The Story continues…

The Tübingen Anglo-Irish Theatre Group at 30

Who would have thought, way back in 1980, when a bunch of us met in the Stadtpost to discuss the possibilities of staging drama in English at the University that, thirty years later, the group that was emerging then would still produce plays? At that time, there were no resident theatre companies at the BrechtBau. But some folk had just returned from British and Irish universities and had experienced campus life there. I had found myself, to my own surprise, in charge of the German play at Trinity College Dublin. It had been fun – and if a small German Department like that at TCD could stage a full-blown production of Nestroy’s Freiheit in Krähwinkel, should it then not be possible for the myriads of Anglists in Tübingen to put on an English-speaking play?

We started from scratch – a plethora of plays from all over the place were mentioned, read and discussed. The ‘Celtic’ fringe seemed to take the lead – Winnie Vester had returned from Dundee, Susanne Dinkelacker from Glasgow, and Jörg ‘Yorkie’ Hausser – who had been, as the name indicates, to York for his year abroad – had contrived to join the York Piping Band and become an accomplished Highland piper! Hubertus ‘Huck’ Brettschneider had been to Doncaster, Peter Paul ‘JP’ Schnierer to Buckingham College…

To get properly started took much longer than anticipated, and eventually the English Players beat us to the Museum with their winter semester production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. We had by then decided on Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars as our premier project. We could probably not have chosen a more difficult and complex play to start with – four acts, four different stage settings, big ensemble… But, with a few new arrivals – Inge Straß back from Galway – we got there eventually (in July 1981) and, furthermore, decided that we would call ourselves the Tübingen Anglo-Irish Theatre Group – with the intention of exploring Irish drama written in English.

We continued with Brendan Behan’s The Hostage which we took on tour to Kiel, Bochum and Stuttgart and a triple-bill of shorter plays from the Irish Renaissance by Lady Gregory and John M Synge, before returning to O’Casey with Purple Dust – the play that for awhile had looked like being destined to be our initial production. Then we tackled the first contemporary play: Hugh Leonard’s Time Was.

A great mixture of students of English, and particularly those who had recently returned from English-speaking sojourns, Lektors in the English Department and guest students formed the backbone of the group. It helped that Tübingen had introduced ‘Landeskunde’, first with Glaswegian Angus Munro (whose ‘Celtic Nationalism’ seminar can be seen as the cradle of the group), then with Professor Christopher Harvie. They, and Eng Lit Professor Gerhard Stilz and other lecturers (like Hans Schwarze) and guest professors (Rob Garratt) were, over the years, very supportive and gave time in their seminars to discuss performances.

In 1984, we started to put on the occasional lunchtime play in the cellar of the BrechtBau – U34 saw many a one-act show, aided and abetted by a bowl of soup and a sandwich. The main productions – usually one per semester – were still performed at the Museum, often involving the local Tübingen Irish music scene.

And there was a pattern evolving – Irish drama, we found, is immensely rich and diverse. There are the Anglo-Irish classics, from George Farquhar and Richard Brinsley Sheridan to Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw – plays by all of these were to be staged by the group; then the drama of the Irish Renaissance, when the newly-founded Abbey Theatre in Dublin (1904) became the crucible of the Irish nation, under the initial leadership of Synge, Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, leading up to Seán O’Casey. And, finally, a rich seam of modern and contemporary Irish drama, from Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, Hugh Leonard, Frank McGuinness, Bernard Farrell to Stewart Parker and Christina Reid and Anne Devlin. The ‘Troubles’ were still rampant in Ireland’s North – and there was a constant grappling of Irish dramatists with that situation. The reputation of the group spread, and we were now offered scripts by Irish writers. Contacts to the Society of Irish Playwrights gave us further access to hitherto untapped sources.

Ireland’s ‘mobile work force’ became a huge factor in the prospering fortunes of the theatre group. Working at HP, IBM or Bosch, these guys found a productive way of spending some of their spare time by giving us additional authenticity, while meeting with likeminded students. Martha Begley, Gerry Byrne, Seamus McKenna, John Doyle, Dave Hegarty… Hey, it even led to marriages! There were also close contacts to the German-Irish Society of Baden-Württemberg which had been founded in Tübingen in 1982.

