The Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham is situated in Halifax Place, right in the centre of the historic Lace Market area. It has a well deserved reputation for the professional quality of its amateur theatrical programme offering over fourteen productions annually in both the main auditorium and its studio space. The theatre also has an award winning and successful youth theatre group and the overall membership is unusual in encouraging a twinning relationship between them and two other amateur theatres in the German city of Karlsruhe.
East Midlands Theatre.com theatre writer, Phil Lowe, explains: In 1980 the Lace Market Theatre took advantage to engage in a new twinning incentive where opportunities lay in performing abroad and also in having the chance to see other theatrical works from another country. Nottingham is twinned with the German city of Karlsruhe and so the theatre committee wrote to some amateur theatre groups there and eagerly awaited their reply. This was before the Internet was a means of quick communication. So, when two foreign stamped letters arrived on the Lace Market Theatre doormat there was lots of excitement all around. What unknown theatrical journeys lay out there to discover and enjoy? What great friendships to make? Do we all have to learn German?
The letters themselves were from the Theater Die Käuze owned by former Olympic athlete Karl Kaufmann and his family and from the Jakobus Theater in der Fabrik, based in their city centre, and known for its brave approaches to theatre. We replied enthusiastically and so began what the Germans call Die Deutsch -Englischen Theaterbegegnungen. In 1982 the German groups were invited over and came to Nottingham to perform the first ever plays in German at The Lace Market Theatre. The Jakobus group brought two plays – Brecht’s Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar and Kannst du zaubern Opa? The latter was a piece originally devised by the Grips Theatre in Berlin. Die Käuze entertained us with Der Meteor by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
All of the visitors had the opportunity to stay with an English family in and around Nottingham. From those early beginnings grew great and lasting friendships and an appreciation of European culture and ways of presenting theatre. In 1984 we went to the beautiful city of Karlsruhe with its almost Mediterranean climate and performed Small Pieces by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett plus You Can Never Tell by George Bernard Shaw at their theatres. The Jakobus theatre is very different spatially to the traditional proscenium arch staging we are used to at the Lace Market Theatre. The space is in a warehouse and provides a long letter box type space with two columns supporting the roof. Such a stage can offer opportunities for creative and imaginative staging with due respect to the sight lines around the two obstructing, thick, metallic columns. When we have taken plays there, that have been shown previously on our stage at the Lace Market Theatre, the creative team and director have had to re-think the play and movements all over again. Therefore they usually re-rehearse up to a week before the visit to freshen everything up and for the actors to get used to new positioning.
The Die Käuze theatre is set on a charming quiet housing estate in a lush wooded area called Waldstadt and the small stage is below ground in a basement. Their group tend to perform children’s shows and fairy tales and use the limited space with great creativity. They are especially adapt at theatrical make-up and costume design. The city itself has a fantastic, very established, tramway system so even this venue, out in the woods, is still accessible after a five minute walk from the tram stop. At both theatres the generosity and welcome of our hosts is phenomenal. They look after us tremendously well and feed us with some fantastic regional dishes and lots of cake!
Since 1982 around forty productions in English and in German have been shared between us on these twinning events. Historically there have been some highlights and some funny moments at home and abroad. In 1988 we took Hiawatha by H W Longfellow and probably one of the biggest casts we have ever taken to Germany on a ridiculously cramped bus, across mainland Europe. A lot of the cast were excitable young people and the journey is about eighteen hours from door to door, overnight. Just imagine! It was a theatrical triumph and still mentioned today but it was a wonder that the most boisterous of the youngsters didn’t get thrown off the cross channel ferry by accident. Some of the senior members were spitting Indian feathers by the end of the trip. However such memories are tempered by time and are very funny in retrospect.
Some of the shared plays in German are unknown to an English audience and vice versa but, from time to time, plays with a universally shared story and common understanding are presented even if there is a language barrier. If the story itself is known then that is half the journey to appreciation and, sometimes we are lucky to witness some surprising interpretations. In 1994 the Jakobus theatre brought a German translation of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood – Unter dem Milchwald and it was intriguing to watch their original interpretation and it was, of course, devoid of the Welsh accents that tend to accompany our home grown productions. The poetry still worked as did the characters. Honestly, we all tried not to giggle too much on hearing the name of No Good Boyo said with a German accent! This was additional to another play called The Best Day or Der tollster Tag by Peter Turrini that was very funny but totally unfamiliar. Such are the thrills of these cultural events.
Conversely, we have taken across similarly well known theatre pieces, often developed from other texts like Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example. This production was memorable because of the unexpected very hot weather. Back home in Nottingham the late winter weather had no effect on this production on our stage but, a month or two later, and in a climatically sheltered part of Germany, the now springtime weather had suddenly got an awful lot warmer. Baking, as we like to say. The production was shown at the Jakobus theatre. Even in rehearsal the actors were complaining of the crippling heat and the production style that had them in heavy masks and costumes running up and down ladders propped against the back wall of the stage. They performed Animal Farm whilst sweating copiously, bright red of face and body under the masks from the heat and struggling to get a snatch of breath to say their lines. In such circumstances the challenge of remembering lines gets caught up with one’s physical discomfort. And who says that theatre is glamorous? However, a few ice cold -after show – beers in the Café Bleu opposite the Jakobus theatre helped cool them all down.
