Branch office Remscheid

Küppelstein 34
42857 Remscheid

Branch office Berlin

Greifswalder Straße 4
10405 Berlin

Marienburger Straße 3
10405 Berlin

Phone +49 (0) 30 – 48 48 60 - 0
Fax +49 (0) 30 – 48 48 60 - 70


Easy languageSign language

Expert paper

Theatre in German schools

Only for art’s sake, or in social responsibility for sustainable development?


Why theater needs to become a “normal” subject in schools and should not only include pure theatre education, but also has to take care of other important educational goals, such as inclusion, diversity, democracy and sustainability.

by Joachim Reiss

For more than 35 years, BVTS (National Association for Theatre in School), our umbrella-association in Germany, has fought for a sustainable and systemic implementation of theatre as an arts education subject of its own in schools – just like the fellow subjects of  “music education” and “fine arts education”, which were included in our school curricula a long time ago. Even if we learn from their example that being formally implemented doesn’t mean that every student benefits from this, as German schools lack thousands of trained music and arts teachers. But in a subject-based school system we need to become a “normal” subject; we need to be an integrated part of formal education with all the necessary resources, quality, accessible for every student – and including all the problems and challenges that school subjects face.

We, as BVTS, now face new challenges: not only do we need to fight for pure theatre education in the students’ own theatre projects, but also take care of other important educational goals, such as inclusion, diversity, democracy and sustainability, because no school subject - including cultural education - can ignore their meaning for the future of our world and the younger generations any longer, especially in times of climate change, wars and migration, big social differences and injustice, radical nationalistic and anti-democratic movements in a fast-changing world (globalisation, digitalisation, climate change, etc.). We have to address not only how drama/theatre as a school subject cannot only serve the special aims of arts and culture education, but also how it can be part of “education for sustainability”.

Before I go into the details of these challenges, I would like to offer some information about the current situation of theatre in education in Germany. Indeed, the situation is very different in each of our 16 states, because each of these states has the exclusive responsibility of its educational system, which really differs greatly from one state to the other. Our federal institutions/ministries don’t have any educational authority. Only one state, Hamburg, has drama/theatre as a fully implemented subject in every school level and form. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is only one state without any theatre at all in formal education: Sachsen. All the other states are somehow “in between” these extremes.

After a long period of conflicts/developments, most German states offer at least the subject of “theatre” as a full, respected option in the upper secondary classes (10th to 12th/13th grade) with the possibility of taking this subject as part of the last and highest-level school-leaving examinations (Abitur), which we appreciate very much indeed. In grades 10 to 13, upper secondary school students can choose one of the three subjects: “Music”, “Fine Arts” or “Theatre”. Whatever they choose becomes their compulsory subject and they may take their school-leaving examination (Abitur) in that subject.

In form 10 and/or 11, theatre lessons usually last two “hours” (i.e. 90 minutes) per week and in forms 12 and 13, three hours (or 135 min.). In theatre classes, it is quite normal to add two or three special so-called “project days” for longer rehearsals, as well as one or two weekends in special project stages, especially at the end, when the students prepare the public presentation of their performance very intensively. Theatre students have to sit as many examinations/tests or succeed in as many playing evaluations/tests as the students of other subjects, that is to say two tests per term, with one school year corresponding to two terms and most theatre projects lasting one school year, i.e. about nine months, from the start to the performance. Theatre classes usually have between 12 and 28 students, led by one fully-trained theatre teacher. Therefore, from the beginning to the end of theatre classes, it is always a challenge to work creatively and artistically under such conditions, but we are the proof that this is possible as, every year, theatre classes successfully present their productions/performances in regional and national school-theatre festivals.

Unfortunately, the situation is even more diverse and worse in primary and secondary education for 6- to 15-year-old students. Every child in Germany has to attend primary and lower secondary formal education. If drama/theatre were a curriculum subject at these school levels, it would really be a subject for everybody, not only for the “elite” in our upper secondary schools.

In primary and secondary education we have different situations from state to state and from school to school: theatre as a formal subject (only in a few states), theatre as a voluntary additional option, theatre as a short project or “method” in other subjects, etc. It is interesting that no model, no pilot project, no successful experiment was “strong” enough to help us implement drama/theatre as a regular subject in the curricula of all school systems. On the contrary: today we have more “models” than ever, in which very few schools are given the possibility of trying “drama” with/for some students only. What they are “trying” are methods, curricular elements and strategies, which are well-known and have been evaluated in many schools before, but nothing that is really new. As for the governments and ministries of education, they tend to answer our demands and proposals and fight for “theatre as a subject in the curriculum” no longer with a “Not now!”, but with a “Yes – let’s try in a few and special schools for one year or more……”, often assisted by big foundations, which live on funding experiments/models/pilots instead of structures.

