Brid Arnstein chats to Günther Grosser, founder and Creative Director of the English Theatre Berlin
In 1990 the English Theatre Berlin was founded under the name Friends of Italian Opera. Initially performing plays in many languages, from 1993 the theatre differentiated itself as Berlin’s only English-language theatre.
Emerging from a new cultural atmosphere in the light of expatriation, the theatre’s aim is to explore the creative tendencies of international theatre. Housed in an attractive courtyard on Fidincstraße, Kreuzberg, the English Theatre Berlin features three or four of its own productions each month.
Oddly enough, founder and Creative Director Günther Grosser is German…
Firstly – why an English theatre here in Berlin?
When we first started in 1990 the wall had just come down and Berlin was slowly becoming an international city. At that time I was already involved with an English company that already existed in West Berlin that Bernd Hoffmeister, who is now the Managing Director, had founded. He didn’t have an English theatre in mind, he just founded it as a theatre and we performed a couple of shows there that were really successful. There was a big audience and so we invited a handful of shows over the first few years from England and Ireland and realised that it was a good idea to turn the small venue into a real English language theatre without any German. The first few seasons we had a couple of German shows that went well and some others, and in 1992 we decided to focus solely on English language theatre.
How is the theatre run now, what is your make-up?
We have four legs in the theatre. We have the incoming touring companies where we invite a number of companies per season to do a show of between five and ten performances. We produce our own shows like ‘My Romantic History’ (currently showing at the English Theatre Berlin) and we co-produce fringe companies that work in English in Berlin. We give these companies the chance to develop new work in our studio. Then there is our outreach programme for schools; we have a very strong youth programme that works really well with English teachers. They come to see shows and book workshops
You mentioned the fall of the Berlin wall – how important do you think this was in changing creative impulses in the city?
Oh tremendously – a huge impact. I mean, naturally it was a huge change for the city in general but also since then so much international focus was on Berlin for a number of years after the wall had come down. Just because of that fact, just because the coming down of the wall first symbolised the victory of the East over the West (er, of the West over the East??) so Berlin was the symbol as well as the real thing – a new city that was created from two different segments – and that attracted a lot of young international artists, it still does. So over the 20 years since then, the coming down of the wall had a tremendous impact on the cultural side of Berlin
Do you feel that this gives the theatre some sort of symbolic meaning?
I don’t want to go that far, but it is certainly deeply grounded in that early movement of young people coming to Berlin and checking out the new spirit going on here. They then, of course, realised that it’s a good city and it’s cheap so you can live here and do your art or theatre or whatever. We profited from that from the first day on. Young people were coming in with lots of energy and ideas, wanting to do something. In another aspect, we reached out to other English language countries to bring in shows. In West Berlin there were already a number of English language shows here and there, but they didn’t draw a huge audience. But suddenly, lets say from 1992 or 1993 on, English language shows would really draw a big audience. So it made a huge difference.
Why do you think that is?
Just because of that international station. And, of course, us Germans all learn English at school. English has become what a German philosopher once called our “second first language”. So everybody has a certain grasp of English. A number of movie theatres that have been here for a long time show international movies even without subtitles. Germans don’t mind going to see Hollywood movies in their original form, and many also come to the theatre and take the chance to see difficult Shakespeare plays.
You describe the English Theatre Berlin almost as a hybridised meeting point of English and German cultures – as Creative Director, when you make decisions about what plays to produce at the theatre, do the themes explored in each play need to have some sort of universal appeal? Can they not express too directly the particulars of a German or English cultural identity – do you have to find something that is creatively independent?
Both actually, both sides. We’re trying to be as universal as possible for all the English speaking nations and the Germans that are represented here in town. ‘My Romantic History’ is a play that has this appeal. But then on the other hand we also try to focus on certain themes or certain social subjects. I’ll give you an example: the fact that the English language, so-called ‘expat’ scene is quite large in Berlin creates a new culture in the city and brings in a certain atmosphere to certain neighbourhoods, like here or the other side of Kreuzberg, or Friedrichshain or Prenzlauer Berg.
What does that mean for those neighbourhoods? What does it mean for all of Berlin or for those expatriates? For the next two seasons we’re going to focus on the transitory aspect of New Berlin. Maybe this is people like yourself coming to Berlin, being here for a while then going back, but leaving something behind and changing the culture just by being here or using Ryan Air or Easy Jet, or living in a hostel or renting somewhere for just five months instead of renting it for good– all of those little tiny things make a difference, make a difference within neighbourhoods and within the New Berlin. So that’s an example of where we are focusing on certain themes, while a play like ‘My Romantic History’ we do from time to time, plays that have a more universal look at everything.
