in Beijing, Shanghai or even Guangzhou or Nanjing, it will, in some aspects, display Western connections. However, this phenomenon can not be fully explained by a lack of domestic productions, marketing strategies based on audience composition or the separation of venues and companies in most Chinese theatres. A few carefully selected works may be silent catalysts of a profound theatre reform for certain managers and curators. To them, audiences are expected to contribute more than reviews or box office. That is, they should be involved in this very process of activating the long-dormant Chinese theatrical public sphere.

Although numerous barriers to this goal are present in both obvious and subtle ways, impeding Sino–Western communication within the theatre is often more complicated than the process of setting up an internet firewall. Such cases have emerged at various times in recent years, from the initial curation of the Lin Zhaohua Theatre Arts Festival in 2010 to the ‘accident’ of the Schaubühne’s Ein Volksfeind in 2018[i]. Furthermore, a good portion of these instances has been associated with German theatres. Thus, throughout my stay in Munich, I will concentrate on investigating the socio-political factors underlying these cases. If the conditions permit, I shall examine the potential corresponding coping strategies based on the mechanisms and practices of Sino–German theatre institutions.

Open air stage on Ocean Flower Island(photo by Sun Xiaoxue).
Open air stage on Ocean Flower Island (photo by Sun Xiaoxue).


NL: What makes the Institute of Theatre Studies and our ERC project Developing Theatre your points of contact in Munich?

SX: Five years ago, as a visiting PhD, I conducted research at the Institute of Theatre Studies at LMU Munich. Though short and somewhat cursory, this experience influenced my approach to research and practice. With specific reference to the transformation of Chinese society since the mid-nineteenth century,  studies conducted at the Institute have  demonstrated their significant ability to explain the cases in China. These features have been particularly evident in Christopher Balme’s works on theatre as an institution and theatre and globalisation. Yet I may not speak for all Chinese scholars on this point.

NL: At home in China you are both a Theatre Researcher and Theatre Manager. What makes up your work? What exactly do you do and where?  

SX: These dual identities may sound contradictory or at least a bit confusing. Perhaps I could explain it as a Chinese case or a short-term phenomenon in countries with a theatre system still in development. As you know, for a long time Chinese theatre had been following a traditional path until the nation encountered a new system with markedly different ideas in the mid-nineteenth century. This encounter with western theatre revolutionised its form of expression, stage layout, architects, and even spectatorship, initiating the transition to modernity that remains in progress.

In theatre construction, this transitional process has been interrupted by wars and slowed down by political factors. Especially during the first 30 years of the People’s Republic of China, a lack of modern performance spaces was always a problem for Chinese artists and foreign companies invited to China through cultural diplomacy programmes. This situation did not significantly improve until the period known as the Age of the Grand Theatres. It was a direct result of the cultural policy established at the beginning of the 21st century, highlighted by grand performing arts architectures such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts(NCPA) and the Guangzhou Opera House (GOP). Sincethen, hundreds of large-scale venues have been constructed across China, most of which are managed by state-owned cultural enterprises like CPAA [China Performing Arts Agency, NL] Theatres and Poly Theatres. In this way, the position of the theatre manager was established as a true profession in China.

However, we face different challenges from our counterparts in the established system with a long history and relatively constant tradition. Thus, it is crucial to learn, research and explore with self-reflection. Moreover, as in the process of law-making, a random, fragmented research approach may create systemic confusion, producing increasingly complex problems. This need for a focused investigation is where my research began. Of course, at the very beginning, my work was relatively unstructured. As the operation manager of CPAA theatres, I am often involved in projects from the planning stage through construction, including bidding or negotiations with local governments. Once a theatre management agreement has been signed, the regular work officially begins. What is significantly different from German theatres is that critical decisions related to the contents of the performing season are generally made by the Beijing office. In Poly’s case, it is even more extreme. The focus of most of their local theatre managers will mainly involve the box office. Since touring rather than local productions is the principal component in programming for both Poly and CPAA Theatres, they need more stops to share the expenses on the road. It was made possible by the massive construction of venues across China. However, the logic of theatre management was therefore heavily shaped by the pursuit of standardisation and reproduction. To a certain degree, it has been leading us to the current identity crisis of public theatres in China.

