Refugees Welcome to Germany[1]

Germany as a Migrationsgesellschaft[2] and a Willkommenskultur[3]

The Federal Republic of Germany has a lengthy immigration history, yet for an extended period, conservative politicians rejected that the country was a destination of immigration. People who came to Germany in the 1960s through labour migration were seen as temporary “guest workers” (Lucassen, 2005). After decades of reluctance, only following the enactment of a relatively liberalised new immigration law, the Immigration Act in 2005, finally, it has been publicly acknowledged that Germany is a country of immigration.

In 2017, approximately 19.3 million people were living in Germany with a “migrant background”[4], representing 23.6 per cent of the total population. However, the cultural and the artistic impact of the Migrationsgesellschaft is not fairly reflected in the cultural landscape. People with a non-European migrant background still struggle to have access to public cultural institutions. They are excluded from those institutions as artists, cultural professionals and audiences (Terkessidis, 2010). The repertoire/programming of most of the public cultural institutions is generated purely by the native German artistic workforce for their well-educated, middle-class non-immigrant audience (Sharifi, 2011, p. 14). Despite the lack of cultural statistics regarding the proportion of employees with a migrant background in the German theatre landscape, few public theatres are well-known for their heterogeneous ensembles such as the municipal theatre (Stadttheater), the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin not only has the majority of the actors from multi-ethnic origins but more importantly, 51 per cent of the decision-making positions (artistic director, dramaturgy, technique, press and administration) are occupied by cultural professionals with a migrant background (Citizens For Europe and DeutschPlus, 2014). Furthermore, most of these decision-makers have a non-European background. According to a survey by DPA (Deutsche Presse-Agentur/German Press Agency) in 2012, the state theatre (Staatstheater), Thalia Theatre in Hamburg employed 23 per cent artistic workforce with a migrant background and around 17 per cent of the employees of Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, the only state theatre of North Rhine-Westphalia, had various ethnic origins (die Welt, 2012).[5] These numbers are still far from being satisfactory in a country where every fourth person has a migrant background.

Nonetheless, many non-European actors with a migrant background have difficulties getting involved in an ensemble since (foreign looking) appearance and having an accent can be disadvantages on the stages of the traditional public theatres. Sharifi (2011) argues that state and municipal theatres fear that factors such as physical attributes and an even slightly accented German can be criticised by their established audiences, but theatres would not openly admit it. Journalist Özgür Uludağ, who formerly worked for more than nine years in the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, agrees that such aspects are decisive on why immigrant artists do not make it to the stages:

Particularly, the third generation immigrants speak not only fluent German but also are   integrated to the highest degree. They deal with the classics of German literature and now want to bring their interpretation of, for example, "Faust" to the stage. Their pronunciation does not differ in any way from that of a native German. […] But still, in state and municipal theatres, the chances for Arabs, Turks or Africans are extremely poor since mainly the plays by Kleist, Chekhov or Shakespeare are staged. Immigrants may be given the roles typically held by immigrants; Turks may be Turks, Africans may play Africans, but not Faust, King Lear or Ivanov (Uludağ, 2011, translated by the author).

The reluctance of public theatres to engage themselves with the narratives of urban migration and to respond actively to break the barriers of access has been increasingly questioned as the demographic structure of the country continues to change with the influx of people seeking refuge from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq since the peak of the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015 and 2016. Germany received over 1.2 million refugees, mainly from these three countries based on its open-door refugee policy. Around that time, people with their “Welcome to Germany” banners were gathering in train stations to salute the traumatised refugees, and showing their solidarity. The policy discourse was dominated by the Willkommenskultur; policy-makers, cultural institutions and NGOs were overwhelmed by the idea of helping refugees with the means of art practices. A massive amount of incentives became available for cultural initiatives that wanted to design cultural projects involving refugees. One gets the impression that arts and culture are the ideal playgrounds for the integration of refugees, as they are sometimes treated like miracle remedies for refugee policy (Helling and Stoffers, 2016, p. 239). Running parallel to this backdrop, attacks on buildings which were either intended to be used to house refugees or were already in use, and racist assaults were a continual presence (Gritschke and Ziese, 2016, p. 43). After 2016, the number of people who seek refuge in Germany has sharply decreased as a result of the step back of the central government from taking in more refugees as the refugee policy started to shake the ground of the CDU/CSU coalition. Against all these developments, in 2017, there have been almost 700,000 people coming only from Syria according to the Federal Statistical Office. Today, Syrians have become the third biggest minority group after the Turkish and Polish communities; already forming a Syrian diaspora, especially around Berlin.[6]

Due to the lack of comprehensive and intertwined public policies, immigration is still seen as a threat to social cohesion and national identity. A recent survey by the University of Leipzig reveals the severity of the increase in racist views in Germany. According to the study, extremist ideologies have become more acceptable in mainstream German society, leading to a growing support for right-wing parties including the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the anti-immigration PEGIDA movement (Decker, 2016). The rise of right extremism and xenophobia is urging not only the social, economic and integration policies to introduce new strategies and measures to deal with the issues associated with immigration, but also compelling cultural policies to tackle against such prominent societal challenges in Germany. In parallel to the latest debates on the issues of present-day immigration and the situation of refugees, there is a growing interest in the cultural policy field in finding alternative concepts to replace the failed “multicultural approach”[7] to manage cultural diversity. Hence, cultural policies at the national, federal states (Länder) and local levels introduce new funding programmes and implement new measures for the promotion of cultural integration and participation of refugees.