Workshops with Helfrid Foron, a collaborator of Samuel Beckett, with Mary-Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy of Storytellers Theatre Company and Paul O’Hanrahan (Balloonatics Theatre Company) were milestones n the development of the group’s theatrical skills. Vice versa, we ‘trained’ two future dramaturgs of the Abbey Theatre: Karin McCully and Aideen Howard.

In 1986, the theatre companies of the BrechtBau were part of the ‘Landeskunstwochen’ in Tübingen. When I left for Edinburgh in 1995, after a production of Dion Boucicault’s The Shaughraun, more than half a dozen theatre groups in various languages were operating in and out of the BrechtBau. We had our own modern languages student drama festival – and the occasional show at the Landestheater!

U34 was closed down when a fire in the Media Department caused a fierce round of fire inspections. But a trio of professors, Gerhard Stilz, Chris Harvie and, first and foremost, Alfred Weber came up with the idea of integrating a theatre space into the entrance hall of the BrechtBau – and since 1990 the BrechtBauTheater has seen countless productions and offered welcome rehearsal space. Which, of course, is another reason to celebrate – 20 years of the BrechtBauTheater!

After my demise, the group branched out to encompass more than ‘just’ Irish drama – Fielding, Stoppard, Shakespeare. I was not too happy about that step and argued at the time that the unique profile of the group was unnecessarily sacrificed. But I was far away. And maybe it was felt that a new direction was needed. Moreover – we had not been absolute purists either. Had we not produced two delightfully farcical skits by Tübingen Linguistics Prof David Reibel? Anyway, Irish plays have continued to provide the ‘green thread’ of the group’s work – Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel, Patricia Burke Brogan, Martin McDonagh.

A truly impressive staging of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, a mega production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (yep, Arthur Sullivan was Irish), co-productions with the Provisional Players (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Amadeus) and John Banville’s Irish version of Kleist’s The Broken Jug – the majority of plays still had an Irish tinge. By way of marking the 30th anniversary of the group this autumn, Tübingen audiences can look forward to a new version of Brian Friel’s Translations – one of the all-time highs of the group when we first did it in 1988.

Being open, constantly integrating fresh blood, has been at the root of the group’s longevity. The number of actors who have passed through the Tübingen Anglo-Irish Theatre Group – in close to a hundred productions – is fast approaching the 400-mark. But a few of the ‘old guard’ are still around in Tübingen – Dave Hegarty looks after the web site (and usurped my part in Thirst), Veit Müller is, these days, more likely to write one of his quirky crime novels than to appear in one of the group’s shows (although he was called upon for Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West), and Inge Straß-Latzko teaches future audiences at Wildermuth Gymnasium. Over the past years, Jens Gonser has done a sterling job keeping the show together.

Ten years ago, the twentieth anniversary of the group was celebrated at the Tübingen Casino, where the German-Irish Society had organised an ‘Irish Evening. We did an impromptu version of Flann O’Brien’s Thirst (which we had premiered way back in 1990, at the Club Voltaire). The tenth anniversary was marked (albeit three years late) by the publication of ‘Standing in their shifts itself…’: Irish Drama from Frarquhar to Friel, and the fifteenth anniversary provided the hook for a Tübingen conference of contemporary Irish drama, which was duly published in 1996 under the title of The State of Play: Irish Theatre in the ‘Nineties. And five years ago, the group’s twenty-fifth birthday was marked with a new, exciting version of Oscar Wilde’s The importance of Being Earnest.

I can’t imagine an English Department without a drama group any more. Anyone who has experienced the staging of a play from the inside will read dramatic texts with different eyes. The key to understanding dramatic texts fully so often lies in the stage dimension – after all, most dramas are written for the stage, with actors and settings in mind, and will reveal themselves so much more easily to a reader familiar with theatrical business.

For that reason alone one would hope that the story of the Tübingen Anglo-Irish Theatre Group continues. An even better reason is that theatre is great fun! The well-earned pint at the Bierkeller ‘Stammtisch’ after an evening’s rehearsals. The magic of the play taking shape. The adrenalin pumping Dress Rehearsal. Will it be alright on the night? Nothing, of course, beats the heemy-jeemies on premier night. And the parties afterwards…

Paddy Bort, Edinburgh, March 2010