On the positive side, some theatres have tried to change this model in recent years, with content independence at their core, developing a more refined, elaborate institutional arrangement. The NCPA was the first to put this idea into practice, followed some years later by the JSCPA. However, such ventures are not conducted by many because they often require a much larger establishment and more financial support that is not available to most. Moreover, compromises regarding contents are still unavoidable with either the government or the market. This is evident in my work as programming director at the JSCPA. For instance, to generate revenue, I often have to undertake work assigned by the government and commercial productions that may not fit with the artistic niche of the institution. Thus, despite having a larger budget than many other theatres, the autonomy in terms of content is still minimal.

In 2018, the merger between the Ministry of Culture and the Administration of Tourism caused a drastic restructuring of China’s cultural policy. This union resulted in the emergence of performing arts venues invested in and managed by private companies, including the performing arts centre I am currently working on. However, this policy has been controversial for its intentions and risks, and the impact it brings to the Chinese theatre landscape has yet to be examined.  

Guangzhou Opera House (photo by Sun Xiaoxue)


NL: What do theatre studies and theatre research look like in China?  

SX: I am afraid I cannot provide a comprehensive answer to this question. However, from my own experience working with Chinese experts in various fields, the disciplines remain very fragmented, and some of them are still struggling for self-identification and self-legitimation. This issue likely arose when huaju (Chinese translation of spoken drama, also known as new theatre) was introduced to China over a century ago. At that time, it was interpreted by a group of Chinese social reformers as a weapon to challenge the feudal establishment and its cultural representations. At the end of this battle between the old and the new, the common vernacular replaced the literary language, and simplified writing gradually replaced traditional ones. To some degree, though, the competition between huaju and the old theatre (xiqu) has continued to this day. This is only one of the cases that created barriers to integrated theatre studies. Although there  have been ongoing fruitful fusions of the traditional and the modern, the East and the West in music and dance theatre, certain institutional boundaries remain problematic in theatre studies  in China today.

NL: What topics dominate the current discourse there?

SX: From the 1980s to the present, the question of whether to change or not to change has been a constant topic of discussion in China. This concept has been the subject of both academic research and artistic exploration, and broadly reflects the Chinese public’s social mentality. Therefore, many wonder in what way and to what end the reform will continue. In the context of a globalised world, this issue is universally relevant, so I have been exploring theatre’s role in this process for quite some time. Germany has undergone a few dramatic social transformations in the last century, which has also occurred in some other countries at different times, with diverse processes. If change is going to be a regular part of the world for the foreseeable future, then theatres must consider how to contribute to, adapt to and live with such fluctuation. Thus, I hope to use my time in Munich to better familiarise myself with the aforementioned histories, a study that could also help other theatre practitioners in China prepare for the change.

Ocean Flower Performing Arts Centre (under construction,photo by Sun Xiaoxue)
Ocean Flower Performing Arts Centre (under construction,photo by Sun Xiaoxue)


NL: Is there anything that appeals to you about German theatre?

SX: As I mentioned above, German theatre’s history and present have relevance for China. I find this particularly interesting as a theatre researcher in a transitioning country with a particular political and cultural environment. It includes one’s accomplishments, mistakes and current issues. For someone following German theatre with an external perspective, any discovery in this realm is precious. As for many Chinese artists and audiences, German theatre arts, or performing arts in general, indeed have their unparalleled aura. In turn, it establishes a good foundation for intercultural communication in some areas.

NL: At the Centre for Global Theatre Histories, we are looking at transnational and global exchange movements in theatre history. The ERC project Developing theatre is mainly about the expansion of (international) expert networks and development of theatre in emerging countries after 1945. At the turn of the 20th century, European theatre aesthetics and formats played a central role in China, for example in Shanghai. For some time now, many new theatres, especially opera houses, have been built in China; at the same time, China is investing heavily in culture abroad and taking over cultural institutions. For example, the headquarters of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), which was based in Paris for decades, has been in Shanghai since 2015. How are these movements and ventures discussed among you professionals? What opportunities does this bring? Perhaps what challenges as well?

