Corona and Culture. 10 Questions for Jörg Löwer

Interview with Jörg Löwer, the President of the Union of German Stage Members in Germany.

Foto: Jörg Löwer. @Peter Vogel.

By Oxana Arkaeva

Following two previous interviews with Rolf Bolwin, a former Managing Director of the German Theater Association – Federal Association of German Theater and Orchestra and Kay Metzger, the intendant of the theater in Ulm, this Interviews with Jörg Löwer, the President of the Union of German Stage Members in Germany is the next in the series of interviews “Corona and Culture.” Mr. Löwers views allow in combination with the two other a 3-D overview of the current situation with culture under pandemic in Germany, as they also attempt to give some kind of prognosis on how things might develop in the coming months. By the time this interview was conducted and shortly after, the German government ordered the new partial lockdown to break the high wave of COVID-19 infections. The affected branches of the economy include besides cultural, gastronomic, tourism, and sports sectors. 

Jörg Löwer worked for many years as a musical performer and choreographer. As a performer, he has appeared on stage in numerous ensuite and city theater productions. In his work and creativity, he was primarily influenced by the collaboration with Helmut Baumann. As a choreographer, he was responsible for productions in musicals, drama, and cruises. After joining the team, Jörg Löwer started working in 20019 as a speaker for the GDBA. In May 2013, he was elected its resident.

How would you describe in just a few keywords the current situation in Germany, and perhaps in Europe under pandemic, in terms of culture and cultural workers’ legal standing?

Disaster, existential fear, insecurity, lack of financial security, precarious working conditions, job relinquishment, and a threat to the cultural infrastructure. These are just a few of the keywords that keep coming to mind.

What short-term and long-term effects the pandemic does or will have upon developing the legal situation of domestic theater employees with permanent contracts and self-employed/freelance opera singers at home or abroad?

Nobody should fool themselves: The threat to one of the largest theaters and orchestra landscapes worldwide is becoming more apparent every day.  And with it the threat to future jobs for permanent employees and self-employed/freelancers. Also, a collapse of the complete independent scene and the private theater landscape remains unimaginable – and for large parts of the cultural landscape, it is five minutes to twelve as there is no real perspective offered. The one provided, like keeping a distance of at least 1,50 meters on stage and in the audience, indeed cannot be counted as a real solution. Although the government has allocated an additional billion euros for culture through “Restart Culture” funds, other measures or economic stimulus financial package could and should indirectly build an additional benefit for culture. It will require a lot of joint efforts and extra money, as surviving of the culture will remain a matter for the federal states. To one, to save the local theaters from existential disaster, especially those endangered by the municipalities’ sinking tax revenues. But also because of an increasing number of occupation transfers/changes within the artistic community. Since many self-employed/freelance artists are thinking about or have already entered a career change due to the perspective of long-term unemployment, those are tons of talents that will be missing in the future once the situation has normalized.

During the lockdown, the theaters have lost an estimated 50 million euros in ticketing sales. Here I am talking about the city, municipal, and state theaters. Many freelance actors, singers, and dancers, stage directors, theater publishers, authors, and composers lost their income from one day to the other. They experience great economic difficulties, and some small companies are on the verge of collapse. 

After the summer holidays, theaters and opera houses in Germany have begun to play again under strict hygiene regulations. These included a limited number of people in the audience (between min 20 and 150 maximum); actors and singers acting and singing up to 6 meters apart; no or reduced number of orchestra players with ap to 8 meters apart; productions with small ensembles and choirs hardly present. 

Currently, the public theaters’ employees are protected by the collective agreement of a short-time-work regulation from a company-related termination of employment settled down by the artists’ unions.  But we are looking with great concern in the future. The governmental organizations and the government have an extraordinary responsibility here: an inclusive “ensemble” system is a distinguishing feature of the German-speaking theater landscape compared to most countries in Europe and beyond. Thus, it should be as less jeopardized as the artists’ role in an increasingly patchy society, as the theaters grapple with the issues of “their” city, take up debates, or touch them up: acting as the sort of sand in the gears of society. 

Your term as President of GDBA will soon come to an end. What was the biggest challenge you had to face during these years, especially during the pandemic/lockdown?

When I took office in 2013, the biggest challenge was to stop union’s constant loss of memberships. Since then, thanks to our numerous efforts and changes, we have increased the number of members by 45%, making me very happy. During the pandemic, we had to maintain a continuous workflow in the office to cope with the surge of advice-seekers, especially from our self-employed/freelance members, who needed urgent support regarding contract cancellations. Besides, an immediate emergency aid program had to be implemented very rapidly. GDBA was one of the first to provide quick financial aid to freelancers, particularly affected by the pandemic. 

Almost immediately after the pandemic broke out, GDBA has provided 50,000 euros on financial solidarity support for freelance theater professionals who live and work in Germany and are directly affected by the Corona crisis. The aid was also offered to theater professionals who are not members of GDBA. According to GDBA reports, recipients received 500 euros each. The amount comes from the Helene-Achterberg-Hewelcke Aid Fund. She was an actress and had left her fortune to GDBA to support theater professionals in need, caused by external circumstances and not by their wrongdoing.

