ARTS / The fragments of a culture (2): Following the stage directions

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The Independent Culture
'A city could lose its identity if it were forced to give up its theatre.' So reads the prospectus of the little town theatre of Parchim in Mecklenburg. The statement was made by President Richard von Weizsacker, but you can understand why the theatre should be feeling defensive. Parchim (population 25,000), with 50 per cent unemployment and all local industries closed down, is near the bottom of the heap in the struggle for survival in the former GDR.

And under these circumstances, the last thing on people's minds is an evening out at the theatre. Attendances prove it: after the first two or three performances of any new production, head counts seldom go into treble figures.

There are 94 on the permanent payroll at the Parchim theatre and a lot of their time is spent soul-searching. In GDR times, all theatres received generous subsidy and were overstaffed. Parchim's theatre received a government subsidy of 4.5m German marks ( pounds 1.85m) this year, but with old people's homes being closed down in the town, even the theatre's Intendant, Michael Muhr, finds it difficult to justify its survival. Desperate plans are being discussed for this and the five other theatres in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region, the most sensible one being to pool certain areas such as administration and marketing, the most radical to make each theatre specialise. Parchim's theatre is trying to claw back its pre-1989 moral function by putting on 'socially relevant' work. One such play is Peter Hathazy's Kein Feuer ohne Kohle ('No fire without coal'), a realistic drama about a friendship between a punk and a skinhead, which premiered last season and is soon to be revived. Another is Werner Buhss's Abitur in Gustrow, set in 1953, which examines how it felt to be torn apart by teenage hormones, Party pressures and one's own conscience. Commissioned by the theatre, it premiered last week.

The theatre in Brandenburg (population 100,000) is using different tactics and facing a much rosier future. After swinging a huge grant, it has started building a 250-seat studio theatre next to the old building. The Brandenburg theatre provides a full range of drama, ballet and music, but concentrates on comedy, standard repertory opera, the classics, and emphasises local tradition and history. The general policy seems to be 'give 'em what they want'. In the 1992-3 prospectus Intendant Ekkehard Prophet quotes from Brecht: 'The noblest function of theatre is entertainment.' To prove his point, the burly, bearded Intendant himself takes the leading role of the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof this autumn.

Drama, dance and concerts are given not only in the theatre, but in parks, churches, schools and factories. Further ground for optimism is the imminent opening of a new university in the town and the Land Minister has stated his intention of keeping all the region's theatres functioning during this difficult period. With an annual subsidy of DM13m ( pounds 5.4m), the theatre provides a total of 400 performances a year in and around Brandenburg, to pretty full houses. They have even taken on a marketing man.

The one large East Berlin theatre that was threatened with closure was the Volksbuhne, a hideous Stalinist structure on the Rosa Luxemburg Platz. Seating more than 800, it was always a difficult theatre to fill, and never had the traditional weight of the Berliner Ensemble or the Deutsches Theater to help it along. Now it has been handed over to the 40-year-old director Frank Castorf, an east German who has long made a name for himself with his outrageous reworkings of the classics. Booing, whistling and noisy departures from the auditorium are almost obligatory features of any Castorf premiere.

Castorf has no intention of competing with the glitzy productions of Berlin's other main theatres, but will concentrate on innovative and experimental work (providing a firm base for what you could call the fringe, a neglected area in German theatre). With a DM23m ( pounds 9.47m) annual subsidy and a permanent acting ensemble of 33, the Volksbuhne could provide a valuable new facet to the Berlin theatre scene.

Castorf kicks off his first season next month with King Lear, which he sees as a highly relevant tale of territorial carve-ups and general mayhem. Dull it won't be. In November he hands the theatre to Britain's Jeremy Weller for a reworking of Camus' La Peste, in which Weller will be using some of Berlin's down-and- outs as well as trained actors. The project has already attracted a lot of press attention in Germany, a lot of it in the form of jokey interviews with the bemused down-and-outs.

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