The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Dagmar Walser
Ms. Dagmar Walser
Born in Liechtenstein in 1966, Walser studied German literature and art history at the University of Basel in Switzerland and the University of Hamburg in Germany. After graduation she worked in both the journalism and theater worlds (as an editor for the Basel city magazine ProgrammZeitung, as a dramaturge for Liechtenstein’s Theater am Kirchplatz, Schaan, etc.). Since 1999, Walser has worked on program production for the Swiss radio station SRF2Kultur and as a theater critic. She has co-written two books on the theater of German-speaking Switzerland (with Barbara Engelhardt) published by Theater der Zeit. Since 2007, she served as a member of the Artistic Board of the international theatre festival Zürcher Theater Spektakel.

Zürcher Theater Spektakel

Gessnerallee Zürich

Kaserne Basel

Südpol Luzern
Presenter Interview
Mar. 1, 2013
Switzerland’s contemporary theater scene through the eyes of a journalist 
Switzerland’s contemporary theater scene through the eyes of a journalist 
Though not a large country, Switzerland has two distinct theater scenes that flourish in its German-speaking community. There are both public theaters that present classic plays from their repertories and a “free theater” scene that emerged in the 1970s and continue to present experimental works at theaters called “production houses.” In this interview we speak with Dagmar Walser, who is active in the Swiss theater scene both as a journalist creating programs for the Swiss radio station SRF2Kultur and has also been involved in introducing Japanese contemporary theater to European audiences as a member of the artistic board of the Zürcher Theater Spektakel.
Interviewer: Makiko Yamaguchi

Would you please begin by telling us about your career until now?
While I was studying at the University of Basel I had a number of work-study and internship experiences at publishing companies, magazines and in the theater world. In other words, from that time I was already involved in the publishing, journalism and theater scenes. I liked being involved in theater rehearsals and studio work, but I eventually decided that rather than being involved in the stage work itself, I would be on the viewing side and work in the job of communicating the activities of the theater scene through the press and media.
This was probably because, when I was a student back in the late 1980s, Frank Baumbauer (Note: Leader of the Basel Theater for one era, later general director (intendant) of the Schauspielhaus Hamburg and Munich Kammerspiele theater, winning the reputation as an important general director) was leading the Basel Theater and the ensuing period was one of great activity in the Swiss theater scene. Also, it was period when young thespians of my generation were beginning to be in positions where they could make new things happen in theater. I was very interested in following and reporting on those new developments in theater that were emerging at the time.
I started out working in the publishing world, and for the last ten years or so I have been working in radio, where I am responsible for programs on theater in the arts department of a national radio station of Switzerland. In 2007, I became involved once again in the theater scene. I accepted an offer I got from the artistic director of the Zürcher Theater Spektakel festival, Sandro Lunin, to join the festival’s Artistic board, and I accepted the position. So, now, in addition to my work as a radio journalist, this has opened up a new world for me. It also led to lots of knowledge about theater outside of Switzerland and it provided me with opportunities to meet Japanese thespians and my first visit to Japan two years ago.

What are the actual contents of your theater programs on the radio?
Most of the programs are about Switzerland’s German-language theater scene. However, we don’t limit ourselves to the familiar theater scene we already know. We also make it a policy to look for works from other countries and new forms of theater to cover in our programs. We consider it important to portray broader concepts of theater. In other words, we don’t only cover the well-established large-scale productions or the works of famous theater artists but we try also to cover a variety of styles and forms of theater, including small-scale works, new developments and experimental works as well.
Inherently, most theater works are a local art form, whereas radio is a medium that reaches a wide range of listeners, of which the majority will probably not have the chance to see the shows we are talking about. That presents a challenge for us in creating programs on theater.
I work on the creation of a variety of different types of programs. First of all, when a new theater production opens, I broadcast a report on the production the next day from the studio. I also present programs involving a variety of debates, report type programs and feature programs. Theater is an art that has a great variety of audio materials and it is a medium that doesn’t stay in one place but is constantly moving and flowing, and I find it very interesting to talk about it on the radio using the same type of qualities.

