On a cold and snowy winter morning, about ten people are standing in a circle on a planked wooden floor and grunting with the fake effort they’re putting into climbing imaginary ropes that hang above them.
But this isn’t a preparation course for surviving in the wild – this is a technique to ‘wake up’ and be alert for a workshop on national and personal identity.
The participants are foreigners who have chosen Berlin to be their home. They’ve come to take part in the English Theatre Berlin’s Expat Expo, a two-week festival featuring performances and workshops by some of the city’s international artists.
The workshop was organized by Minna Partanen from the English Theatre and Anna-Sofia Sysser, who is involved in contemporary theatre.
“We wanted to create a workshop that addresses the question of being an expat. We wanted to explore this in terms of national and personal identity – how living abroad affects the identity and whether there are some common experiences or whether the experiences are individual to each person,” said Minna Partanen.
Daniel Brunet, who joined the English Theatre as producing artistic director only a few months ago, said the Expat Expo is the theatre’s first step re-launching itself as Berlin’s premier international performing arts centre.
“The idea was to position English Theatre Berlin as the home of international expatriate art using English as the common denominator linguistically,” he told The Local.
The audience response has been top notch, said Brunet. And for many of the workshop participants, the Expat Expo was the first they’ve heard of the English Theatre Berlin. Vinski Ratalahti, a Finnish student who moved to Berlin about six months ago, said that much of Berlin is “too German-centric” for his taste.
“I had been missing something like this in Berlin. There should be more theatre in other languages,” he added.
The English Theatre Berlin is one of the cultural institutions which will be acutely affected if the city government upholds its decision to cut state funds to smaller theatres starting next year.
An American performance artist and writer going by the stage name Harvey Rabbit, said she found cutting off of state funds “really atrocious.”
“I think English Theatre Berlin really does provide a very important service to English speakers who want to see theatre. It’s very important and I hope it survives. I don’t know where else I’m going to go with my work,” she said, adding she will be a doing burlesque clown act for the Expat Expo on 28th February called ShameNoShame!
Besides offering workshops in the day and a variety of performances in the evenings, a big highlight of the Expat Expo is also the weekend long Expat Markt, which is a ‘marketplace cum performance installation’. There will be 54 tables in all with goods like jewellery and clothing and a range of entertainers and performers. There will also be businesses offering services exclusively for expats.
For Brunet, it is also a way to address a deeper issue – the dichotomy between first-world expats and other immigrants.
“So-called expats receive preferential treatment based on their national origins. If they speak English, they can find a way to get by without learning German, whereas people from Africa or Turkey start at the bottom of the society, they’re made to go to integration classes and so on,” he explained.
The team at the English theatre Berlin plans to make the Expat Expo an annual event, with the next one being planned for the summer of 2014. But without the state funding, said Brunet, the nearly 25-year-old theatre could be forced to close.
“By the end of this month, we will know if we will be getting the funding for next year or not,” he said. “But we believe we have a strong and healthy future. We know that Berlin needs an international performing centre and we know that we can contribute to it.”
The proceeds from the Expat Expo will go in entirety to the artists.
Upcoming events include ‘Performance Night’ on 28th February, where 10 different pieces will take place in the building and “Comedy in English” on 1st March organized by Comedy in Berlin and featuring English speaking stand up comedians from Berlin.
English Theatre Berlin and The Local have two pairs of Expo passes to give away. Email The English Theatre Berlin to enter: [email protected]