In the context of this article, it seems important to understand that the German subject of “theatre/drama” is not part of pre-professional artist training. It is part of general education in an arts subject: we consider it to be an aesthetic education and experience belonging to the personal development of a modern human being, who wants to become a self-responsible citizen with all the abilities for creating his own life successfully in a given society and culture, and for lifelong learning to be able to play an active and creative role in the world with all the challenges mankind is facing. Of course, theatre education should enable students to join the theatre culture actively and be part of a critical, skilled and joyful audience. Therefore, it seems less important to train the students as actors or playwrights or performing arts scientists or other professions. This is the task of academic education, after school, in universities.

The core aims of our curriculum are:

  • To experience, try and learn the language of theatre / performing arts
  • To experience acting and try new roles with body / time / space / etc.
  • To learn different social skills and to cooperate successfully with others
  • To grow personally and individually (self-consciousness, etc.)
  • To study examples of theatre forms, styles, history and theory.

All these aims should be integrated in a theatre project, which leads from building a performers’ group to the public performance of a play. Our experience says that a good process, which brings a group step-by-step to their performance, cannot be successful without touching every aim listed above. If we work artistically, we will do the best for education – obviously, within the framework of schools, as already mentioned.

We learned from drama experts who came from the Anglo-Saxon drama community and the Netherlands; we were influenced by free theatres like the Bread and Puppet Theatre (USA), Yord Circus (Denmark), La Otra Orilla (Spain), the Shakespeare Company (UK) – and of course by practitioners such as, for instance, Boal, Grotowski and others; even Strasberg’s method is well known. German sources are educators and artists like Humboldt, Schiller, Brecht and the leaders of the 20th-century independent youth theatre movement. In the 1970s, an important step was taken to change our orientation away from the old-fashioned, conservative, big, state theatres and their professional staff, by looking forward to the fresh and creative free theatres. Even today, after the free theatres’ style has been integrated into the big state theatres, we look to young performers. Our most important rule sounds like: don’t try to copy professional theatre, but create performances with every new group from the bottom up and play the best theatre you and your students can!

Up to now, we had to tell our ministries of education that playing theatre is not only part of “arts education” (in Germany usually called “cultural education”) with the aim of giving every child access to the arts and culture, but that it is also good for the individual’s development/learning of many personal, creative and social skills, i.e. that it is helpful for a person’s economic/professional success and working ability in the modern world. And it was nice to hear in one of our WAAE Arts Education international summits that the OECD has also noticed us and confirmed that they include us in their educational concepts (WAAE: “World Alliance for Arts Education”, a network with ISME, InSEA, IDEA and WDA to address UNESCO). And in fact we have to confess that developing a theatre project with a group of students needs and brings many more aspects and learning effects than “just” artistic skills, especially if the project starts with building a cooperative group, finding topics, artistic forms and going through all the different steps up to a successful public performance.

In our arts education networks, arts universities, artist associations and ministries of culture/arts/science, theatre-pedagogic-colleagues etc., we always had to defend our concept of the arts in formal education, because many suspect that we misuse the arts and artistic techniques for educational aims instead of just making art without any side-effects, like different educational aims. We have the impression that they only cooperate and support us because they want to be more present in schools, have more school-classes in theatres, and acquire side jobs. However, in the now 30 years of cooperation and communication, things have changed a little and our educational aims are more widely accepted.

Our own reflection/reaction to this discussion had a similar effect: we fought successfully for curricula that put theatre projects (with all their creative stages up to performances) at the centre of theatre lessons, in the place of learning programmes about the history of theatre, theatre-science, theatre-forms etc. without producing theatre in a students’ group. And, of course, our teacher-training efforts (both academic and in the classroom) focus on techniques and processes of developing drama projects from the bottom with “warm-ups” up to “performances”. The same happens in our local, regional and national school-theatre festivals: we don’t focus at all on performance topics, but strictly on the artistic quality of the performance and on the working processes that made such performances a success.

Now new thoughts arise: Many developments in our societies and environment are opening up/destroying our tendency to concentrate solely on our own communities. In Germany, extreme right-wing, anti-democratic political parties/movements have become stronger in society and parliaments and the media, a shift in beliefs that has been accelerated by migration and problems of integration and other changes in culture/economy/digitalisation/globalisation. They harshly bring to light the fact that our society and political institutions did not face and solve many of the problems that emerged in the last 30 years.

