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Berlin finds its voice at the new Speaker's Corner

August 13, 2010

London is no longer the only European capital with a Speaker's Corner. A public-speaking trainer has now planted one in Berlin. For a city so used to creative art, it's a strange new challenge for artistic Berliners.

Image: DW

Berlin can be a bewildering kaleidoscope of seat-of-your-pants creativity, with thousands of live-shows in all kinds of cross-bred formats happening every year. Most of it is terrible, of course - meandering, pretentious, unprepared, morally meaningless, or just fuelled by a directionless urge to escape the horrors of employment.

I am not being sour - the city's live-art world is pure and liberating. What Berlin provides, and this makes the city so great, is an atmosphere of acceptance that all amateur artistic endeavors are valuable. It doesn't matter if you don't have anything to say, as long as you say it, preferably with a techno soundtrack while wearing too much black eyeliner and a torn tutu.

But a Speaker's Corner is different. With public speaking, the performance aesthetic is stripped back, exposing the content. It's not about what you can do, but whether you have a point.

A plastic crate was set up as a soap-box, a sign was planted next to it, and the Speaker's Corner, conceived by speaking coach and theater director Peter Lueder, was born. It is tucked away in the newly inaugurated Tempelhof park, the immense expanse of unkempt grass and strips of worn concrete that used to be the famous airport's airfield, and it is free all the time for you to have your say.

Opening event

Public speaking is so much more confrontational than blogging. It takes a lot of courage to stand on a box and speak your mind in a public park. Courage, or righteous anger. Or just mental instability. Whatever the motivation, the results are almost always entertaining, particularly when the speaker begins to strip.

Barefooted, slightly scrawny and scraggly with his blond beard and linen suit, Steffen was nearing the end of his plea for more "feeling" in society - a long ramble that included an extended metaphor with an upside-down German flag and some thoughts on the national anthem - when he began to undress.

Two poetry slammers
Live art in Berlin is one thing - having a point is anotherImage: solarplexus.ch/Lisa Küttel

There was a ruffle of collective tension that passed through the audience - people shifted on their deckchairs, judges glanced uncertainly towards the organizers, parents wondered whether this was really turning out to be an ideal Sunday afternoon activity. But it was all right for me. Watching Steffen's unhinged rant approach its climax - he was someone who had obviously been through a lot - had already made me worry that he might set himself on fire as a finale, so the less horrific prospect of seeing him nude was a relief - if anything.

In the event, Steffen merely put on a pair of shorts and a rough, patchwork waistcoat, and enthusiastic applause followed.

Dramatic amateurs

The point of a Speaker's Corner is the celebration of democracy. These weren't people much used to speaking in public, or even being listened to much. This was one speaker's theme: Paula, a local 13-year-old, demanded lowering the voting age and called out for youth to be given a voice.

Even the professional performers - an actor and a cabaret artist were among the 10 speakers - faced a different experience without the safety of prepared material. And despite the competitive, boisterous nature of the event, this was nothing like a poetry slam.

There was Matthias, a 38-year-old juggler with the charisma of a dentist. In a good way - the sort of dentist who likes sarcastic jokes and maintaining an air of dry superiority. Matthias told a story about a boiled egg that segued into a scene about a child making too much noise in a courtyard and an ensuing row between neighbors. Unfortunately his time ran out before the point came into view, but the spectators appreciated it nonetheless.

One man and his dog

Winfried, who mounted the stage with his small, excitable dog, did have a point, even if it was on the reactionary side. All Panama hat and self-confidence, Winfried suggested that women had not reached equality in the professional world because they had been hogging all the child-raising to themselves. His dog made several attempts to jump off the stage.

As the event unfolded, there was a noticeable change in the audience - the ruffle of uncertainty about Steffen turned into enthusiasm. The idea of a Speaker's Corner began to fire the imagination, and new participants began to trickle out of the audience. It was all encapsulated by a man with a sunny character who appeared just to say he had opposed the closure of Tempelhof airport - an issue that tormented Berlin for quite some time - but now loved the new park.

So used to accepting amateur art, it'll be interesting to see how Berlin embraces the challenge of amateur politics.

Ben Knight is petrified by the thought of speaking in public.

Editor: Sean Sinico