Berlin’s joined up thinking

Last Saturday in Berlin saw the third annual Long Night of Opera and Theatre. Some 60 venues across the city, ranging from the Staatsoper to small club theatres, threw their doors open from 7pm until midnight, with numerous after-parties. Throughout the evening, venues ran a theatrical tasting-menu of showlets, so that theatregoers (in previous years more than 20,000) could take in several offerings.

One ticket covered all venues, plus public transport, including special bus lines serving suggested theatrical groupings. Tickets, available from all venues and also from ticket machines on the city’s metro services, cost €15 full price and €10 concessions.

I learned from my first experience of this Long Night in 2009 that gaining admission to a given performance can be a lottery, or a scrum, so there is little point in planning with precision. This year, concentrating on theatres other than the already-familiar major playhouses, I made it to the former UFA film studios; the admired Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Kreuzberg, which focuses on the experiences of Berlin’s Turkish community and whose bill included an adaptation of an Orhan Pamuk novel; the Documentary Theatre, which presented a piece on Chernobyl; and the Grips Theater for young people. Among the missed opportunities on my longlist were the Bimah Jewish Theatre, the Kriminal Theater (which stages whodunits) and a small venue presenting an extract of David Davalos’s Hamlet/Faust/Luther play Wittenberg.

An evening like this is an ideal opportunity to dip a toe into unaccustomed waters. Above all, though, it testifies to a profound civic engagement with culture. The theatre event follows the template of the biannual Long Night of Museums; there is also a Long Night of Science and a Long Night of Libraries.

These are not occasional, niche provisions, but an integral part of the city’s cultural conversation. Indeed, I was surprised to learn that the Long Night receives no funding from the city of Berlin, but operates entirely on the basis of ticket income, media partnerships, a handful of sponsorships and venues covering their own expenses; the Association of German Theatres provides a deficit guarantee to cover advance payments.

Yet the very fact that an event like this is financially viable indicates the depth and breadth of understanding that culture is a crucial part of both the city’s life and those of its citizens. At a time when a number of British local government bodies are responding to cuts in their own budgets by reducing their arts funding to zero, it is hard to imagine a starker contrast.

The argument against culture cuts in the UK is one that primarily needs to be made not to government but to the public. All too many people endorse the cuts because they imagine that “the arts” are something that other people do, something expensive, arcane, wasteful and even contemptuous of ordinary folk’s tastes. Matters may not entirely be helped when, for instance, the last public statement of enthusiasm and support I saw by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt before I left for Berlin concerned the Westfield shopping mall on the 2012 Olympic site.

We need to recognise how all-embracing that departmental brief is. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport might as accurately be called the Department of Everything We Do In Our Spare Time (Except Sex and DIY). The idea that this is all alien to the average person is ill-informed and pernicious. It’s also not difficult to rebut, given the chance. This year’s Travelex season at the National Theatre has just begun, with ticket prices at £12 (having risen from £10 after eight years); the programme has been staggeringly successful, and its broadening of audiences has revolutionised the NT’s programming.

Nor is subsidised or fringey art inimical to either commercialism or the mainstream: alongside the Long Night, Berlin also has its Blue Man Group show and its production of We Will Rock You.

A society’s culture (in the sense of its shared psychological fabric) includes its culture (in the sense of the arts) as a core element, not an optional bolt-on – and that’s as true anywhere in the UK as it is in Berlin. Now, wouldn’t a Long Night of Theatres in London make a perfect part of the cultural Olympiad? Just a suggestion...

Peter Aspden is away

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