SX: I fully agree with your opinion on the role European theatre has played in the development of modern Chinese theatre. In fact, I see its introduction, dissemination and localisation as an important dynamic that is still driving the movement. Of course, as a cosmopolitan with its European settlements, Shanghai played a vital part in the early introduction of western theatre, but this is not the only city where the marks are left. You may also recognise certain early familiar theatre buildings when visiting Macau, Tianjin and Harbin. Furthermore, vibrant cultural lives are what they have in common. Besides, the early adaptations of Western theatre architecture can also be found in cities like Nanjing and Dalian.

In the 1950s, the first generation of theatres built after the founding of New China, including the Tianqiao Theatre and the Capitol Theatre, was more or less indirectly patterned after the construction and management of East German theatres through the Soviet Union. These Chinese theatres even adopted the institutional structure of integrating venue and company, in China, we named this model “场团合一”. Thus, the Central Ballet and the Beijing People’s Art Theatre were among the very few renowned performing arts groups to have their own venues. However, the continental influence met with competition from commercial concepts in the 1980s as the country shifted its focus of study to the United States. This change was associated with China’s cultural policy transformation after the Opening of China in 1979 and the subsequent market economy reform. To this day, several related paradoxes and problems remain for us.

NL: The Covid -19 pandemic temporarily paralysed numerous sectors all over the world. In Germany, theatres, museums, cinemas and other cultural institutions were closed for months. What was the situation like in China?

SX: Those institutions were among the first to close after the breakout of COVID-19. This state lasted for about half a year. After a slight improvement in the pandemic situation, we were gradually allowed to open, beginning at 30% capacity, moving to 50% and then 75% before finally returning to full capacity. Thus, it has been a tough year for most of us working in live performance. As a result, many agencies, production companies and commercial theatre companies have gone out of business. However, most public theatres, which the government mainly funds, are not in danger of bankruptcy. Throughout the pandemic, some theatres have attempted to extend themselves through the internet. However, the qualities of this medium and the modalities of its dissemination are unquestionably something we need to continue investigating. Looking at the current cases in China, it is still a medium for connecting with the existing audience groups rather than expanding them, let alone developing new ones. However, the separation, I feel, made our bond with audiences stronger. In most cases, it made them appreciate the live experience even more and made us rethink the position of theatre in our society with a perspective we used to avoid.

Audiences wating for entrance  in Shanghai Concert Hall(built in 1930, originally known as 南京大戏院,photo by S un Xiaoxue).jpeg
Audiences wating for entrance in Shanghai Concert Hall(built in 1930, originally known as 南京大戏院,photo by S un Xiaoxue)


NL: What opportunities are there for theatre scholars from Germany to do research or enjoy further professional education in China? Do you have any tips for them?

SX: Between China and Germany, the differences in theatre education and research systems are very pronounced. This also reflects the fragmentation and internal politics we mentioned above. Take the two drama schools that German scholars are very familiar with, the Central Academy of Drama and the Shanghai Theatre Academy, as examples. Their common Chinese name “戏剧学院” in fact, tells us a lot about the inherent ambivalence. Although they have both already begun to establish dance, musical, opera and Xiqu programmes in recent years, German theatre scholars may still find it challenging to engage in conversation with them on a number of subjects. If such is the case, I suggest broadening the looking into institutions that may not have the word ‘theatre’ or ‘drama’ in their name, for example, the Beijing Dance Academy, the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts and Central Conservatory of Music. In addition, universities such as Peking and Nanjing boast an advantage in interdisciplinary fields. For theatre architecture, Tsinghua has the leading programme in China.

In terms of funding, the support provided by the Ministry of Education is relatively limited. However, one can also work directly with theatres and artists to gain access to additional funding sources. Most Chinese theatres will gladly provide support for German students, researchers, and artists if there is common ground to develop.

NL: What are your goals, what does an ideal stay at LMU look like for you?

SX: If the COVID-19 situation continues to improve, I wish to conduct my previously planned literature research and in-depth interviews, and LMU is the perfect place to do so. In addition to having excellent resources for research, LMU is located in a city with outstanding theatres, opera houses and orchestras; each has its own legacy. This provides various materials for researchers. It is fascinating to see how the city’s performing arts and civil society have come together to breathe. The cultural map of the city is very interesting to look on. When I arrived in Munich, I heard that the new venue of the Volkstheater would be open this year, which I eagerly anticipate. In the meantime, I am also looking forward to the opening of the Isarphilharmonie. Such scale of urban developments in the cultural sector, I believe, is not very common for European cities of similar size, making those actions of Munich very impressive. Therefore, I hope to use my time in Munich to continue following those new developments and the changes they bring to the city.

