Experimental spirit and social engagement

EVERY MAY, audiences, producers and artists watch the 10 best productions by state and city-run theatre institutions from the German-speaking region and other related programmes at the annual Theatertreffen in the German capital. Six weeks later, some of them meet again at the Impulse Theatre Festival, the centre of which moves from one North Rhine-Westphalian (NRW) city to another every year.

Mainly supported by NRW Office of Culture, this year’s 12-day festival was composed of three parts –a showcase of 10 selected independently produced theatre works, an academy and a city project. 

With diverse subject matters and styles, the annual Impulse Theatre Festival offered a glimpse into the independent theatre scenes of Germanspeaking countries. 

/Photo by Robin Junicke

The hub for the first part was Ringlokschuppen Ruhr in Mulheim, which is more than a locomotive depot-cum-performing arts complex and rather a socio-cultural centre in a park within walking distance from the city centre. It organises, as part of its diverse regular programmes, “Silent University” in which migrant experts and scholars in different fields share knowledge and experience in their mother tongues. While the jury of Theatertreffen comprises professional theatre critics, each of whom spend more than half of the year’s evenings in the German-speaking region, that of Impulse also has the host centre’s chemical technical assistant and a theatre-loving school student. These two are in addition to Impulse’s artistic director Haiko Pfost and dramaturg Wilma Renfordt and two other theatre experts who, year-round, scout for exceptional works by artists based in different regions of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, but who are not necessarily citizens of these three countries.

Dorf Theatre /Photo by Robin Junicke


In addition to the 10 showcase works, the opening show “Dorf Theatre” was curated by Berlin-based Swiss director and dramaturg Corsin Gaudenz especially for the festival. Performed in Swiss-German with English surtitles, the play was an example of the village theatre tradition, which is increasingly popular in Switzerland. It was interrupted by speeches from Ringlokschuppen Ruhr’s and Impulse’s artistic directors as well as the city and region’s government officials, in addition to snacks and drinks. Most audiences would usually be bored, if not, annoyed with such time-consuming ceremonies at a stage performance, as by reading the programme booklet we would know what we were going to watch and which sponsors make it possible. That wasn’t the case here though, as politicians became performers and we asked ourselves whether we would have shown up at the opening of any arts events for their speeches, free food and drinks or the work presented. 

Dorf Theatre /Photo by Robin Junicke


Two hours later, the mood shifted as the audience moved to the opposite end of the building where another studio was set up like a nightclub. There were no chairs for the audience, many of whom had drinks in their hands, as we watched “Pink Money”, a collaboration of Dutch, German and South African artists. With entertaining and thought-provoking songs, dialogues and videos, the gay performers stepped on and off the three small stages as well as walked through the crowd. Their roof-raising performance reminded us that in such different continents as Africa and Europe, the LGBTQ community shares many similar problems and that capitalism rules in both. 

Mothers of Steel /Photo by Vaczi Roland


In the ironically-titled non-verbal performance “Mothers of Steel” staged in a small studio, Romania-born Madalina Dan and Poland-born Agata Siniarka, both now Berlin-based, didn’t speak a word, but cried throughout. At many moments, though, the audience laughed as signs with words showed what changes the former Eastern Europe had been through, and misery its people had faced, not only after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, but throughout its history.

Global Belly /Photo by Robin Junicke

Internationally acclaimed performance collective She She Pop worked with local non-performers on a more local issue – how property currently affects people and our existence. Meanwhile, Kassel-based theatre collective Flinn Works investigated a more universal issue, surrogate motherhood, in the English-speaking play “Global Belly”. The audience was broken up into four groups, went behind the scenes, took on different roles in conversations, both intimate and impactful, with the involved characters in different situations. Thanks to my long hair, and not withstanding my moustache, I was the mother of a young gay man who wanted a child in one scene!

Apollon /Photo by Radovan Dranga


Crossing as well as pushing artistic boundaries, if not also testing some audience members’ patience, was Austrian choreographer Florentina Holzinger’s “Apollon” which keenly blended circus acts with fitness routines and body art with contemporary dance with all-female cast. 

In collaboration with Studiobuhnekoln, Germany’s oldest university theatre, and Cheers for Fears, a network of university students from multiple arts disciplines, Impulse organised its first academy and it wasn’t only for students. One morning, the audience was taken on a chartered bus to the restricted area of the container terminal of Cologne harbour, the country’s second largest inland harbour on the Rhine river. Later on a pedestrian bridge, we listened to a radio play by media artists and designers collective Sputnic, which connects art and economy. In the afternoon at the theatre, we attended a workshop titled “Between Village Square and the World Market: Independent Theatre Between Local Relevance and International Co-production” and a panel discussion “Think Local, Sell Global?: Independent Theatre and Economy.”

Impulse Academy /Photo by Robin Junicke


Lastly and in another city Dusseldorf, the festival worked with the Forum Independent Theatre in a site-specific project at the Wilhelm Marx House in the city centre that’s soon to be sold by the owner, the city government, for commercial purposes. Guided tours, installations and performances evoked different memories and various functions of this public space and questioned yet another property development. This is another strong example of how, in a democratic society, one can get public funding to support a project that directly questions, if not criticises, the government. 

The efficiency and convenience of railway and road systems in the region and the geographical fact that these three cities – Mulheim, Cologne and Dusseldorf – are not that far apart made it possible to experience the festival’s three parts in one day or, more leisurely, one weekend. The festival connects not only with its cities, but also its audiences and general public; provides a platform for both theatre professionals and students; connects theory to practice, and regional to national and international. These certainly confirm its relevance and guarantee its sustainability. It’s fun to note here that the festival didn’t programme a show when the German national football team was playing in the World Cup on two weekends but instead listed the two matches in the schedule and set up TVs for the audience to enjoy.

Kontainerhafen /Photo by Robin Junicke

Although both the scale of Impulse and the number of international audiences may not be comparable to those of Theatertreffen, it’s much easier to take these works that are filled with experimental spirit and social awareness on tour to overseas festivals. I’m sure I’ll see a few of these works in the programme somewhere in this region soon. Also, the fact that these are independent artists who’re not on a contract with certain institutions makes it possible to initiate collaboration with them. 


The writer’s trip was supported by North Rhine-Westphalian (NRW) Office of Culture’s International Visitors Programme. Special thanks to Anna-Lisa Langhoff, Fabian May and the Goethe Institut Thailand for all kind assistance.


Next June, the hub of Impulse Theatre Festival will move to Dusseldorf. 

For more information, visit www.ImpulseFestival.de (in German and English)

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