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Scene in Berlin

In Berlin, not every theater has a stage

The surplus of small bars in Berlin is always a good reason to get a drink. Now it's becoming a good reason to see some theater, says DW's Jason Kenny.

It's a chilly evening in Berlin and the bar Tante Lisbeth in the Kreuzberg district is full, except for a few leftover chairs in the corners. My date and I order our drinks and take a seat. Then a menu is placed in front of us.

It's not a list of tapas or fine wines, but of short performances in German, English and Italian. We order the English dialogue "How to Pick Up a Woman" and an Italian monologue. Actress Nikki Thomas then sits down next to us with her book and a candle. Once the candle is lit, the performance starts.

Carlo Loiudice saunters over from the other side of the bar with the only other prop, a small bell, and delivers the first line: "Hello. Is this seat taken?"

The project Theater Am Tisch has been bringing monologues and small performances to people in bars around Berlin for the past two years. It all began in Milan when the company's producer Serena Schmid struggled to find a performance space.

Bringing theater to the people

So Schmid and her colleagues got creative and decided to bring the performances to a place where the people were already. When she came to Berlin, she noticed that many of the small bars here would be ideal to continue the performances.

"When I moved to Berlin I decided to do it here," Schmid says. I meet her the following week in another bar across town. "I just saw that this city was just perfect for it, maybe rightly, maybe wrongly. When I started it was easy to find actors, not so easy to find locations."

Consciously or not, when an audience member enters a theater, buys a ticket and sits in the seats, there's a deal being settled with the performers. When the performance is in a bar, it's an entirely different arrangement.

Many among Theater Am Tisch's audiences don't even know they're going to experience a bit of theater when they go out for the evening - until they're presented with the unique performance menu and make a selection.

"The audiences don't say much, but they love it," Schmid explains. "Maybe it's because for the first time they can see up close the expressions on the [actors'] faces. I don't come from a theater background, but I'm with the actors every day and I discover something from being so close. It's the details. And then there's the fact you can talk to them afterwards."

Theatre Am Tisch theater menu on a table in the Berlin bar Tante Lisbeth, Photo. DW /Jason Kenny

Order a drink, then order a play

When Carlo Loiudice's character begins chatting with Nikki Thomas' just across the table from us, it becomes clear to me just how spontaneous and intimate these kinds of performances can be. There is no stage, just the table. I don't dare reach for my drink, just centimeters from their bodies.

When they start to fidget

Australian-born actress Nikki Thomas initially approached Schmid about taking the project to New York. But after doing a few performances with the troupe, she joined the cast and decided to stay in Berlin. The intimate setting presents a particular challenge to the performer, according to Thomas.

"When it's that close you really know when people aren't connecting with you," Thomas says. "Because they look away or start drinking or start to fiddle. And that really impacts me when I'm performing when someone's not into it or not concentrating. I pick pieces that I feel most comfortable with sitting down and telling strangers at a bar."

The material is drawn from some well-known plays and films, including works inspired by Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, as well as some emerging local writers.

Theater Am Tisch is just one of the theatrical formats Schmid produces that takes advantage of non-traditional theater. Another of her projects was the Altbau performance where the audience follows the performers from room to room around a flat as the story unfolded.

"It's funny watching audiences because sometimes they're too close," Thomas reflects. "And other times it's like it's their own lounge room."

Off-stage theater around the world

Although the Theater Am Tisch cast may see it differently, theater outside a theater is not exclusive to Berlin. And it's growing in popularity. The Moving Arts Company in Los Angeles, for example, has been taking another approach to bringing intimate performances to a small crowd. There, audience members buy a ticket, then sit in the back of a stationary car as the actors in the front seat perform the piece. It's all the drama of the highway but without the road rage.

Theatre Am Tisch actors Nikki Thomas and Carlo Loiudice, Photo: DW /Jason Kenny

Nikki Thomas and Carlo Loiudice enjoy the challenge of performing just centimeters away from their audience

The Singaporean company Skinned Knee Productions have also been taking theater to the people by performing in bars and restaurants. Their production of "The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband" this year put a fresh spin on the idea of going out for a dinner and a show. The restaurant had been designed to also accommodate cooking classes, and that leant itself to being used as a performance space. The culinary theme of the play spread into the menu being served.

"The characters are very intimate with the audience, stealing their chairs and eating off their plates," explains producer and director Rayann Condy. "One character in particular has a very intimate relationship with the audience and there was one night when the actress spilled water on one of the audience members while she filled up his glass during her monologue. The whole process of cleaning up and giving him a glass of wine to apologize all while performing - the audience loved it."

Back at our table in Tante Lisbeth, Loiudice and Thomas pull the scene to its finale. It's a happy ending. And as Thomas leans forward to blow out the candle to a pattering of applause, I can once again reach for my drink without feeling self-conscious.

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