NL: Thank you very much for the interesting interview and for taking the time! I wish you all the best for your future work!

SX: Thank you for the invitation. It was a pleasure to complete this interview.


[i] See, for example,ühne-muss-china-tournee-abbrechen/a-45460328 .

New article out: C. Balme & N. Leonhardt on “The Rockefeller Connection”

“The Rockefeller Connection: Visualizing theatrical networks in the Cultural Cold War“, in Comparatio, Vol. 12, 2, 2020, p. 127-144.

In this co-authored article, Christopher Balme and Nic Leonhardt (both ERC project Developing Theatre at LMU Munich) examine how the Rockefeller Foundation funded theatrical initiatives in developing countries: the Philippines and Nigeria. Using visualization software, in this case the open source application Gephi, the authors demonstrate how personal and institutional networks underpinned the cultural, specifically, theatrical development strategy of the foundation. The paper discusses the principles underpinning historical network analysis and analyzes two case studies, Severino Montano’s Arena Theatre in Manila, and the establishment of a School of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

  • This article has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 694559 – DevelopingTheatre) 
and is available in the open access format.


“This is not the message we want” – Heiner Müller’s Discarded Greeting for World Theatre Day, 1975

World Theatre Day was an unexpected but great success for the International Theatre Institute (ITI). In 1961, the 9th World Congress of the ITI adopted the Finnish ITI’s proposal and declared the annual opening day of the Theatre of Nations Festival in Paris, March 27th, as World Theatre Day, celebrated this year for the 59th time. Each year, the ITI commissioned known theatre personalities to write a message about the importance of the theatrical art in its social context, whether critical or optimistic. This now long list of writers includes famous theatre artists such as Jean Cocteau, Arthur Miller, Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook, Dimitri Chostakovitch, Luchino Visconti, Pablo Neruda, Ellen Stewart and Wole Soyinka. (A collection of all authors and all messages can be found here)

Logo of the GDR Centre of ITI (Archive of ITI Deutschland)

In my research into the work of the former GDR Centre of the ITI (undertaken within the framework of the ERC project Developing Theatre), I coincidentally discovered in the files of the Ministry of Culture such a message by the East German playwright Heiner Müller that had never been used for its intended purpose.

World Theatre Day was widely celebrated in the GDR as well, driven by the efforts of the very active East German ITI Centre. However, because of the huge cultural and political significance asigned to the theatre in the GDR, getting the international messages published often proved difficult. Many of them, although hopeful of the theatre’s ability to transcend borders and make the world a better place, were considered “not suitable for us”[1] because they were either written by the wrong people or expressed artistic views incompatible with GDR cultural policy. The solution was often to ignore the international message altogether and to distribute a separate national message written by an East German artist, which placed the same political expectations on the theatre as the state and the party did.

Another international World Theatre Day message is rejected. (GDR Centre of ITI. 1973. Protokoll Direktoriumssitzung 14.4.1973. Direktorium DDR 1971-1974. Archive of ITI Deutschland. p.3)

In 1975, to replace the international message of Ellen Stewart, Heiner Müller was chosen as the author of a national message. Müller had been a controversial figure in East German theatre life. In the 1960s he was repeatedly caught in the crosshairs of the SED, some of his plays were banned in the GDR and he was at times prohibited from working. While his plays were performed and published abroad, his rehabilitation in the GDR was slow. Despite the active support of his theatre colleagues, he was still regarded with suspicion by the state censorship authorities. For this very reason, I found it remarkable that Müller was commissioned to address the theatres of the GDR in a message.

