Tonight, the performing arts meet Berlin’s identity crisis. The English Theatre Berlin‘s new piece by Daniel Brunet asks the hot question, ‘Who is a real Berliner?’. A similar question haunts those moving to big cities everywhere. From that Somewhere-else lying in the sinister boundaries of suburbia to the other city 300 kilometers away with nothing left to talk about, the uncertainty of belonging spikes the air. “Are you a New Yorker?” “Well, I was born here.” “Are you a Parisian?” “Well, I study here.” Those people: pretending to be from the ‘Bay’ when they are really from Sacramento, CA; pretending to belong to slick air London while knowing only the Midlands; claiming to be one with Mumbai because of a summer spent in its markets. We know those people. We likely belong to them. As a friend of mine asked recently, “When do I get to call myself a Berliner?”.
More often than not, cities divide their residents into the insiders//outsiders, frequently the natives//the foreigners, making the question of ‘Who is a real…’ ever more pertinent. The soundness of the categories doesn’t matter, just the role they play in validating one group at the expense of another. In Berlin, such dichotomies make things interesting, chaotic, dangerous, tense, and at best – exciting. They inspire Nazi-esque graffiti against affluent Southern Germans or fuel anti-gentrification conflicts that end up turning immigrant against immigrant in the name of hierarchy. But thanks to one strong end of a sociopolitical dichotomy, this city has plenty of outlets for its tensions, i.e. plenty of creative art forms and forums. The tension, however, is one reason the arts have come to be in the first place.
An outlet taking center stage in such debates (excuse the pun) is the theater.
Allow the English Theatre of Berlin to introduce its newest play (or performance piece, according to the theater’s new stick) pertaining exactly to this dichotomy. ‘Echter Berliner!!! Ihr nicht fuck you’ “is a documentary theater piece exploring the diverging and converging experiences of so-called expats, often coming from comparably richer countries who travel to Berlin for self-realization, with those of so-called immigrants, often coming from comparably poorer countries for financial survival. At least, these are the generalizations (English Theatre Berlin)”. We know differently, know that the lines are blurred and ink-stained at best, which is why putting them on stage is so brilliantly illustrative, because knowledge doesn’t always lead to a change of behavior.
This performance is the first segment in ‘Aliens of Extraordinary Abilities?’, a two-part project “investigating the experiences of so-called expats and so-called immigrants in Berlin and its rapidly changing cityscape”. The second part, Terrain of Threshold Voices, is a collaboration with DISTRICT Kunst- und Kulturförderung and set to premiere in November and December.
In tonight’s piece, the theatrical result of the community-driven work of six performers hailing from both camps – the immigrants and the expats – is a verbatim reproduction of 60 interviews framing the question of belonging in Berlin. Giving vignettes and reflections, avoiding interpretations, the performers themselves – at once detectives and mirrors – become, in essence, the messengers of kin. They are charged with the task of representing both so-called community and self in a stream of shadow, prop, and light…oh right, and performing for an audience.
Challenging the patterns categories afford us and the entitlement longer stays in cities dispense, such a piece (being careful not to boil anything in theater down to a play) is sure to encourage even more dichotomies. At least we have time and creative space to reflect upon them.
For a theater threatened with closure due to too much devotion to the ‘classic play’, all that comes after the crisis is a surprise and a step in the direction of survival, which may even grant it more courage for controversy. English Theatre of Berlin, we are watching intently.
-by Kelly Miller
Tonight is the last night of the play, but tickets are still available here! For more information on the theater’s dramatic threat of closure this past winter, see the ExBerliner’s critical article on the matter and the reader comments it incited. Comments from yours truly are also to be seen. As an active participant in the campaign to save the institution, as a concessions volunteer for the past two years, and as a supporter of the good people who bring art (whether performance piece or classic play) to an international audience, I highly recommend seeing a show here just once. You will be glad you did. Tonight, I am in fact seeing this one and couldn’t be more excited 🙂