Acting Abroad

Migrants, and Migrant Theater, Take Hold in Berlin

Der Russe ist einer der Birken liebt. Source Maxim Gorki Theater
Anastasia Gubareva in "Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt" which reopened on August 30, 2014 with English subtitles at Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Shermin Langhoff’s migrant theater at the Maxim Gorki Theater is pushing boundaries in Berlin by bringing migrant playrights and actors to the fore.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Migrant theater has been around in local communities in Berlin since the 1970s.
    • Shermin Langhoff, co-director of the Gorki Theater in Berlin, was born in 1969.
    • Berlin has a migrant population of 486,709.
  • Audio

    Audio

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A new form of theater inspired by migrants and their stories is taking Berlin by storm.

The term “post-migrant theater” was coined by Turkish-German theater director Shermin Langhoff who took up her role as co-director of the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin last year.

It interweaves themes of migration and the actors’ backgrounds into the stage pieces to reflect modern migrant experiences. Ms. Langhoff was able to use Germany’s migrant playwrights and a cast of mainly non-German actors.

The movement happening at the Gorki is bold, considering Germany’s mostly homogenous theater landscape, a bastion of ‘Hochkultur’ (high culture) and peopled by German actors.

“The success of the Gorki Theater in Berlin can be attributed to how it is breaking taboos,” said Matthias Lilienthal, one of Germany’s most prolific theater producers.

“It was unheard of for a classic German theater to form a whole ensemble with migrant actors. This development is hugely important for Berlin,” he said.

The smallest of all Berlin’s state theaters, the Gorki was established in 1952, and named after the Russian writer Maxim Gorki, who was more known for his political activism than his literary work.

According to Matthias Warstat, professor of theater studies at the Free University in Berlin, the Gorki’s location in a side street off the touristy Unter den Linden, the main avenue that linked former East and West Berlin, is a partial reason for the theater’s lack of profile.

“The Gorki Theater was never quite like the other Berlin theaters in the sense that one could never quite (categorize) it,” said Mr. Warstat.

“There was the more conservative and classic theater audience that went to the Deutsche Theater, an audience that liked the minimalist approach of the Berliner Ensemble and the West-Berlin theater-goers who went to the Schaubühne. And then there was the Gorki,” he added.

The Gorki’s odd-man-out status may have proved a bonus for co-director Shermin Langhoff, giving her the freedom to bring to life a whole new form of theater, one that is socially and politically fresh and inclusive.

Great Britain and the United States have been casting actors with migrant backgrounds since the 1950s, but it didn’t happen in Germany until the 1970s.

“It was unheard of for a classic German theater to form a whole ensemble with migrant actors. This development is hugely important for Berlin. ”

Matthias Lilienthal, Theatermaker

In 1979, German theater impresario Peter Stein put together a completely Turkish cast for a performance at the Schaubühne theater, which was located in the heavily Turkish Kreuzberg district at the time. Mr. Stein’s production was entirely in Turkish, with an accompanying program booklet containing the German translation.

Mr. Warstat added that while post-migrant theater has gained prominence through the Gorki Theater, many youth clubs and smaller theaters had tried to integrate migrant themes and actors into their programs in the 1990s.

“There was a lot of traditional theater in the Turkish community, which existed way before the term ‘post-migrant theater’ came about,’ he told the Handelsblatt Global Edition. “The question of opening up theater to wider communities was heavily discussed in the ’90s.”

Director Nurkan Erpulat, who stages Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Gorki, transplanting the tragic-comic classic into a Turkish setting, said that although migrant theater is a new form, he is not fixated on migrant themes.

 

Shermin Langhoff und Jens Hillje. Source Gorki_cut
Artistic directors of Berlin’s smallest publicly funded theater: Jens Hillje and Shermin Langhoff. Source: Maxim Gorki Theater.

 

“With my work, I don’t want to translate pieces into a reality that is time-bound or fixed on a particular location. I want to transport a sentiment, a perception, a way of feeling,” he said in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition.

While it appears migrant theater has been around in various shapes and forms for years now, giving the movement a label has helped create publicity and attract audiences.

A culture critic and lecturer at Goldsmiths, a London University, Onur Suzan Nobrega, said that coining the term “post-migrant theater” functioned as a tool to develop the Gorki’s profile and explain its cultural politics.

“I think it was a very smart move to introduce the term from a pragmatic point of view,” she said.

The German theater landscape is unlike those in the rest of Europe. It is heavily state-funded and therefore not under pressure to deliver major box office returns. There is much more leeway and creative freedom when it comes to undertaking experimental projects.

“The theaters in Germany are state-funded so one is very dependent on the directors, their decisions and how they want to organize their season,” said Elizabeth Blonzen, an actress currently engaged at the Gorki Theater.

Mr. Lilienthal, who takes up his tenure at the prestigious Munich Kammerspiele in September 2015, concluded that the Gorki “now serves as a space that represents the whole of German society, and not just a part of it.”

A new season of migrant theatre resumes at the Gorki Theatre in September.

The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact: mewes@handelsblatt.com

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