Cultural Integration and Cultural Education as a Policy Objective

Given that Germany is a federal republic, 16 federal states retain their cultural sovereignty and share responsibility with the local authorities according to the right to local self-government. Although the central government has no jurisdiction in the cultural sphere, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (Die Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien/BKM) provides additional funding through its various foundations, and these have a strong influence in the performing arts scene. The BKM realises the concept-based cultural policy indirectly through the Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes), the Performing Arts Fund (Fonds Darstellende Künste) and the Capital Cultural Fund (Hauptstadtkulturfonds) since federal states continue supporting infrastructure and established institutions (Schneider, 2013, p. 42). Also, cultural and artistic initiatives, cultural centres and clubs are supported by another body of the BKM, the Socio-culture Fund (Fonds Soziokultur). This Fund aims to enhance sociocultural development and foster cultural education in the country.

Notably, within the last five years, there is a considerable increase in the number of programmes introduced by the national, federal states and local governments that subsidy outreach projects with refugees[8], especially in the performing art scene. Since a large amount of funding is available for refugee outreach projects, many cultural initiatives engage with subjects related to displacement. These projects can be divided relatively roughly into two categories; a) projects initiated and organised by the refugees themselves and b) those inaugurated by people without any flight and asylum experiences at the established cultural institutions (Helling and Stoffers, 2016, p. 239). Most of these projects are carried out in the field of performing arts; mainly in the genres of music, dance and theatre. Funding institutions introduce participatory cultural integration, cultural education or intercultural dialogue programmes to encourage public and independent theatres (Freie Gruppe/Freie Szene)[9] to create projects that take refugees and forced migration as a point of departure. The characteristics of these programmes provide useful insights into how participation is perceived.

The participatory projects are designed and implemented for and with refugees but seldom by refugees (Helling and Stoffers, 2016). In most of these participatory productions, refugees are part of the projects as amateur actors, but they are not involved in the creative processes. Moreover, professional artists in exile are not included in any part of these artistic activities. Even in the well-intentioned projects, frequently the stories of traumatised people seeking refuge are instrumentalised; the biographies and painful escape experiences of refugees are often exhibited on stage. People are reduced to a “refugee identity” as if the legislative term “refugee” indicates a specific community identity of a territory, which is interlinked with displacement, war and loss of homeland. In whose name the project owners speak, with what aim they are engaged in such projects is also questionable.

Especially, cultural education is the field in which a lot of ambitious projects are carried out with refugees (Gritschke and Ziese, 2016, p. 35). The measures are taken to include refugees frequently affiliated with cultural integration where the focus is on the alteration of attitudes, improvement of mutual understanding and building competencies and skills for respecting different cultures. Thus, in many cases, the funding programmes promote creating a welcoming environment for refugees to integrate them into society through the canonised arts.

Concerning the enhancement of cultural integration through cultural education, special awards have started being given for the best practices realised with refugees. One of the noteworthy examples of such awards was initiated in 2016 by the Kultur öffnet Welten (Culture Opens Worlds), a joint initiative of the national, state and local authorities, artistic umbrella organisations and actors of civil society. In that respect, 10 projects were shortlisted as best practices out of 150 nominations that were acknowledged as innovative, experimental in method, transnational in character and receiving nationwide attention. The winners of this special prize were Banda Internationale (Dresden), Kino Asyl (Munich) and Multaka (Berlin).[10] In these music, cinema and museum projects, the focus was on identity and homeland, and amateur and professional young refugee actors actively took part in the development of these projects. The productions intended to create a sense of belonging to the host country for the refugees, but also through a participatory approach, participants of these projects were in the position to introduce their stories to German society. Such projects that stand out as good examples are rare. They do not victimise or caricature the lives of refugees. Instead, they create a platform in which refugees can express themselves as cultural creators though music, cinema and dance.

The Homebase: Theatre for the Coming Society

Although the approach of cultural policies is to support participatory projects for/with/by refugees to reach out to amateur refugee actors, there have been few public funding programmes that promote productions with professional artists in exile. One of these programmes is Homebase, established by the Performing Arts Fund. The Performing Arts Fund is one of the significant federal funding institutions, providing incentives and consultation to independent theatres and dance companies in Germany. The primary objective of the Fund is to contribute to the further development of a culturally diverse independent performing arts landscape.

Between 2016-2017, the Performing Arts Fund, concerned about the lasting effect of immigration on German society, established a programme, Homebase, to promote intercultural dialogue and exchange between artists seeking refuge, and cultural professionals with or without a migrant background who lived in Germany.

A quote from the programme’s website reads:

The programme Homebase – Theatre for the Coming Society has aimed at the creation of new, identity-generating narratives for the future society with the resources of the theatre. On the one hand, the term HOMEBASE stands for the starting point of a search, on the other hand as a placeholder for contemporary, changing forms and practices of home.

The Homebase Fund supported 27 projects; 10 productions and 17 research projects during 2016-2017. The diversity of productions and research projects reflects the issues that are part of the political debates regarding refugees. Racism, discrimination, exclusion, border crossing experiences, asylum rights, colonialism, identity, origin and belonging, the role of cultural differences and religion in inclusion and exclusion, and asymmetric power relations were the foremost themes addressed by the project owners.

