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Editor's column

Think theatre audiences are old, rich and white? Not in Berlin

The enduring and impassioned support of Berlin’s myriad theatregoers shows that theatre would be nothing without its audiences.

Funk and afrofuturism in We Are All Going to Mars at Sophiensaele. Photo: Jess Musoke

When Germany’s first National Theatre, located in Hamburg, shuttered after just two years in 1769, the great playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing blamed the city’s public – and German theatregoers generally – for killing the theatre with their neglect. “What then has the public done to enable something to come of it?” he asked and then quickly answered. “Nothing; in fact, it’s done worse than nothing. It was apparently not enough to merely be unsupportive; the public couldn’t even allow the process to take its natural course.”

How different Lessing would feel if he saw our audiences today. Despite overblown concerns that during lockdown the would-be theatregoer had been seduced by the streaming services, audiences have been showing up in strength to stages big and small. Lessing’s words of despair serve, rather, as a stirring reminder of the continued importance of the audience. Playwrights, performers, dramaturges and intendants can do what they will, but the theatrical arts are nothing without them.

As I visited performances across Berlin earlier this year, I have consistently been struck by the vibrancy of the city’s audiences – and their deep interest in and engagement with the theatres and performance spaces. This column, my first as stage editor, is for them.

How different Lessing would feel if he saw our audiences today.

It’s for the woman in the front row who waved everyone to their feet to celebrate the rousing final performance of the Company Christoph Winkler’s We Are Going to Mars at Sophiensaele. With the crowd bobbing along during the dance performance that explored the intertwined traditions of funk and Afrofuturism in homage to Zambia’s utopian space programme of 1964, that standing ovation was well-earned. Still, it might not have occurred if she hadn’t summoned us all to our feet.

Photo: Thomas Aurin Gleditschstr

It’s for the thirtysomething German men behind me who helped to leaven the intensity of Marcel Kohler’s raw exploration of depression, anxiety, and identification with Germany’s greatest basketball player, Dirk Nowitzki, in Dirk und Ich. When Kohler played Dirk’s “Gameday” commercial in full during his one-man show in the Box at Deutsches Theater, I could hear them mouthing Dirk’s lines word-for-word. (Kohler, it turns out, is not the only millennial German to have idolised the “Flying Deutschman”.)

It’s for the immaculately-attired hipster, a twentysomething young Black man in shades and a green leather suit, whom I followed into the Deutsche Oper to watch Arabella. When I interviewed Florentina Holzinger for the last issue of Exberliner, she despaired how opera’s audience had largely grown sclerotic: old, rich, white. Yet, in our city, she noted, that’s not the only demographic there. Holzinger expressed her admiration for the “young hipsters” in the crowd. “Chapeau,” she said, tipping her metaphorical hat to them. I tip my hat to them, too – clad in cardigans and jeans, collecting in friendly groups during intermission, their presence surely helping to inform Tobias Kratzer’s risks with the show.

I have consistently been struck by the vibrancy of the city’s audiences

The evening I discovered the well-known German baritone, Michael Volle, sitting next to me and his exuberant standing applause (he towered over everyone) drawing waves from the performers, I was reminded that theatre is always a relationship between the people on stage and those in the seats. This is part of why the ongoing discussion about the makeup of the audience is so important – making sure people of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities and economic backgrounds can attend performances. It’s not simply a matter of access but of atmosphere. (And, I should note, among the many performances I’ve attended lately, only at Sophiensaele was a significant portion of the audience non-white – and even there, they still did not surpass a quarter of the attendees.)

When Lessing blamed the theatregoing public, he spoke about how it didn’t let the theatre take its natural course of development. The public’s presence is integral to that natural course. More than just the support, the audience is the air and the water, the lifeblood and the environment that allows for the performances themselves to grow.