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  • “The safe place to say the unsafe thing” – Daniel Brunet on The Expo Festival: A Showcase of Wahlberliner*innen


“The safe place to say the unsafe thing” – Daniel Brunet on The Expo Festival: A Showcase of Wahlberliner*innen

We caught up with Daniel Brunet to discuss the upcoming tenth installation of The Expo Festival and Berlin as a place of refuge.

Photo: Natasha Borenko

In the middle of our interview, Daniel Brunet interjects to thank me for “letting me be verbose.” As artistic director of English Theatre Berlin | International Performing Arts Center and founder of The Expo Festival: A Showcase of Wahlberliner*innen, the self-effacing Brunet’s focus has long been on putting other people at the centre of the stage, helping the city’s Freie Szene find its English-speaking voice. 

On the eve of the tenth instantiation of the festival, the gentle, voluble Brunet chatted with Exberliner over Zoom about how the festival began with a month’s empty stage and an open call—and how this year’s even spotlights how Berlin has been serving as a place of refuge since the Huguenots came to Rixdorf. 

How did you first get involved with the English Theatre Berlin?

English Theatre Berlin has existed in one form or another since the early 90s. When I first encountered it, it was in a 50-seat basement space—just across the courtyard from where we are now. And in addition to being a somewhat more experimental and adventurous English theatre as they had sort of established themselves on the continent, with a lot of space for younger theatre makers, it was also very much an English theatre, always performed by native speakers, some of extraordinary ability who would have had a career in any English-speaking country.

I’ve always thought that theatre was the safe place to say the unsafe thing.

The guys that were running it were incredibly generous with me. They let me direct a few shows. They let me use their theatre on Sundays to create my own developmental series. And then I went away, and I came back into orbit maybe 10 or 11 years later, when I was weighing a permanent move back to Berlin — I had spent about eight years halftime in Brooklyn and was sort of realising like “oh, I don’t see myself really staying in the States and making theatre there because I’ve now tried three different milieus and not one of them feels as good as Berlin.” 

Then the theatre fell into crisis. The Senate cut off funding, citing a lack of artistic innovation, so I had the incredible privilege to sort of create a new artistic concept for it, and we very quickly got the theatre back into the state funding. Our concept is simply English as a working language, not a native language. We are definitely a spoken word theatre. In our productions and in our coproductions the spoken word is generally the primary means of artistic expression. About the only thing that we’re not open to is we tend not to respond very much to traditional productions of existing canon.

Photo: English Theatre Berlin

How did the Expo Festival begin?

Berlin’s reputation has, over the centuries. always been one of refuge

The theatre then was in crisis. I stepped up because my two partners—Bernd Hoffmeister and Günther Grosser—were incredibly supportive of me when I was in my early twenties, and I really, really appreciated that. So, I could help at that time and I did. It basically resulted in me joining the leadership and creating a brand new artistic concept, basically changing it from the inside out. 

One of the first challenges was we had zero budget. I was told, “Well, you’ve got the auditorium for a month. What do you want to do with it?” I knew that the Freie Szene was out there. I knew that there was incredibly strong, independent performing arts work in this city. And I wanted to find the practitioners that were out there. So I took the empty auditorium for a month, and I issued an open call.

We had about two and a half to three straight weeks of programming, some 35 shows, some 10 daytime workshops. I had created a sort of marketplace-cum-art-installation. And even from that very first edition, it became crystal clear that, somehow, totally accidentally—or if we want to be super generous, then in tune with the “collective unconscious” or due to “excellent instinct”—it’d become a festival for a venue. Because that is exactly where we have found all of our long-term artistic relationships. 

Photo: Andre Uerba

How do you—and your co-curators, Maque Pereyra and Christine Eckart—choose the year’s slate?

From the very beginning, my desire was to curate collectively. I enjoy collaboration. I also realised that every single human, myself included, of course, is subject to personal biases—and I certainly wouldn’t want to create any form of exclusion due to my own limitations. 

I want to make sure that that something isn’t overlooked. So as soon as funding started to emerge for the festival, the very first thing I did was to hire associate curators, and we do this on a strictly democratic basis. Each one of us—I usually hire two people and I change them out every couple of years (at some point, I’m sure that I’ll also change myself out)—has a vote. It takes two yes votes to get into the festival. So, the most exciting stuff to me, is when the other two say, “Oh, we’re going to have this” and I say, “Cool. I cannot wait to see what I missed on my own consideration.” That’s absolutely fantastic. 

We’re looking at diversity. We’re looking at internationalism, in the sense of we do build a festival as a showcase of all Berliner*innen. Consistently, we have thirty, forty, fifty countries represented. We want to make sure that those countries aren’t just countries in North America and Western Europe, for example. So we do look at those things. 

And then of course, artistic excellence—whatever that means. But, I think, to me, artistic excellence means the project does what it says it’s going to do in a helpful and meaningful way.

Photo: Annabelle CHIH

How do you see this year’s festival capturing something of the experience of this city today?

I’ll say this: Berlin’s reputation has, over the centuries. always been one of refuge—even if you go back to when the Huguenots were given refuge when they broke with the French Catholic Church. They were all housed in what we now call Rixdorf and in the Böhmisches Dorf, because of course a bunch of Bohemians came over as well. 

So I find it only appropriate that we happen to have two people of Russian origin in the Expo this year. One, Natasha Borenko, has made an incredibly personal piece, as a queer Siberian artist who has emigrated to Berlin, called Best Funeral Ever: My Russian Funeral. And she clearly makes herself the object in this piece. The artist Masha Sapizhak has a piece called InnerVoice-dot-ru and she will actually make political opinion and content from people living in Russia, accessible to us in Berlin. 

Now, I’m tremendously ignorant of Russia. I’m tremendously ignorant of its middle class and society. About the only thing I can say is now that we have over two years of actual war, and nearly ten years since the annexation of the Crimea, now there’s a piece that claims it’s going to give me access to what the people who live there are thinking, but perhaps are not in a position to be able to share because, perhaps, the political situation there and the freedom of speech is not so enshrined and respected as it may be, say, in Germany or in the United States. So, I think that’s absolutely fascinating.

It makes me feel good that we can make work like that accessible and visible. That seems like a very, very important function of theatre. I’ve always thought that theatre was the safe place to say the unsafe thing.

  • The Expo Festival: A Showcase of Wahlberliner*innen, English Theatre Berlin | International Performing Arts Center, Feb 15-29