To the uninitiated, the Berlin theatre world can be overwhelming.
Spring is when the Berlin theatre scene really comes to life, with two of the city’s biggest festivals
There are hundreds of options every week in dozens of languages with various levels of accessibility, and the variety of stagings truly keeps you on your toes. I recently went to what was advertised as a robot dance show about love and loneliness that turned out to be a speed-dating evening. Another experimental piece I saw had an entirely knitted set, including wigs made of yarn that obscured all the performers’ faces. And I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been splashed with water while sitting in the audience when nothing about the show’s description would have suggested an aquatic element.
But once you’ve been to most of the big state theatres a couple of times – and, for good measure, to a few things off the beaten path as well – you’ll start to get to grips with the Berlin theatre scene. You’ll start to recognise the same performers, and maybe even audience members. (I’m sure I’ve had the same suit-wearing octogenarian next to me in three different theatres over the last few months; he tends to fall asleep in the first few minutes and nothing, except his own snoring, can wake him up.) But if you’re ever going to see anything on stage, spring is when the Berlin theatre scene really comes to life, with two of the city’s biggest festivals.
The Festival International New Drama (FIND) kicks off in April, featuring 13 days of German premieres of productions from eight different countries. This year’s Artist in Focus is venerable US director Elizabeth LeCompte along with the experimental theatre troupe that she co-founded, The Wooster Group.
The Manhattan-based collective is a collaborative theatre project that helped launch the careers of, among others, Willem Dafoe and Frances McDormand over the course of the last 50 years. This is an exciting chance to see some of North America’s most original theatre-makers in action with the group presenting two plays: A PINK CHAIR (In Place of a Fake Antique) based on the work of late Polish writer Tadeusz Kantor, and NAYATT SCHOOL REDUX (Since I Can Remember), which looks at The Wooster Group’s own history.
Ophelia’s Got Talent at the Volksbühne remains the hottest ticket in town months after its premiere
Other FIND highlights include an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story, Dear Life, by a feminist Taiwanese theatre collective; Iranian Parnia Shams’ (ist) play about a teacher in Tehran; and finally Swiss-French writer and actor Cédric Djedje’s Vielleicht, a story of discovering the uncomfortable colonial history behind Berlin’s African Quarter, which he learned about when doing a residency in Wedding.
Then in May comes the jewel in the crown of the German-speaking theatre world – Theatertreffen. A jury chooses the 10 most remarkable German-language plays from the previous year, and invites them to Berlin.
This is an exciting chance to see some of North America’s most original theatre-makers in action
This year, two productions that originally premiered at Berlin theatres have been included: choreographer Florentina Holzinger’s extraordinary, shocking and technically impressive dance piece about feminism and water, Ophelia’s Got Talent at the Volksbühne, which remains the hottest ticket in town months after its premiere, and Deutsches Theater’s high-concept Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own), a musical based on nineteenth-century philosopher Max Stirn’s controversial treatise on personal autonomy. The series isn’t as dry as it might sound – there’s music from experimental musician PC Nackt, a 3D animated beehive and a robot funeral – but it’s fair to say that both of these performances reward an audience member who is willing to concentrate.
The other eight performances are a good chance to see what German theatre outside of the Hauptstadt has to offer, although there are a few too many been-done Shakespeare or Vergangenheitsbewältigung pieces for my taste. One exception is Das Vermächtnis (The Inheritance), originally performed in Munich’s Residenztheater as a German adaptation of a play by Matthew Lopez hailed as a twenty-first century response to Tony’s Kushner’s queer saga Angels in America.
Remember, Berlin theatre tends to wind down in late June for the summer, so take the chance now to get your bum in a seat. It doesn’t ultimately matter if you break into the theatre milieu – just give everything a go, and never say no to free Sekt.
- Festival International New Drama April 19-30, Schaubühne, in various languages
- Theatertreffen May 12-28, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Volksbühne, Deutsches Theater and other venues, all performances in German with English surtitles