English Theatre Berlin: the show must go on

The international theatre's festival celebrating Wahlberliner is back this week after its postponement due to corona.

A selection of the works set to be staged as part of the Expo Festival, despite corona's best efforts.
A selection of the works set to be staged as part of the Expo Festival, despite corona's best efforts.English Theatre Berlin

Berlin-From Monday, Germany is going back into a lockdown which will see theatres and entertainment venues shut for a month. But English Theatre Berlin|International Performing Arts Center has already been down the path of postponing its annual Expo Festival once this year, and is determined to finally bring its international mix of contemporary theatre, dance and digital performances (all in English) to audiences this week - for as long as it can.

Now in its eighth year, the festival - subtitled ‘A Showcase of Wahlberliner’ (Berliners by choice) - brings together a programme of projects curated from submissions from almost 150 artists and performers working in Berlin and around the world. Normally a spring event, it was meant to take place in April before it was postponed in the wake of coronavirus.

This year’s performers, who represent 21 nationalities, are now finally ready to take to the stage for the 10-day programme, which starts on Thursday night in Kreuzberg. Artistic director Daniel Brunet says he is “thrilled” for months of hard work to be shared, exploring themes including gender roles, censorship, parenthood (in space) and - appropriately enough - survival during a global health crisis.

There's not going to be a single show that won't have had to reconsider and reconfigure.

Daniel Brunet

“We’re now able to make sure that these artists get what we promised them,” he told us. “I have been so impressed by the commitment, professionalism and unswerving dedication to the arts there has been among the entire festival team, as well as all the artists, and I'm very excited that they're finally going to get a chance to present their work as is deemed the best way to do in these difficult circumstances.”

Like all events these days, the festival is going ahead with modifications in place. For one thing, it’s slightly smaller this year, but not because of the pandemic. It's received public funding four times in its eight years (including this year) from Berlin’s Hauptstadtkulturfonds and the Senat’s Spartenoffene Förderung, and a reduced cash injection this year led to eight projects being selected as opposed to last year’s programme of 14.

Four of the projects are shorter performances or works in progress, which through the festival’s ‘ExpLoRE’ evenings get an opportunity for an important live test run.

“Research and development in front of an audience is often essential to creating successful work which works for both creators and audiences, but very often, because of logistics and costs there's very, very little input with an audience before a finished product is created, marketed and sold,” Brunet explains.

Anti-corona measures include distancing of 1.5m at all times, compulsory mask wearing whenever visitors are not in their seats, a one-way system through the building and maximum performance times of one hour to allow ventilation at appropriate intervals.

Sadly but inevitably, the theatre is also implementing “seriously disheartening” attendance caps - Brunet says their usual audiences of between 120 and 150 people have to be slashed to between 20 and 35, depending on the number of individual households present. If all audience members at a performance are from separate households, the theatre can accommodate a maximum of 19.

The hygiene concept has impacted the performances themselves too, with only six people allowed on stage and a minimum distance to be kept from the audience.

“There's not going to be a single show that won't have had to reconsider and reconfigure based on our physical limitations as a function of our hygiene concept,” Brunet says.

'The White Plague' is just one of the festival performances that had to be drastically reimagined in the wake of corona.
'The White Plague' is just one of the festival performances that had to be drastically reimagined in the wake of corona.Nir Segal

Among them is Greek playwright Alexander Raptotasios’ play ‘The White Plague’ which, in an ironic twist of fate, tells the story of a mysterious epidemic causing blindness and examines its aftermath. That show was originally planned as an immersive, interactive theatrical experience which is now impossible - so it will appear at the festival reimagined as an “binaural audio performance” exploring themes of survival and solidarity during crisis through hyper-realistic audio technology.

ETB|IPAC stipulates that at least one member of each work’s creative team must be part of Berlin’s independent arts community in some capacity, but other collaborators from across the globe are welcome alongside them - so travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic have also caused disruption. The South Korean-Colombian production ‘Beyond the Light’ has been reinterpreted as a video performance while one of the artists behind it, Hyoung-Min Kim, is unable to travel to Berlin.

With a smaller programme, spectator numbers dramatically down and the theatre bar closed too, how is the company expected to fare financially from the festival? Brunet says the circumstances make “what was already an incredibly precarious, risky prospect financially pretty much impossible to do without losing money” - but he has no concerns the theatre might not survive the pandemic, putting his faith in Germany’s financial support for the arts, which he calls the best in the world.

One way the theatre will be trying to cushion the financial blow of the pandemic is through its “Absent Neighbor” tickets. At double the price of a regular ticket, theatregoers can chip in a little more to help sustain the theatre, whilst keeping standard ticket prices accessible across the board.

Despite the challenges in getting to opening night, Brunet says the festival will offer a vital release from the turmoil of the world outside, with several evenings close to selling out.

“This is a unique festival that I think serves the community and the venue in pretty exceptional ways,” he says. “As long as it seems to be safe enough to do so, I think it's a good thing to be able to offer - art and culture are absolutely essential, even in times where it's difficult to realise physically.”

The Expo Festival: A Showcase of Wahlberliner takes place at English Theatre Berlin|International Performing Arts Center, Fidicinstraße 40, 10965 Berlin between Thursday, 29 October and Saturday, 7 November.

The company is still formulating its plans to deal with Germany's new lockdown, which are jeopardising performances scheduled after Monday 2 November. However, the three evenings planned before Monday will go ahead as normal.

Standard tickets cost €15 for individual performances and €10 for ExpLoRE evenings and can be purchased online at https://www.etberlin.de/2020-expo/tickets/.