Management and the element of surprise

As director of the Landestheater Schwaben in Memmingen, Kathrin Mädler masters the art of balancing management and creative processes. In our interview she describes how the willingness to take risks and submit to the element of surprise  improves the artistic quality of her work.

How much leadership does a diverse and creative team such as
a theatre company need? What is your leadership style?

In the creative production process, each member of our theatre is the only expert in their field of responsibility. From the carpenters and metalworkers building the stage setting after the stage and costume designers‘ specifications at the beginning of the process over the lighting technicians or the dramatic advisor in charge of the production content all the way through to the actor developing the play together with the artistic director during rehearsals.

All these people are extreme idealists; they bring their creativity, their passion and their expertise to the table and take full responsibility for their part. I hardly ever need to convince any member of the team of the purpose or substance of our work – they already are fully committed to it. My job is to create an open, inspiring space that allows everyone to unfold their creativity, be courageous, try crazy things and test themselves with all their sensitivities, even to fail, without fear. We work with strong, idiosyncratic personalities who constantly bring these personalities to their work. They are their source of inspiration and their contribution.

Each production creates cooperation in new constellations, starts at zero and demands creative power and vision out of nothing. You need a new way of thinking every single time. I try to give this process as much freedom and encouragement as possible with just as much structure as needed. I consider each team member’s individual potential while encouraging and strengthening where needed. Theatre is a collaborative art that only has a chance to develop and flourish through cooperation.


How do you strike a balance between your administrative and artistic hat?
How do you make sure one doesn’t overpower the other?


Keeping a balance between artistic work and administrative tasks seems to me the most difficult aspect in my work as artistic director who also directs individual plays. Both aspects are crucial and often intertwined.

My goal for the theatre and all staff is never to lose sight of art as the central element of our work. Everything we do, discuss and project, should support our goal of being strong artistic personalities and making provocative, high quality art.


How much does an artistic director have to consider financial implications of their decisions – how much artistic freedom do you have?


The ambition to make strong, relevant theatre and enter into a discourse with our audience, stands above all for me. Theatre makers should never sacrifice this ambition for financial considerations. Almost all German theatres work with very limited financial resources. This becomes questionable when it becomes impossible to adequately pay staff who already invest all their passion and idealism, when art is only possible based on self-exploitation.

The artists are our most important potential. As long as we can secure an adequate framework for their work, a lot can be generated with very few resources. However, this framework needs to be upheld. As a society we should ask ourselves how much we are willing to invest in places of art and culture. I think in times like these it should definitely be more than we currently do.


After various stages at international universities and theatres you now work in Memmingen. What has tempted you to take on this challenge and what have you learned from it?


While the Staatstheater Schwaben is of a manageable size, it has interesting prospects. I had the opportunity to conceptually and artistically re-develop it from the ground up. To this, I brought my capabilities in conceptual design, my artistic courage and my keen sense of a strong artistic team.

I never stop learning about people management, strategy, organisation and the politics of arts and culture as I am very directly involved in all processes of this medium sized company.


What do you think leaders from the industry could learn from an
artistic director in terms of leadership and vice versa?


Theatre and artistic work never follow a consistent schedule. You can create reliable structures but the artistic process itself is fragile, surprising and complex, always new and different. Nurturing it requires a high degree of sensitivity and flexibility within the originally created structures, yet also a willingness to take risks and a love of surprises, the unexpected.

Industry leaders could learn from us how to quickly, efficiently and pragmatically manage and structure on the one hand, while also relishing in the complete submission to the creative process and its element of surprise.

Our work is very intense and personal, at the same time affectionate and full of conflict. Solidarity, empathy and openness for emotions are as important to the process as a high propensity for conflicts and crisis. Despite extremely emotional conflicts and moments of artistic crisis in every rehearsal process there is always the understanding of working towards the same goal. The willingness to engage with each team member’s personality to get the best out of them is very distinctive to a theatre and promotes the quality of work.


Do you have corporate sponsors?
If so, how do you balance their demands with artistic integrity?


Unfortunately, we don’t have enough sponsors. Those that do support us don’t interfere with the creative process. On the contrary, it’s usually a fruitful relationship of mutual multiplication. For example, one of our sponsors regularly supports productions from our children’s theatre.

These plays’ focus on pre-school kids and their educational purpose is aligned with the sponsor’s support for local nurseries to facilitate equal educational opportunities. Another example would be our local bank sharing our ambition to strengthen the Memmingen region.

They therefor support us in touring our plays locally. We also have a donors’ club bringing together business people with an interest in content-driven theatre who also engage with us in a discourse about esthetics and substance.


How do you promote diversity/ gender
equality in your theatre?


Diversity is one of our central concerns as a theatre. On stage, we constantly promote empathy, diversity, liberality, so we should also live these values off stage. Diversity is currently an important topic in the theatre world. Our leadership team is consciously female dominated; we engage more female than male directors and our company consists of half women and men.

This is unusual as there are so much more male roles in the classic works. While our team is very diverse in terms of gender and sexual orientation, I have to admit that “organic Germans” still dominate. I would prefer more diversity in this respect, as well, to better represent society.

In our repertoire we concentrate on feminist topics with our female directors. We do a lot of cross-gender casting and want to re-interpret classic stories envisioning a diverse society.