In 2002 it was the turn of our German friends to come to us and the Jakobus theatre brought an epic production about the journeys of Odysseus on his way back to his beloved homeland of Ithaca. This play was translated from Homer and called Die Irrfahrten des Odysseus (the wanderings of Odysseus) and it was a stunning example of their extraordinary creative vision brought to life, monsters and all!
The following twinning event happened in 2004 and I went to Karlsruhe for the first time, via coach and boat across France, Belgium and down into Germany, performing a small part in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge at the Jakobus theatre. It was a fantastic experience living with the friendly Voos family and performing to a very intelligent and appreciative audience of Germans and ex pat English and Americans. As I have mentioned before, the generosity of our hosts in Karlsruhe is second to none. I have been involved at home and abroad every time since and have made some amazing friends and that feeling is shared by many of the membership of The Lace Market Theatre, young and old. When we visit our German friends they always organise an official welcome at the town hall and friendship speeches in English and German are engaged in. Equally, we always make time for a relaxing end of the theatrical week party and a day trip out to somewhere where can all enjoy ourselves and be together as friends and lovers of theatre.
What is most interesting is the different style that plays are performed in Europe, often more abstract than our performances. That is not to say the British way of doing things in amateur theatre is not inventive, there’s just a difference in cultural expression and interpretation.
In actual fact, whenever we have taken over a typically English play like Hay Fever by Nöel Coward they soak it up and find the wit and snobbery of the characters very amusing. In 2008 we took this very play and Markus, one of the members of Jakobus, a man with a fantastic sense of humour, said jokingly of Coward’s line about “leaning against the piano in an attentive manner” that he proposed using that line in every play he did!
You may wonder how it is possible to transfer a play and props and set across Europe on a coach full of theatre members and their luggage. It isn’t possible. That is a fact. The coach has a weight capacity underneath and a limited amount of space so we take only the essential props and costumes and try to get our German hosts to supply the furniture we may need at their end. They always come up trumps. Then each of our host theatres help us to set up lighting and sound and build a set around our needs for the play – even if it is just black curtains. Sometimes they have a play in production either side of the ‘English Theatre Week’ and we utilise their set structure. It is surprising how well this works. We do the same in Nottingham for them with advance notice from each party. The exchanges take place around the Easter holidays which allows for maximum helpers to be around during the exchange events.
Accents do not always, a comprehensible play, make, because, from time to time, plays have been shown to our German hosts where the accent is very strong like in Amanda Whittington’s Satin and Steel, which incorporates very a strong regional Nottingham accent (with idioms) for the male part especially. Therefore, they do not always travel well. We had a problem with this two hander and the young German students in the audience, who had a pretty good grasp of English really, struggled to comprehend the colloquial and localised language and the show was only saved by the singing and the credibility of the two actors presenting it. Back in Nottingham there were no such difficulties and the play was praised for its authenticity.
So bearing this in mind when I decided to do Alan Bennett’s – A Chip In The Sugar – on the twinning visit of 2012 at the Die Käuze theatre, it was to be done with quite a strong Bennett style Yorkshire accent and other voices included. I was most concerned it wouldn’t be understood. However, they loved this forty-five minute long monologue and laughed in places I thought I wouldn’t be got – as we say, very badly, in English.
In April 2014 the Lace Market Theatre looked forward to and enjoyed the excitedly anticipated visit of the Jakobus group performing the fabulous farce Boeing Boeing and Die Käuze presenting the well known fairy tale of a trickster – Till Eulenspiegel. On the last Friday of the event all of the groups travelled down to Stratford upon Avon for a great day out and a fascinating look around backstage at the RSC theatre.
Since 1982 (including the forthcoming two shows – Benefactors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream ) an amazing forty-two plays have been enjoyed from all three theatres in Nottingham and Karlsruhe. If we hadn’t enquired all those years ago in 1980 just think of all the fabulous European experiences and friendships we could have missed out on.
Since my first visit ten years ago I have had the privilege of becoming good friends with members of both of the German theatre groups and have been over to Karlsruhe independently to see some of their shows. I have also been honoured to perform my one man show of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in their city. Additionally, I wrote and performed, in English and German, my specially written play Greetings From The Trenches with actress and singer Emma Brown in December 2014 and that was a great multi-cultural experience for the Anglo-Germanic groups in the WW1 Centenary year. Long may our theatre friendships remain and, as the Germans say:
“Hals und Beinbruch”. “Break your neck and legs!”
Taken, revised and updated from Sardines Magazine issue number 22. Spring/Summer 2014