Many people and associations feel targeted and in danger by these political developments. In Germany, a big step was made to build a national network/front, bringing together trade unions and civil-society-associations, political parties, churches and other actors against TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership proposed between the EU and the USA), which was really successful and fruitful. Another step was the cooperation of many political, civil and religious partners, including a wide range of institutions like the Federal Government and the National Arts Council and churches and others, so as to discuss and publish a position paper and social campaign for “cultural integration”, an answer to the challenges posed by diversity and migration. Many associations and individuals widened their views and “crossed” the borders of their own community.

In this context, BVTS and our umbrella associations decided to refer to and work on political topics, obviously without letting go of our focal point: arts education. Our national school-theatre festival in 2018 has the topic “Theater.Politik”, and the title of our annual national conference is “Performance – Politik”. Similar approaches are found among our umbrella associations: the national umbrella association for Arts Education (formal and non-formal), consisting of 60 national associations (for instance, “Association of Fine Arts Schools”, “Circus education”, “Dance-teachers association”, ASSITEJ, etc.) and the German Arts Council with over 250 members, such as the big national association for professional theatres, the German Literature Conference including our big book fairs, professional music associations and of course all Arts/Culture education associations. They all feel challenged by the social and political questions mentioned here.

One of these new movements is a first common group of our national arts council (Deutscher Kulturrat) in collaboration with BUND, our national association for the environment/nature/climate protection. BVTS is part of this cooperation, which is currently working on a basic guiding paper/declaration and is preparing a first conference in December. This is totally new (and not only for us), because we are not at all used to cooperate - or even communicate - with associations/ movements outside of the arts and the arts-education field.

BVTS will cooperate with BUND to find helpful collaborations between arts education and education for sustainability, which was already a topic in the WAAE-summit of 2016 in Hangzhou. We are looking for school-theatre groups working on sustainability topics, so as to build a sub-network and open communication and support of arts movements together with local/regional environment-related initiatives. So “closed communities” open themselves and arts education develops an understanding of its own aims/responsibility concerning the social, environmental and political development of our society and ensuring its democratic and social future.

IDEA brought a reference project to us: “Good living Amazon”, implemented in the town of Maraba in the northern Brazilian state of Para, is a great example of an arts education movement against the destruction of the rain forests, which is a relevant driver of climate change. Every theatre project in the world, as well as musical and fine arts projects, can become an external partner of this project, can refer to its methods and aims, and can support their concept of alternative energy by giving some money from the income generated by their admission tickets to ABRA, IDEA’s Brazilian member. Dan Baron Cohen, the former IDEA president, and Manouela Souza, the director of IDEA’s 2010 world congress in Belem, are at the head of this big art education project, which shows how wonderful and successful arts education can collaborate with political movements for sustainability. Additionally, in Brazil they have an important positive impact on the social life of youngsters in their communities, which are in danger of violence, floods, etc.

Finally, let me tell you about a new local initiative in my home town of Frankfurt am Main. For over 20 years, two educational projects existed without knowledge of each other: “Schultheater-Studio”, the regional centre of theatre-pedagogy and school-theatre, and “Sustainability-learning”, a publicly funded initiative, working in many Frankfurt schools with school gardens, energy-saving-projects, a solar energy festival, etc. Both teams met each other in the context of our emerging “sustainability learning” movements, presented by the German UNESCO Commission. They decided to develop collaboration in schools, in theatre classes, in sustainability projects and events, and maybe also in teacher training courses. They will try to build a local network as a model/pilot for the national cooperation between BVTS and BUND. One of the achievements will be that we will include the Frankfurt UNESCO Schools and revitalise the BVTS contact with the German UNESCO Commission, which is an urgent need after UNESCO World cancelled all its Arts Education programmes because of a lack of finances following the USA’s withdrawal from the organisation.

We hope that these developments and new cooperation agreements will strengthen the awareness of school theatre teachers that their work with children is not only artistic training and project work, but also their specific chance and task and possible influence for a “better world”, “good living” and sustainable development. And we hope that publicly showcasing the fruitful and effective combination of arts education and learning and working for sustainable development will give new impulses and power to our fight for theatre/drama as an important and fully implemented subject of formal education – for the sake of every child! And for our democratic society and good living in social responsibility and awareness of sustainability needs.


BKJ: Theatre in German schools
Remscheid und Berlin, .

Typo: 246
Portrait of Rolf WitteRolf Witte

Head of international department

Phone number:
+49 2191 - 934 82 58
E-mail address:

What is cultural education? Learn the basics


Funded by

Zur Internetseite des Bundesministeriums für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend

The German Federation for Arts Education and Cultural Learning (BKJ) is the umbrella organisation for cultural education in Germany.