What are conditions like in other media besides radio?
In recent years, the situation regarding coverage of theater in the print media has changed considerably. The print media themselves are in a difficult situation now and, whereas in the past critique on theater used to be an important element for culture and arts pages in newspapers, today there is less space being devoted to it, and critiques of new productions opening have lost the glamorous position they once had. And, conversely, the number of new theater productions premiering today has actually increased. Until a few years ago, when a new play premiered there would be critiques of it appearing in several newspapers, but that situation has changed. And even if the new works are written about, it is more and more just in the form of simple good or bad evaluations, with very little in the way of thorough reporting. Newer experimental projects like those that can’t be clearly classified as either theater or dance, often fall through the net of editorial specialties, so they are very rarely covered. Instead, about the only type of articles that there are an increasing number of are ones about government arts policy concerning theater. Probably when you compare the situation with other countries, it’s still good and within
a situation like this, the platforms on the Internet are now emerging as a new medium. For example, there is This site offers a forum where people can upload critiques and also make comments and develop online discussions. And probably there will be more new formats in new media in fututre. So I noticed in Japan that Internet twitter on theater works is popular, maybe that will be the next media for critique?

What particular characteristics do you see in Swiss theater?
Switzerland is a small country but it is also a multi-lingual country. In terms of theater culture, Switzerland has both a French-language and a German-language theater culture that are completely different from each other. In French-speaking “western Switzerland” the theater is rooted in France’s theater culture, while the theater scene in Switzerland’s German-speaking sphere is a part of the theater world of the German-speaking countries along with Austria and Germany. Thespians in Germany and the German-speaking community of Switzerland undergo the same education, read the same texts and and share the same aesthetic impulses in theater.
Of course, Switzerland also has its own cultural identity, its own language, history and tradition and there are artists in the country that are known to have a very “Swiss orientation”. Probably the most famous among these is the internationally active artist Christoph Marthaler. However, we can certainly say that more important than this “swiss specific characterizations” is the shared language and the strong cultural connection with the German speaking neighbours.The theater facilities themselves have a similar construction to the theaters of Germany. Stated simply, there are the public theaters on the one hand and the free (independent) scene on the other. The public theaters have a long history and are generally located in the city centers as theaters where traditionally the classical theater repertoire is performed, and their actors, singers and dancers are contracted to perform there year-round. These contracted ensembles perform a variety of works under a repertory system. Traditionally, these (public) theaters do productions of plays recognized for their literary excellence and cater to an audience characterized as the intellectual class.
On the other hand, the thespians of the free scene that emerged in the 1970s in opposition with established arts and culture worked project by project as they could. Their works focused on particular themes and the experimental ones were created as group efforts. They performed their works in so-called “production houses” like the Gessnerallee in Zurich (artistic director: Roger Merguin) and Kaserne Basel, that is directed by Carena Schlewitt or Südpol Luzern, where Max-Philipp Aschenbrenner was the director. He will now move to Wiener Festwochen as of next season. These theaters have played a very important role in the theater arts scene in Switzerland. And this is partly because they have built up a network within and outside of the country that gives the artists of the free scene opportunities to perform in a variety of cities.

