Kay Voges has been director of the Wiener Volkstheater since 2020. The pandemic is overshadowing the new beginning and the stage is suffering from a dwindling audience. In an interview with the “Wiener Zeitung”, the director analyzes the precarious situation and explains why he voluntarily extended the forced break until January 7th.
After “Ach, Sisi”, a royal-rock song recital about the Habsburg icon, the next premiere will take place on Saturday, January 15th at the Volkstheater: Claudia Bauer stages “humanstää”, an “abolition of genres” after Ernst Jandl .
“Wiener Zeitung”:Since you began your tenure, the number of subscribers has fallen from 2,500 to 250, and utilization has fallen to 45.5 percent. What went wrong?
Kay Voges: The main reason is of course Corona. The measures taken around the pandemic are still preventing many visitors from going to the theatre. It will probably be a while before we get back to pre-pandemic levels. A lot of people are just not used to going to the theater anymore, and if they do, they go to more familiar places, they play it safe. The new has a particularly difficult time under these conditions. The Volkstheater was closed in January 2020, initially for renovation, then the lockdown came. During this long period of forced break, we lost most of our subscribers. This is important: Subscriptions were not canceled because subscribers were disappointed with our program, but because we were closed for so long. So we’re starting from scratch once again in this beautiful home. However, our next premieres are almost sold out, which gives me hope that people in this city are curious about our theater.
Since the start of the season, you have been able to put on eleven premieres, 185 events, ten concerts and a mini festival in six Volkstheater venues, and hardly anything has been well received by the audience. Are you lost?
No not at all. You can’t offer enough to a theater-loving city like Vienna. At the beginning of the season, however, there was an unprecedented abundance of premieres, and all stages showed their performances, which were postponed by the pandemic, practically at the same time. The Volkstheater did not initially receive the attention it deserved. Week after week we could see some growth until the next lockdown slowed us down again in late autumn…
… which you voluntarily extended, all stages have been open again since December 12th, only the Volkstheater has only been playing since January 7th. That drew a lot of criticism. Especially if you take theater seriously as an institution, shouldn’t you act as soon as possible?
Absolutely. I can assure you that I do everything for the good of the Volkstheater. If we unlock from one day to the next, we won’t have any subscribers who are already waiting for us, so nobody will come at first. In order to address our audience again, we need a longer lead time, which is why we decided at the end of November, for artistic and economic reasons, but also out of a duty of care towards our employees, not to open until January 7th. But now we are back and doing our best.
You have renewed the ensemble from the ground up, working with outstanding forces that hardly anyone in this country knows. Are you considering a course correction?
No, I’m happy with the ensemble as it is. We just need a little more time to conquer the hearts of the Viennese. It was clear to us from the start that the new system would require more strength and patience, but the press made a lot of fuss about the capacity utilization. We were immediately identified as a problem case. That annoys me.
The Volkstheater was not called that for fun and frolics. The bad numbers are a fact, the house is taxpayer funded, so there is a public interest in the results.
No question, but we are in the middle of a pandemic right now. The same standards as in the pre-pandemic times cannot be used. This is not done in any area of public life – neither in education nor in health care. It is recognized everywhere that work is carried out under extreme conditions. This should also apply to culture. At 45 percent occupancy, we are currently only about 20 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Unfortunately, many stages are currently registering a loss in audiences of this magnitude.
Are you trying to sugarcoat the bad result?
No, but the alarmism doesn’t get you anywhere either. Volkstheater has been badmouthed for decades. That must have an end. Despite the long closure, we have done an incredible amount in this absolutely exceptional situation and created great theater evenings. We enrich Viennese cultural life, we do contemporary theater with a first-class ensemble.