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Save the English Theatre?

The 22-year-old theatre's city funding will be cut from mid-2013, spurring public outcry... but many people won't be surprised if its doors close forever. Our stage editor weighs in on what this means for the future of the tiny theatre.

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Actors at the ETB’s August LAB reading of Neighbors

The English Theatre Berlin will no longer receive city funding after mid-2013, spurring public outcry and a grassroots petition. But others say they won’t be surprised if the theatre has to close its doors. Can the 22-year-old institution find new support – and continue to be relevant in Berlin’s ever-changing cultural climate?

There’s a full house for the English Theatre Berlin’s 2012/13 season opener. The black-box stage has been divided into three areas of focus, marked by minimal, carefully planned pieces of scenery. The audience takes their seats – some relegated to the stairs – but just as the lights are about to go down, artistic director Günther Grosser appears with some jarring news: the theatre’s funding has been cut.

The first performance of This is How It Goes continued without a hitch, but an air of uncertainty now hangs over the ETB. Though the theatre’s founders say it has a 90 percent sell-out rate, the Berlin Senate has decided to cut the Kreuzberg institution out of their Basisförderung programme, which has supplied the ETB with up to €110,000 per year since 1995. The theatre will continue to receive support from the city through the 2012/13 season, but without a replacement source of funding, they plan to close next year. While this is a shocking setback, it is also an opportunity for the theatre to consider its future and re-orient itself in Berlin’s cultural landscape.

Originally founded as the Freunde der Italienischen Oper in 1990, the ETB has been run as an English-language-only theatre since 1993, switching the name to “Friends of the Italian Opera” before adopting their current moniker in 2006. Grosser and managing director Bernd Hoffmeister developed the theatre as non-native speakers from non-theatre backgrounds, positioning themselves as the bastion of the “well-made play” from the Anglo-American theatrical tradition – a rather conservative posture in Berlin’s avant-everything environment.

And in this recession, their funding prospects don’t look bright. To put this in larger context, 90 percent of Berlin’s performing arts budget goes to the operas, orchestras, ballets and state-run theatres, leaving the Freie Szene independent groups with relatively little money. Although Basisförderung supports over 30 groups with nearly €3 million, that’s still less than half of the amount needed to cover the €7.8 million requested by all 69 applicants. And the ETB is no longer eligible in the eyes of the programme’s jury – only one member of which came to a production last year, according to Grosser.

The public reaction to the decision has been overwhelmingly in support of the theatre. The ETB’s online petition has gathered nearly 1300 signatures, many with commentary underlining the educational and symbolic importance of an English-only theatre in Berlin. “They have given continual opportunity for resident performers to work and develop,” wrote Berlin-based Australian performer and ETB actress Kim Eustice. “That such a valuable and established undertaking should not be sponsored is quite scandalous.”

This reaction wasn’t exactly universal. In a letter sent to the Senate, a young British director wrote: “I do not support the English Theatre’s campaign for future funding because of a genuine feeling that they not only produce pedestrian and poor-quality work, but also that they seek to exploit artists, and have no interest in innovative or ambitious theatre.” She cited disorganisation and shady finances during her production of My Romantic History last fall. “There was no contingency at all, and a lot of hidden costs were put into our budget at the last minute.”

Each individual’s experience will vary, and every house is bound to have a flop once in a while. The jury cited two problems, however, in terms of eligibility for Basisförderung: a lack of “artistic quality and its development”. While fellow independent theatres Sophiensaele and HAU host ambitious, groundbreaking works, ETB produces plays from Tennesse Williams and Alan Ayckborn – as well as the occasional contemporary piece written in this realist tradition – with various outcomes.

And while artistic quality is a matter of taste, part of the ETB’s problem is a “lack of dramaturgy,” Grosser himself admits. According to him, the house’s funds simply don’t cover the costs of hiring professionals to coordinate programming and oversee the development of each work. On the other hand, their Basisförderung money could have theoretically been supplemented from other sources. As the director of My Romantic History wrote, “Günther and Bernd made no effort to secure third-party funding for a production which was planned since February to take place in August.”

For 2013, Grosser plans to switch the ETB’s theme to foreigners in modern-day Berlin. Multiple events will focus on expats in an attempt to attract collaborators and renew the ETB as an artistic home for English-speaking artists. American-born Daniel Brunet is part of this turnaround, returning to share curation duties with Tom Strauss for the LAB staged reading series that he founded in 2003. He also has plans to stage migration-themed pieces in 2013 that will be eligible for project-based Hauptstadtkulturfonds.

But city funding for individual productions won’t support the house’s staff or pay the rent for the F40 space they split with Theater Thikwa. Given that further support from the Berlin Senate is fairly unlikely, one option for the ETB would be to appeal to other types of public funding, including the Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin for its education-oriented programmes such as TUSCH (Theatre and Schools).

The ETB’s slightly older counterpart in Frankfurt uses a more commercial model, and appealing to the private sector is one of the many avenues that the theatre is exploring. “I just don’t think that Mercedes would come up to us right now and say ‘Hey guys, we’ll give you a couple hundred thousand euros.’ Grosser chuckled. “But we will certainly try.” After all, the ETB is a “valuable cultural brand,” as PR representative Matthias Dietzel noted. But given the current economic and political climate, its future is far from certain.