Are there other things that don’t fit in the context of either the public theaters or the free scene?
Of course, there are. I didn’t mention it earlier but there is, for example, a strongly rooted form of popular theater performed by amateurs in Switzerland. then, of course the division between public theaters that perform the classic theater works and the free scene doing more progressive work is not really a firm division, because there are some public theaters that present newer forms of theater. For example, Theater Basel now has a two-year contract with the free scene company FAR A DAY CAGE as a resident group in the theater’s ensemble.
And there are some artists that are active in both areas. For example, there are directors including Christoph Frick, Sebastian Nübling, and of the younger generation people like Thom Luz, Boris Nikitin and Anna Sophie Mahler, etc. Directors like these have their own companies but they also direct productions at the public theaters. The independent scene is somehow connected to the notion of freedom even if there is less money. Christoph Marthaler who directs for a long time at the big festivals and theatre in many countries remains proud of his origins in the free scene.
However, with the worsening state of national and local government budgets in Switzerland today, there is now an active policy debate about what to do about the way public theaters are run. It is a very important issue. Despite the fact that running a public theater requires the work of many people and a large budget, they are faced with the problem of shrinking audiences. As the arts and cultural programs provided by each municipal government began to diversify, theater became just another one of the numerous programs. And in the process, the flight of audience away from theater has been especially severe among the younger generation.
So, the questions are being asked: What is the reason for existence of the traditional public theaters with their large budgets from public coffers? Shouldn’t more grants be allotted to the artists/companies in the free scene? Are we seeing the end of theater culture approaching? Who should the theaters be presenting works for? Should they be targeting the largest audiences possible? Should they be seeking ultimately to provide the best possible conditions for art? What is the position of the theater in today’s society to begin with? And, what is the outlook for the future?
In the midst of such debate, the free scene has been receiving more attention in the last ten years and has emerged as a more prominent presence. The works created on the free scene don’t demand the type of large organization existing at the public theaters, and they also require less grant money to produce. The organizations on the free scene are more flexible and the many of the works they produce are innovative and progressive. However, there is a much stronger lobby supporting the intelligentsia culture of the public theaters compared to that of the free scene, so it is not easy to reduce the budgets allotted for these theaters. While the theater of Switzerland’s free scene has been increasing its prominent presence and becoming more confident over the last 10 years, the public theaters are making efforts to rethink their original purpose, and the result is an overall increase in activity and vitality. The presence of talented artists, the stable budgetary strength of the public theaters and the existence of the free scene production houses with their excellent networks are all elements supporting the theater scene in Switzerland.

What types of trends do you see in the style of contemporary theater in Switzerland in recent years?
Well, I believe that overall there is a trend toward “performative” theater. In short, there is increased interest in theater that doesn’t depend of scripts (texts). There is also a trend toward re-considering the traditional divisions between genre and undertaking projects that cross the boundaries of tradition genre. And, of course, you can’t forget the current trend of documentary theater in recent years.
The most famous group in today’s documentary theater movement is the German and Swiss artist collective Rimini Protokoll. They have been invited to Festival/Tokyo, so they are well known in Japan for the way they bring “experts of the everyday” to the stage to talk about how they live, their lives until now and their work. Their style doesn’t rely on professional actors or fictional texts. There are now quite a few variations on this documentary theater style in terms of methods and the groups pursuing it.
By the way, the type of documentary theater that was seen in the 1960s and ’70s by artists such as Peter Stein, Rolf Hochhuth and others was a type that used the medium of theater to take a new look at the realities of the day from an ethical perspective and even pass judgment of issues. In contrast, in the current documentary theater trend there is a focus on a variety of styles that shift back and forth between reality and fiction or between real life and the stage. For example, the director Milo Rau and his company undertake re-enactments of historical events. In other words, their working method is to re-create them. Two years ago they used Romanian actors to re-enact the Christmas 1989 public trial of overthrown dictator, President Ceausescu and his wife, in quite faithful detail. Another example is the Basel group CapriConnection, which uses a method of interviewing experts and then creates stage works based directly on the contents. These are all very interesting contemporary methods that re-examine the conventional theatrical themes of appearance and reality or authenticity and credibility from new perspectives.

Next, would you tell us about the Zürcher Theater Spektakel for which you serve on the artistic board?
The Theater Spektakel is a festival that was launched in 1981, organized by the city of Zurich. At the time, it was an era when there were strong efforts to win recognition for alternative theater and youth culture. There has been a deep connection with street performance, and today there continues to be a strong focus on programs with great variety, from circus to experimental performance from places like South Africa and Japan.
Another defining trait of our festival is its venue on the shore of Lake Zurich. Every year for 18 days from August into September a number of temporary theater facilities and restaurants are constructed on the shores of the lake for the festival.
Since Sandro Lunin became the artistic director, the festival’s political orientation has become clearer, with a focus of interest on the so-called southern countries of the world. Until now, there were very few opportunities to see works from these countries in Switzerland. Even if there is a trend in the internationalization of the theater world of the German-speaking countries, in fact there are only a limited number of festivals that invite works from countries outside of Europe to Switzerland. Besides our festival, the new Basel Theater Festival, the la Batie festival of Lausanne, and sometimes the smaller-scale festivals of auawirleben in Bern and the Belluard Festival of Fribourg are about the only ones.

