New Theater Berlin


Sometimes you want your neue a little—nay, a lot—more new. New Theater is a storefront playhouse on a blah Kreuzberg block opened in 2013 by the budding American artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff. Like most everyone else who writes, directs, and acts in productions there, they are degreed in art but uncredentialed, dramatically speaking. Theater’s new to them—hence the name, they half joke. And hence the excitement this fledgling, disorderly endeavor has been able to sustain among the devoted community of artists and art-world affiliates that fills the unreserved bench seating for more-or-less-monthly stage productions and then transitions afterwards to the theater’s bar while thumbing their nose at stubborn art/life distinctions.

Henkel and Pitegoff intend to keep it this way—resolutely amateurish, intimate, and uncontained, that is—so they’re shutting New Theater down come April, before it acquires too much institutional certainty. (The fear of growing old: Perhaps there’s some of that too.) Fortunately, last Sunday, I had the chance to see one of the last performances.

By ten past seven, the last bodies crush in: 130, give or take, in a space that typically seats fewer than sixty. For one night only, Karl Holmqvist and Arto Lindsay are starring in “The Rant.” Klara Lidén has done the decor (lazily twirling cardboard boxes spray-painted with hot-pink N’s and O’s) and Nhu Duong the clothes (cryptic black graphics on stark white denim and sweats). Tickets went quick.

For the next half-hour Holmqvist voices concise statements off handheld note cards, his pitch somewhere between speech and song, constantly varying. There’s less theater than normal—no scripted dialogue, no curtain, no characters—but still plenty of theatricality. Or is it the other way around? Regardless, it’s an exuberant parade of non sequiturs shot through with a few leitmotifs: Los Angeles, pants, irritating airline fees, lost-and-found inquiries, and cycles—bodily, existential, financial. One card, for instance: “Do you believe in reincarnation? You can come back as a dog.” Another card: “Museum of Tolerance: Good luck with that.” Another card: “LA opening all full of Swiss people.” Another card: “Is money smart or stupid? Is success smart or stupid? Think about it. I do, all the fucking time.” Sporadically, Lindsay shouts.

The austere utterances suspend meaning and stir a kind of wonder into innocuous actions like the taking on and off of a jacket, the parceling out of “reputations” into its four constituent syllables. Each sip of water enchants. Smartphones remain in the audience’s pockets. Over the course of the performance, the output from Lindsey’s amp and Holmqvist’s language machine starts to accrue, fuse—then the nothings come undone. Final card: “I miss my sweater.”

And like that, theater becomes bar. Opinions, hugs, and kisses are shared. The few voyeuristic big shots filter out; the crowd skews millennial. Conversation segues. “We run a stock image archive,” a DIS rep explains to two attentive boys I pass on my way to the white L-shaped countertop where Flora Klein and Grayson Revoir are doling out booze, pilsner, and Club-Mate at modest markups. Next to me, someone is paying tributes to Simon Denny: “I loved your slide show at DLD.” Another intones post-Fordist foreboding: “I got to network my ass off this week.”

Behind the bar, musician Dan Bodan is helping himself to thin-crust pizza. Technically, the slices are reserved for stars, but the line between performer and patron is difficult to police. Everyone I meet seems to have been involved in New Theater in some capacity—whether as actor, director, stagehand, poster artist, costume designer, bartender, or bar-back. Bodan is recounting his stage premiere to me when he spots Ilja Karilampi. “Wait, who was my character in your play supposed to be a mash-up of?” he asks. Karilampi pauses, hesitates:

“Uhh . . . a mixture of this guy I was hanging out with in New York and—”

“Gay thug. That was the name of my role,” Bodan remembers suddenly.

“Yeah, gay thug. It was a good role.”

“I did it well. I was high on ecstasy the whole time.”

“Wait, for real?”

“No! You didn’t provide. I’m just really good at grinding my jaw.”

“Yeah, you did really well.”

Karilampi gestures across the room. On the wall is a poster for The Hunter in the Armchair, a stage adaptation of a book he wrote about a five-month stay in New York. “It was kind of hard,” recalls Karilampi as he fidgets with a poppers bottle. “But we did the script together, Max, Calla, and I.”

You could think of New Theater as a knot—a point in Berlin where the strands connecting coteries and kunstvereins and friends and lovers in Switzerland, Sweden, New York, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, London, and other places capital and thus art accumulates are so entangled that “collectivity” and “collaboration” just go without saying, literally. You don’t hear the word “curate” either, though it’s easy to imagine it cropping up once the theater closes down.

To the artists who run this space: Just junk the arts administrators’ e-mails. Or run the risk of becoming yet another one of those “special projects” on the fair circuit.