Ousted Directors of Zurich’s Municipal Theater Throw Themselves A Big Ol’ Woke Farewell Party

Last week at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus, a party was held at the august, state-funded theatre. Titled the House of Wokeness, it aimed to address, and to conclude, a contentious chapter at the institution, which has been led by Benjamin von Blomberg and Nicolas Stemann since 2019.

Von Blomberg, Stemann and their team of guest directors, which includes the artist Wu Tsang and her interdisciplinary collective Moved by the Motion, took an avant-garde and conceptually expansive approach to traditional theatre repertoire, and increased gender and racial diversity in the productions and management of the Schauspielhaus. Such issues were central to a campaign against them propelled by the right-wing Swiss media, claiming “wokeness” was driving away traditional audiences and to blame for a $1.5m budget deficit, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sometimes I wonder whether the board and the cultural department of the city were just overwhelmed by the conservative campaign against us

Benjamin von Blomberg, Schauspielhaus Zürich

In February 2023 it was announced that Stemann and von Blomberg would not have their contracts renewed by the board, on which city and state cultural department officials sit. “We changed a lot in terms of aesthetics and the scope of artistic collaboration,” Von Blomberg tells The Art Newspaper. “Sometimes I wonder whether the board and the cultural department of the city were just overwhelmed by the conservative campaign against us in reaction to that, and not brave enough to admit that. As we were artistically too successful, they used finances as an excuse.”

Von Blomberg adds that other Swiss performing arts institutions such as the Zürich Opera and Theatre Basel received money from the government to cover their shortfalls during Covid-19, but the city of Zürich blocked the Schauspielhaus from receiving these funds in time for the 2023-24 season, which resulted in a deficit.

Queer stagings of classics

Although neither the Schauspielhaus’s board of directors nor a representative for the city of Zürich could be reached by the time we went to press, The Art Newspaper has seen correspondence dated 14 April between a representative for the Zürich city council and Dominik Waser, a municipal councillor representing the Schauspielhaus, that confirms the withholding of funds.

A modern interpretation of Bizet’s Carmen was directed by Tsang, who was also responsible for genderqueer stagings of Moby Dick and Pinocchio at the Schauspielhaus. It exemplified a number of non-traditional approaches, including a script written by fellow artist Sophia Al-Maria that brought the opera into the modern day via the narration of an archaeology student who is at odds with the conservative politics of her university.

Tsang says this character became a “cipher” for herself, Al-Maria and their collaborators. “Cultural institutions, like universities, are increasingly being exposed for their rigidity,” she says. Reflecting on her time at the theatre, Tsang says: “It wasn’t an easy experience mixing genres, bringing diversity on stage, and trying to fit that into a traditional system.” Tsang also refers to discord from figures within the theatre who were sceptical of her collective’s collaborative and unorthodox ways of working. Nonetheless, “we learned to navigate difference. Some productive tensions come from that.” Von Blomberg also notes that many cultural institutions and actors in Switzerland and abroad defended his team.

The House of Wokeness party, which featured a performance from the musician Peaches, “reclaims the term used against us”, Von Blomberg says. Tsang notes that not only did many art world figures show up “but many young people, queer people, people of colour. I would have never imagined starting five years ago to today how much the audience would change and who would be drawn to this space. I hope that continues”,

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