In 2006, while translating an excerpt of an essay on theater and economy by German dramaturg Carl Hegemann for a month-long simulation of a German state theater (financed by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Labor with funds directly descended from the Marshall Plan) at HERE Arts Center in New York, I was struck by the undeniable truth of one of his primary observations. From an economic standpoint, theater is a staggeringly inefficient medium. As I began to consider the implications of this statement and contemplate the vast amounts of coordination, collaboration and creative energy required to realize even the “simplest” piece of theater – by definition existing for a finite period of time and limited to a finite number of spectators – I found it nearly impossible to conceive of “efficient” theater within this context. And yet outside of this context theater is more “efficient” than nearly any other form in providing a specific community a place to examine its shared history and narrative – regardless of the average economic return on investment.
Another example of heavily subsidized German artistic experimentation can be found in the key figures of Unendlicher Spaß (Infinite Jest), Hebbel am Ufer’s glorious million euro paean to David Foster Wallace and outgoing artistic director Matthias Lilienthal in 2012, a twenty-four hour durational performance moving by bus through eight locations in the former West Berlin and featuring 12 different pieces devised by 12 different groups exploring various themes surrounding the author, his work and the city the performance took place in. Performed eight times for a maximum of 150 audience members with a maximum ticket price of 50 euros, selling every single ticket for every single performance at the highest possible ticket price could theoretically bring in 60,000 euros, that is, six percent of the total costs.
From a traditional capitalist understanding of business and efficiency, this production could only be seen as a loss-making enterprise. Its monetary income failed, on an epic scale, to match, let alone exceed its monetary expenditures. Yet, as the project’s sponsorship by Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation (which alone contributed just shy of 500,000 euros) clearly demonstrates, the cultural officials and professional juries responsible for assessing the quality of the artistic innovation of these economically untenable undertakings found the work to be worthy and to contain an added value not quantifiable in euros and cents.
Indeed, ever since Hegemann highlighted for me the precarious practice of applying the same term to very different fields, in this case, culture and business, I find myself regularly noting phrases that have forced their way to the forefront of the momentary vernacular and that are applied universally, with a one size fits all mentality – regardless of whether one term can have the same meaning in nearly diametrically opposed contexts.
Perhaps this has always been the case; perhaps the long, strange trip of globalization, digitization and moving from the Print Age to the Digital Age has exacerbated this practice as the world walks a tightrope between the stunning diversity made possible by the free flow of information and the risk of stupefying homogeneity as the entire globe increasingly consumes identical cultural and business commodities.
At any rate, the application of a concept like “efficient”, “sustainable” or even “economic” will yield radically different results based upon the field and practice in question. “Innovation”, on the other hand, achieves a nearly identical result in nearly every context.
As defined by Merriam-Webster, the intransitive verb “innovate” designates the act of “making changes” or “doing something in a new way”. In this basic formulation, the verb also seems to carry an inherently positive connotation – rare is the usage of innovation to denote a negative change. Within this formulation, I also feel myself forced to read a certain method within the madness in question, if you will – that the “innovation” is a carefully calculated contribution to an existing process or entity designed to make it better – not to simply effect change for change’s sake.
In fields as opposed as business and art (ignoring, of course, their shared child, the “entertainment industry”), I find it curious that “innovation” is used so frequently and so singularly, that the abstract principle is so highly and universally valued that it alone can be used to sell products and attract subsidies. In a certain sense, “innovation” seems like good old fashioned common sense, something that should be self-evident in nearly every field, a continual improvement process, a constant reinvention, an ongoing adjustment to changing facts on the ground and perspectives.
In order to retain its relevance and power, art must constantly adapt to altered circumstances and ripples in the Zeitgeist. In the same way, any business subjected to competition that does not maintain a maximum degree of flexibility and a willingness to constantly improve will soon lose out.
When I consider theater as a social and political tool used by a specific community to examine and question its own stories, narratives and perceptions, innovation is absolutely essential. Just as human beings and communities of human beings are constantly changing, ever mutable and in a continuous state of flux, so must be the methodologies and practices applied to the creation of the tool that allows reflection.
Still barely more than a century after the invention of the moving picture, sixty years after the television became a fixture of almost every home (in very different parts of the world) and just about two decades into the ubiquity of the Internet, theater has been forced to compete increasingly for increasingly fragmented attention spans and to insist upon convocation at a certain time in a certain place in order to convene and commune over an ephemeral experience. These circumstances serve only to accelerate the inherent innovation in a constant pursuit of essentiality.
Indeed, from an economic standpoint, theater is truly an “inefficient” model – and yet one that is absolutely essential and one unequivocally greater than the sum of its parts, as its continued existence and the unbridled passion of its practitioners and spectators clearly attests. There is an added value to theater that makes an argument focusing solely on profit margins and yield inherently flawed. And it is this built-in process of innovation that accompanies all immediate art that relentlessly drives forward the pursuit of the new, the adaptation to changing circumstances and the necessity of being firmly and undeniably essential.
Daniel Brunet is the Producing Artistic Director of English Theatre Berlin. A theater maker and translator, his directorial work and translations have been presented internationally and his translations and essays have been published in PEN America, The Mercurian, Asymptote, Theater, TheatreForum and Contemporary Theatre Review. He is the recipient of a Fulbright grant as well as a grant from the PEN Translation Fund and a Literature Fellowship in Translation from the National Endowment of the Arts.