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Minna Partanen: Front of House, ET Berlin

PHOTO by Dominic Packulat

The English Theatre Berlin | International Performing Arts Center has become somewhat of an institution since it first opened its doors in 1990. Then known as Friends of Italian Opera, it adopted its current name in 2006, and has since become a haven in Berlin for culture vultures looking to soak up a bit of theatre in the ‘21st century’s lingua franca.’ I caught up with Finnish born Minna Partanen, Front of House Manager and Drama Educator, to pick her brains about theatre, multi-culturalism and the future of Berlin, the European ‘capital of Kunst’…

Tell us about yourself. Why did you come to Berlin, and how did you start working at English Theatre Berlin? 

I’m 33 years old, and I moved to Berlin four and a half years ago. I graduated two years prior to that as a Drama Instructor in Finland, and got a grant to work abroad for 6 months. I looked up all different kinds of organisations in Berlin and ended up with the English Theatre Berlin. I noticed that they have a pedagogical programme, and I thought, ‘okay this could be it’… So I contacted the drama educators there, and they were happy to have me working for free for six months! So that’s how I started, that was Autumn 2010.

And what is your daily role here?

I’m essentially a freelancer, but my biggest client is English Theatre Berlin. In the day, I’m a Drama Educator, and I work with different school projects. Then I have a class that I teach every week, where I work together with a teacher and we do a year-long project that ends in a performance. There’s a lot of this kind of work in Berlin. All theatres have drama educators, so there are all these organisations such as the Tusch project, which brings together all the different theatres and their partnership schools, and there’s a festival in March. It’s really organised here. Which is what I also really liked because in Finland what we call ‘audience’ work isn’t so advanced yet, but here I feel like theatres are really building these more long-term collaborations with different organisations and institutions.  Which I think is important because then the theatre is part of society, not just a theatre.

PHOTO by Thomas Farr

In the evenings I am Front of House Manager, which means that I’m in charge of the box office and the bar, and I also communicate to the pool of volunteers and welcome new ones and make the shifts for them.

What do you think is special about this theatre, in particular? 

Well, it’s English language, and it’s existed for 25 years […] but I guess at the time when the theatre started, Berlin was not yet the international ‘arts capital’ that it is nowadays. So I think at first the theatre was really producing more American and English plays. Whereas now the theatre is starting to look more at what it means to be an international performing arts centre. Because all of a sudden, so many international artists and international groups have come to Berlin and they don’t have a home, so this is kind of like the biggest and the longest existing institution in Berlin that focuses on the English language.

So the focus has progressed to a more multi-cultured arts scene, but using English as the working language? 

Exactly. And with more devised work: not necessarily only producing existing plays, but also new work that’s being made here in Berlin by the artistic community.

My favourite show that I’ve seen here was The Emigrants (created and performed by Marija Maki Lipkovski and Miklós Miki Barna), which resonated with me because I’d just moved here and didn’t speak German, and it was all quite alienating. What do you think the theatre could offer to English speaking expats moving to the city?

I think it’s a two-way path. I think the theatre wants to represent a home and a centre for international artists, and at the same time the theatre’s motivation is also to be really in the current events in Berlin, to be commenting on what’s happening in Berlin now. So some of the issues that have been dealt with in the plays that we’ve produced have been to do with Berlin’s history, like Schwarz gemacht, or with race on stage, like the whole Colorblind? series that we had, or like Echter Berliner, which was about immigrants in Berlin and phenomenon’s like gentrification. We want to be tied into the city, into what’s really happening here. So the idea is not to create a kind of bubble for the expat artists, where they’re just completely in a home-away-from-home, but to deal with these two questions at the same time: what does it mean to be an expat or an immigrant in Berlin, in 2015? What is happening here currently?

What kind of people come through the door? Do you get a multi-cultural audience? 

I’d say that it’s 50/50: a combo of expats and tourists, and then German people. I also think that our audience has gotten a little bit younger since we started to comment a bit more on the current events in Berlin and sort of be more… here, in a way. There’s been a switch in the audience.

What do you like about Berlin’s cultural scene?

