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7 Min



Elena Fiebig

These are not issues, this is a transformation

Andrea Zagorski in conversation with Yvonne Büdenhölzer and Thomas Engel


In May 2021 Yvonne Büdenhölzer was voted in as the new president of the ITI. She and Thomas Engel talk to Andrea Zagorski about fractures and the impending challenges for transnational theatre work, with the ITI‘s international network in mind.


The last two years have been profoundly affected by COVID-19, how has the pandemic affected the international work of the ITI?


Thomas Engel 
It is hard to tell because we only hear about various national activities once they take place. In some countries there have been so-called “resilience” programmes, if there are any at all, then there are the “carrying on regardless” slogans, but at the end of the day we have no real insight into what is really happening in the different countries.

We are kept well-informed in terms of the facts, and we meet a large number of people on screen, but ultimately, they remain remote: we are sorely missing face-to-face communications. This phenomenon, I believe, is badly corroding all international work, as well as any cohesion or solidarity felt in the moment.

When we hold the World Congress next year – the first one in five years – regardless of its form, we can rule on the obligatory criteria of the organisation and report on our activities, but it will be hard to link them seamlessly to pre-pandemic times. What UNESCO and the ITI stands for – namely the process of rapprochement, the definition of commonalities and the toleration of difference – has been interrupted and, I believe, will occupy us for some time to come.

Would you like to describe in concrete terms the effects on the network and where you see critical shortfalls?


Thomas Engel 
In the noughties, our projects placed difference at the heart of the debate, whether it was religious, cultural or ideological. There are very diverse personalities engaged within the ITI. It is important to define diversity and be able to sustain it, and for that it is essential not only to respect but also to understand positions that are not up for negotiation. To do that, there has to be a process of direct acquaintanceship – before one destroys the furniture and then wonders why something is not working. This form of familiarity is based on an alliance maintained through regular contact and the engagement of specific individuals in the different countries. This familiarity cannot be transferred, it will have to be re-cultivated through face-to-face encounters.


Many digital platforms try to overcome physical distance, artistic works are not only being presented on, but are being conceived for, online spaces. Can you gauge the reach and accessibility of digital use in the global network?


Thomas Engel
There is extraordinary digital inequality in terms of access opportunity and reachability. In many countries there is very limited access to internet connections, often the only possible access is via mobile telephones. And this is where the attention economy interferes, spectacular performances or particularly controversial events are noted, anything that is less than spectacular no longer reaches us.

Yvonne Büdenhölzer
I have to agree with many points here. Digitalisation does have advantages, but they can be – in my opinion – counted on one hand. Meetings of the international kind are simpler via online platforms and are by now well-established. Unnecessary travel can be avoided, and that I think is a huge gain. But everything that comes from this kind of short encounter, meeting, or even a much longer session, is simply fleeting. With very few exceptions it remains trapped in the moment and disappears immediately afterwards. And secondly, I can see that everyone who works in the cultural sector is completely exhausted. It is an exhaustion that comes from the overall situation: there is no security and none of the familiar things that enable one to plan and to work.

Yvonne, you take up your role as president of the German centre of the ITI in the middle of this very challenging situation, what topics and viewpoints will you bring with you from your prior work?


Yvonne Büdenhölzer
I’ve known the ITI for a long time now from being a member. It was Manfred Beilharz who introduced me to the ITI, and it was through my work as curator of the biennial “New Plays from Europe” that I began to understand how important transnational theatre work is, how it broadens horizons, and that institutions and networks such as the ITI are required in order to carry it out. Linked to my work at the Theatertreffen is the question of gender justice, sustainability is also on my personal agenda. Those two issues have preoccupied me massively for many years. However, seen from a post-corona perspective, we will need to keep other themes such as diversity and the future direction of transnational theatre work on the agenda. I also think it is equally important to consider access and privilege, and not forget the removal of barriers. What’s more, it was the explicit wish of the members and the board to become younger, more female, and more diverse. I found the constituent meeting of the new board very inspiring, particularly in terms of the diversity of the acting members. We are now starting to work and together we will hone our vision. This is sort of how I see my function as president, I want us to develop something together, something with which everyone can identify, and that will become a lively collaboration.