This was the text that Müller submitted to the East German ITI Centre:

“A Buddhist legend tells of a woman who was elevated to the gods. But on the threshold of nirvana, she heard the cry of the world and turned back to mankind. Since sacrifice has become tragedy and orgy has become comedy, theatre has come to this threshold from time to time. These are the times when there is talk of crisis. When it crosses the threshold in the wrong direction, it gives up the condition of its existence. Humanity can live without the theatre, with imperialism it can no longer. Its problems are such that they can only be solved together, and not together. Not with war and not without violence. What can theatre do in the world of hunger and wars that needs to be changed? It does not satisfy hunger, heal wounds or raise the dead. But its illusory world is the semblance of a world without hunger, war and privilege. To all who work on this only possible future, our greetings on World Theatre Day 1975.”[2]

But as with many of Müller’s plays, the assessment of this text in the East German Ministry of Culture was negative. “This is not the message we want” (in the German original “So geht das nicht”) is the opinion shared by the ministry officials in a handwritten comment underneath.

Heiner Müller at the Alexanderplatz demonstration 1989 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1104-047 / Link, Hubert / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons)

At short notice, it was decided instead to ask the actor Wolfgang Heinz to write an alternative message. Heinz wrote about his friend and fellow actor Hans Otto, who, as a member of the communist party, had been abducted and murdered by the Nazis in 1933. This personal starting point was quickly undercut by the obligation to be ideologically clear and affirmative. Thus, the text asked the East German reader to realise “30 years after the victory over the fascist murderers” that “in the GDR we created and are developing a state in which arts of a pure, truthful and useful kind have their home for good reason.”[3]

Heiner Müller’s text remained in the drawer. In many ways his critical reflections on the world-changing potential of theatre were much more akin to the international messages that the ITI headquarters distributed for World Theatre Day. Like these and like many of his plays, however, it was dismissed as unsuitable for East German audiences and thus not published.

[1] GDR Centre of ITI. 1973. Protokoll Direktoriumssitzung 14.4.1973. Direktorium DDR 1971-1974. Archive of ITI Deutschland. p.3 [translation mine, RS]

[2] Heiner Müller. 1975. Botschaft zum Welttag des Theaters 1975. BArch DR1/13620 [translation mine, RS]

[3] Wolfgang Heinz. 1975. Botschaft zum Welttag des Theaters 1975. BArch DR1/13620 [translation mine, RS]

About the author

Rebecca Sturm (M.A.) is a PhD student of the ERC project Developing Theatre at LMU Munich. In her dissertation, she focusses on the international efforts of the East and West German centres of the International Theatre Institute during the Cold War.

“Research interest must be both a professional and a personal choice” – An Interview with Romanian Theatre Scholar Viviana Iacob

Viviana Iacob (PhD) is currently a Fellow of the ERC Project Developing Theatre and the Centre for Global Theatre History at LMU Munich with a PostDoc Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Her research explores the exchanges, practices and networks that allowed Eastern European cultures to overcome peripheralization in relation with the international community after 1945. She is currently working on a monograph that places Romanian theatre within global circulations among the East, the West, and the South. 

In my functions as Co-Director of the Centre for Global Theatre History and senior researcher of the ERC project Developing Theatre, I interviewed Viviana about her work and her experiences of doing research away from home in times of Covid. The interview is also the first of a series of conversations of the GTH Centre that will be the core of a Global Theatre History Podcast we are currently working on and which will be launched soon.

Theatre Scholar Viviana Iacob. (photo: private)

Nic Leonhardt (NL): Viviana, you came to LMU on a fellowship by the Humboldt Foundation and are currently a fellow of the ERC project Developing Theatre and the Centre for Global Theatre History. What exactly are you working on? And to what extent can our projects here be good biotopes for your work?

Viviana Iacob (VI): I am currently working on the history of international organizations such as the International Theatre Institute (ITI) and their impact on Eastern European theatre practice during the Cold War. My research expands on previous contributions I made to several projects that dealt with East-West cultural and expertise entanglements prior to my Humboldt fellowship. However, the ERC initiative that you and Christopher Balme are developing at LMU inspired me to broaden my focus to theatre connections between Eastern Europe and the Global South. I believe that this topic is still in its infancy in the contemporary scholarship, which, unfortunately, deprives us as historians of a fascinating set of trans-regional experiences central to socialist states’ cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. The ERC project also influenced my theoretical and methodological approach, especially in terms of emphasising the role of international organizations as central actors that structure theatre exchanges and debates.

NL: Your epistemological ‘hobbyhorses’ seem to be the Cold War and internationalisation. Do you (still) know how and when your interest in these topics developed?

