The MAXIM Theatre was founded in 2006 as a space for communication between residents and immigrants, between actors and amateur actors, and between spectators and performers. The theatre brings together about 150 persons from more than 30 nations, who jointly act and play music on several evenings per week. This initiative offers low-threshold access to the dramatic arts for people who seldom go to the theatre. Therefore, it is located in district 4, where a high percentage of residents are underprivileged and not very familiar with the dramatic arts (MAXIM Theatre, 2013). According to the executive director and co-founder Claudia Flütsch: “The main goal is to create something new by the means of art – to achieve a kind of trans-culturality.” Another important objective is the fostering of a stronger social cohesion of society – the theatre is designed to have positive social and societal effects. Participants and spectators shall overcome barriers of culture, language and education, and the social development of the individual and the society shall be promoted. The target audience includes people from every nation and culture. The theatre is thereby specifically looking for certain population groups, since there are structural and individual obstacles that keep several persons and groups from gaining easy access to the dramatic arts. The inspiration for this initiative came from England, where this kind of social, multicultural theatre has existed for quite some time now.
The MAXIM Theatre provides five different activities or services. First, the core project consists of two or three constant drama groups that rehearse and perform a play once or twice a year. Second, there is an action group developing scenes and directly approaching people – not in the theatre, but in the streets. As a third supply, the theatre provides a protected environment for groups and supports them for readings, presentations or performances. Fourth, the institution organises German language courses with focus on the dramatic arts (‘learning German by acting’), since several actors were afraid to be on a stage without sufficient knowledge of the German language. And as a fifth activity, the theatre acts as a platform where people can work on their art projects, meet potential participants, exchange ideas and get support in terms of production and dramaturgy.
The MAXIM Theatre is organised as a support association with two permanent employees: the executive director Claudia Flütsch and a co-worker who are both employed on a part-time basis. The support association manages the engagement of the stage directors, of the German teachers and the technicians. Thereby, the institution benefits strongly from a lot of voluntary work. Nevertheless, the financing of the project is not guaranteed on a sustainable basis. For the foundation of the initiative in 2006, the association received an initial grant by the Social Services Department of the City of Zurich and a private foundation. In 2011, the MAXIM Theatre obtained another substantial financial contribution by the Federal Commission for Migration. Besides these sporadic grants, the Social Services Department of the City of Zurich makes a rather small annual contribution of CHF 13,000 (approx. € 10,700) for the community work. Furthermore, the Unit for the Promotion of Integration and the Office for Culture of the City of Zurich occasionally support specific smaller projects. And the German language courses are partly financed by the city and partly by the participants. However, the executive director Claudia Flütsch is not satisfied with the current funding situation:
“Since it is apparently not possible to associate the MAXIM Theatre to a specific unit of the city administration – be it culture, socio-culture or integration – we could not find a coherent funding solution with the city so far.”
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
According to the executive director, diversity is particularly the focal point in the creative work. The theatre pursues the objective that the actors bring their own manner of expression to the stage. However, it is not about presenting the different cultures or performing specific folk dances, but creating a trans-cultural experience.
Regarding the actors and the spectators, the initiative addresses various forms of diversity: it unites Swiss and foreign residents, younger and older persons, as well as underprivileged and well-off people. The executive director Claudia Flütsch emphasises:
“The collaboration with people from all over the world constitutes an incredible enrichment and helps reduce prejudices and barriers. It is for instance an essential part of the concept of the MAXIM Theatre that the audience sheds fears and prejudices and develops a greater understanding of foreign cultures.”
A relatively new phenomenon regarding the actors is the quite high participation rate of German and Swiss people. This development is partly due to the so-called ‘new immigration’ of highly qualified European immigrants – mainly from Germany, which was triggered by the ‘Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons’ between the European Union and Switzerland in 2002 (Plüss and Schenkel, 2014).
Main factors influencing success or failure
The MAXIM Theatre is generally a very successful project: it reaches diverse population groups and achieved to inspire people who did never find access to the dramatic arts so far. The success achieved is affirmed by regular and positive media coverage. Thereby, the main factor behind the success is the high commitment and voluntary engagement of everyone working at the theatre. Certainly, the initial grants and the different financial contributions by the public administration were crucial for the viability of the initiative as well. Compared to smaller, self-sustained projects, the public funds clearly add to the impact, scale and success of the initiative.
During the years, the project was also confronted with certain challenges it could not master so far. One enduring issue is the locality of the theatre: the association was not able to find an appropriate, permanent location for the MAXIM Theatre. The project is organised in different temporary locations that do not represent a satisfying solution. Another challenge for the initiative is the volatile and rather small financial contribution by the city administration. Although several officials perceive the initiative as valuable and worth supporting, a lasting and consistent funding by a single unit of the administration fails because of the missing and apparently impracticable attribution to a specific administrative unit. For instance, the artistic quality of the plays does not meet the expectations of the Theatre Commission in order to receive financial support by the Office for Culture of the city of Zurich. Likewise, the project as a whole does not completely fit the conditions and criteria for public subsidies in the area of integration policy or socio-culture and community work.
The MAXIM Theatre is a low-threshold initiative and innovative in giving underprivileged people access to the dramatic arts and fostering the social cohesion in the city by bringing together persons from different cultures and age groups. Over the years, it developed into a comparatively large project – it now has a high presence and provides numerous services and activities. It may be regarded as an evident success story with good prospects for the future, although some uncertainties remain – such as the constant search for an appropriate location and the fluctuating financial situation.
Website: MAXIM Theatre
Images: MAXIM Theatre Anna Janson (top) and MAXIM Theatre Heidi Arens (above)