Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Berlin Reflections

I recently spent almost two weeks in Berlin. It was a largely-unplanned excursion (let's call it "show business sucks") but a long-awaited return all the same.

I was last in Berlin in 1994. Between 1991 and that year, I think I visited the city at least 5 times. The transformations going on in the city were so profound -- deaths and rebirths played out in front of your eyes. Somewhere in the Balkans via Bohemia archives I still have a small flyer protesting the removal of the statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin in Friedrichshain. It's an event that also plays a big role in Yugoslav filmaker Dusan Makavejev's Gorilla Bathes at Noon -- his wildly underrated film about Berlin in that tumultuous era. (Here's YouTube clip of a key scene.)

Needless to say 17 years has seen an immense amount of change. The edgy Prenzlauer Berg I knew from the early 1990s is awash with moms and stollers and boasts a terrific farmer's market tucked amidst restored building facades. The best chance you have in the neighborhood to find that post-socialist moment is the delightfully dingy Klub der Republik -- a place that encourages flouting of Germany's smoking laws, demands a 1 euro tithe to the DJ, and is decorated with distinctive lights salvaged from Berlin's now-demolished East German government center and socialist playground Palast der Republik. (The couches were taken from the legendary -- and now rehabbed -- Cafe Moskau.)

Klub der Republik was a really funky place -- and like so much of that alternative Prenzlauer Berg I once knew -- it will disappear next year when the building is rehabbed.

Those looking to satisfy a case of Ostalgie on their own have increasingly little to get their hooks into. On Sunday, I hung out at the Arkonaplatz flea market, which specializes in wares from that era. There wasn't much on offer, though I did pick up a nifty book on East German fashion for a few euros.

The commodification of Ostalgie is felt most keenly at the actual DDR Museum located right in the city's main tourist drag in an underground museum. The place was jammed when I visited -- and every time I passed it, even -- so there was quite an interest. (It could use a bit more room in fact.) The idea of the place is that it is "interactive" -- you open drawers and see bits of speeches or hear music or see fashion or instruments of police persecution. One also couldn't help noticing that the tone of the exhibit was pitched at a sort of exquisite neutrality best summarized thus way: "The people of the former DDR were good. They had their own culture and some of it was even interesting and fun. But the state apparatus was bad, very bad. And you see the evidence here."

The DDR Museum is a balanced -- almost eerily balanced -- approach which is much preferable to Budapest's infamous House of Terror (which traffics in the worst sort of Hungarian nationalism and victimization in grappling with its socialist era), but it left me feeling a bit queasy all the same. History isn't meant to be this easy.

I spent some of the time poking around other bits of Berlin I knew in times past. In West Berlin, Charlottenburg (especially the area around the Schloss Charlottenburg) seems almost somnolent and sucked dry of interest -- as if nothing had happened in the city at all since my last visit.

The real revelation to me is what has filled some of the empty space of demolished Cold War Berlin. So much has been written about the new Potsdamerplatz that I was dreading seeing it and yet felt compelled to go. It was hideous. The mall ("Arkaden")was simultaneously dreadful and nondescript -- and the huge, empty, imperial spaces through which you enter the U-Bahn stations and Potsdamer's underground spaces reminded me keenly of the Death Star. It was chilling, actually, all the waste of space and imagination. A cathedral of commerce that seemed not to link up to any of the neighborhoods around it in any useful way. It seems to exist only to exude economic power and aesthetic sterility

On one of my last days, I wandered over to Ernst-Thälmann-Park (photo above) -- a slightly neglected and overgrown park in Prenzlauer Berg which has a sentimental attraction for me. It features in a bit of my unpublished novel about the early post-socialist 1990s, Luckyboys, because one of the characters is wandering around the wild and newly reopened East Berlin and keeps getting lost, doomed again and again to go past the head and raised fist of Thälmann.

Today, as I say, it's overrun by skate kids and weeds in the cracks of the plaza. The statue of Thälmann is tagged by Berlin's ubiquitous graffiti. It seemed as good a place as any to wind up a tour of a much-changed Berlin.