One of the endowed projects was realised by geheimagentur (secret agency), an artistic activist initiative, artistic experiment, independent label and open collective that works anonymously. Anyone who has taken part in two geheimagentur projects gets the right to pursue their own projects under the label of geheimagentur. They describe themselves as “a practical exercise in the art of being many” (geheimagentur, 2016). Geheimagentur’s performances take a critical stance toward the “reality” engendered by the polity and other mainstream actors. In their Homebase subsidised project Checkpoint München, geheimagentur built a checkpoint for a symbolic border crossing to create an encounter between the host and the resettled communities in the middle of Munich. They aimed to question the meaning of freedom in an age where fear of terror is normalised, to point out how an increase in need for maintaining security furthers mutual alienation, a lack of empathy and potential hostility.

In one of the research projects, Nina de la Chevallerie, the director of the independent theatre ensemble in Göttingen, boat people projekt, together with the actor and dramaturg Rzgar Khalil, conducted interviews with professional artists in exile, working freelance out of Lower Saxony, in order to establish an artistic network in the region. Rzgar Khalil is himself an artist in exile who fled from Syria to Iraq and arrived in Germany in 2014. Since 2016 he has been working as a freelance actor and dramaturg. Two of them carried out a four-month research project that included interviews with 17 networkers and 33 artists in exile in the field of performing arts, 90 per cent of them coming from Iraq and Syria. Twenty per cent of the interviewees are women, the age range is between 22 and 40 years, about 25 per cent of them have an academic degree in an artistic profession, and 75 per cent are autodidacts who are also cultural activists - often in the country of origin there was no access to such training (de la Chevallerie and Khalil, 2017). According to the report of the conducted research, other challenges are cited as (de la Chevallerie and Khalil, 2017, translated by the author):

-language barrier which reduces the possibilities of the encounter since the artists seeking refuge do not speak German at the desired level,

-not having access to sufficient information about the local cultural landscape, funding opportunities for freelance artists in exile, further professionalisation opportunities in artistic professions as they do not know where to get information,

-not paid at all or paid inadequately during cooperation with German cultural and artistic initiatives, and often being subject to stigmatisation as “refugee artists” and the instrumentalisation of their tragic experiences by their artistic cooperation partners,

-not having enough opportunities for creative exchange with each other or German colleagues.

This research project demonstrates the need for accessing information and the significance of networking for the artists in exile in the resettled country. It also confirms what lacks in the policies concerning the promotion of inclusion of artists in exile. The cultural policies and their funding instruments concentrate mainly on the development of projects for/with/by refugees but do not pay enough attention to the identification of the structural requirements and the introduction of strategies and support schemes coherent with these needs. It seems that the governmental bodies seek to offer temporary solutions since forced migration is still omnipresent and remains one of the leading debates of German political discourse. Aiming to approach forced migration through the project-based support with the objective of cultural integration indicates that the policy-makers have not thoroughly envisioned the complexity of immigration and the ramification of the migratory processes.

Thinking and acting interculturally should be the direction of policies and funding programmes that focus on the encounters of and networking among artists with and without immigration and displacement experiences, as is in the case of Homebase but with a long-term projection. Investing in the process, rather than short-term incentive programmes is fundamental for including artists in exile within the performing arts scene.

Although the German public theatre landscape is mainly traditional in artistic production and in that sense they have a highly exclusive organisational structure; some good examples exist that engage themselves with the self-reflection of a plural society through the articulation of diverse artistic expressions. In the next section, the article explores the concept of “thinking interculturally” by examining several municipal theatres’ perception of displacement and otherness and these theatres’ working methods with artists in exile.


Good Practices for Thinking Interculturally in the German Theatre Landscape[11]

Recently, interculturalism/interculturality regarding the inclusion of refugees has become a frequently used and debated concept in policy discussions. However, intercultural is understood as a more practically oriented replacement term for multiculturalism, which is about the modification of one’s perspective to recognise the differences of others and how to behave in different cultural contexts. This approach unveils itself in the design of the intercultural programmes. Intercultural projects aim to create a dialogue between immigrant and non-immigrant cultures to reduce prejudice against the “other”. In this procedure, from the place of the “we”, the position of others is defined (Terkessidis, 2010, p. 5, 17). This dichotomy of “self” and the “other” describes the relationship between national culture and other cultures. The differentiation of “we” and the “others” exclude people with immigrant backgrounds and explain them as opposites of the national identity (Mortazavi, 2016, p. 73). This line of thought perceives cultures as homogeneous and fixed essences belonging to different cultural groups and puts the emphasis on ethnicity, disregarding other markers of identity.

Conversely, identities consist of many layers, and some of these components feature more strongly in the overall conception and vary in strength at different times and in different contexts, include the way people define themselves in relation to employment, language, culture, faith, ethnicity, nationality and locale (Cantle, 2012, p. 36). Moreover, the individual dimension of identity gains importance due to the impact of globalisation. Thus, this dialogue-based approach dismisses the individual aspects of identity and treats community identity as a fixed notion, not open to negotiation (James, 2008, p. 13). Individuals with their multiple identities are the subject of interaction. Being in an encounter with each other opens up the process of a living dialogue, both include agreement and disagreement between dynamic identities. The theatre scholar Christine Regus rightly demands a clarification between individuals and cultures as there is a common misinterpretation if cultures are in exchange:

“It is not the cultures that interact, but people - individually or as social groups. Cultures cannot act or meet; they are dynamic systems of meaning. It is problematic to confuse individuals with cultures, to see in them, above all, representatives of essentially defined collectives. This is misleading, especially in the case of art since it is often produced by people, representing very original, self-contained, artistic positions and refusing to be perceived as proxies to any culture, nation, or other community” (Regus, 2009, p. 38, translated by the author).

