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A visit to Berlin – June 2024

Daniel and Becky visit Berlin-based prison theatre company

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Practitioners Daniel and Becky visit Berlin-based prison theatre company, aufBruch, as part of an exchange project funded by Cultural Bridge. Senior Practitioner, Daniel, reflects on the experience:

At 8am, Monday the 24th June 2024, Becky and I were boarding a flight to Germany. By noon, we were on a train meandering through the German countryside and Berlin suburbia, surrounded by a flurry of tourists and people in various European football shirts. Unlike those headed to watch the Netherlands and Austria battle it out in the Olympiastadion, we were on our way to meet Aufbruch and the cast who were halfway through their run of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) by Bertolt Brecht at Tegel Prison.

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon, when Becky and I found ourselves standing outside the metal gates of Tor 2, ready to meet the group and attend a read-through of the script before the following evening’s performance. Checking into the prison was as we expected: placing our phones in the provided lockers, showing our passports, and receiving ID cards to keep on us at all times. We then began the walk through the prison with Holger and the rest of the team, Holger being the key holder for the group. This was a routine walk for them, but for Becky and I, it was a surprise to see large courtyards with grassy exercise yards and many trees. It was a stark contrast to the concrete walkways we were used to navigating in UK prisons. There was no rubbish outside the windows, no music pumping from the wings, but the sound of nature thriving within the prison walls.

We continued through and were taken to an old abandoned block, repurposed by Aufbruch as a rehearsal space, technical cupboard, and set-building area, with old empty cells converted into toilets for the crew, cast, and audience. The rehearsal was adjacent to the open-air set, beautifully crafted with multiple levels, entrances, and a small stage for the five-piece band to set up. The band was to come in from outside the prison, five members of the brilliant and well renowned 17 Hippies.

The rehearsal was like no other we have had at Geese. The cast sat on chairs arranged in a circle under trees, rolling cigarettes and sunbathing while reciting lines from The Threepenny Opera with perfect pitch and rhythm. It was clear how much work had gone into this process. Group members could have disagreements about lines and previous performances and handle the confrontations respectfully, before rejoining the rehearsal. Afterwards, the group sat down for doner kebabs, an Aufbruch tradition that takes place halfway through the run of the performances. This gave an opportunity to speak with some of the cast members, which revealed two things, one, how much the cast were enjoying the process of performing and two, how woefully inadequate my GCSE German was turning out to be. Fortunately, some English speakers in the cast took on translation duties, and we heard the group talk about the incredible experience of performing a play, the joy of reading reviews from critics praising their performances, and the fears around mingling with the audience after the performance. They expressed concerns about preconceived ideas of what it means to be a prisoner and the common question, ‘will you continue acting once you leave prison?’ ‘How can you do this when being a prisoner follows you around even when you’ve left and are trying to start a new life’, one of the guys remarked.

The next day, we were back at Tor 2, this time with an array of audience members ready to see the production. We were brought in groups of 20, checked in and searched by prison officers, and then escorted through the grounds. The audience members, many of whom were stepping into a prison for the first time, were fascinated. Unlike the vacant exercise yards we had walked past the day before, this time they were full of men from the wings enjoying some time outside, separated from the audience by a large wire fence. Becky and I acknowledged the juxtaposition of this moment—was this a beautiful moment of bringing people together, or was it more akin to a human zoo where you could buy a ticket to see not only a piece of theatre but also those who had been locked up? These thoughts were interrupted when a prisoner cheerfully said, “Enjoy the show,” through the wire fence, met with a chorus of “Dankeschön” from the audience as they continued their journey to the performance space.

We took our places along the raked bench seating area and saw some of the cast we had met the day before, frantically smoking cigarettes before the metaphorical curtain raised. And then it began—the narrator appeared on the middle platform, introducing the play with his commanding voice and presence. The show was fully costumed, taking place across the many levels of the set, and interspersed with songs and musical moments underscored by the brilliant band. The cast was fantastic, playing all characters, including the female roles, with utmost dedication and inhibition. Their voices and songs filled the wide grassy courtyard, a testament to the voice work they had done with Aufbruch during rehearsals.

The show, lasting over two hours without an interval, was mesmerizing. About 30 minutes in, the magic of theatre fully took control and the whole context around this performance dissolved. We were no longer an audience in a prison watching prisoners perform a play; that wall between us disappeared. We were simply an audience watching Macheath and his cronies navigate the Victorian underworld of East London. Mrs Peachum had the audience on the edge of their seats with her stunning movement and connivery, Tiger Browns authority was felt across the courtyard, and the actor playing Polly managed to hold innocence, believability and comedy in perfect balance at all times.

Once the performance had finished, the actors received a well-deserved standing ovation. There were some words from Aufbruch, and the audience was invited to mingle with the cast. The smiles, excitement, and relief were plain to see. Audience members were able to leave in groups of 20 until only a few remained, and then it was time for the cast to be taken back to the wings, through the many locked doors and back to their individual cells…

Reflecting on our experience, we marvelled at how the group had had a total change from their usual prison regime. For the last three months they had spent most days working in the morning and then dedicated the afternoons and early evenings to rehearsing the play. And that dedication showed. The work of Aufbruch, though different in style, delivery, and timescale from Geese, shared many commonalities: increased confidence, stepping out of comfort zones, and the ability to view oneself in a new role inside and outside prison.

All photographs with  permission from aufBruch / Thomas Aurin

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