In September you are going to direct Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’. Bennett is something of a British national treasure, which made me consider the make up of your audience – is it mainly English?
Well that might surprise you, our audience is at least seventy per cent German. Some expats but hardly any tourists . They come from London – they don’t expect to see, or even want to see, English theatre. If they are into theatre they go to the Berlin Ensemble and see something in German.
You talk about expatriates affecting a changing dynamic in the New Berlin, which is something that is continually evolving. ‘Englishness’ would have had different connotations in 1990 than it does now, so how do you think the future of your theatre will be effected by the redefinition of ‘English’ in the city?
English is, and will be even more so, the language we are all going to use. I’m quite sure there’s no way back from that. If you look at the pop music, if you look at the internet, it is English and we will be communicating with the world and the world with us in English. That’s quite clear. So a young person now and a young person in fifty years will still have to learn English and they will still have to communicate in a similar way with the language. For the theatre, if I was around for another fifty years I would still try and put on international shows from those English speaking countries like Australia, South Africa, United States, Canada, Ireland. I would also try and focus on the fact that English is the lingua franca – when English speaking people come to Berlin, what impact does that have on our society?
You yourself are German but you have spent some time in New York. . . . .
I spent some time in New York where I learnt everything one needs to know about theatre. When I came back there was a company called the Berlin Play Actors, and they were fantastic, a really great young ensemble around an American director who did mainly classics. So I joined them because I didn’t have any connections to the German theatre. I had a connection to the English theatre which is why I founded the English Theatre Berlin.
Do you feel that there is a significant difference between the ways that German culture treats theatre to, say, American or British theatre?
Oh yes, very different. German theatre tends to be very radical and much more oriented towards new developments, not so much looking at the world but looking at the stage. So you could see a very radical rendition of a Shakespeare play and not really understand why it is that radical, but recognise that the German stage allowed it to go that far. American theatre, on the very other hand, is still very deeply rooted in realistic theatre strategies. You have a set and you have a story that goes from A through B to C, and you have a development. That’s the main difference. In between you have the English theatre scene that, if it’s good, is very focused on society. There are many plays that really focus on something that’s going on in London, within the black community or amongst pregnant women or whatever – a topical aspect of society. From my point of view, that’s what is very often lacking in German theatre. It concentrates on the way of doing things, on the aesthetic.
When I first started it was even stronger that way. When I went to England, coming back from New York and then working with Americans here, from time to time going to London to see some shows, it was eye-opening for me to see how you can really try to use theatre interfere with what’s going on in society. Not just show that you can do something, but want to make a difference and really be part of the community. This is changing in Germany. There are companies here in Berlin who want to be a part of what is going on here and explore topics that are important to us. It is admirable how radical German theatre can be. If it’s good it can do both, it can be aesthetically radical and discuss topical aspects to slap you in the face.
You’ve written two plays yourself, ‘Dead Fred’ and ‘Cool Aid’, where do you draw your inspiration from?
‘Cool Aid’ was written at a very early stage of my life when I started to write and I was particularly impressed by British comedy, so I tried myself on the British comedy. But ‘Dead Fred’ is a different story. ‘Dead Fred’ is exactly what I said just now – try and make a difference. ‘Dead Fred’ is about a street that went through East Germany, connecting West Berlin with West Germany. West Berlin was a complete island within the East Block. To go from West Berlin to West Germany, which was three or four hours away by car, you had to go through a corridor. You could only use one road, you had to stay on that road and you could only stop in a few places. If you left the road you could get in trouble, you could even get put in jail.
I had never read anything about that, everybody had a story to tell about it because anyone who lived in Berlin would eventually have to take that road. But it was never part of any novel or film or play. It was very important for Berlin and there were so many exciting stories that could be told. So I wrote some of them down. I know a woman, a director here, who was an actress in East Germany. She really hated it and wanted to get out. S he made a deal with a West German to take her into the trunk of his car on that road, to stop somewhere. She’d jump out of the bushes into the trunk of his car and be taken to West Berlin. Now that was super dangerous because if they found you, you’d go to jail for the rest of your life. But she made it. There are tonnes of stories like that, and my urge was to tell them.
Do you intend to write more?
English Theatre Berlin
F40 · Fidicinstrasse 40
U: Platz der Luftbrücke
T: 030 691 12 11