Artists in exile thus are the creators that might have various aesthetic understandings based on their multi-layered (cultural) identities and individual experiences. The critical question that remains here is how the articulation of their artistic interaction should come into contact with the majority in the resettled society, so that they can be acknowledged as artists capable of telling their own stories and not what is imposed on or expected from them. In this respect, the attitude of the institutions as providing space to artists seeking refuge plays an essential role in renegotiating the ideas and values of the homeland which is vital in a cross-cultural society.

Literary critic Peter McDonald (2011, p. 372) suggests thinking about the world adverbially and uses the term “thinking interculturally” instead of interculturalism and interculturality. He claims that the adverbial form describes intercultural as a diverse, risky, lived process, not a reified thing in order to avoid noun forms ‘interculturality’ or ‘interculturalism’, which replicate the underlying conceptual difficulties of ‘multiculturalism’ by continuing to start from the assumption of distinct and separated cultures. The article finds the proposed adverbial usage of the concept helpful to rethink on the meaning of cultural diversity, outside the prescribed framework that only functions as promoting the multiple versions of “we”, not allowing the “other” to remain as “himself/herself”.

Thinking interculturally is not about the hybridisation of cultures. It is a constant process that allows co-creating the versions of culture, in which no one is seen as other, and everyone is the subject of change. Here, intercultural is applied as a conceptual tool, a way of thinking, a frame of mind manifested in the strategies, actions and organisational structures of all cultural institutions that recognise cultural differences on an equal basis as an opportunity to reflect the artistic creativity of a society from a more enriched perception.

In this context, there are various promising examples of the established German theatres that reflect on the needs of the artists in exile to produce and disseminate their cultural expressions and provide platforms to support them as the protagonists of their own voices. These institutions have committed themselves to the notion of plurality and treat immigration as normal human experience. Although they apply different approaches and methodologies, they all aim to confront issues of identity and cultural differences by exploring new theatre aesthetics and pondering over the definition of artistic quality. Displacement and working with artists seeking refuge leave their mark on the daily operations of these theatres. They open their doors to these artists and search for new artistic forms to present the narratives of displaced artists.

It is worth mentioning that the German Federal Cultural Foundation funds the projects of these local theatres -Gorki Theatre, Münchner Kammerspiele and Theater an der Ruhr- with the artists seeking refuge. Hence, approaches of the municipal theatres with the intercultural trajectories introduced here also reveal the massive indirect intervention of one of the most critical funding institutions of the central government.

 The Exile Ensemble at the Maxim Gorki Theatre

The Exile Ensemble was a two-year project of the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin for professional artists who live in exile. Starting from November 2016, seven actors from Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan had worked as part of this platform at the Maxim Gorki Theatre. The members of the Exile Ensemble were Ayham Majid Agha, Maryam Abu Khaled, Hussein Al Shatheli, Karim Daoud, Tahera Hashemi, Mazen Aljubbeh and Kenda Hmeidan. The Gorki aimed to provide a space for these young artists so that they could continue pursuing their careers as theatre-makers in Germany.

The Exile Ensemble actors had full-time contracts at the Gorki through the fall of 2018, and the German Federal Cultural Foundation, LOTTO Foundation Berlin and the Mercator Foundation endowed 1.2 million euros to the project (Donadio, 2017). It was announced that at the end of the two seasons, only two artists would be part of the Gorki’s house ensembles due to budget limitation; but in the meantime, the theatre aimed to generate encounters between other theatres and the members of the Exile Ensemble, so that they could continue working as artists in Germany (Laudenbach, 2016).[12]

The performers of the Exile Ensemble had their artistic autonomy but received dramaturgical support from the Gorki Theatre’s house ensemble to develop projects. They staged their productions in Studio Я, which is a space created to support unconventional approaches of artists who come from conflict zones and areas of political unrest and cannot continue to produce in their homeland. While the Exile Ensemble produced theatre pieces, the members of the group received further training and education and mentoring from the house ensemble of the Gorki as well as organising workshops and lectures by themselves.

The Exile Ensemble created four theatre projects in two years, and participants also performed in other Gorki projects and productions. The group’s first production was Winterreise (Winter Journey), developed in collaboration with the Gorki’s in-house director, Yael Ronen and premiered in April 2017. In this tragicomic journey, the members of the Exile Ensemble go on a two-week bus tour around Germany to get to know the country. During the bus trip, the actors reflect on their personal views on their lost homeland, escape experiences and life in the diaspora. Being aware of the risks involved in telling the stories of countries torn apart by war and conflict, in Winterreise, the actors and the director seek to explore these stories together, through the individual narrative pieces, to portray the encounters between the different worlds of the residents and the newcomers. In an interview, the director, Yael Ronen, says that they were careful about not turning the actors into representatives or mouthpieces, speaking in the name of refugees coming to Germany (Donadio, 2017).

