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Making difference normal

As Berlin theatres strive for diversity, disability remains one of the last barriers – but maybe not for long. See how the scene is taking steps, starting with "Idole muss man feiern wie sie fallen" at RambaZamba Theater.

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Photo by Sarien Visser

As Berlin theatres strive for diversity, disability remains one of the last barriers – but maybe not for long.

“We apologise,” said Lisa Scheibner at the start of “Meeting Place”, a day-long conference on the arts and disability at Podewil in October. The chosen venue, she conceded, was “unfortunately not entirely accessible”, but had taken measures to compensate for it. It was a good metaphor for Berlin’s culture sector itself: increasingly aware of its lack of accessibility, but taking steps towards improvement.

Scheibner is part of the Berlin Project Bureau for the Development of Diversity, born in 2016 and funded by the Berlin Senate. Its aim is to improve the diversity of artists and audiences at cultural institutions. While progress on ethnic inclusiveness has earned theatres like the Maxim Gorki Theater and Ballhaus Naunynstraße widespread attention and praise, it has proven harder, as Australian performer Sarah Houbolt put it at “Meeting Place,” for disabled people to “break that label of ‘community participant’ in order to become a professional artist”.

There are a few exceptions. At the Sophiensaele’s Tanztage festival in January, two offerings feature disabled performers. Choreographer Jérôme Bel has become known for diverse casting that includes disabled people in works such as his 2001 crowd-pleaser The Show Must Go On, revived this month at the Volksbühne. The Komische Oper has improved audience access by offering a backstage tour for people with visual impairments.

Berlin also has two theatres devoted to showcasing theatre makers with disabilities: Theater Thikwa and RambaZamba Theater, both of which were founded in 1990 and offer “integrated” productions with disabled and non-disabled performers. Thikwa (Hebrew for ‘hope’), which shares its Kreuzberg venue with the English Theatre, emphasises dance and new works, like this month’s Sieben, a choreographed “amoral song play” about the performers’ own experience with the seven deadly sins. RambaZamba was founded by Gisela Höhne, an actor and director, with her partner at the time, director Klaus Erforth, after the two had a son with Down syndrome. Their repertoire of canonical dramas and literary adaptations received a shake-up this past summer, when the pair’s other son, Jacob, took over as artistic director.

Boosting the number of premieres per season from two to six, he’s made the aesthetic, as he puts it, “louder and more radical”. The season opener, Schiller’s The Robbers (photo), delivered just that with nudity, bodily fluids and (simulated) sex. We’ll see if this month’s premiere, a piece about role models by Kathrin Herm called Idole muss mann feiern wie sie fallen, proves as divisive among critics and audience members.

Höhne wants his audience to be as diverse as his casts, and to that end he’s continuing RambaZamba’s relationship with the Berliner Ensemble, where they perform one guest performance each season. He remembers the postplay discussion for one of the performances at the Ensemble, which listed the production without any mention of disabilities: “Thank you,” Höhne remembers audience members as saying, “for not writing that this is a theatre for the disabled, because otherwise we wouldn’t have seen these great people.”

Sieben… aber einmal auch der helle Schein. Ein unmoralisches Songplay Dec 6-9, 13-16, 20:00 Theater Thikwa, in German

Idole muss man feiern wie sie fallen Dec 1, 2, 4, 5, 15, 16, 19:30 RambaZamba Theater, in German

The Show Must Go On Dec 20, 22, 30, 19:30, 31, 18:00 Volksbühne, in English

Tour for the Blind and Seeing-Impaired Dec 9, 13:00 Komische Oper