VI: Interest in the Cold War started with my PhD research. I analyzed Shakespeare stage adaptations during the first two decades of the communist regime in Romania. I discovered that Shakespeare’s theatre functioned not only as a conduit for showcasing the Soviet experience on the local stage but also as a door to East-West conversations and circulations. This work along with the discovery of a plethora of primary sources (such as those left behind by friendship societies with either socialist or Western countries) made me realize that past narratives about Romanian (or Eastern European) theatre communities as isolated or Sovietized obstructed my and other theatre historians’ understanding of the Cold War period. As I progressed with my dissertation I uncovered more avenues or corridors for international circulations pursued at the time by Romanian (and Eastern European) theatre practitioners. This was a turning point: it led me to understand the pivotal role played by international organizations in the cultural diplomacy of socialist state regimes.

NL: What I like so much and admire about your publications is that they are incredibly well-informed and detailed, and that they contain a wealth of archival sources. How is your archival work structured? Are there differences between the work in archives in Romania and those in German-speaking countries? Which ones do you consult the most?

VI: I start from the premise that archival work on Eastern European theatre history requires the ability to change gears. I seek to alternate between different scales so that I can identify the overlapping layers of theatre circulations and productions in international context. Simply put, I search for sources that reflect both the local and the global. I’d argue that there are three intersecting sets of material that constitute the foundation for such an approach. First, there are archival collections amassed by both party and state institutions or local private collections. They usually provide unilateral perceptions: of officials, of practitioners ‘talking socialist’, or personal experiences. Second, at a regional level, I place this information in comparative contexts, as I seek information about interactions between Eastern European states. Third, these two levels are counterbalanced with archival collections of international organizations. In my experience, the latter are by far the most arduous to work with since more often than not they have yet to be catalogued.

Files, files, files. Historical theatre research requires the detailed study of paperwork at the archives. Digitalized material is rare. (photo: VI)

To answer your second query, I would say that the difference between German and Romanian archives is first and foremost one of access. In Eastern Europe one must first discover where one might find a particular document or collection. After 1989, a restructuring of collections pertaining to the communist period took place and archives were destroyed, moved, merged or transferred from institution to institution. Finding them is an adventure in itself. One must also add that, in Romania, even if you find a useful file, let’s say in the historical archive of the Ministry of Culture, it might still be classified, which makes it impossible for you to see it. For several archival holdings, the process of access is at snail pace, if at all. In contrast, I find that German or French institutions that hold similar archives (I have worked with the latter extensively in the past few years) are sometimes just an email away.

NL: In the ERC project, “development”, cultural policy and expert networks after 1945 are important keywords and research fields. Can you give examples from your research in which they play a role? How do you approach them?

VI: I see my contribution to the ERC project as bringing a third dimension, an Eastern European focus to its North-South alignment. I look at socialist theatre experts and their participation in the Cold War epistemic community. The Eastern European input to building global theatre networks stands on a par with that of the West. The West and the East were equally invested in the decolonized Global South during the Cold War. For example, Eastern Europeans built expert exchanges or full-fledged training programs designed for students from the Global South via bilateral relations or progressive networks.

Although there is an increasing volume of literature on the issue of cultural exchanges between the Global East and the Global South, the scholarship on the role played by theatre and the performing arts in these dynamics is yet to fully take off. The scholarship that has been produced in this direction mostly comes from your department: publications such as Theatre, Globalization and the Cold War and the ERC project you mentioned earlier.

NL: What are the biggest challenges you face in your research?

VI: As I pointed out earlier, access to certain archival collections but also the fact that all the archival material that I research is yet to be digitised. Of course such a process entails first cataloguing the material and as I mentioned, this is still an issue with some collections I have been looking at. I am very grateful to the archivists and custodians that helped me navigate this material or allowed me to study it even though it was not catalogued or was in the process of being archived. This is the case of the ITI archives in Paris, Budapest and Berlin. I do have to say that there is some exhilaration in discovering that very few people, if any before you, have worked on such archives.

NL: A major challenge, I suppose, is the Covid19 situation and its tangible impact on our everyday lives, cultural life and scholarly work. You were in Munich before the Corona crisis became acute. How did it affect your fellowship? Is there a before and an after?

