This theater director gets at the big issues of the day – with young actors

Martina Droste’s theater project in Frankfurt features both local youths and young refugees. The wide-ranging themes they present have encouraged tens of thousands of theatergoers to think about the issues in new ways.

Martina Droste works with local youths and young refugees at the Frankfurt Theater.

The countdown has begun. Only minutes remain before the houselights will dim. Martina Droste guides her young actors at the Frankfurt Theater.

“Put your hand on your head.... Feel your body,” she says. Heads bend forward. Eyes close. After the mindfulness exercise, the 15 youths are ready to perform “Frankfurt Babel,” their version of the biblical story that deals with language and people understanding each other.

The actors in Ms. Droste’s ensemble come from five continents. Half of the youths are refugees who fled war-racked homelands and have come together in Frankfurt, a city of glass towers, international business, and people from more than 100 nations. The other half are locals. All were drawn from a pool of 150 applicants, who met for the first time 10 weeks earlier. For six hours a day, often five days a week, they have worked under Droste’s direction to create “Frankfurt Babel.”

“We will build a tower as high as the sky.” Using that adaptation of one of the Bible passages as a backdrop, the youths let out thoughts – by speaking in their own languages, as well as by drawing with chalk on the floor and moving around. Gradually, the cacophony of all talking at once gives way to a consensus: “We want to explore what type of richness comes out of merging our languages and experiences.” That sentence is repeated and translated into most of the actors’ 22 native languages, including Persian, Pashto, Italian, and Greek – becoming the rhythmic mantra of the performance.

“Frankfurt Babel” was performed 25 times here on one of Europe’s most respected stages. It’s part of Droste’s youth theater project, which has given hundreds of young Frankfurters a platform to consider and debate some of society’s most explosive issues, from refugees to the meaning of Europe. The youths take an active role in shaping the works, which are part theater, part performance art.

In a country that believes the performing arts can nurture the growth of its residents, Droste’s youth theater project aims to do just that. It has encouraged tens of thousands of theatergoers to think about big issues in new ways, and it’s changed the lives of many of the young actors – who are part of the generation that will be helping to shape Europe for decades to come.

Theater is about “getting together, coming into a discussion on an eye-to-eye level, about learning how to use the skills of every individual to develop something new together,” Droste says. “My hope is that, with the contribution of the young people’s ideas and concerns, we can build a future that we want to live in.”

In the early part of her career, Droste worked with troubled youths attending a public school near her native Bochum, which is in an industrial, struggling corner of Germany. She knew that “when kids are disruptive, there’s always a reason.” Instead of stigmatizing them or trying to “change them,” she experimented with role-playing games, among other things. “I loved to be creative,” she says.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner, she believes in the power of movement to help release thoughts and emotions. Her work with the youths was a bit like improvisational theater without an audience. She saw the toughest of kids open up.

She made theater the core of her work with young people. After being trained as a theater educator, she set up a theater program at a youth center in Mitten, Germany, and she saw it boost young people’s “self-confidence and make them more socially responsible citizens.”

In 1996, she helped the main public theater in Dortmund, Germany, develop opportunities and projects for young people. Seven years ago, when people at the Frankfurt Theater sought to boost such opportunities for the young people living here, it was Droste they called.

No script to learn by heart

In her productions, Droste doesn’t give her actors a plot to follow or a script to learn by heart. The plot develops gradually during the rehearsals. “We give them the place, the stage, our time, our energy, and our techniques to come together,” she says. “What the projects are about depends on what is developed in the group.”

Staged about 25 times each and seen by a wide audience, Droste’s productions are now a regular part of the Frankfurt Theater’s repertoire. Their themes are far-reaching. In “Anne,” which along with “Frankfurt Babel” earned recognition in national competition, young actors used the story of Anne Frank to deal with issues of rebellion and xenophobia. In “All Inclusive,” youths with disabilities and youths without disabilities interacted. In “United in Peace and Freedom,” local teens and young refugees explored what type of Europe they want to live in.

Droste “is doing magnificent work of integration and collaboration with the teenagers,” says Marilina Sánchez García, a school principal from Oria, Spain, who saw “Frankfurt Babel” with other educators from Europe’s four corners while they were in Frankfurt to work on an initiative to bring school-age children together. “She shows us the strength and power that we can have all together. It doesn’t matter where you are, or your language: Everybody can communicate.”

Droste’s greatest achievement, say community leaders in Frankfurt, is to make theater done by the young people of this diverse city an established force on its main public stage. “With her, the voices of young people gained respect and credibility,” says Andrea Pollmeier, cofounder of Faust Kultur, an online magazine based in Frankfurt.

Droste’s productions have also served as a counterweight to rising populist sentiments. While some politicians have described refugees, and Europe itself, as threats to national identities, Droste and her actors have called on society to try embracing change. “It’s important that the public views young people through the prism of their own voices,” Ms. Pollmeier says.

What is freedom?

Take the performance of “United in Peace and Freedom,” in which the young actors share answers to the question, What is freedom?

“Freedom is when I can have a religion but don’t have to do everything the religion says,” says Ahmed, a refugee from Syria whose last name is withheld for safety reasons. Rosina Totzer, a Frankfurt local, argues, “It doesn’t matter if you’re free or not.... You can’t be completely free, but you can feel free.” For high-schooler Lu Pahl, “freedom has to do with courage – to have the courage to use the freedom, because it can be scary at times.”

In the end, all the actors agreed, saying together: “We have decided to connect, and nothing will stop us.”

During a public discussion following the performance, Lu admitted that Europe had been a distant topic for her, but that “working with Martina was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Performing, she said, taught her “to think twice about every word I say and to think about what I think.”

Daniela Romeo is a public-school teacher, most of whose students don’t speak German and have little chance of going to university. But for many, participating in the theater workshops that Droste offers has been life-changing. “Martina Droste deals with questions that my pupils ask themselves,” she says. But it’s not just young people Droste reaches. “I know she sends theatergoers home with questions in their minds,” Ms. Romeo says. “That’s a victory.”

Jamshid Shahin is a student of Romeo’s and a “Frankfurt Babel” actor. When Droste approached him a year and a half ago, the Afghan teen felt a bit lost. He’d arrived in Frankfurt four months before, alone, by foot, becoming one of the estimated 3,000 unaccompanied refugee minors who landed in the metropolitan area in 2015.

“Martina said, ‘Think about it. I’m coming back in one week,’ ” Jamshid recalls. Two weeks later, he took the plunge, entering Droste’s rigorous casting process, and was selected. “With Martina, I learned how to get my feelings out,” he says.

“At first we were strangers to each other, but after two weeks we got really close,” Jamshid adds. “Girls, boys, Afghans, Germans – we had the feeling that we are a family.” By giving him a voice and a place on the stage in his new home, Droste helped Jamshid become one of Frankfurt’s own teens. Now, he is graduating and is weighing apprenticeship options.

“I always wanted a good future, and now it’s all come together,” he said recently in the hallway of his school. “It all started with ‘Babel.’ ”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to two groups with an arts component, an educational purpose, or both:

Supporting Kids in Peru helps disadvantaged children realize their right to an education. Take action: Be a creative arts leader for this program.

Nepal Youth Foundation assists girls who were rescued from the kamlari system of child slavery in becoming independent young women. Take action: Help rebuild classrooms in Nepal.

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