Their second theatre project, Skelett eines Elefanten in der Wüste (The Skeleton of an Elephant in the Desert) is a production by Ayham Majid Agha, one of the actors of the ensemble. In this theatre piece, the director transforms the stage into a conflict zone and exhibits snapshots on how extreme violence becomes part of an everyday routine in a country at war and the shaky human condition in absurd situations of survival. The production received the Winner Young Critics Award at Radikal Jung 2018 - The Festival for Young Directors.

The project of the Exile Ensemble illustrates the vision of the Maxim Gorki Theatre in a country where talents with a migrant background are not promoted. The project demonstrates the engagement and the willingness of a theatre that is not for the “lucky few” but the whole city. To grasp the motivation of a public theatre that committed itself to the reflection of the cultural diversity of Berlin, one needs to be familiar with the perception of the theatre-making of the Gorki. The Gorki Theatre, employing itself mainly with the questions on immigration, participation and equality, is one of the smallest and yet most innovative and political theatres in Germany. The Gorki has a very multinational staff composition that manifests the diversity of Berlin’s multicultural population. The theatre is not interested in the symbolic representation of diversity within the theatre but investing in arts through the transmission of multiple voices of a plural society. This firm dedication of a public theatre to a pluralist understanding of society is remarkable since many of the municipal theatres are very reluctant to address the social and urban realities of their localities. The municipal theatres along with the state theatres are the most powerful and entirely publicly funded theatre ensembles, and often mandate-driven. Hence, the vision of the artistic direction team has a powerful impact on the decision making regarding programming, theatre aesthetics, and the subjects that the theatre chooses to work on.

Shermin Langhoff[13], the artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theatre, in an interview explains the perspective of the Gorki Theatre regarding their interest in establishing an Exile Ensemble:

Working with the emigrated artists is in our own interest because the theatre has to react to the  fact that this country is changing as a result of immigration; many of the refugees will become part of this society. That is why we deliberately do not speak of a “Refugee Ensemble”, but of an “Exile Ensemble”. Exile also means that it is not just about the traumas of the ravage and the first months of arriving, but about a long process. Those who arrive here bring with them new biographies, new stories and narratives, new perspectives (Laudenbach, 2016).

In this context, the initiation of the project of the Exile Ensemble should be understood as the mirror image of a society that is under constant transition, in which the idea of “culture of the homeland” is continuously renegotiated.


The Open Border Ensemble of the Münchner Kammerspiele

The Münchner Kammerspiele is one of the distinguished German municipal theatres with a robust social-political focus. The Münchner Kammerspiele concentrates on intercultural exchange in theatre and experiments with new artistic formats about issues of cultural diversity. Continuing to involve societal matters, the theatre organised the Open Border Congress in 2015 to discuss with the artists, scholars, activists and new and old inhabitants of Munich how to open the doors of the theatre to the artists who are seeking refuge in Germany. The primary objective of the Congress was to contemplate the challenges regarding the transformation of the operational structure of the theatre and turn it into a Welcome Theatre” referring to a theatre of the future by reinterpreting the concept of the Willkommenskultur. One of the central questions of this gathering was how to raise intercultural awareness within the ensemble to encourage employees to engage with the reality of immigration. The Congress was followed by the Open Border Ensemble Festival towards the end of 2016 as part of the concept “Munich Welcome Theatre”. The festival presented the works of theatre, music and film of the artists in exile and resulted in the creation of the project, the Open Border Ensemble within the Münchner Kammerspiele.

The Münchner Kammerspiele explores migration-related themes with the Open Border Ensemble and continues to be in intercultural dialogue, pondering the new artistic perspectives, formats, and narratives. Since 2017, Krystel Khoury is the artistic director of the ensemble. Three actors from Syria, Majd Feddah, Kinan Hmeidan and Kamel Najma perform in the productions of the Open Border Ensemble. Also, performers and artists such as May al Hares, Hassan Akkouch, and many others from the Middle East region take part as guests in the projects of the group.

In their first play, Miunikh-Damascus, the memories of Munich and Damascus and their presence merge into a city for all by putting into question what is our own and what is foreign. It is a mobile stage that is set up at marketplaces and community centres, inviting the audience to shift their perspective on the foreign. The second production, What They Want to Hear is the reconstruction of the real case of Raaed Alkour, a Syrian archaeologist, who got trapped in German bureaucracy without any statute for four years. A project made in collaboration with Syrian and German actors, activists and refugees, using the art of storytelling (Münchner Kammerspiele, 2018).

In the long term, the Münchner Kammerspiele aims to establish the Open Border Ensemble as an integral part of the house ensemble. In this context, the theatre collaborates with other pioneering groups that have committed themselves to contribute to the notion of a plural theatre landscape in search of new artistic interventions without territorial borders. In May 2018, the Münchner Kammerspiele together with the theatre initiative, Ruhrorter co-organised a meeting, Encounter ≠ 1, between theatre groups, scholars and researchers to join forces for the creation of a network that kept the challenges of diversity, immigration and being in exile on the cultural agenda of policymakers.[14] The co-organisers Münchner Kammerspiele and Ruhrorter brought together independent and municipal theatres, such as boat people projekt, Collective Ma’louba, Exile Ensemble of the Maxim Gorki Theatre, Hajusom and the Open Border Ensemble of the Münchner Kammerspiele. The participants of this meeting shared their views on the issues, demands and expectations regarding the cultural policies and funds as well as aesthetical practice and artistic approach. Some of the emerging topics of the first encounter were:

-diversity-oriented expansion of the scope of theatres,

-sharing know-how, information and pool resources,

-developing strategic partnerships,

-hiring diversity agents to change the policy of the theatre,

-discussing various funding schemes with the policy-making actors that promote process, training and researches on immigration,

-debating the conventional artistic criteria of assessment of the artistic work, and triggering a shift in aesthetics,

-increasing collaborations and co-productions,

-being aware of the power relationships between the people who are getting the funding and the hosted people engaged in the creative processes,

-considering more on the translation and understanding it not only as a tool but also as a way to transmit the work and the idea,

-finding new tools not to reproduce the same stories, ideas and problems,

-searching for new ways of translating stories that have existed in the canon much earlier and the stories of immigrants that are not heard.


