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It’s Britney, Bitch! Emancipation on the Berlin stage

A female duo bring the story of pop's greatest living icon to the Berliner Ensemble.

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Writer/director Lena Brasch and actor Sina Martens bring their take on Britney Spears to the stage of the Berliner Ensemble – live songs included! Photo: María Abadía

Who doesn’t know – and have an opinion – about Britney Spears? Her colourful rollercoaster of a life and struggles with her father for autonomy have a dramatic excessiveness that is made for the theatre. Writer/director Lena Brasch and actor Sina Martens bring their take on the pop icon to the stage of the Berliner Ensemble – live songs included!

How did this play come about? Are you huge Britney fans?

Sina Martens: Actually Oliver Reese, the artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble, came up to me and just said: “We should do something about Britney Spears”. So I sat down for some days and wrote down what I thought would be interesting. And they liked it. And then we asked Lena Brasch if she’d like to be involved. So then we developed a concept with Lena, and worked with dramaturg Karolin Trachte and asked three other writers if they could write something for it. I asked musician Friederike Bernhardt if she could see herself taking a look at the music and maybe giving it a new twist.

How did you find your way into the subject matter?

Lena Brasch: I think, first of all, we looked at Britney as a bit of a phenomenon, but at the same time as something that would apply to lots of people, lots of young women and their stories. We have a strong focus on the father-daughter aspect. Every daughter who has a father has to deal with it. But we also look at young women in the media and how the press deals with them.

SM: There’s something unrestrained about this father-daughter relationship, a dramatic excessiveness that you look for in the theatre.

Lena, in an article you recently quoted your uncle, writer, poet, and director Thomas Brasch: I want to stay where I’ve never been before.” Does that statement have echoes in this piece?

LB: When you’re making a piece of theatre, you’re always manoeuvring yourself into something that you don’t know – that’s what’s so fascinating about theatre. Everything you do has never been there before; everything you bring together has never existed in this particular moment, this Now.

The most important thing is to keep a creature going and milk it, and keep squeezing it until it’s dry. And it’s not just this generation – look at Elizabeth Taylor or Judy Garland.

How did you delve into the persona of Britney Spears?

LB: There are four of us writers – Laura Dabelstein, Fikri Anıl Altıntaş, Miriam Davoudvandi and me – and we, as a group, asked, what themes, what stories interested us? And the different texts somehow almost magically fit together because we’re working with three amazingly brilliant people, who wrote in different ways about Britney Spears. This piece isn’t some kind of Britney Spears reenactment. We’re not relating a biographical history by going through her career chronologically to the present day. And we haven’t got into the persona of Britney, but we’re presenting Britney – and at the same time, presenting the Britney in us all.

SM: I’d like to add that we’ve got lots of Britney Spears’s songs in new arrangements and two more by Friederike. So we switch between text and music, and I’ll be up on stage working through 40 years of Britney Spears – she’s just turned 40. We’ll try to get the most out of those songs, and I’ll be singing them live on stage.

So, Sina, how are you “playing” Britney?

SM: I’d be more inclined to say that I “quote” or approach Britney. I don’t try to copy her, although I have spent a lot of time very focused on her – studying some of her typical gestures. But we were more interested in her story as a background for a debate about young women and women in the public eye, which is something that we’ve both been focused on for many years. For example, 2007, that was the year she shaved off her hair, which was regarded by the media as an absolute low point. Lena put it well when she said, what if it wasn’t a breakdown but an act of emancipation? Something she wanted to let go of? Questions like this are what we, as women in the public eye or women pursuing a career in the arts, ask ourselves.

Who is the Britney in us all?

SM: I learned something yesterday that we’ll have in the piece: someone that you can love can turn into someone that you may have to reject. That happens all the time. Sometimes it doesn’t even take a week. Sometimes you really, really like someone, and then they do things that you can’t accept. And so in Britney’s case, you have to ask: was that all her? Or can you say that everything difficult that happened to her over the last 13 years was down to her father? I think this ambivalence, this extreme behaviour – these are the things that bring us, as women, close to the Britney.

What if it wasn’t a breakdown but an act of emancipation?

When you think of Britney, you also think of other women in pop culture such as Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. Have they been objectified and squeezed dry by the media and the public, or did they give themselves over to that situation?

LB: I don’t think there’s an answer to that question. Just by talking about them, like we’re doing, they’re being objectified. And they aren’t responsible for that, they didn’t walk into that. I don’t think you can say, ‘they’re free people, they can do what they want and they just walked into it’. Look at Britney, she’s the best example of someone who quite obviously wasn’t a free person, who was forced to play this role – was really forced, was locked up and all her decisions as an autonomous person taken from her. And I’d find it hard to judge someone like that.

SM: I think you can go so far as to say this whole stardom system that’s been around since the beginnings of Hollywood has created power systems in which the most important thing is to keep a creature going and milk it, and keep squeezing it until it’s dry. And it’s not just this generation – look at Elizabeth Taylor or Judy Garland.

Your title – It’s Britney Bitch! Where did you get it, and who’s the bitch?

LB: This was the first title we came up with, our working title. And we let it go and played with all kinds of other titles. But in the end we came back to this because, on the one hand, any of us can be the bitch. For me, nothing fits Britney Spears better than the expression “It’s Britney, Bitch!”. It’s the most famous catchphrase associated with Britney. I really like how it’s so in your face, it feels right. Kind of a brutal and decisive title with energy to direct you into the piece.

SM: “Gimme More”, it’s from that song. It’s really empowering. It’s not like, ‘I’m so unhappy, I feel awful’, but instead feels like, ‘Man, that’s me, here I am. I don’t need my father, I’m an independent woman, pay attention to me’.

Did you enjoy making this piece?

LB: Developing this piece has been a blast. I’ve really enjoyed working with the other writers. And developing the text has been lots of fun. We’ve really got an exceptional script.

SM: The work was collaborative and really organic. Lena and I exchanged text messages that were full of: “I’ve been thinking this morning, we’ve got to …” Really great fun.

One day, Lena and I were sitting in a café discussing the title, and we were going through the lyrics of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and singing “My loneliness is killing me”. And suddenly two men at the next table, they were about 45, starting going, oh yeah, how did it go again? “Hit me baby … ” and they were totally with us. And they asked us what we were doing, and when we told them, they said, Wow, we’re going to come and see that, definitely!

Have you been in contact with Britney at all? Is she invited to the premiere?

LB: That’s the plan. [Laughter]

SM: We’re not inviting her dad, but we’re inviting her. And we’re not inviting Justin Timberlake, either. [Laughter]

It’s Britney, Bitch! Berliner Ensemble, Werkraum, Feb 21, 26, 27; Mar 17, 19, 20

Sina Martens studied acting at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” in Leipzig. She became a member of the the Schauspielstudio of Schauspiel Frankfurt in 2016, and joined the troupe at the Berliner Ensemble in 2017. In the same year she was designated most promising young actor (Nachwuchsschauspielerin) of the year by Theater Heute, and in 2018 was awarded the TheaterGemeinde Berlin’s Daphne-Preis for exceptional young performers.

Writer and director Lena Brasch has been working as a director and dramaturgical assistant since 2009. She comes from a line of acclaimed theatre and media families: her mother, Marion Brasch is a radio journalist and writer; her father Jürgen Kuttner is a radio moderator and theatre director. Her grandfather Horst Brasch, a Jewish exile during the Second World War, later worked as cultural policy maker in the DDR. Lena Brasch has directed works for theatres including the Volksbühne, the Berliner Ensemble and the Deutsches Theater.