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In Austria, Shaky Financing Leads to Downfall of Theater Fortress

Matthais Hartmann Burg
Matthias Hartmann, director of the Burg theatre, was fired in March this year.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    One of Austria’s most prestigious theaters is plagued by financial problems due to a lack of oversight.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Burg Theater in Vienna is the second-oldest theater of the spoken word in Europe.
    • Its Artistic Director, Michael Hartmann, was fired after it became apparent that the Burg had debts of over €8 million.
    • The debate rages on in theater circles in Germany and Austria as to how this financial shortfall came about and why nobody did anything about it.
  • Audio

    Audio

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A financial scandal at Europe’s biggest theater continues to rock the institution to its foundations.

On March 11, 2014, the German artistic director of the Vienna Burg (“fortress”) theater, Matthias Hartmann, was fired without notice, an event previously unheard of at the Austrian institution.

The Burg is one of the biggest and wealthiest theaters in the whole world and also plays a big role in the way Austria markets itself to the world.

But the theater is burdened with enormous debts. And worse: a closer look at the Burg’s finances shows that even internal and external audits failed to identify the disaster taking shape behind the scenes.

Mr. Hartmann said he could not have known the extent to which the Burg’s finances were being mismanaged. But he had been running the theater for five years. How could he not have known what was going on, and shouldn’t he take responsibility for the scandal?

 

Burg theatre
Austria’s fortress: the Burg theatre. On the day Mr. Hartmann was fired no performance (“Keine Vorstellung”) took place. Source: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

 

Mr. Hartmann is now suing the theater for firing him and lawyers in Vienna are considering whether his dismissal was lawful.

Looking back, in 2011, Mr. Hartmann called on Peter F. Raddatz, the financial director at Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus theater, to carry out an external audit of the Burg theater’s finances. Asked about Mr. Hartmann’s role in the problems today, Mr. Raddatz said, “He couldn’t have made sense of the shadow economy in place during his time there.”

When explaining why he had not spotted the gaps in the theater’s balance sheet, Mr. Raddatz said that the financial manager of the Burg theatre, Silvia Stantejsky, operated a “container system” which obscured some financial transactions. This system had been in place long before Mr. Hartmann reached the Burg theater.

“All we are interested in is breaking even.”

Georg Springer, Supervisory board member, Burg Theater

A report compiled by Georg Springer, a lawyer who heads the Burg Theater’s supervisory board, stated that Mr. Hartmann did not take his role as a supervisor and controller of the financial director Ms. Stantejsky seriously. These are weighty accusations against Mr. Hartmann.

In the Burg Theater, financial planning took place without actually knowing where the money would come from.

In June 2008, the Burg had a debt of €4.4 million. “All we are interested in is breaking even,” said Mr. Springer, when asked how the theater would get back into profit. On the question of how the supervisory board would help the theater to break even, he said he didn’t care. This was not the supervisory board’s problem but that of the financial directors, and they would need to sort it out.

The financial scandal at the Burg Theater seems to have arisen from a “leave it until the last minute” approach. Imaginary thinking as a way of taking care of things – a philosophy that every theater person knows won’t work. Three months would not be enough to fix such financial shortfalls. To do so, productions would need to be cancelled or significant numbers of people fired, two measures which would need more time.

Thomas Bernhard, one of Austria’s greatest authors, has written repeatedly about the Burg and his hatred for the theater was evident. One of the characters in his play Elizabeth II said, “the Germans bring a whiff of fresh air into the Burg theater before the boring emptiness sinks in again (…) this theater was and will always be antiquated and dusty.”

This time it was different – the Germans didn’t bring fresh air into Austria’s most prestigious institution. The German director of the Burg theater fell hard and pulled the whole fortress down with him.

 

This story first appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Sarah Mewes. To contact the author: peter.kuemmel@zeit.de

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