English Theatre Berlin: 10 Minute Plays

Marian Ryan chats to Maxwell Flaum, co-founder of Shakespeare im Park and curator of this year’s Ten-Minute-Play Competition…

Image: Shakespeare im Park Berlin

Maxwell Flaum, co-founder of Shakespeare im Park, was tapped by Günter Grosser of English Theatre Berlin to curate this year’s Ten-Minute Play competition. Entries are welcome through 26 November.

This year’s contest coincides with EtB’s struggle to keep its doors open in the face of steep funding cuts as the Berlin Senate withdraws its support. Readers can find links to a petition and other ways to help EtB here.

Flaum grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in Berlin for eight years. During that time he’s written, directed, and acted in short films in addition to co-founding Shakespeare im Park Berlin two years ago.

We spoke about his own theatre company, EtB’s changing direction, and how this year’s Ten-Minute Play competition and performances will be different.

How did you get involved in the Berlin theatre scene?

A few years ago, I was living in the neighborhood near Görlitzer Park. At the time I was writing and directing a short film with a friend of mine. We also acted in the film. We started rehearsing our material in Görlitzer Park in the mornings, also just trying to develop our acting chops. So we were also taking on Shakespeare, in the crater in the middle of the park. There was a time where we were trying to memorize Titus Andronicus, the entire piece, just the two of us, and we were going to take it on the U-bahn. [Laughs.]

Then we started talking about putting on theatre in the park, sort of inspired by New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, but a totally irreverent take. So we started meeting people, and it turned out that my wife’s brother’s girlfriend had a lot of theatre experience. Her name is Katrin Beushausen. She had just come back from a year of theatre studies in California, at Berkeley, and she came back with a friend who was a PHD candidate for Theatre studies, Brandon Woolf. I pitched the idea to them, and they immediately took to it. So all of a sudden we had a plan for this theatre company, at least to experiment with, to see what happened.

What were you trying to do with Shakespeare im Park?

Through a lot of talking, we chose Henry IV. We thought Falstaff would be an appealing character to transplant to Görlitzer Park. This was the summer of 2011. We decided to incorporate Harold Bloom, the literary critic and Falstaff aficionado, into the piece. We wanted to have a play that didn’t have a stage, that just sort of arose out of the natural colours of Görlitzer Park, so we rewrote the play in a way that allowed us to move the piece through the park.

So we moved from the crater to the edelweiss area, through about nine scenes, with the audience. The actors went in and out the narrative, actively engaging with the audience and collecting them, keeping the show running. And people started showing up for the shows, lots of people. At peak moments, we would have three hundred people. This past summer we did UtopiaTM Where All Is True [the TM stands for trademark and Thomas More]. We’re getting further and further away from strictly Shakespeare.

Maxwell Flaum

We took Henry VIII, which is also called Where All Is True, partially written by Shakespeare, and combined that with Thomas More’s Utopia, and went from there. And now, with Henry IV, we rewrote the play and made a radio play out of it.

Sort of an “Orson Welles Presents” – it’s called Orson Welles Presents Heinrich der Vierte fuer’s Radio. We made commercials that were integrated into the plot, and songs. We’re hoping to be finished with the recording by Christmas and get it out to radio stations. Like all our work, it’s in German and English.

How did this lead to your connection with the EtB?

Last year I saw a flyer in the Bergmannkiez for the English Theatre’s Ten-Minute-Play Competition. I was pretty new to theatre at this point, so I figured what the hell, I’ll just write a ten-minute piece and see what happens. And it got chosen.

It was produced, and ended up with a nice article from Patrick Wildermann who writes for Der Taggespiegel. We got a lot of good press with Utopia, so at the moment we’re writing grants to raise money for next summer. In the meantime, Günter Grosser, the Artistic Director at the EtB, got in touch and asked me if I wanted to curate the Ten-Minute Plays this year, and I said yes.

What’s behind the changes in this year’s competition?