What are the challenges and issues for the ITI both nationally and internationally?

Yvonne Büdenhölzer
I see different facets, ones that I also find important personally. On the one hand there is a change in German society, which is an immigrant society. We live in a diverse society; in the creative sector this is reflected in the development of international collaborations. We are in a completely different situation to just 20 years ago. I also think that the theatre situation in Germany is more privileged than in other countries, which is why so many international artists work here and that, I feel, is worth bearing in mind and supporting. I also believe that social division, far-right populism, and exclusion are serious challenges; one has to take a view on them and because of the pandemic, they are becoming ever stronger. Sustainability and climate change are the issues that are brought up when it comes to global challenges. But these are not issues, this is a transition, a huge process of transformation. How can one act to protect resources and nonetheless enable international cultural dialogue? I think it is wrong to state that international interaction is no longer tenable for reasons of sustainability. Of course, it is not sustainable ecologically, but equally, we must not forget societal and social sustainability.

Thomas Engel
I consider these different aspects of sustainability to be the biggest challenge to organisations such as the ITI at present. Such organisations are needed to pursue sustainability with a strategic and a long-term view, precisely because around the globe they are anchored in very different conditions.

I would like to turn to the theme of mobility. Before the pandemic there was much discussion about dismantling barriers around mobility and visa-exemption. This issue remains important, but it has been eclipsed by restrictions that are a result of the pandemic.


Yvonne Büdenhölzer
Currently at the Theatertreffen we are asking concrete questions about the situation regarding unvaccinated international artists, or artists who have been vaccinated with a vaccine that is not recognised by the EU. Who has access to vaccines? Is it possible that in the foreseeable future we will only work with vaccinated artists?

Thomas Engel
And that, for example, continues in terms of planning the ITI World Congress. Will we have to adjust to people only taking part in events online because of missing or unrecognised vaccines? Although there are preliminary initiatives, they operate within a tiny framework and cannot create equity of mobility. And how is that going to affect festivals, which are an essential hub for artistic dialogue?

Here I think the curators’ search efforts for Theater der Welt 2023 are very important. Their quest to find out what a festival with the strange title of “Theatre of the World” might look like in terms of today’s challenges, to ask how they can distance themselves from traditional curatorial principles, and which aesthetics go hand in with the pandemic.


Yvonne Büdenhölzer
By using a codex for the festival and their work, they are highlighting that change is on the way. And of course, I think it is very important that this is the first all-female team and that for the first time there is an interdisciplinary structure for the festival through the participation of Schauspiel Frankfurt, the Künstlerhaus Mousonturm and the Museum Angewandte Kunst.

Thomas Engel
I am delighted that our new ITI Academy is able to be accompany this process and has the opportunity to learn alongside it. Every three years Theater der Welt has to reinvent itself, but as Yvonne said, we – together with the world and with theatre – are all at the heart of a huge process of transformation.

Yvonne Büdenhölzer has been the Theatertreffen’s director since 2012. She studied German philology and educational sciences and worked as a dramaturge for various municipal theatres and independent companies. From 2005 to 2011, Yvonne Büdenhölzer was Head of the Stückemarkt of the Berliner Festspiele’s Theatertreffen. In 2009/2010, she was curator and festival manager for the theatre biennial New Plays from Europe in Wiesbaden and Mainz. She was a lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin and a member of the Berlin Council for the Arts. At Theatertreffen 2019 she initiated and co-curated the Conference on Gender (In)Equality „Burning Issues Meets Theatertreffen“. In 2020 she received the Berlin Women's Prize for her commitment to equal opportunities in the theatre. Yvonne Büdenhölzer has been President of the International Theatre Institute (ITI-Germany) since 2021.


Dr. Thomas Engel is a theatre studies scholar and dramaturg, who completed his PhD at the Humboldt University Berlin and then worked as a dramaturg. He was a research assistant at the International Theatre Institute Centre (GDR) and from 1992 at the unified ITI Centre Germany, whose managing director he has been since 2003.