English Theater Berlin Brings Experimental 'Lab' Project Back

Aug 30, 2012

The on-again, off-again theater project "The Lab" is back with more thought-provoking productions.

The Lab, founded in 2003, is dedicated to contemporary English-language plays from around the world. It has staged a series of performances at the English Theater Berlin, which encourages the audience to participate and voice their opinion.

Veteran actor Tom Strauss and original founder Daniel Brunet are The Lab's curators.

"One of our primary goals with The Lab, with this new configuration," Brunet says "is to make sure that our audience and our artists have as much of a connection to the greater theater scene of Berlin as possible. I was very struck by the series of protests against two different productions on German language stages this winter. At the core was the issue of white actors wearing black make-up, being cast in the role of black characters."

In response to the so-called "black face debate" in Germany, Brunet has curated "Colorblind," a program consisting of performances, readings, and discussions that will run until the end of October at the English Theater Berlin. 

"I want to pose this debate to our audience: the notion of racial identity on stage is quite sensitive not only in Germany, but in the United States, in Britain. All throughout the world as well. And with "Colorblind," we are taking three different plays from three different countries that all in their own way look at this issue very, very succinctly."

One of the plays is "Unschuld" by Dea Loher, which saw some controversy after two white actors performed in black makeup. "Unschuld" is one of 18 German plays Brunet has translated into English.

The 32 year-old has recently received two grants for his translation work. "Colorblind" begins with a provocative piece by young African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

"We begin with 'Neighbors,'" Brunet says, "and in the debate in Germany about the plays 'Ich bin nicht Rappaport' and 'Unschuld' there were references made to the practice of minstrelsy. Minstrelsy is one of the most original forms of US American popular entertainment. It was incredibly controversial, and it primarily consisted of troops of white actors in so-called black face, applying burnt cork or shoe polish to their faces presenting an incredible stereotyped caricature of a black person, so this play 'Neighbors' takes minstrelsy and places it on stage."

Actor and co-founder, Tom Strauss, says he hopes the plays will bring in a new audience to the theater.

"We are hoping that by presenting these series of plays, which are of great interest in themselves, but also because of this emotional, social context they've been presented in, that we will attract a new audience."

Strauss, an accomplished movie and theater actor, was born in Berlin in the 1930's. He relocated as a child to the US and returned to Berlin in the 1980's. Strauss is very well aware of the emotional aspect attached to questions of racial identity in Germany. Currently, close to 20 percent of the population has a migration background. With the wide range of pieces that make up "Colorblind," the curators hope to tap into the diversity that exists in the city.

"Some days in Berlin, I feel almost as though I am in New York, or in Queens in terms of looking at all of the diversity around me," Brunet says.

"What's been fascinating to really work with the greater theater community in the capital and to also find so called Afro-Deutsche, or Germans of other migratory backgrounds who can work with us in these plays when necessary."

The revival of The Lab comes at a difficult time, as the future of the English Theater Berlin itself is uncertain. The Berlin Senate has recently decided it will cut funding for the long running institution after 2013.