Erwin Piscator


Erwin Piscator (1893-1966) was a famous German stage director known for his expressionistic staging techniques and the theatre style of “epic theatre.” Piscator first trained as an actor at the Konig School of Dramatic Art. He later pursued acting and literature in 1913 at the University of Munich and frequently volunteered at the Hof Theatre, where he first began directing plays. In 1915, Piscator was drafted into the German Army, which inspired a deep hatred of militarism and war and later became a reoccuring theme in his plays. Piscator was known as a bold innovator, particularly in staging: he incorporated technology such as films, newsreels, flashing lights, sirens, and loudspeakers that aided in the optics and acoustics of his works. In 1934, he traveled to Russia in an attempt to avoid service in World War II and directed his only film entitled Vostaniye rybakov (The Revolt of the Fishermen). In 1936, he moved from Russia to France before immigrating to the United States in 1939.

As Piscator tried to escape the rise of Nazi Germany, New School President Alvin Johnson’s proposal of a University in Exile offering German scholars the opportunity to continue teaching caught his attention. Upon arrival in the United States, Johnson invited Piscator to establish a theatre workshop. Piscator accepted and ran the New School’s Dramatic Workshop from 1939-1951, where he taught classes on directing technique and musical plays. The workshop was a two-year professional training program with a focus on the American theatre scene and courses such as gymnastics, dramatic dancing, voice and phonetics, music appreciation, makeup, stage music and composition, history, and stage design alongside the fundamental courses in directing and acting. During the Dramatic Workshop’s first year, there were 120 students enrolled in the genres of playwriting, directing, and acting; in the following year, the number of enrolled students nearly doubled due to the program’s tremendous success.

The Dramatic Workshop included as many genres as possible, connecting theater to other arts. For example, in 1940, the workshop introduced the Opera Studio Program, which partnered with the conductor Erich Leinsdorf and the Metropolitan and San Francisco Opera companies, Georg Szell, the conductor of NBC and Detroit Symphony Orchestras, and stage directors Joseph Turnau, and Herbert Graf. The Opera Studio program introduced actors to the medium of voice, which was an important step in developing versatile performers.

Due to the era of anti-Communism in the 1950s, the New School was often heavily under fire for employing those associated with communism. Piscator was producing and directing plays that were written by controversial playwrights which contained messages of political action. As Piscator watched his many colleagues subpoenaed due to possible communist ties, he decided to leave the United States. In 1951, Piscator returned to Germany to become the director of the Volksbühne, a theatre in Berlin. He directed several more works during this period up until his death in 1966, including Rolf Hochhuth’s Deputy and Peter Weiss’s The Investigation.


“Erwin Piscator.” Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 26 Mar 2019. Accessed on 21 May 2019.

Friedlander, Judith. “A Light in Dark Times” pg 186.  Columbia University Press. 2019. Web 26 May 2019.

New School for Social Research (New York, N.Y. : 1919-1997). The New School For Social Research Bulletin No. 3 – November 4, 1940. November 4 1940. The New School Bulletin. New School Archives and Special Collections Digital Archive. Web. 21 May 2019.