English Theatre Berlin Wants Your Attention

If you’ve ever visited Berlin, you’ve heard about the absolutely enormous number of theaters in the city. To give you an idea what I’m talking about: Berlin has three publicly funded operas. Yes, three. In addition to the operas, there are numerous other theatres. I couldn’t find an exact count, but we’re talking about hundreds of theaters serving various constituencies and offering all kinds of dramatic productions.

If the idea of three publicly funded operas seems strange to you, it doesn’t to people living here in the city. A professor of mine said that if a politician even wonders out loud what the point of three operas is, he risks his career.

As part of a class about cultural industries (like theater) in Europe, I ventured to learn more about one theater in particular: English Theatre Berlin. The choice was based on two criteria: I figured it would be easy to find an English speaker to interview; and I also wondered how an English-only institution could survive in a German-speaking city.

English Theatre Berlin

After exchanging a few emails, Daniel Brunet, Producing Artistic Director at English Theater Berlin, graciously agreed to meet me in his office in the back of the theater. The office was cluttered but neat, its Spartan décor offset by a number of theater-related mementos and paraphernalia.

Mr. Brunet himself is a friendly but intense person. He speaks confidently, in the way one might expect of an actor, but has a direct and forceful way of expression that one could also find in a business school. He initially came to Berlin on a Fulbright, but split time in New York City and Berlin for a few years before permanently settling here.

English Theatre Berlin, located near Bergmanstraße in Kreuzberg, was founded in 1990 as the Friends of the Italian Opera. It gravitated towards an English-only repertoire by the mid 1990s, and finally changed its name to English Theatre Berlin (ETB) in 2006. According to an interview given by Günther Grosser, ETB’s founder and Creative Director, the idea was to find a balance between British theater’s focus on stories and social issues, and German theater’s focus on aesthetics and artistic creativity. For Grosser, a play ideally “can do both, it can be aesthetically radical and discuss topical aspects.”

This vision for ETB received a major blow in 2012, when the Berlin Senate revoked its Basisförderung (Basic Funding) following the 2013 season. The reason was “lack of aesthetic innovation.” The funding is crucial for ETB – the 100,000 euros per year cover its operational expenses. The decision caught ETB’s managing directors – and many of its supporters – off guard. 

A “Save English Theater Berlin!” campaign was launched, but the decision wasn’t reversed. ETB has found temporary relief from other public sources of funding, including from the Deutsche Klassenlotterie Stiftung, the Hauptstadtkulturförderung (Capital City Culture Fund), and a small grant from the Senate. Combined, the grants will keep ETB’s doors open through 2014. After that, the future is less certain.

Post-funding loss, ETB realized that it needed to develop a more specific and innovative artistic focus. Mr. Brunet happened to be developing a series of productions called “Colorblind” at the same time. Simultaneously he began developing an idea that became “Aliens of Extraordinary Abilities?”,  which is a series of productions focusing on expatriates’ experience of life in Berlin. (I should mention here that Mr. Brunet is uncomfortable with the word ‘expatriate’, preferring ‘immigrant.’)

On stage at ETB. 

ETB has made a number of important changes over the past year, both in an effort to secure funding and to more fully realize its artistic vision. When I asked Mr. Brunet what ETB’s role in Berlin’s cultural scene was, he grew animated:

ETB is the “only producing and presenting organization in the city that consciously uses English as a working language…we simply see that English has become the international lingua franca in 21st century… [Berlin] needs a cultural institution that has that working language and that focus. I find it absolutely thrilling…[that] we have German, Hebrew, Turkish, French Italian and Spanish people on our stage.”

This is what I mean by Mr. Brunet’s on-message precision. But I was impressed by his clear vision.

He sees ETB as the “center of an international performing arts scene.” He means, quite literally, a center: ETB hosts “artistic mixers”, a euphemism for professional networking events; brings in outside performers; hosts work by new talent; and develops relationships with local schoolchildren. Furthermore, he believes ETB is “playing a major role in increasing the visibility of Germany’s changing demographics.”

That is quite a lofty mission. Unfortunately for ETB and for many other small-to-medium theater companies in Berlin, the mission runs up against harsh economics. ETB charges a maximum of 14 euros per ticket: anything more, Mr. Brunet says, and “we’d lose audience.” Why? “Berlin has as many cultural opportunities as London,” with much less population. Competition for eyeballs is fierce, and besides – Berlin is a poor city relative to other European cultural centers.

"Real Berliners! If You're Not Fuck you!", the title of a recent ETB production. The title is based on graffitti spotted somewhere in the city.

Mr. Brunet gave me an example. The production “Echter Berliner!!!! Ihr Nicht Fuck You” (‘Real Berliners!!!! If You’re Not, Fuck You) is one of the most successful productions ever staged by the ETB: for 10 performances, 98% of tickets were sold. But the production cost 50,000 euros to produce, and 98% capacity only brought in 12,000 euros in revenue. One of the most successful shows in ETB history, in other words, only recouped 20% of its costs at the box office.

The difference, Mr. Brunet said, has to be made up by government funding. The "Echter Berliner" production was "one of the greatest successes in the 25 years of history of this institution. And yet if you were to look at that from the commercial perspective, you'd say it was a failure." In other words, it's impossible for ETB to survive on ticket sales alone. No theater in Berlin can do that – not even the state operas. “It’s just the way it works,” Mr. Brunet said, and if governments want cultural institutions to exist, they have to be willing to pay. 

By the end of our conversation, I empathized with much of what Mr. Brunet had said. I can see the difficulty in running an organization that’s so dependent on outside funding, and I can understand why ETB would feel affronted by the loss of funding. Producing quality theater is not easy and it's not cheap.


A scene from "Echter Berliner!!!! Ihr Nicht Fuck You". The production focuses on expatriate experiences in Berlin.

But I couldn’t help but think that the government’s funding structure had worked exactly as intended. The process of arts funding is messy, imperfect and probably insufficient to the overall need. And yet, the logic isn't hard to see. The government wants to support quality artistic productions as judged by an indepenent jury of experts, so it uses the best tool at its disposal - money - to make that happen.

By withdrawing funding, the government spurred ETB to re-think its artistic mission. Mr. Brunet might never have been hired by ETB, and his enthusiastic mission to establish ETB as the beating heart of Berlin’s international performing arts scene might not have happened. I can’t think of a better role for an English-language theater than as an artistic center for discussing foreigners’ experiences in Berlin. And that wouldn’t have happened without the withdrawl of funding.

Towards the end of our conversation, I mentioned that part of the ETB’s problems – the multitude of cultural opportunities for residents – made it really nice to live in the city. Mr. Brunet agreed, but immediately pivoted to an argument in favor of more funding for the arts. There’s money out there, Mr. Brunet said with a smile, but “you have to give us some of it because they’re [tourists] coming here to see us!”