 In your opinion, which was/is the most important, the most far-reaching decision you have made during your presidential term?

When talking about the time before the pandemic, I can emphasize the enforcing minimum fees for guest contracts, the “non-renewal” protection for permanently engaged pregnant women, and union representatives. Also, the opportunities for co-determination for the members of the permanent ensemble have been significantly improved.

During the pandemic, it was undoubtedly the successful negotiation and signing of the collective agreements on short-time work for the public theaters’ permanent employees. All artists’ unions initially had a very critical stance here, as, in terms of ​​public theaters and orchestras, we initially saw no reason to introduce short-time working measures. Public theaters and orchestras are funded, and “only” had to compensate for the lost income from ticket sales and guest performances/tours. These counted around 17.5% of the respective budgets on average for all orchestras and theaters nationwide. 

Over time, however, the course of the pandemic turned out to be dramatic. Thus, numerous agreements were drawn up between theatres’ boards of employees and theater management. Many did not adequately regulate short-time work, which, in the end, created an urgent need for a unifying framework for collective agreements. I am particularly pleased that we could enforce the contracts of guest performers to be covered by these regulations, which was also crucial for many self-employed/freelance opera singers, who, in the end, were paid, even though they were not permanent engaged. 

What were you unable to achieve, which, for example, could have been helpful in the current situation?

At the beginning of my first term in office and regardless of Covid-19, I was convinced that there should be a consolidation of the unions of performing artists in Germany. Those like GDBA (Union of German Stage Employees), VdO (Association of German opera choirs and dancers), and BFFS (Interest Union of Actors in Germany). But unfortunately, we have not come any closer to such a merger. On the contrary, there is an increasing tendency for people to build even smaller, bubble-like interest groups instead of forming a large community of artistically employed people from all sectors. In the current crisis, such a merger could have strengthened the industry and the unity among each other and increased its assertiveness against politics. 

Unfortunately, what has not yet been achieved concerning the state support programs for solo self-employed persons and the permitted occupancy figures in the auditorium is to harmonize the “patchwork quilt” of federal and local measures and regulations governments. Although the confusing number of different rules is also evident in other areas of everyday life and does not contribute to politicians’ accepting decisions. 

Could you name any changes in the legal situation of foreign opera singers’ in Germany who work on permanent and guest contracts?

So far, the situation with staff on permanent contracts has been comparatively mild – regardless of whether they come from abroad or in Germany. However, it cannot be ruled out that self-employed/freelancers, who do not come from the EU, will have problems with the residence permit due to all performance’ cancellations and travel bans. Overall, the crisis has raised awareness among artists (singers) towards getting a permanent engagement, which secures employment benefits for permanently engaged and better protection of one’s professional life in Germany.

Can you make a preliminary prognosis considering the future of permanently and guest contracts at German music theaters?

The information that has reached us so far is particularly worrying for the self-employed/freelancers. Due to the relatively small number of performances and low cast-scale, many theaters want to avoid guests entirely and work only with the permanent ensemble members.

In your opinion, will this pandemic change the German (music) theaters’ landscape permanently?

We are not just talking about a change in the German music theaters’ landscape. It is a global crisis, and the individual consequences cannot yet be foreseen. For sure, all organized in the private sector will not hold out for long without insufficient support measures. Currently, the public theaters, opera houses, and orchestras in Germany are better off in this regard due to their high proportion of state funding. But here, too, a risk of a decrease in future subsidies due to the lack of tax revenue from the municipalities or federal states is very real.

What lesson, if ever, have we learned from this crisis?

This is a difficult question to answer. Indeed, it became clear, as if through a magnifying glass, that artistic work is often still a precarious one. And with Corona, the existing problems have been aggravated. In dealing with the cultural infrastructure, we still shall see whether it will be possible to dissolve the discrepancy between Sunday-Monday speeches made by politicians. Culture is systemically relevant for the functioning of democratic societies. This idea has not yet got around enough. The human being cannot only be viewed as a consumer. The possibility of social self-assurance is imperative. Any society needs places like theatres that work as a society’s’ moral compass and challenge people’s minds.

What advice would you give the future domestic and foreign permanent and self-employed/freelance opera singers, to how they can legally protect themselves in such situations, i.e., can be protected by law? 

Especially in uncertain times like these, it is more than ever important to be well informed about your rights and obligations and to receive practical advice in case of a conflict with the employer or agent.  All this is possible through membership in the relevant autistics’ unions, which are often organized in the FIA ​​(International Federation of Actors), who help its members who work abroad. Especially for the internationally working self-employed/freelance opera singers, this can be of great importance. It is even more important when all other (also financial) means of claiming your rights have been exhausted as members receive free legal advice and protection regarding all work-related conflicts and legal disputes.

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