In 2010, one of the themes of the Zürcher Theater Spektakel was East and Southeast Asia, and works were invited from Indonesia, Thailand and China, and from Japan three works by faifai, chelfitsch and Niwa Gekidan Penino were invited. Then works were invited from Japan again the next year. How do you feel these works were received in Zurich?
From what I understand, they were quite highly appraised. Faifai won the ZKB2010 Patronage Prize, which is the festival’s new artists award. The three works invited in 2010 were the same three performed at the Berlin HAU Japan feature program “Tokyo Shibuya – next Generation” curated by yourself and Matthias Lilienthal. That Japan feature aroused new interest in Japan’s younger generation of theater people in the German-speaking countries. Although these three works were performed on a program featuring Japan, all three are completely different in style and creative method. They are not chose by any means with the purpose of saying this is what Japanese theater is, and certainly not with the aim of presenting any type of exotic culture. The important thing is that they are works born of the young generation’s experiences of urban life and that they are based on clear concepts regarding methods and forms of expression and those concepts are used to approach the contents.

In other words, you are saying that we shouldn’t simply see these invited works as representative of contemporary Japanese theater, aren’t you?
Yes. They are not representative works. If they were, that would be too boring. I believe it is true that theater can certainly be a means to come in contact with different cultures and the realities of different countries’ societies. But that is not enough, it has to be interesting art pieces that have more to tell than where they come from and have to fit the festival program.
However, when we invite foreign works, we often do it in the tie-ups with other festivals in order to share the cost, and each of the festivals in cases like that have their own distinct contexts for inviting the same works. For example, two years ago when we invited contact Gonzo to Zürcher Theater Spektakel, it was in the context of contemporary dance. Last year when we brought Akuma no Shirushi (Noriyuki Kiguchi) it was in a project that involved a tour of performances to the three Swiss cities of Zurich, Basel and Luzern, and each of the three performance were in a different context. For our festival in Zurichit was as an outdoor performance, while for the Basel Theater Festival it was as a participation type work in a process that involved preparations for student participation. At Luzern it was as one of three works including Niwa Gekidan Penino (Tanino Kuro) and Kyohei Sakaguchi for the season-opening program at the Südpol Theatre featuring Japan.

You came to Japan this time as an invited international program participant in the Tokyo Culture Creation Project, after which you have stayed for several weeks as a Saison Foundation Visithing Fellow. This is your third visit to Japan. Do you feel you have learned some new things about Japanese theater this time?
I have been able to follow the recent work of artists that I already knew and to meet some new artists. Also, learning that there are a lot of regional contemporary art projects in Japan, I visited the Beppu Contemporary Art Festival – “Mixed Bathing World” and the Kunisaki Art Project.
What I am interested in is what the artists are thinking about themselves and their works in relation to contemporary Japanese society. Has the nuclear power plant accident in Fukushima changed the role of art? If so, how has it changed, etc.? With the longer residence stay this time, I am hoping to have many opportunities to discuss with people how they view issues concerning daily life, history and politics.
Travelling around the country has also enabled me to get to know about places other than Tokyo. And then it was very important for me to get closer to the culture of Every day life: I had a chance to go to a hairdresser as well, and to the public bathe in Morishita where my residency is. I was also able to visit Hiroshima, and friend took me to Fukushima as well. These experiences have given me chances to not only learn about Japanese culture, but also I feel that my viewpoint when I watch Japanese plays or plays in general has become more complex and deeper. I have had experiences this time that I never could have had when I just visiting for one festival and tour and the interviews involved – because this kind of experiences need more time.
I am very grateful for this time I was given and all the support I have received in the process.