VI: Since my research is premised on “going there” the pandemic has of course affected the way I currently work. The fact that I established a connection with some collection holders prior to the pandemic has helped immensely. The bright side to these difficulties, if any, is that the present situation has drawn my attention to an area of my research that has taken second place until now: the editorial projects of the international organisations that I am studying. The German library system is extremely rich in this respect. The consolidation of library holdings from East and West after the Cold War means that today in Germany one can find Eastern European publications that can seldom be found elsewhere.

NL: From your point of view: How “global” is Romanian theatre?

VI: Romanian theatre is not exceptional but rather typical for the period. I do not think that Romanian theatre or Romanian theatre practitioners were more visible than other Eastern Europeans during the Cold War. On the contrary, Romanian theatre was as global as Bulgarian theatre was. Romanian puppeteers helped set up the Puppet Theatre in Cairo while Bulgarian architects built the National Theatre in Lagos. The visibility of personalities such as Jerzy Grotowski, Radu Beligan or Friz Benewitz during the Cold War was very much the outcome of successful cultural diplomacies of individual socialist states and of the growing role of Eastern Europe in international organisations such as ITI. This movement towards globalization was of course about exporting a socialist civilizational blueprint, but one must not forget that each Eastern European country had its own characteristics and international trajectories informed by domestic specificities and traditions.

NL: Is theatre / theatre history global at all?

VI: I think it can be and recently published work suggests that it should be. As historians we must take on the challenge in order to circumvent methodological nationalism and Eurocentrism. Connecting performativity to trans-regional circulations is, as you and Christopher Balme have argued, bound to bring invigorating richness to theatre studies. Such an approach simultaneously extends and deepens our understanding of local theatre contexts. 

Pavel Ilie, Object, wicker, 1971. (Credit photo: Eugeniu Lupu)

  NL: What is theatre research/ theatre studies like in Romania?

VI: Romanian theatre studies have been slow in embracing archival sources and international perspectives. In part this has much to do with the difficulties of access to archival resources pertaining to the performing arts. In order to be studied, relevant material must first be discovered. Until very recently, the exploration of cultural policies during the Cold War, performing arts included, had remained the purview of historians of the communist period, who made most progress in accessing the various archival holdings from the state socialist period. Histories of theatre after 1945 have seldom engaged with comparative work. Almost no attention has been granted to trajectories of internationalization. However, considering the global turn in Cold War studies and the growing research on the role of Eastern Europe in international organisations, I believe that this state of things will soon change.  One recent initiative that has done much in this respect is the Institute of the Present. This is a research and artist resource platform that tackles the recent history of the visual and performing arts from a transnational perspective, while also encouraging its contributors to explore available public or private archives.

NL: When you talk about your work, your eyes sparkle; your enthusiasm is contagious. Is there anything that fascinates you outside the desk?

I think travelling and exposure to foreign cultures would constitute my “other” interest. There is a level of performativity entailed by that experience that is addictive. This fascination has been of course curtailed by the pandemic. However, I have always brought back tastes, smells and experiences from my travels. During lockdowns I have been going back to them to cope with Covid-driven relative confinement.

NL: What do you recommend to junior researchers and your students?

VI: My advice would be to find an area of study that is relevant for you both on a professional and personal level. I do not think passion for knowledge or opportunity suffices for a career in the academia. Research interest must be both a professional and a personal choice. Of course that entails adaptability and resourcefulness since one must find and fund one’s research.  

NL: Where will you go after your time in Munich?

VI:  My answer is premised on the impact of the pandemic on future research and job opportunities. The academic market was competitive before, but the pandemic has exacerbated that situation. That being said, at this point it is rather difficult to say what my future will look like after my Humboldt fellowship ends in 2022.

NL: Thank you very much for the interview! And good luck for your future research. We are glad to have you here.


Keynote «Mediating Cultural Meanders: Dance, Narration, Music» Gannat, France, 25-28 July, 2019

Nic Leonhardt, Director of the Centre of GTH, has been invited as a keynote speaker of the conference Indigenous Languages, Traditional Music and Dance within an Intercultural Performance/ Langues autochtones, musiques et danses traditionelles au sein de performances interculturelles in Gannat (Auvergne, France). The conference, organized by Vikrant Kishore (Australia) and Etienne Rougier (France) takes place along with the Festival des Cultures du Monde, which is a part of UNESCO‘s intangible cultural heritage. Gannat is famous for the festival that takes place every summer since 1974. The conference will be the first of its time.

