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Features Published 24 June 2015

Gefängnistheater aufBruch: A Prison Theatre Project in Berlin

"This is theatre, not therapy." Rebecca Jacobson reports on a version of the Odyssey performed by a company of current and former prison inmates in Berlin.
Rebecca Jacobson

Pines ring an abandoned swimming pool in Lichtenberg, on the eastern edge of Berlin. Used as an Olympics training facility in the ‘30s and later as a public pool, no one’s taken a dip here in 25 years, not since this was a divided city. The diving platform is rusted. The peeling aquamarine walls have been sprayed with graffiti. Weeds spring from the cracked asphalt. Down in what was once the deep end, frogs and toads have made a swampy home in a puddle of rainwater.

But for the next few weeks, these crumbling ruins will become Ithaca. After 20 years away, the Greek king Odysseus has finally made it home. And, well, it’s not exactly as he left it. That’s the starting point for Odysseus, Verbrecher (Odysseus, Criminal), the latest production by Gefängnistheater aufBruch, a prison theatre project here. The subject matter is fitting: Many of this production’s 30 participants—who include current and former prisoners, trained actors and a few average Berliners—know what it’s like to return home and find their world has changed.

At a rehearsal last week, André Stiller chuckles and nods at the parallel. After three years in prison, Stiller is set to be released in two days. “I think Odysseus returns home with big expectations,” he says. “I’m realistic. I know it won’t be quite like it was, and that a lot of work awaits me.”

Theatre, Stiller says, has provided much-needed relief from the “vegetative life” behind bars. This is his third show with aufBruch. The group—its name means “departure” or “awakening,” and is conveniently one letter away from the German word for “jailbreak”—launched in 1997, and today it’s active in all of Berlin’s seven prisons, including the juvenile detention centre. At four of these locations, the final performances are open to the public. Since 2000, aufBruch has also put on annual productions like this one, which feature a mixed cast and take place outside of prison—such as in the former officers’ mess at the old Tempelhof airport, or at one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. Cast members like Stiller receive permission to leave jail for evening rehearsals.

Peter Atanassow has directed aufBruch’s productions since 2000. In conversation, he’s very clear: this is theatre, not therapy. The aim is good art, not rehabilitation. “From the beginning, I wanted to make theatre,” says Atanassow, 46. “I didn’t want to air grievances or scrutinise the penal system. I wanted to make theatre in this space, a place I found incredibly interesting. There are clear hierarchies, a very clear code of conduct. It’s all very ritualised. I wanted to tell something about this community of men, who live together and have to get along with each other—these men who are simultaneously perpetrator and victim.” (For the productions outside of prison, women also take part.)

aufBruch’s shows often reflect such themes. The group has produced adaptations of Kafka’s The Trial and of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. There’s the occasional contemporary play—in March of this year, Atanassow directed Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy at the juvenile detention facility—but more often time-honored or classical work, typically with formal language.

“When you have someone who’s never been in a play, who’s maybe read one book in his whole life, and now has Schiller, Goethe, Kleist, Brecht—he approaches the language with tremendous naïveté and immediacy, and the result can be fascinating,” Atanassow says. “That sort of language is unknown territory, and they go into it without preconceptions. The plays about things they know are much more difficult, because they’re afraid to tell too much about themselves. But when I give them King Lear, they’re protected—and through that, they open themselves.”

Protecting his performers doesn’t mean going easy on them. During rehearsal, Atanassow works his cast hard. “Tempo, tempo, tempo!” he calls. The cast, all dressed in heavy black work boots—donated by the German military a decade ago—scurry about the old pool deck. Atanassow often mouths along as the actors speak their lines. When one answers his phone in between scenes, Atanassow shoots him an unambiguous look. The actor hangs up, sheepish.

Odysseus, Verbrecher is a 2010 work by Austrian playwright Christoph Ransmayr. But in typical aufBruch fashion, the script is peppered with additional texts. These range from a speech by SS leader Heinrich Himmler to an absurdist monologue by rising German playwright Wolfram Lotz, told from the perspective of a Somali pirate. The show also features tango breaks, a bit of military-style choreography and several songs, among them “Lili Marlene” and prison work song “Po’ Lazarus.” Rose Louis-Rudek, an actress who arrived in Germany from South Sudan more than 25 years ago—and who’s appeared on some of Berlin’s biggest stages, including then Schaubühne and the Volksbühne—performs the gospel hymn “Oh Happy Day” and a song in her native Moro language.

Another crucial element, as in all aufBruch productions, is the chorus: the moments when the full cast stands together and speaks or sings in unison. “The chorus has many functions,” Atanassow says. “One is that it creates cohesion. Everyone has to have the same rhythm, and that fosters a sense of community. It also comes from the idea that in society, there are always people who are excluded—prisoners, criminals, refugees, radicals—and seen as the enemy. The chorus speaks to our primal fears: When a group of 20 people are roaring at you, you get scared. You have to listen, and even if you don’t understand every word, it moves you.”

For cast member Ali El-Faour, theatre has had a calming effect. “Honestly, theatre is like a sedative for me,” says El-Faour, who got his start with aufBruch while in juvenile detention in 2010. “I used to be pretty aggressive. My life consisted of gangs, fights, drinking and drugs. Every day was like the other. But I noticed that whenever I was acting, I was calm. So after I was released, I asked myself, what’s the best way to remain calm? And I thought, OK: back to aufBruch.”

That was four years ago. El-Faour has been with the group ever since.

Odysseus, Verbrecher runs June 24-July 12 at BVB Stadion Lichtenberg, Siegfriedstr. 71, Berlin. More information (in German) here.

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