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Cabaret acts as catharsis for east Germans

DRESDEN - The big theatres in eastern Germany are finding times hard. Where once, before the Wall came down, people used to head frequently and faithfully for the box office, the queues are now sporadic.

It is not just because tickets have become pricier, while more and more people are out of work. The cultural competition has become much stronger, with satellite television and all the latest films. But there is one corner of stagecraft which is thriving. In small theatres, more often than not tucked away in unlikely corners of towns and cities across eastern Germany, cabaret is booming.

'People need it now just as much as they needed it before under Communism,' says Tom Pauls, a cabaret artiste with Dresden's Zwinger Trio. 'People felt screwed then, and many feel screwed again today. They are hungry for something that captures and expresses those feelings.'

Nothing does so quite like cabaret - that quintessentially German combination of music, acting and song. It is a show that lurches unexpectedly between laughter and embarrassment, as preoccupations and prejudices are refracted through a pitiless prism of wit and satire.

In comfortable western Germany, cabaret is generally seen as just another form of irreverent entertainment. In the east it is more, just as it had been for years. It is a unique form of catharsis.

'We are living such crazed times here, of frustration, bitterness and shattered illusions,' says Manfred Schubert. Back in 1961, he founded the Herkuleskeule in Dresden, which became one of East Germany's best known cabarets. 'Day in, day out, people face things that make them angry. Then, in the evening at the cabaret, they can see those same things, and laugh at them,' he says.

The place is still packed out, night after night. All the classic themes of eastern life today are found on stage - unemployment, bullying westerners, once-independent eastern women driven into the kitchen, the Stasi secret service, holidays in once-only- dreamed-about Benidorm, and the wonders of the free-market economy.

'There is hardly anyone in the east who is not experiencing some upheaval,' says Peter Kube, another Zwinger Trio member. 'Cabaret reacts quickly, it is direct - it captures the zeitgeist. That is why normal theatre is in such a crisis here. People find it has lost much of its relevance.'

Tom Pauls started the Zwinger Trio 10 years ago with Peter Kube and Jurgen Haase when they were all students at drama school in Dresden. They are proud of the tough, professional training they had to go through to become state-recognised actors.

The trio made its name, however, by doing cabaret part-time, alongside their jobs as actors at the Dresden state theatre. This gave them one advantage: the censors were not present, as with all official, state cabarets, for a whole week before the show started. The disadvantage was that some of the Zwinger Trio's shows never got beyond the first performance.

'The nature of our work was very different under Communism,' says Gisela Grube, who has been on stage at the Herkuleskeule since 1962. 'Then it was all done with symbols and suggestion, saying one thing and meaning another. Now, people want harder stuff . . . Before, Honecker was untouchable, but you found ways to laugh at him. Now, people find there are countless things in their lives that are out of control, also untouchable, but we laugh at them too.'

All the big names in eastern German cabaret have now made countless tours in the west, the land of those arrogant, bullying, selfish wessis they so love to parody. The response has not always been generous, as some western critics accuse them of doing nothing in the shows but whine about their problems.

'Can't they snap out of it, and move with the times?' asked one critic recently. Tom Pauls just shrugs at such criticism. 'We are writing about eastern feelings, and that is something many in the west simply cannot, or will not, understand,' he says.