Idea and Background

PASSAGE 23°E: Theatre in the „New Europe“

by Dr. Erhard Ertel


Passage 23°E – for more than a year now this title has become a dynamic term for us, which can be understood in regard to different horizons of meaning. Two of its levels of meaning or rather dimensions of meaning we would like to focus on in the meeting this weekend.

  • The first dimension is a programmatic dimension: It orientates towards a long term interrogation of cultural and especially theatrical processes of developments in Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe. Although the starting point for this interrogation are developments of the last decades, which are marked by far-reaching transformations, for the understanding of their dynamics and contradictoriness it becomes necessary to trace their historical backgrounds. In principal this means to work on a geocultural perspective on the structural history of Europe. Which poses controversial questions concerning the role of culture for the manifestations of European identities and their national, regional and territorial diversities and singularities.

  • The second is a practical dimension, in which the name Passage 23°E will be used for the application for an EU-project, which we are going to present and to discuss over the course of the next two days.

I would like to share some remarks about the genesis of Passage 23°East and the project's idea:

In 2001 the department of Theatre Studies of the Palacký-University in Olomouc – the second oldest University of the Czech Republic – hosted a conference called Testimony or Legend? Theatre in Film and Television, which discussed possibilities and questions regarding the audiovisual documentation of theatre. Following this conference, my colleague from the University of Olomouc Jan Roubal and I decided to approach these questions in a practical manner. We initiated an international cooperation project between the University Olomouc and Freie Universität Berlin, which enabled students of both Universities to deal with questions of theatre-documentation both theoretically and practically. The project started in 2002 and expanded in the year after as the International Theatre Festival in the Czech city Plzen joined the cooperation, which offered the opportunity for a bundled documentation of theatre-performances. In 2009 the theatre-information and -documentation institution mime centrum Berlin – part of the German Centre of ITI – became the fourth partner of the project. The collection of documentations produced until now entails more than 200 audio-visual recordings and is stored in an extensive festival archive in Plzen and Berlin . It is accessible for research and academic teaching as well as for an interested theatre producing public.


Two aspects of this 15-year long work-in-process are interesting in regards to the project Passage 23°E.

- Firstly: Theatre documentation and the tangibility of the material

Audiovisual Documentation of theatre is a controversial métier. Theatre Scholars vehemently defend the specific, namely corporeal-material mediality of theatre, which only comes to presence in the the temporary co-presence of audience and stage action. A documentation could only picture schemes of this specific experience. On the other hand the the transitoriness of theatre poses a great problem for theatre studies, insofar as its object of study remains unavailable and has has to be constructed for its academic analysis and debate. However, audio-visual documentation of theatre is the most dynamic form of this re-construction of its object. Which makes it necessary, that a modern research in the field of theatre has to regard (audiovisual) documentation not only as a vehicle (or as a didactic instrument for academic teaching) but as an integral part of a science of theatre itself. This proposition is reflected in the sctructural set-up of the project Passage 23°East, which is designed according to the aspirations to organize the discourse regarding theatrical lines of development within the areas of investigation as a cooperation of academic theatre studies, documenting and archiving institutions as well as of theatre practice.


- Secondly: Focus Theatre of the „New Europe“

From its beginning, the theatre festival in Plzen, which was founded in 1993, primarily presented theatre productions from Central Eastern and South Eastern European countries (– from the Slovakian and Czech Republics, from Hungary and Romania, Poland and Russia, from Latvia, Slovenia and Serbia). Especially the encounter with productions from „Eastern“-Europe was of importance for the documentation project. Through the sensual concretness of experiencing these theatre productions a deficit became visible – a deficit which consists in the lacking or non-existing knowledge of this particular theatre landscape in the “West”.

The notion „New Europe“ certainly calls for a critical reflection of its political and ideological implications. The societal changes that were introduced by the events of 1989 throughout the world and above all in Europe have led to the foundation of a “New Europe” that was geo-politically and economically restructured. Precisely in this regard the notion „New Europe“ has been functionalised and in combination with terms such as „Eastward Enlargement“ it even bears colonial implications.


In contrast to geo-political, military and economic changes, the geo-cultural consequences of the processes following 1989 have hardly been considered for the long-term. But only the reappraisal of national and continental features and relations within the (history and) culture of the continent can guarantee a decisive basis for a new grounding of European identity and identities as well as for the establishment of a European-oriented and differentiated cultural memory and therefore ultimately for a cultural future of Europe.

