Berliner Ensemble – Behind the Scenes with Werner Riemann

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Berliner Ensemble interior view from the stage – photo by Berliner Ensemble

I arrive back in Berlin for research on a new book series on cities and theatres – after writing on Berlin for my MA Thesis, PhD dissertation, Berliner Chic, and covering all cultural aspects of this city, including film, documentaries, literature, architecture, branding, fashion, art, and music, it was only a matter of time until my attention turned to theatres! I started with Berliner Ensemble, established by Helene Weigel and Bertolt Brecht in 1949 and moved into the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm from Deutsches Theater in 1954.

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I arrive 20 minutes early to take photos of the exterior of the building and the Brecht monument in park next to it. In the inner courtyard, on a bench at the famous Kantine (theatre cafe), already awaits an elderly gentleman to tell me all about the history of this place and take me on a private tour of the theatre. “Frau Doktor Sark?” he asks as I approach him. “Herr Riemann?” He gently shakes my hand and takes me inside the cafe, where he set up at his Stammtisch (reserved table) in the corner some books, newspaper clippings, magazines, theatre programs, archival photographs, and even some Yogurette chocolates that he prepared for me. “Das hier ist die Riemann Ecke,” he explains that this corner table is always reserved for him and his guests. He tells me he is 83 and has been working at the theatre in multiple capacities as an actor, director’s assistant, and now historian and tour guide for over 60 years.

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“Over there, in the middle, Heiner Müller liked to sit and to drink… a lot” (my translation from German) he tells me pointing across the room. It’s Friday afternoon and the theatre cafe is still empty, except for the occasional stage technician or actor coming in for a coffee and greeting my kind host with an inside-joke-greeting: “Guten Tag, Frau Weigel!” Herr Riemann laughs heartily, explaining that one day he dressed up and personified Helene Weigel, and since then one of the technicians calls him Frau Weigel, which he really enjoys. Another time, during the Brecht Festival, the director asked him to personify Brecht, which he can do down to the voice, Munich dialect, Brecht’s grey suit that he owns, cap, and cigar. An avid joker, he told two elderly ladies who saw him strolling outside the theatre with his hands behind his back, imitating Brecht posture and gait, that he not only looked like Brecht but was in fact Brecht, as the ladies gasped. “Brecht had a high voice due to a throat injury when he was younger (while Helene had a low voice),” he tells me, “and Brecht always had cough candy with him. So when I start a tour, I hand out a bunch of candies!”

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I ask him how often he comes to the theatre. “Every day,” Herr Riemann replies. “I don’t cook, so I prefer to eat here. And I do between 6-8 tours a months, and sometimes more on demand.” His three children, he tells me, who used to act in various roles on stage when they were younger, are all in theatre-related professions now. One of his sons is a musicians and regularly performs in Berlin, his second son is an actor, and his daughter studied Theatre Studies and is a writer and playwright. “Frau Weigel used to call me up and say she needs one of my kids for a play. They were all red-haired, so she nick-named them fire-extinguishers.” He then reads me a lovely poem he wrote that received a poetry prize, and allows me to photograph him as he reads.

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Born in the Netherlands, Werner Riemann moved to Berlin with his family in 1939 at the age of six, when Hitler ordered all native Germans living in Holland to return to Germany. After the war, he originally trained to be a pharmacist, but soon gave it up to work in the theatre, performing small roles at Maxim Gorki Theater, and since 1955 became a regular at the Berliner Ensemble. “When the Wessies took over after Reunification, they kept saying, don’t ask the Ossies for staging advice, we want to do it our way. But sometimes they are stuck with something and I’m the only one who knows about it.” I ask somewhat naively, “They called you Ossie even though you’re originally from Holland?” “Yes, but not many people knew that about me,” he explained.

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He shows me the articles he stayed up late to prepare for my visit and gives me photocopies and rare articles, brochures, and vintage programs to use for my book. He shows me archival photographs he keeps in his “very cramped” office above the cafe, where he keeps his memorabilia, and each piece has its own story and anecdote and a joke to go with. “Theatre folks like to joke a lot,” he tells me. Then he tells me about Gisela May waiting ten years before taking on the role of Mother Courage after Helene Weigel passed away in 1971 because she didn’t want to be compared with the great actress for whom the role was created. He tells me about Weigel and Brecht’s children and grandchildren.