(Monument in Ernst-Thälmann-Park. Photo by Richard Byrne)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Permanent Tent? Another Take on Capital Fringe

I'm missing a lot of Capital Fringe Festival this year, but made it to a few shows (Happenstance Theater's Manifesto, Pinky Swear Productions' Cabaret XXX) and helped the gang doing Live Broadcast hype their show before travel beckoned me away for the balance of the festival.

But I still have access to Facebook on the road, so it was hard to miss many of my friends sharing Gwydion Suilebhan's blog post complaining about Capital Fringe ticket prices.

This complaint about Fringe prices is an annual thing. And I don't disagree with Gwydion that the pricing policy rewards those who go to a lot of Fringe shows and punishes those who want to dip a toe or foot into the festival.

Indeed, there's another strand of permanent grousing about Fringe as well, mainly from many local artistic directors, who really don't like the resources and attention that Capital Fringe Festival draws away from their own year-round endeavors. And they also have a point -- especially in the fervent wish that local media would cover local theater this way all year round.

Gwydion's post lays out an argument that Capital Fringe is too pricey and sets forth an opinion on what Fringe's true pricing point should be. Effective as the post is in making those points, however, the market seems to be singing a different tune. And it is singing that tune despite the considerable leverage that the consumers and performers have if they are dissatisfied. They can cast a ballot with their feet. If you don't like the pricing scheme, don't go to Fringe. If the performance situation isn't right, don't put on a show at Fringe.

But people do go. And there are many shows for them to see. So to my mind the more useful questions for local theater consumers and performers are (a) what is Capital Fringe doing right? and (b) how can that be replicated year round?

For me, Capital Fringe is like one of those old-timey revival tents. You know, the traveling salvation shows where indie gospel-slingers would roll into town, save a bunch of people and then pull up stakes and preach it in the next town. (Think Elmer Gantry.)

The argument that the revival preachers make to local churches (again, see Elmer Gantry) is straightforward. This is going to drive attendance in your churches after we leave town. That is a very debatable proposition for local theater, but that's the argument.

But what's beyond debate is the energy that the Capital Fringe infuses into the DC theater community for its three-week run. The atmosphere at the tent at Fort Fringe is pretty astonishing in its boozy, networky way. People are actually having fun seeing theater. Friends are being made. It's something that DC theater could use all year round. A permanent tent.

Instead, to pick on one particular instance, you have an awesome space like Artisphere with a cafe that doesn't stay open long enough to have a drink or kibbitz after a show. That's a lost opportunity. And a way we can learn from what Fringe does right. Not just creating art, but creating a fun and exciting and vital space around the art.

If the press reports are correct (Chris Klimek's masterful profile of Capital Fringe last year comes to mind), Capital Fringe is a pretty sustainable festival in the economic sense. I don't see anything wrong with that at all. It's what everybody in this game wants. Everyone knows that you won't get rich doing theater in DC, but much of what we do is not sustainable absent the intervention of rapidly-shrinking arts funding by government and donors. We need to make what we do more sustainable. Fringe proves that it can be done. Not without costs and controversy. But it can be done.

Truth be told, I can think of one company in town (Woolly Mammoth) that consistently tries to infuse that positive Fringey energy into all aspects of what they do -- from shows to marketing to excellent use/sharing of their ample space. Local companies need to do more of that -- and if they lack the resources to do it themselves, then they need to put aside some of their competitive axes and band together to make it happen.

For instance: What would a late fall or early spring festival put together by DC's best mid-sized nonprofit theaters look like? A festival held at one or two central locations and with a central meeting place with food and drink?

Or, to simplify, what would an expansion of the Source Festival look like -- an expansion that keeps the festival's present vision and inventive format but adds another layer of performances by local companies into the mix? (And, maybe, a move to a different time of year?)

Either one of these things could compel local media to pay the same sort of attention to local companies that they pay to Fringe. Both would infuse the local theater community with energy and shared enterprise. But it would take cooperation and coordination. Just the sort of thing that Capital Fringe has done successfully over the past few years.

Grousing about ticket prices feels good. Like everyone wrestling with this grim economy, I grouse about ticket prices all the time. But once the grousing's done, what actually changes? And what do we learn? And how do we make a more energetic local theater scene real (and sustainable) year round? How do we build a permanent tent for DC theatre?

Capital Fringe is giving us a lot of ideas that we can use to make a start. If we want to.