From this constellation the project Passage 23°East draws its objective: Its focus lies on the exploration of present interrelations and changes within the aforementioned culture areas demarcated by the 23rd longitude East from the Baltic to the Aegean. The joint exploration will concentrate on the manifold manifestations of theatre as art as well as on theatrical phenomenons of every-day life and festive culture(s). The interaction between documentation, archiving, cultural annotation, analytical treatment and academic debate shall initiate an intensive dialogue (polylogue?), which shall be made tangible by the documenting material and accompanied by its scientific interpretation for a broader understanding.


Against this background the name Passage 23°E has been developed and can also be understood:

The eponymous 23rd longitude passes through, respectively integrates, all Central Eastern and South Eastern European countries or culture areas within Europe's longest North-South extension. Around it there exists a geo-cultural area of enormous complexity, differentiation, alterity etc. This area is characterized by the co-existence of the heterogeneous on the one hand as it is on the other hand by historically rooted commonalities (as well as by common oppositions), which still are to be explored. This area seems to be cohered by the culture-philosophical term „East“.

Beyond the myopia of ideologized East-West-concepts of the Cold War era, there seems to exist a politically, socially and culturally marked development of a West and an East. The variations within these civilisatory-historical formations reach far beyond mere geographical differences. The term “West”, which since the Renaissance has been used to describe worldviews and values in the context of a transatlantic development, seems to face the notion of an “East”, which focuses on a transcontinental development, which roots in byzantine history.

Theatre and Theatricality from the Baltic to the Aegean could therefore show specifics, that have something to do with European development phenomena, which elude from the understanding set in Western European contexts and their horizons. The “Other” easily becomes the Incomprehensible. And the initial impossibility of an easy classification in familiar contexts and canons can let objectives seem cryptic and distorted due to new Ideologizations. Thus, it is not surprising that corresponding to the idea of a “New Europe” the notion of an “Unknown Europe” has entered the discussions after 1989.

But what is supposed to be conveyed by these expressions? What is the New? What is the Unknown? And to whom? Or has it simply fallen into oblivion? Or is it actually a matter of disinterest? Or else: Are really New and Unknown the problematic terms or rather the word Europe?


Hereby the political dimension and responsibility of the project Passage 23°East becomes clear, which lies in the scientific reappraisal of theatre-aesthetic developments in Eastern Europe, the elaboration of a historico-cultural foundation of these developments as well as in the confrontation with the European processes of history as a whole and the recognition of the specific role of culture for the exploration of old and new European identities. These identities can only be understood when their heterogeneity is acknowledged and they are approached as a plurality.


Three historical dimensions come into play here:

  • First: The „present“, meaning the aforementioned developments since 1989. This period comprises developments, which are mostly determined by political and social upheavals that have led to what often is being referred to as transformation societies. Transformations however, which require critical reflection, if, while ignoring regional identities and histories, they simply aim at importing (Western) European models.
    The detection of these interrelations and a critical yet productive approach towards them could become a feature of the 21st century in Europe.

  • The second dimension refers to the 20th century. It is important to take into consideration, that this century has come to be understood as a century of conflict. Conflict here not necessarily meaning military conflicts but rather the differences of rivaling models of society. The confrontation with this characteristic seems to be of an explosive nature especially for „Eastern“ European countries, as they have been faced with the experience of post-utopian societies. The artistic-aesthetical processing of societal utopias and the impact of post-socialist experience remains to be important.

The third historic dimension refers to the historic past and a changed understanding of European developments and the European Identities involved. Therefore it comprises cultural developments referring to the European geo-cultural structures and their dynamics, the shifting of boundaries between „orient“ and „occident“ and the equality and dialectics of Western Roman and Eastern Roman lines of development; the differences of which reach into the 20th century.

Eventually these considerations led to the idea of the name Passage 23°E:

  • Primarily it means a practical and scientific journey, a crossing and an inspection of a cultural landscape. The passage starts with the collection of the material, the documentation of developments and continues in the scientific processing of the gathered material.

  • Simultaneously, Passage also refers to a specific space, in which these documents and ideas can be communicated. Passage also means the exchange and discourse about the described questions. For this matter a medium-term goal of the project is the design of a knowledge- and information platform

  • In addition, Passage 23 can also be understood as a journey through time, the crossing of a historical space, as the inspection of historical courses and relations, which can help to contextualize contemporary processes.

  • Last but not least the name Passage refers to the construction principle of the project, which is designed as a multinational or rather non-national project, as a joint intellectual journey of the participating institutions, their exchange and debate.


Since 2015 a series of books under the title FactCheck: Hellas has been published. The publication shall be continued under the expanded title FactCheck: Europe. Maybe the project Passage 23°E can follow this lead and by starting with a FactCheck: Theatre and Theatricality in Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe can lay grounds for the formulation of a history of the geo-cultural structures of Europe.