Collective Ma’louba and Ruhrorter by the Theater an der Ruhr

Theater an der Ruhr is a visionary theatre founded by the Italian émigré director, Roberto Ciulli and dramaturg Helmut Schäfer in 1980 in the city of Mülheim in the Ruhr region of North Rhine-Westphalia. Cultural diversity in context with difference and otherness are the central focus of Theatre an der Ruhr since its foundation. For Theatre an der Ruhr, the guiding idea sees theatre as a public institution that not only deals with the experiences of otherness and diversity but is also mainly constituted by them in the first place. Through this perception, artistic production is acknowledged beyond the borders of the nation-state and national culture. As a public-private partnership institution, the theatre allowed the co-founder Ciulli to set up a series of international exchanges and collaborations designed to create a “bastard theatre” for artists ostracised from their own countries, and the theatre travelled to and hosted marginalised artists from precarious regions of the world, giving refuge to politically persecuted groups, such as the Roma Teatro Pralipe, which had fled Yugoslavia in the mid-1980s before the Yugoslav wars (Tinius, 2017, p. 210). Since then, the theatre has been taking part in artistic collaborations with ensembles and artists from unsafe regions.

Under the roof of Theater an der Ruhr, new theatre initiatives that work with amateur and professional artists seeking refuge have been emerging. The recently founded Collective Ma’louba is one of them. Collective Ma’louba is a Syrian, Arabic-speaking artist and theatre collective, currently in residence at Theater an der Ruhr. Its core members are the director Rafat Alzakout, the author Mudar Alhaggi and the actress Amal Omran. The members of the Collective Ma’louba work with artists from the Arab region to present various projects such as film, music, installations, readings, exhibitions and workshops in addition to theatre performances. These interdisciplinary productions realised in Arabic with English surtitles that are developed, rehearsed and produced at Theater an der Ruhr.

In their first theatre piece, Your Love is Fire, the author, Alhaggi deals with his personal experiences of the war in Syria, the loss of his home country and fleeing to Germany. The play intends to portray the ambivalent position between the need for action and waiting, which shapes the lives of many people who have fled to Germany and Europe. Their second work, Ya Kebir, confronts the recent past of a country ridden by tyranny, corruption and violence in the context of a patriarchal society (Collective Ma’louba, 2018).

The cultural traditions, legends, and stories of the past and present in the Arabic-speaking region comprise a significant portion of the content of the productions. In this context, Syrian Notes introduces classical Arabic music combined with Sufi poetry. Each month, under the production, Moshabak Nights, various Syrian and international artists come together to present their work through a series of cultural events organised by Nawras.[15]

Production Manager, Immanuel Bartz announced that Collective Ma'louba had received a grant from the German Federal Cultural Foundation to set up an artistic network within the coming three years. Following this declaration, the Encounter #2 took place in March 2019 at the Theatre an der Ruhr co-organised by Collective Ma’louba and Ruhrorter to further the collaboration between theatre ensembles and researchers to establish a network to deal with the challenges of immigration and being in exile.[16]

The other group, Ruhrorter initiated in 2012 by Adem Köstereli (the co-founder and the artistic director), Wanja van Suntum (installation) and Dr Jonas Tinius (research) started as a project at Theater an der Ruhr, located in the Mülheim city in the Ruhr Valley. The team of Ruhrorter has expanded over time regarding artistic direction and dramaturgy, and become an independent theatre initiative.

Ruhrorter means “places/people along the Ruhr”. The theatre initiative produces site-specific theatre productions and installations accompanied by anthropological research. Ruhrorter searches for new aesthetic forms to deal with issues of exclusion, otherness, stereotyping and stigmatisation of people seeking refuge and asylum seekers in society.

The director Köstereli has established ties with Theater an der Ruhr. He performed for over ten years at the Junges Theater of this ensemble, where he met some of the team members of Ruhrorter. Thus, Ruhrorter is profoundly influenced and inspired by the artistic tradition and ethical perception of this local theatre. Theater an der Ruhr also provides institutional support to the group; Ruhrorter uses their rehearsal spaces, and receives technical and marketing contribution in addition to consultation, advice and feedback regarding the content. The impact of this cooperation on the aesthetics and ethics reveals the working methods of Ruhrorter and describes their approach to the documentary and political theatre where their primary focus is on otherness.

Köstereli explains that their interest in doing theatre with refugees is related to their involvement in an international theatre that has been working with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and how this tradition impacted their artistic vision:

            We grew up in Theater an der Ruhr. International art, intercultural projects are at the      foundation of the theatre. Thus, it is normal for us to engage ourselves with immigration and displacement. We always worked with stigmatised people at Theater an der Ruhr.      Immigration is the reality of our lives. We encourage people who have refugee status to take part in theatre, discuss together the stigmatisation and how we can emancipate it in our productions. It is our vision not to see any cultural borders on the stage. We do not see refugees on the stage; we do not even ask questions about their stories (Köstereli, 2017).

