Strolling down the Berlin boulevard
Berlin - Deutsche Welle

Strolling down the Berlin boulevard

Boulevard Theater is an outdated format where theater is pure entertainment. But in recent years, English plays and films have started to influence this incomparable genre in Berlin – with rejuvenating effects.

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Folk-dancing aside, it is hard to think of an art form less cool than Boulevard Theater – the populist German stage entertainment whose best Anglo-Saxon equivalent could be the 1970s TV sitcom. The comparison is imperfect, but the stereotyped characters, the free use of running gags and the unashamed recourse to toilet humor all remind you of the uncomplicated light entertainment of olden days TV.

Popular as it is – it remains a relic. The average Boulevard poster – featuring actors’ faces tortured into various expressions of comic exuberance – rarely attracts the slouching, tight-trousered, international youth for which the German capital is famed. This is the favored cultural recreation of elderly, affluent west Berliners, who can remember a time when West Berlin’s theatrical scene was robust, massively popular and its myriad forms were heavily subsidized.

So many venerable West Berlin theaters have closed down – or had their public funding withdrawn – since the old days, including the Schillertheater (where Samuel Beckett himself directed a German production of “Waiting for Godot”), the Schlossparktheater (where Hildegard Knef made her debut), and the Tribuene (where Marlene Dietrich appeared as a girl, and Wassily Kandinsky designed sets).

These examples have led not a few old-timers to grumble that the city’s left-wing government has allowed West Berlin’s theatrical landscape to decline in order to fund the monster institutions in the eastern part of the city – thriving stages like the Volksbuehne, the Staatsoper, the Deutsches Theater, and the Berliner Ensemble.

Future uncertain for Berlin theater

The last major surviving institution of West Berlin’s golden era is the privately-funded Theater am Kurfuerstendamm, the home of the Boulevard comedy. The twin theaters (the Theater am Kurfuerstendamm is coupled with the slightly smaller Komoedie am Kurfuerstendamm) were opened in the 1920’s, when the Kurfuerstendamm was celebrated as one of Europe’s culture-defining thoroughfares.

The Theater am Kudamm preserved the best traditions of German light entertainment throughout the last century, but is now being threatened with closure, as the Irish property investor Ballymore seeks to redevelop the faded shopping center that occupies the same building, forcing the closure of at least one of the stages.

Having lost its bid for preservation on the grounds of its history, the theater is currently operating in limbo – its last valid rent contract ran out in September 2008. All that appears to be keeping the theater alive, apart from reliable success, is the nostalgic will of local theater-goers, who started a citizens’ initiative on May 1. If the initiative collects 7,200 signatures from local residents by June, it would force the city council to hold a plebiscite on the future of the two theaters.

Slow death or slow Anglicization

But even a successful referendum would be non-binding, and the committed support of local politicians will be relatively powerless to turn back the property market.

A defeatist would say the closure of the Kudamm theaters is unstoppable, sooner or later, and a cynic might add that the problem is not the abstract grind of profit in the real estate business, but the outdated aesthetic of Boulevard comedy itself, whose audience is steadily aging.

But at least the cynic would be wrong, because anyone who actually suspends their internal style police and crosses the tacky marble foyers in the Kudamm theaters might find some brilliant theater. And I’m not just saying that because I’m in a show there this month.

Being English and performing in a German Boulevard show offers an odd insight. So many comedies on the German Boulevard stage are translations of English plays (dinosaurs like Alan Ayckbourn, Neil Simon and Willy Russell are never far from the repertoire in a certain kind of German theater), but this particular show – “Ladies Night,” a massively successful version of the 1997 movie “The Full Monty” that has toured Germany’s Boulevard circuit in many versions for the best part of a decade – is a full realization of slightly old-fashioned English comedy transplanted into a wholly German tradition. And there are no seams.

For reasons that are not only to do with the inherent excitement of seeing a naked penis, the show’s blend of self-deprecating humor and unabashed sentiment never fails to spark gales of hilarity in the Charlottenburg classes, who appear en masse every night in their blue hair and their best brass-buttoned, dark-green blazers.

Ben Knight is playing Jay, a rejected auditionee in “Ladies Night” at the Komoedie am Kurfuerstendamm from May 16 to June 13.

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