Wow! Hmm… It’s very… vibrant. I mean you know, in a way it’s full of clichés [laughs], but at the same time you genuinely do meet a lot of interesting people all the time, that are here doing their thing and practicing their art. And I think what I really like about it is that it kind of makes you feel like everything’s possible. The people are very open and they’re very interested in doing things together, and although there’s not necessarily so much money involved- as they say, Berlin is ‘poor but sexy’, and it’s completely true- I think at the same time that the artistic community is quite open. People are not just put into different boxes; you can try different things as an artist that you didn’t necessarily try before. Which I think is really encouraging. Where I come from… the circles are small and it’s very defined, as to who gets to do what, and who should be doing what. Whereas here I think that because the artistic community is all the time in movement, no one can set these kinds of boxes. It redefines itself again, all the time, before somebody gets to define it too much. And I think that that creates this really nice feeling of freedom. It keeps you young [laughs].

Berlin’s supposed to be the multi-cultural capital of Germany? Do you find this to be true? 

Yes I do think it’s true. I mean of course it’s still clear where the majority of immigrants come from and where the majority of expats come from, but of course I think Berlin is something special. Everything in a way works only in German in Berlin, but at the same time that doesn’t reflect the reality of the city. There’s a lot of talk about the city actually having three official languages: German, English and Turkish. You only have to walk on the streets. I live in Neukölln and I hear much more Turkish and English. That’s the reality of Berlin, all these different communities that exist. And the big question is: what is Berlin going to do with this? How is it going to take responsibility for it? There is also a lot of talk about how Berlin is going to respond to the reputation of being the arts capital of Europe. And also about the freie Szene, the independent theatre scene, and how Berlin is going to respond to the ever growing need for funds in the arts. In a way, there are too many artists in Berlin. How is the city going to respond to that?

Do you think this influx will have a positive or negative impact?

I think it’s both. I think it’s really both. I think that the city is adjusting and I think that the artists themselves are also adjusting. But finding paid work in the arts is very difficult as a result. And I think that a lot of artists maybe come here with a lot of dreams and then discover that the reality of just making a living can also be a challenge.

Minna working Front of House at English Theatre Berlin. PHOTO by Olga Bazynska

What upcoming event you’re most excited about?

I really like it that we’ve had more collaborations with independent Berlin based companies, such as Nasty Peace, our collaboration with Copy & Waste, last November. We are collaborating with them again in the early autumn, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen with that. That was a good example of really relating to Berlin’s situation, as it was also a sight-specific performance at Kottbusser Tor, and I liked that because I specialise in Applied Theatre and working with people who are outside of theatre. I’m excited about performances that really reach out to people and are kind of in a dialogue with reality. I also have a pedagogical project with International People’s Theatre Berlin, working with adults who are not professional actors but who are making devised theatre- one project per year. These people come from various backgrounds. So they have a very special relationship to Berlin, and to theatre, and I find that very very interesting.

Do you have any advice for young people wanting to get into a similar profession? 

Studying is important. For me, study really opened my mind about the things that I was interested in. And schools also help you to network in the field, which is very important. What we did in theatre school every year is we would kind of develop our own manifesto, and ask things like: what is theatre for? why am I making theatre? what do I want to say with my theatre? Clarifying these questions and also redefining these questions for yourself is important. And of course, see a lot of theatre.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I hope that I’m doing things with passion. What Berlin has reminded me of is this freedom I talked about, these dreams that I might have forgotten about at one point in my life- I hope that I start fulfilling them again. And right now I’m working on a solo performance, so I’m also hoping to rekindle my love affair with performing. I hope I’m not stuck in a rut. I hope that I’m all the time looking for the things that I’m interested in, and doing them passionately and thinking, how can I do them differently so that they remain interesting?

Eats at: 
The Bird
Hamy Café
Mustafas Gemüse Kebap

Drinks at: 

Go out to: 
Salon zur Wilden Renate
Club de Visionaire
Clärchens Ballhaus

Spends her Sundays: 
At Tempelhof. In the sauna. Ice-skating.

By Jane Walton

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