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The little theatre that could

English Theatre Berlin’s ability to weather questionable productions, a shifting stream of guest artists and competition from more powerful venues marks it out as a particularly Berlin type: a survivor.

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Photos courtesy of English Theatre Berlin

In a city with an ever-shifting English-speaking (be it as a first, second or third language) population, English Theatre Berlin has managed to stick around for an impressive 20 seasons, chugging along through the tumultuous two decades since the fall of the Wall.

Its mission is simple – to produce English-language plays in Berlin, a city naturally dominated by German state-run theaters – but ETB’s ability to weather some questionable productions, a shifting stream of guest artists, and competition from more powerful venues marks it out as a peculiarly Berlin type: a survivor.

The theater now known as ETB was born from two German, and perhaps unlikely, parents: Günther Grosser, a director and actor active in small West Berlin theater groups, and Berndt Hoffmeister, an antique furniture restorer working on an initiative to recycle stage scenery. Taking their moniker from the Mafia’s cover name in the film Some Like It Hot, the two founded the pocket-sized, multilingual Freunde der Italienischen Oper in the freshly reborn Berlin of 1990.

The first premiere was Noodle Highway, a “Spaghetti Mid-Western” written by Joy Cutler and produced by Grosser’s Out To Lunch theater group. But even then, as Grosser recalls, English was the language “in the air”: in 1993, the name changed to “Friends of the Italian Opera” and the focus to English language productions. Tucked away in a back courtyard at Fidicinstr. 40, the 60-seat theater served as an incubator for local expat authors and theater artists (including the now-notorious Denglish star Gayle Tufts).

ETB became a Geheimtipp and a magnet for luminaries in the international English theater world: it pulled its audiences in by word of mouth and attracted companies that could normally demand a much higher fee – like KAOS Theatre and Theatre O – but were keen to perform in Germany’s suddenly hip Hauptstadt. In 1995, ETB secured funding from the city and began to expand into education, taking productions and workshops for children into local schools. By 2006, it had become clear the theater needed a larger home and, in collaboration with Theater Thikwa, a German-language theater that employs handicapped actors, it renovated two larger theater spaces at the same address. With this new home came the clearer, if slightly less exotic, name: English Theatre Berlin. At this point, the theater went through a sort of awkward adolescence: difficulties with the construction process limited audience size and production capacities, and larger venues like the Hebbel am Ufer theaters and the Sophiensaele became rivals by also hosting touring shows in English.

But now, as ETB enters its twenties, it is reasserting its position in the Berlin theater landscape. The theater’s goal is, according to Grosser, to be open to any English piece with potential. It follows that the quality of ETB’s output has varied widely – from groundbreaking to laughable – but that’s its charm: if you’re open to everything, then some productions are going to be successes (Flhip Flhop and Talking Heads), some won’t, and some will be both depending on who you ask. Traditional stagings of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels were lauded by some audiences, but left others cold. At the same time, more experimental productions like Lanford Wilson’s The Moonshot Tape and InOktober’s rendition of Eugene O’Neill’s Bloodwater took novel approaches, but were criticised for their obscure staging and odd casting.

For much of the past decade, ETB appeared to be a closed circle, bringing in pre-cast productions by established theater companies and leaving little room for Berlin newcomers. But while its cooperation with international groups like Atlanta’s Seven Stages Theatre will continue – especially as arts funding in English-speaking countries shrinks in the wake of the economic crisis – Berlin-based English-speaking theater makers are being made to feel more welcome at ETB, especially on the come-one-come-all, over-300 person-strong volunteers’ mailing list. Berlin’s English-language theater community is in desperate need of more cooperation, interchange and conversation: ETB could very well take center stage again. The finalists from the first installment of its annual 10-minute, Berlin-related play competition will be shown later this month (see our interview on page 30).

The theater is also aiming to secure new sources of funding and a broader audience base; a “Science and Theatre” series – a collaborative effort with the Freie Universität’s Prof. Dr. Regine Hengge – is part of this push. A “prelude” to this opens ETB’s twentieth season: the Berlin debut of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2002 play A Number, in a production directed by Grosser. It’s a taught, chilling two-man work about a desperate father who seeks to duplicate his lost son. Taking on the issue of cloning by staging Churchill´s work, the ETB is addressing themes usually ignored in German language theater, giving itself new life as it heads into its twentieth year.