The theatre directors really want to frame the ten-minute plays to reach out to the broader ex-pat community for support, in light of the coming budget cuts. The Berlin Senate has said it’s not going to renew its funding for the theatre after 2013, so they really need to work to build up their audiences and support. There’s a petition to appeal to the Senate to reconsider, and Günter is lobbying politicians every week. It’s a critical time—after twenty-three years they’re going to have trouble keeping their doors open if they can’t find other means of funding. And they also have to really reinvent themselves.

The reason their funding was cut was for basically not being innovative enough, in terms of keeping up with what Berlin theatre is, in terms of what types of work the Senate is looking to support. So Günter’s really trying to reach out to the thriving community of artists here . . . He’s trying to open his doors to those people. I think he’s looking to experiment.

What’s the theme of the competition and what are your hopes for it?

The theme is “Berlin Was Yesterday: Expat Traffic from the Kaiser to Kotti.” The blurb on the website is deliberately weird, because I really don’t want people to feel strictly bound by the topic. I don’t want a lot of pieces focused on gentrification, a night of five Weserstrasse/Neukölln stories—although one of those would be fine. Günter wanted to tailor it to ex-pats in general. I suggested that we stick to Berlin, and that we also include people who have lived in Berlin at any time period, not just now—but sort of a survey of those experiences over time, from post-war, post-Wall on.

I’m hoping we can get a set of performances that somehow explore the very singular development this city has gone through. There are a lot of people living here from those earlier periods, in squatted housing, for example. There are a lot of musicians left in Kreuzberg from that time who are still here, who I’ve been going out and trying to meet…That’s what I’ve been doing since I got the job as curator, trying to find writers, so we can have five really strong pieces. I’m trying to keep this as open as possible. I’m also encouraging people who may come from elsewhere in Germany.

Actually, moving to Berlin from other parts of Germany is almost as big of a jump as coming from another country. And the pieces can be bilingual. I’ve been trying to talk to anybody and everyone—anyone who’s got a story to tell, whether they’ve written for theatre before or not. We’re just looking for strong pieces of writing that we can make into great performance pieces.

10-Minute-Play Logo 2012

What about the selection of the pieces? And what happens next?

Some members of the Shakespeare im Park Berlin team are coming in to choose and produce and direct the pieces, Katrin and Brandon and myself, plus we hope to have Patrick Wildermann of Der Taggespiegel on the jury as well. Shakespeare im Park Berlin is planning to use its unconventional multi-director approach to developing the pieces. So the three of us are a trio of directors, using a very unconventional way of developing performances.

And I want people to know that their stories will be taken absolutely seriously by a team dedicated to putting on a superior week of innovative shows. We’re really open to developing the pieces with actors, too, not strictly saying, here’s the script, this is what it is. It’ll be more of a workshop, and letting the performances build out of that. We’re going to be more actively engaged with the writers. Everyone’s really excited.

What do you plan in terms of staging and production?

We want to develop a night that makes use of the whole space—the whole English Theatre space, not only the traditional performance area. There’s also the foyer, and there’s also the back, this great industrial warehouse / artists’ community that surrounds the place as well.

We’re looking to integrate the nights of performance into that entire area. And we plan to do our traditional, Shakespeare im Park moving-from-place to place. And how to integrate the pieces into one another, how that will flow—a lot of it is going to depend on the pieces themselves.

There will be some element of Berlin from different time periods, but we want to have some continuity and some flow between them, to have them overlap with each other. So it won’t be a night when you have one play, and then another play, and another play . . .

What else is coming up for the English Theatre?

Günter has a program in coming in 2013 which will really focus on engaging with expats. There will be some readings going on during March—the American Embassy has a program inviting young novelists to read their work. There will be two readings, right in the middle of when we’re doing the performances, so we plan to intersperse the performance nights between those. There will be a little bit more experimentation going on, something that will be pleasing to the EtB audience but will also hopefully attract people who maybe haven’t come before to the English Theatre. The theatre’s fighting for its life right now. Günter is doing a very smart thing with this new direction, and I’m happy to be a part of it.