3 Questions: The Importance of Studying Theater in a German Language Class

Emily Goodling is a German lecturer in the Global Languages department at MIT. She teaches a course titled “Conflict, Contest, Controversy: A Literary Investigation of German Politics” (class number 21G.411). This course was created with the support of an MIT Global Languages Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning (CLTL) Innovation in Language Pedagogy grant during the summer of 2023. With the assistance of an Artists in the Classroom grant from the Council for the Arts at MIT, she organized virtual presentations for her students by Stas Zhyrkov, a Ukrainian theater maker in Germany, and Christoph Buchegger, a young artistic production manager at Berlin’s Schaubühne theater. In this interview, she shares the reasons behind designing the course and its impact.

Q: What is the significance of studying theater in a German language class?

A: Theater is an incredibly effective tool in second-language learning, and it has been of particular interest to our students. At MIT, we embrace the “communicative approach,” which emphasizes using language in real-life situations rather than memorizing grammar and vocabulary. Theater embodies communication and dialogue. In a live theater performance, or even while watching a recording, students can experience not only spoken conversations but also gestures, intonation, and the melodic aspects of the language in real-time. This immersive experience greatly helps language learners.

Theater also has a deeply intercultural nature. In recent years, several mainstream state-funded theaters in Germany have transcended borders to bring new voices to the stage, expanding the perception of German theater and the country itself. This cultural richness resonates with our diverse and international student body. These works also carry a sense of urgency and draw on Germany’s tradition of political theater, which has served as a means of nation-building or critiquing the nation. The plays raise profound questions about German identity, history, and interpretation. Presenting these questions through live performances with real people intensifies the learning experience.

Q: During your research in Germany, what did you discover?

A: I visited Berlin to explore Germany’s political and artistic response to the war in Ukraine. I encountered various forms of expression, including street art, posters, talks, films, and museum installations. However, one theater production stood out to me: “Sich waffnend gegen eine See von Plagen” by Ukrainian director Stas Zhyrkov at the Schaubühne theater. The play’s title, in English, is derived from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” The Schaubühne theater graciously provided me with a filmed version of the production and its text. I engaged the services of a Ukrainian translator to convert the Ukrainian sections of the play into English. Naturally, my students read the German sections in German. I told them, “You have a unique piece of art in your hands that no other students are examining right now. It’s exclusively for you.” It felt like a privilege to analyze the production together.

I arranged for Stas Zhyrkov to give a virtual presentation to my class. He introduced himself and the project before engaging in an open conversation with the students. Despite the weightiness of the topic, Stas was incredibly articulate, candid, and generous. He shared personal, political, artistic, and professional experiences affected by the ongoing war in Ukraine. He spoke about the loss of his theater ensemble members in Kiev and the tough choices artists had to make when the war began: “Should I join the frontlines or continue creating art outside Ukraine?” Stas discussed his decision to leave and make theater about the situation from abroad. The complexity of this decision and the accompanying pain deeply impacted all of us. I also asked him how he envisions making theater in Ukraine once the war is over. He explained that he sees theater as a means of facilitating psychological healing and proposing a way forward for the country. However, he acknowledged that his decision to leave may hinder his hero status in his home country.

I also organized a virtual conversation with Christoph Buchegger, the artistic production manager at the Schaubühne theater, who also has connections to Broadway and U.S. theater in general. We compared and contrasted the German and American theater scenes. In Germany, audiences typically seek complex, difficult, and thought-provoking pieces instead of pure comedy or entertainment. Even traditional state-funded institutions that have a long history aim to challenge the audience rather than please them. Unlike many U.S. institutions, these German theaters receive substantial external funding, which reduces pressure on ticket sales or audience appeal. In fact, directors sometimes actively aim to be aggressive towards the audience. This orientation sets German theater apart. During my seminar, we explored various forms of political art, including visual propaganda, poetry, and film, but theater consistently evoked the strongest reactions. Christoph’s insights shed light on this phenomenon.

Q: How did you assist your students in navigating the material?

A: This is an advanced German course. Students in the earlier levels primarily focus on building a foundation in grammar, vocabulary, and cultural discussions. In my class, we delve deeply into politico-artistic moments from the past century of German history, all while refining students’ communicative and grammatical skills. To facilitate their understanding of complex works, I provided scaffolding activities that equipped them with the necessary vocabulary and grammar as well as historical, political, and cultural context. During class, my main objective was to create an environment for informed, rigorous, and open-ended discussions. I was astounded by the students’ level of engagement and the quality of our dialogues. It was an honor to explore these materials with such open-minded and curious individuals. Each student brought unique backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives that broadened my own understanding.

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