Nic Leonhardt’s tal “Mediating Cultural Meanders: Dance, Narration, Music” will discuss the circulation of intangible cultural phenomena using the examples of Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun and his performance “Nijinsky Siam” as well as the figure and stories of Mullah/Hodja Nasreddin.

A warm welcome to our new Visiting Fellow at CAS and at the Centre for GTH, Prof. Patrick Ebewo, Ph.D.

Patrick Ebewo is Professor at the Faculty of Art Sciences at Tshwane University of Technology in South Africa.

He is Visiting Fellow at CAS and at the Centre for Global Theatre History in June and July 2019 at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Christopher Balme.

His research focuses on African theatre, the theatre of industrial society, theatre in developmental contexts and popular theatre.

The University of Ibadan in Nigeria conferred a PhD on him in 1988, after completing a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA. He has been attending and presenting papers at international conferences, seminars and workshops since 1984. He has been a supervisor and examiner of master’s and doctoral students and has served as external examiner for the University of Pretoria, the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, the University of Ghana, Legon, University of Swaziland and the National University of Lesotho. He was the convener of the first international conference hosted by the Faculty of the Arts in 2011, which culminated in the publication of a book entitled, Africa and Beyond: Arts and Sustainable Development, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2013).

His first research interests were in the areas of history, theory and criticism but he has gradually moved to a more utilitarian aspect of applied theatre for community empowerment and economic development in the creative arts industry. He has received grants from local and international organisations as well as government departments that assisted him to attend national and international theatre projects and conferences. He has been privileged to attend two staff development fellowships at the Usmanu Dan Fodiyo University in Sokoto, Nigeria.

Prof Ebewo is an active member of the editorial advisory boards of the South African Theatre Journal, the West African Theatre Journal, University of IIorin, LWATI: A Journal of Contemporary Research, and, at TUT, NEXUS Journal. He is an active member of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) and the African Theatre Association (AfTA).

Prof Ebewo’s field of expertise and research specialisation is dramatic arts and theatre, with the focus on:

  • African drama and theatre
  • Cultural studies
  • Dramatic Literature and Criticism
  • Theatre for development/Industrial Theatre
  • Popular theatre​​

For more information, please contact:Name: Prof Patrick J Ebewo

Neues Forschungsprojekt “Theatersteuerung nach 1918” im SfB Vigilanzkulturen, gefördert durch die DFG

Projekt unter der Leitung von Prof. Dr. Christopher Balme und PD Dr. Nic Leonhardt

Die Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) hat am 22. Mai 2019 den Sonderforschungsbereich1369, Vigilanzkulturen bewilligt, einen auf 12 Jahre angelegten interdisziplinären Forschungsverbund an der LMU München.

Nic Leonhardt und Christopher Balme werden im Rahmen des SfB 1369 das Teilprojekt Theatersteuerung: Theater, Politik und Öffentlichkeit nach 1918 in Deutschland leiten. Das Projekt beschäftigt sich mit der Frage, auf welche Weise sich das Verhältnis zwischen Theater, Politik und Öffentlichkeit zwischen 1918 und 1936 durch die Aufhebung der Zensur, verstärktes finanzielles Engagement der öffentlichen Hand und Kontrolle durch die öffentliche Meinung, verstanden hier als Presse und Theaterpublikum, veränderte. Theater, so argumentieren wir, lässt sich als Ort der erhöhten, konzentrierten Aufmerksamkeit fassen und somit als (analytischer) Schauplatz einer gesteigerten Responsibilisierung der politischen und künstlerischen Akteure gegenüber dem Publikum.

Dem Projekt sind für die erste Förderphase zwei Doktorarbeiten zugeordnet, nämlich Decensorship: Theaterskandale und Öffentlichkeit, ein Teilbereich der von Sabrina Kanthak bearbeitet werden wird, sowie Vom Hofamt zur charismatischen Herrschaft: Der Intendant als Vigilanzfigur, ein Projekt, dem sich künftig Heili Schwarz-Schütte widmet.

Das Projekt nimmt seinen Anlauf zum 1. Juli 2019. Wir freuen uns sehr über die Bewilligung.

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