“Three theatres I couldn't get into, and now I can't even get on this bus,” one woman ranted, having unsuccessfully attempted to see a 15-minute puppet version of the Norse myth Edda in the tiny Schaubude theatre. There was an edge of despair in her voice. “This whole evening has been one big frustration.”
“I'm very sorry about that,” replied Manhard my bus driver, preserving admirable equanimity, “But there's nothing I can do. It's a safety matter. If I can't see out of the side of the bus someone might get killed.”
After a stoic stand-off, it was left to her husband to mutter some conciliation, and the disgruntled couple stepped out.
“There'll be another bus in ten minutes!” I called out after her, knowing it would be just as full. It was about 8:30 pm, and the much-vaunted Long Night of Opera and Theatre was in its busiest phase. Crowds were gathering outside nearly every tiny venue in the city, and specially-requisitioned public buses were dumping new audiences on the kerbs outside each one.
An hour and a half earlier, the first raging masses had piled into the Staatsoper on Bebelplatz, the central hub of the unwinding chaos. It quickly became clear that a large portion of the estimated 20,000 people taking part in tonight's theatrical free-for-all had had the same idea: catch the half-hour version of The Magic Flute before dipping into the unknown hinterland of Berlin's theatre scene. That's where I came in, clutching a microphone and wearing a snazzy black t-shirt with the frivolous word “Infoooooooooos” printed on it, manning one of the buses.
For one night last weekend, fifty of Berlin's theatres opened their doors to anyone with a €15 ticket. Theoretically, anyone could go and see anything anywhere. Almost all the theatres put on shortened versions of their standard programmes. The larger theatres gamely gave up a night's takings while the smaller theatres, sensing an invaluable opportunity, went to town, offering a myriad of off-beat shows, foyer entertainments, live music, and sometimes soup. But it was apparently a bit too successful.
They told us it might get chaotic at the brief induction a couple of days earlier.
“We don't really know what's going to happen,” said the benign old Reinhard Ellmer of Kulturprojekte Berlin, the organisation charged with getting this cultural orgy on the road. He was almost proud of his uncertainty. “This is biggest event of its kind ever attempted in the world. They've done them in Stuttgart and Hamburg, but those are much smaller,” he said referring disdainfully to other Long Nights elsewhere.
He was addressing the fifty or so people – predominately students and the unemployed – who had signed up to accompany a bus on one of the seven routes around Berlin. I got Bus 4 on Route 4, a circuit of Prenzlauer Berg taking in nine famous and less famous theatres, beginning and ending at Bebelplatz, where four venues were located.
We all received an info pack containing maps and programmes of our theatres, plus the jaunty t-shirt. Knowledge of Berlin's cultural landscape seemed to be a plus rather than a requirement, but we did get a daunting brief: “Try to keep them in a good mood,” Ellmer said, before sending us on our way.
Manhard and I made six rounds of Prenzlauer Berg, each 45 minutes with a 10 minute, transit union-enforced coffee break between them. As traffic thinned towards the end of the night, Manhard contrived to make his breaks longer and longer.
He was cheerfully cynical about the whole enterprise: “I knew it would be chaos, you know. I'd never do this as a spectator. What's the point? By the end of the night, you've gone round to all these funny little 'performance' joints and you've got no idea what you saw.”
He said the word 'performance' in English, and infused it with scorn. Even Berlin bus-drivers know wanky artsy jargon when they hear it.
Despite the stress, a festival atmosphere started to develop on the bus. By the second run, I had understood my role – I was meant to be a holiday entertainer, a Club 18-30 mood-maker, a kind of bus MC of merriment. Berlin’s culture monkey, as it were.
I chatted cheerily to the passengers, wishing the ones alighting good luck in the ever-extending queues, and asking the ones that entered what they'd seen and if it was any good. By and by, I even started enjoying myself.
I was only prevented from starting a sing-along by the fear of lowering the tone of a supposedly highbrow evening of culture. A breezy rendition of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” probably wouldn’t go over very well if you've just consumed an Israeli-Palestinian-German modern dance “exploring the differences between national and private shame and disgrace” at Dock 11 on Kastanienallee.
It soon became clear that the key to navigating the evening was going Zen. The passengers having the best nights were the ones that had serenely abandoned their carefully worked out programmes, and let the buses take them on a surprise journey.
“It's really good for the small theatres,” one woman told me, “but for us, we're really just getting a tour of the venues, so you have an idea where to go on another night.” Another woman, who wandered forlornly over to us on one of Manhard's breaks, was less gracious: “More like Long Night of the Bus Rides. It was much better in Stuttgart.”
But that was in the initial madness. After 10 pm, the crowds had got the hang of it, and began dispensing themselves more evenly throughout the city. And the theatres did their bit, too. Actors began performing in the streets outside the Galli Theater in Mitte and there seemed to be a consensus to have a good time. Many venues hosted after-show parties.
In the morning, as the video screens were being dismantled and the theatre programmes strewn across Bebelplatz gathered up, the organisers were claiming it had all been a great success – regardless of what Manhard thought.