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Gisela May playing Mother Courage in the 1980s

When we go over into the main theatre auditorium, the technicians are setting up the sets for that evening’s performance of Hamlet. “Have you been to performances here before ?” Herr Riemann asks me. “Several times, when I lived and studied here,” I reply. “And tomorrow night I’m coming to see Der gute Mensch von Sezuan.” Every day the stage technicians have to take down and set up for a new performance because they have different plays each night on most days. Herr Riemann then tells me that he is in annual correspondence with the former queen of the Netherlands Beatrice – they share the same birthday and send each other birthday wishes each year – and pointed out the box in which she sat when she came to Berliner Ensemble. “Klaus Wowereit used to sit in the third row in the aisle, so that if he had to step out in case of some emergency in the middle of the play, he wouldn’t disturb too many people and so the actors wouldn’t be offended.”

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He takes me on tour backstage, and I feel like Alice entering Wonderland, hardly containing my girlish excitement and hoping that I can remain calm and professional. He shows me the different dressing rooms, costumes hanging ready for the actors, Brecht’s and Weigel’s former offices and balcony, and even takes me under the stage to show me the rotation mechanism of the stage that was built with the steel wheels of three Soviet tanks that Helene Weigel asked the authorities to donate to the theatre. “She was a very resourceful, inventive woman, and she knew how to get things from the authorities,” he tells me as we stand under the rotating stage.

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The steel tank wheels have since been replaced by rubber ones, but the old ones are still kept under the stage as souvenirs of a time when everyone had to be resourceful to survive in this city, and especially the women.

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When most of the technicians went on their break, Herr Riemann took me on the huge, tall stage. It is as big as the auditorium and as high, but only a fraction of it can be seen from the audience.

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The auditorium can sit about 700 people, and there are four stages in total for rehearsals, readings, children’s theatre performances, and an outdoor stage for musical performances. “The management wants to convert this pillar hall that we use for readings into a cafe,” Herr Riemann points out. “I saw Christa Wolf do a book reading here,” I told him.

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In one of the side rooms (which Brecht used as an office) commemorative photographs and plaque celebrate the first performance of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera from August 1928, when this was still a private Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, and Brecht was a young playwright in Munich. Herr Riemann sings a few lines from “Mack the Knife” fro me in Brecht’s voice and southern dialect with the rolling r’s. Another room (Weigel’s former office) has a wall of masks of the Ensemble performers, with Brecht’s in the middle.

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We conclude the highly informative, entertaining, and generous two-hour tour on center stage. Hamlet is about to start in 3 hours. The stage technicians are mostly done. The sound and light engineers are busy in their booths. Actors are gathering at the cafe in the courtyard.

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I am so touched and grateful for this amazing experience. Herr Riemann keeps telling me stories of his family, the theatre, and Helene Weigel, and I begin to have the feeling that I have met and know them all personally. But it is time to part and we shake hands and hug dearly. Herr Riemann quotes Brecht: “If people would look each other in eyes more often and more sincerely, there would be fewer wars” (my translation). We part promising to reconnect next time I’m in town and, I promise to keep him posted on how my book is coming along. My heart and head are full of creativity and joy after this meeting.

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On my way home, I realize that the park next to the theatre is missing a Helene Weigel monument next to Brecht’s.She took over as artistic director of Berliner Ensemble after Brecht’s death in 1956, and continued until her death in 1971. Maybe the next artistic director will be a woman again and can see to it that both creators of this impressive world of theatre are remembered and celebrated equally. For now, Herr Riemann continues to keep her memory alive and well!

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Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by K.Sark

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4 Responses to Berliner Ensemble – Behind the Scenes with Werner Riemann

  1. Matt Pollard says:

    Thanks so much for such an informative piece which talks about the role of personal memory in keeping a tradition alive. Can’t wait to see several productions this year; this will be my first ever experience of the Berliner Ensemble. You were very lucky to meet up with Herr Riemann, and I look forward to more posts about other European theater cultures.

    • Kat Sark says:

      Thanks you so much for the kind comment, Matt!
      I’m so excited for you to see more plays while you’re here!
      I wish I could see Faust!
      Enjoy your time in Berlin!
      Kat

  2. Sandra says:

    We met this lovely man exactly 4 years ago today and had the same wonderful experience with him. It helped me so much in my preparation for a Brecht/Weill evening of song in Kuala Lumpur that eventually took place in 2015 over three nights. When is your book coming out?

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