The initiative is aware of the fragility of working with refugees regarding the common instrumentalisation of their biographies; hence, they discuss at length how to approach the issues of otherness and isolation, and how to bring them into the attention of civil society and media. Through the site-specific productions and installations, they aim to intertwine the history of the post-industrial Ruhr Valley and the experience of displacement by staging their plays and installations in abandoned spaces. These are the places that reflect the industrial, immigration and theatre history of the locality that find resonance in their artistic productions. The core idea is to do theatre not in a conventional theatre setup but in a place that has its own story, such as a former refugee camp, a former women’s prison or an old department store, to highlight their absence in the memory of the city and inhabitants. By interweaving the forgotten past of these places and the exclusion of refugees, they intervene in the public sphere to make both their stories and existence visible.

Ruhrorter has a process-oriented approach where they start every project with a basic framework and a concept developed further during an extended rehearsal period, based on improvisation. Rehearsal time usually lasts between six and seven months; gradually participants start to shape their expressions. During the rehearsal process, participants contribute to the creation of the text and the content of the productions. The flexible working method of Ruhrorter encourages the participants to bring in the things, topics, and images in which they are interested. The aesthetic form of each production is agreed together with the artistic team and the participating actors based on an acting style that is very much visual, mostly not language-based (Winestock, 2017). The specific theatre methodology premises upon discipline and the cultivation of the self that foregrounds the aesthetics of a reflexive theatre (Tinius, 2015, p. 185). At the end of the rehearsals, amateur actors create a theatrical form which is focused on the body, face and expressions that are verbally non-semantic.

The amateur actors seeking refugee are the protagonists of the theatre productions. The rehearsal process serves as a mental workout to establish characters that would not be seen as refugees on the stage (Winestock, 2017). Ruhrorter understands this process as a continuous task to create an interaction between the local people and the newcomers to the city. They invite the audience to stay with them after the performances to establish personal and aesthetic encounters that intend to change the social perspectives by aesthetic means.



The bureaucratic and complicated design of the funding programmes and the subsidy system do not allow artists in exile to apply for funding by themselves or set up their artistic platforms and networks in Germany. Thus, at the moment, solidarity among artists in exile and the established cultural institutions plays a crucial role for cultural creators fleeing from conflict zones in order to keep living as artists in their new localities. The platforms that are given as examples here, provided by the municipal theatres, are a few cases that do not aim to “give voice” to the cultural professionals who are in exile or to “empower” them. Through artistic collaborations, they facilitate the construction of an interaction between the locals and the newly arrived artists.

Germany has a vibrant and diverse theatre scene. Approximately, 140 public theatres (state, municipal and regional), 210 private theatres, around 150 theatres and venues without a permanent ensemble, and about 100 touring and guest performance stages without a permanent house operate nationwide (Deutscher Bühnenverein, 2016). In 2017, there were a total of about 39,700 employees working in public theatres; around 45 per cent of them were artistic staff (Statista, 2017). Only a small per cent of the public theatres intent to diversify their staff composition. They truly occupy themselves with the stories of a multi-ethnic society, search for collaboration opportunities with non-European immigrant and displaced artists, discuss the terms to turn themselves into intercultural ensembles and question their approaches and attitudes towards those artists. However, the entire theatre landscape requires receiving impulses from cultural policy concerning the measures that need to be taken for a future-oriented theatre landscape.

This article demonstrates the objectives of the cultural policies and their implementation methods to point out the lack of a structural framework that takes intercultural as the overarching policy objective and introduces a coherent strategy as well as funding arrangements accordingly. The native German artistic workforce dominates the current cultural sphere. The systematic exclusion of immigrants is one of the main problems of the German theatre that has not been addressed yet. Now the precarious situation of the artists in exile has become part of the exclusion debate and how they will pursue their careers as professional artists in their new localities has added to the heated discussions on the renewal of the theatres in terms of their relevance in or for an immigrant country. In this context, the task of cultural policies and the policy-making bodies should be to inaugurate measures to stimulate a change in the theatre system for the plural transformation of the nexus of theatre.

This paper argues that policies should shift their focus from the inclusion of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to the intercultural reorganisation of cultural institutions. In the light of unsystematic actions of policy actors, it appears that decision makers do not take the responsibility to address the structural issues regarding the asymmetrical power relations in diversity-management plans. The current cultural environment within its particular institutional setting “privileges some interests while demobilising others” (Hall and Taylor, 1996). As Tania Cañas, the Arts Director of RISE Refugee organisation argues (2017), “this superficial perception of diversity is given ‘permission’ to exist under conditional inclusion, and this inclusion is conditional on predefined, palatable criteria; a means to frame, describe and ultimately prescribe diversity through constructed visibilities”.

Responding to diversity requires that policies give their attention to the idea of a possible common future. Cultural contact today is not an “intercultural encounter” that takes place between German culture and something outside of it but rather is something happening within German culture, between the German past and the German present (Adelson, 2007, p. 268). The artistic cooperation between the established theatres and the artists in exile is an essential first step that perceives diversity in this way. But it entails being followed by an action plan with clearly defined goals that act in accordance a political will that sincerely engages itself with a conceptual mind-shift in addressing diversity in policy making, treats no one as the other and tackles the unequal power mechanism to give way to the enunciation, acknowledgement, appreciation and dissemination of the rich artistic production of a cross-cultural society.




