“Theater is social experimentation”

January 08, 2024

Theater by candlelight In Sweden, Wagner’s research centered on theater practice around 200 years ago as part of a ‘Performing Premodernity’ project funded by the country’s national bank. “Sweden is a very good place for researching the history and practice of theater because it is a country where theater enjoyed a kind of golden age 200 years ago during which it was greatly cultivated. Community theater as an educational institution and a career springboard In another research project into the history of theater, Meike Wagner is studying non-professional theater in the 18th century, which differed from the dominant court theater of the time due to its bourgeois setting. It could also be seen in the social interaction between the members of the theater groups. Wagner also notes that amateur theater was a kind of career springboard for women to gain a foothold in established and well-known theaters.

The forms and practice of theater as well as its history, and even puppetry — Professor Meike Wagner’s research interests are very broad in scope, putting her firmly within the tradition of theater scholars as all-rounders: “Because we are a small discipline, we place a great deal of emphasis on ensuring that young academics work on a good range of topics and areas during their education,” she says. Having joined the LMU faculty in 2022, Wagner is continuing her on-off relationship with her alma mater: she studied here, did her doctorate in Paris and Mainz, came back to LMU to do her Habilitation and, after eight years at Stockholm University, finally returned to Munich as Chair of Theater Studies.

Theater by candlelight

In Sweden, Wagner’s research centered on theater practice around 200 years ago as part of a ‘Performing Premodernity’ project funded by the country’s national bank. “Sweden is a very good place for researching the history and practice of theater because it is a country where theater enjoyed a kind of golden age 200 years ago during which it was greatly cultivated. And there are still some very well-preserved historic theaters,” she says.

What is more, at the Confidensen Theater, part of Ulriksdal Palace near Stockholm, her team was able to collaborate with trained actors and actresses to reconstruct how candlelight works as stage lighting, for example, and what kind of costume fabrics had to be used in order to be visible in this type of historical illumination. “There is no other historic theater where you can experiment with candlelight,” she says.

I am particularly interested in exploring the connection between object and person as well as environment and person in the sense of post-humanist theater
Professor Meike Wagner

Wagner gained an important insight during a workshop focusing on music and sound in the historic theater at Drottningholm Palace, as well: Her team was able to discover why two lovers, for example, would meet on stage in a pose that seems somewhat inharmonious today: “The stages were very low, which had an effect on the dissemination of sound,” explains Meike Wagner. Depending on how the performers stood in relation to each other, the sound would spread — or not. “By positioning the performers in a certain way and shaping the stage space, the sound can emanate to its best advantage and will reach the people on stage in a sort of circular form,” says Wagner. “In this way, the sound creates a connection between the performers.” The space, she explains, functions as an instrument that you have to know — and know how to use.

Community theater as an educational institution and a career springboard

In another research project into the history of theater, Meike Wagner is studying non-professional theater in the 18th century, which differed from the dominant court theater of the time due to its bourgeois setting. What was new about these amateur theater groups was the fact that the processes and organizational structures were based on democratic ideals, which were evident in much more than just the theatre practice, the selection of plays, or the casting of roles. It could also be seen in the social interaction between the members of the theater groups. Meike Wagner has been able to evaluate interesting source material — for example, the articles of association of a Berlin amateur theater whose statutes even contained echoes of human rights principles: Among other things, they said that every member had an equal voice and must not be prevented from expressing themselves freely.

Wagner also notes that amateur theater was a kind of career springboard for women to gain a foothold in established and well-known theaters. “People saw themselves as socially acknowledged, theatrical citizens and thus set themselves apart from the touring troupes, whose members had to struggle with being denied their social status,” she says. “I am particularly interested in why these bourgeois amateur theaters emerged so suddenly and in such large numbers around the year 1800, assuming that not all playwrights translated Lessing’s concept of literary theater into plays at the same time,” explains Meike Wagner. “I see an explanation in theatre practice: the concept became mainstream as plays were being performed on stage.” However, her project, which is being funded with an ERC Advanced Grant, is not limited to non-professional theater in German-speaking countries, which are characterized by small states and absolutism. Researchers from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Sweden, for example, are also examining the contemporary theater scene in Britain, France, Sweden, and Switzerland in a series of case studies.

Fusion of man and object

Meike Wagner also focuses on contemporary puppetry and object theater — a topic she has been working on since her dissertation. “I am particularly interested in exploring the connection between object and person as well as environment and person in the sense of post-humanist theater,” she explains. This means moving away from the classic position of separating the person and the object towards a position of connecting them and creating communication on the same material level. “There are performances in which the performers enter directly into the object and merge with it, so to speak. This blurs the traditional boundaries between people and objects.” She is certain that this is thought-provoking for the audience, which in turn has an effect on their concept of the person and their image of the body.

Another key topic is robotics, which is currently being heavily explored in object theater, explains Wagner. How can social robots develop a certain autonomy and what is their relationship with human actors? “This is a fundamental constant in my research: the redefinition of people and the environment and the consequences for living together. For me, theater is not an institution through which educated citizens cultivate their dissimilarity. Rather, it is an artistic practice in which we are confronted with situations that repeatedly throw us back to socially relevant questions. Theater is social experimentation.”