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Prisoners rehearsing Don Quixote
The production presents the dark side of the Don Quixote storyImage: Thomas Aurin

Captive audience

July 12, 2011

On stage, inmates perform for a society they cannot otherwise participate in. The Berlin theater company aufBruch, currently staging a production of "Don Quixote," has been putting on shows with prisoners for 13 years.


AufBruch - a play on German words meaning "departure" and "breakout" - is one of Germany's most unique theater companies. The director, producers, designers and dramaturge are all veteran professionals, but the cast is entirely made up of convicted inmates.

In its 13-year history, the company has put on shows in several prisons in Germany, as well as others in places as far as Chile and Russia, but the jail they always return to, and where it all started, is Berlin's JVA Tegel.

A huge, ugly complex of brick and concrete buildings dating back to the 19th century, this is Germany's biggest maximum security prison, housing over 1,500 prisoners. Nineteen of them are currently performing aufBruch's latest production, an open-air version of Miguel de Cervantes' epic novel "Don Quixote," staged in a rough set made of metal and wood, complete with a giant windmill, in the prison yard.

Windmill set in JVA Tegel prison
Don Quixote is currently being performed at JVA Tegel prison in Berlin

The performances are subject to tight security - audiences have to leave their wallets, phones, keys and even chewing gum in lockers outside the gates - but the productions offer a unique bridge between society and those excluded from it.

Gap in the wall

This link between inside and outside the prison walls was a focus of the recent International Prison Theater Symposium, held at Berlin's Cervantes Institute.

"Obviously the wall is mainly there so the men don't run away," said Ralph Adam, director of JVA Tegel prison, who spoke at the symposium. "But on the other hand it creates a lot of alienation and mystery." Adam described aufBruch as the "highlight" of the prison's creative projects to rehabilitate the prisoners.

"In Berlin, a more liberal tendency in our criminal punishment system has developed in the last decades," Adam told Deutsche Welle. "Of course, it depends a lot on what the individual prison director is open to. I've always believed that creativity and supporting people's strengths carry a special weight when you want to influence people. And that's our task - influencing people."

Berlin Justice Minister Gisela von der Aue explained why the city authorities support projects like aufBruch. "We have a great interest in transparency in the penal system," she said. "We have nothing to hide. We want to tell people who have an abstract image of the penal system what we are actually doing with these people. These are people who have lost their way, and this theater work is one part of rehabilitation measures."

Tegel prison corridor
JVA Tegel is the largest prison in GermanyImage: dpa

But there is a limit to the official support that aufBruch gets. Although it is co-funded through Berlin's culture budget, the project is still dependent on private donations.

Spanish connection

Representatives of prison theater projects in Austria, Romania, Spain, Portugal, Chile, Mexico, Argentina and the UK gathered at the five-day symposium to exchange ideas, experiences and suggestions.

Perhaps it was in honor of the strong Spanish-speaking contingent that aufBruch chose to put on a version of "Don Quixote" parallel to the symposium.

Playwright Cervantes was a prisoner a few times in his eventful life, and it is even thought that he began his masterpiece while serving time. AufBruch's long-time director Peter Atanassow thinks the context of the prison highlights the dark side of the Don Quixote story.

"The people sit here - and wait, and wait. And they have to get through their time somehow, which they do with life-substitutes - with TV, with books, with drugs," he told Deutsche Welle. "And then we show what happens when someone like [Don Quixote] really does suddenly go out into the world. Someone who sits for years in his house somewhere and then says, 'Right, I'm off to save the human race.' I mean, it's a scary thought, in a way."

Personal Dons

Prison theater rehearsal
Some of the actors identify with the hero of the storyImage: Thomas Aurin

The actors have also developed a bond with the material. In this experimental production, six different prisoners portray the delusional hero, each with his own take on the part.

"I think the part of Don Quixote fits me very well," said Norman Bürger. "I'm struggling against the law. Not the law itself - I'm fighting against faults in the law, to be a fighter for good. The law has all the power, obviously, and I only have small successes, but I'm proud of those small successes."

Volker Ullmann almost sees his part in the play as an extension of the anger management therapy he attends. "Of course, I do say a lot about myself in the roles I'm playing. That's the way it is," he said. "Like when I shout at the barber in the play, that's how I was often with my colleagues when I was in a bad mood. And when I go ballistic - that does say a bit about my crime."

But what Ullmann invests in his role is his business, not the business of aufBruch. One of the company's strictest rules is that the actor's crime plays no explicit part in the production. The prisoners know that their personal lives are to be left outside rehearsals.

Through its many productions, aufBruch sticks faithfully to its one overarching aim - to create a connection between society and those outside of it.

Author: Ben Knight

Editor: Kate Bowen

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