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[1] This article was written in November 2018 and revised in March 2019.

[2] Germany is an immigrant country (Einwanderungsland) not only after the arrival of “guest workers” in the 1960s; the immigration past finds its roots in the 16th century. However, there is a significant difference in meaning between Einwanderungsland and Migrationsgesellschaft in German. The former describes a strong growth in population due to the immigration of people from other countries, or it means immigrants constitute a substantial part of the total population. On the other hand, the term Migrationsgesellschaft is used in certain German-speaking discourses to refer to the societal significance of migration – primarily within these German-speaking societies – and is not directly reducible to English-language concepts such as “immigrant societies” or “multicultural societies” and it refers to the fact that society is affected by migratory processes on every level – in the fields of economics, politics, culture, education and beyond – and to the fact that privilege is distributed by order of belonging (Gritschke and Ziese, 2016, p. 37).

[3] Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) is a concept, introduced around 2010 as a part of the political rhetoric to encourage the native Germans to be more open and accepting of diversity. It is often associated with the integration of refugees and immigrants in immigration policy discourse. Its conceptualisation as a notion of integration is fiercely debated since it treats cultural differences as “deficits” and aims to correct these deficits through some special policy measures. At the same time, there is a welcome movement at the grassroots level, which has shown itself in the willingness of the population and non-governmental organisations to help refugees, but there is still no conceptual connection between these two facets of the German welcome culture (top-bottom and bottom-up) (Kösemen, 2017, p. 2).

[4] The Federal Statistical Office defines “people with a migrant background” (Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund) as all immigrants who came to Germany after 1949 as well as foreigners, born in Germany from immigrant parents. The following groups have a migrant background according to this definition: Foreigners, naturalised people, (late) resettlers and the children of these three groups. This term is widely used in the cultural field by policy makers in Germany. Although the author strongly disagrees with this highly problematic, severely categorising definition, the article applies the term in order to refer to the German policy discourse.

[5] Although there is no sufficient data, other state theaters, such as Schauspiel Hannover, Berliner Ensemble and Staatsschauspiel Stuttgart can be named as ethnically diverse ensembles. However, the composition of the artistic workforce can dramatically chance when a new artistic director is appointed. For instance, in 2007, Karin Beier took over the artistic directorship of the Schauspiel Köln in Cologne where every third of the citizens have different country of origin other than Germany. She introduced a quota system; the theatre recruited 30 percent of the ensemble with a migrant background. But the multinational ensemble was almost dissolved after she left. For more information, see StadtRevue, Kultur Politik Stadtleben in Köln, Issue: 11/2011, available online at: In Dusseldorf 41 percent, in Hamburg 30 percent and in Berlin 29 percent of the inhabitants has a migrant background according to the population survey published in December 2017. For more information on the populations of the federal states, see

[6] For more statistical information about the people with a migrant background and people seeking refuge, see

[7] In multicultural view, the emphasis was merely on ethnicity and policies with multicultural objectives promoted the preservation of the separated cultures. This decision furthered the isolation of minorities and triggered more conflict between people with a migrant background and native Germans.

[8] Within the text, the author uses terms such as refugees, people seeking refuge or people in exile interchangeable, being aware of the fact that they are not synonymous. The article wants to, on the one hand, to draw attention to the different usage of the phrase “refugee” in the German policy discourse and practice; on the other hand, aims to underline the difficulty of the conceptualisation of a legislative term without disparaging the people to a legal status.

[9] In Germany, independent theatres are referred to as Freie Gruppe and the independent theatre scene as Freie Szene. The independent theatre scene is precariously supported since the funding structure favours the financing of public theatres. Although the funding is often in project-based form, these theatres receive public subsidy to a certain extent. Hence, independence signifies their autonomy/self-determination in production, which is considered innovative, experimental, and in confrontation of politics. Therefore, in some cases, these ensembles are called independently producing theatres.

[10] For more information on the award and the winning projects, please see

[11] This section of the article is mostly based on the author’s observations of the productions of the mentioned theatres, interviews with members of these theatres, as well as personal experiences as a cultural policy researcher who is part of a freshly inaugurated network, initiated by these ensembles in 2018.  

[12] As of 2019, four artists of the team continue working as a part of the Gorki Theatre under the label of Exile Ensemble. For more information, see

[13] Shermin Langhoff was the director of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße (an outstanding independent theatre with an intercultural staff profile and radical artistic approach to issues regarding immigration) in Berlin until 2013 and coined the term “post-migrant theatre” in Germany. The concept refers to the artists, telling the stories of second and third generation Germans who have been labelled as people with a migrant background and excluded from the public theatre scene. Post-migrant theatre deals with issues of identity, belonging, equality, participation, integration, discrimination, religion and education.

[14] The author was one of the participants of the meeting, Encounter ≠ 1.

[15] Nawras is a non-profit organisation in Berlin, founded in 2017 that seeks to ensure the continuity of Syrian art and culture. It supports Syrian artists in Germany by creating opportunities and facilitating partnerships that helps artists to pursue their works both independently and in collaboration with others. For more information, see

[16] The Encounter #3 will be host for the second time by the Münchner Kammerspiele in October 2019.