Inside Berlin's refugee theatre workshops

Article published on Sept. 6, 2016
Article published on Sept. 6, 2016

Berlin's refugees are being invited to participate in Wilkommensklassen: free weekly theatre workshops, organized by the prestigious Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper) in Germany's capital.

10,200 refugees have arrived in Berlin since January. By the end of the year 24,000 will have arrived, joining the 54,325 migrants already settled in the German capital last year.

Since 2015, more and more initiatives have been taking off throughout Germany and especially in Berlin, mere steps from the Reichstag. Associations organise picnics and other "refugees welcome" events, individuals offer a room in their apartments through housing sites, and theatres, museums and restaurants set up donation boxes on their premises. There are dozens of ways for concerned Berliners to get involved by making in-kind donations, giving money, or simply volunteering their time.

Berlin's Staatsoper is no exception. Last year, the State Opera collected several thousand euros by taking donations after each of their shows, says Rainer O. Brickmann, Director of the Jungen Staatsoper (the opera's youth program). But in 2016, opera staff wanted to do more. Brickmann asked Ronan Favereau, actor and Theaterpädagoge, to create a workshop for the Wilkommensklassen, the classes specifically created by the German school system to welcome young migrants.

Today Frau Schröder's class has a 10:00AM appointment at the front entrance of the Staatsoper. The workshop will be run by Ronan and by Jeruscha, a student in Musikpädagogik at the UDK, Berlin's arts university. "It’s important for this program to be as much about music as it is about theatre, since opera regularly unites those two disciplines," Ronan explains. "That’s why I looked for a Musikpädagoge to lead these workshops with me."

Sixteen students arrive; six girls and 10 boys ranging in age from 13 to 16. At Ronan's request they form a circle. For the first exercise, the students must introduce themselves, each student making a gesture to go with his/ her name. The first difficulty: explaining the meaning of the word "gesture," which none of them seem to recognise. The second difficulty: getting them to contain their excitement long enough to repeat each name and gesture together. It’s not easy. Over the course of the three-hour workshop, the students dance, march, mimic, and listen. They speak German, Arabic, and Albanian; they sing in Farsi, in English, and in Kurdish. For the grand finale of the day, they improvise short theatre skits, which have to be in German.

It’s easy to forget that the students only arrived in Germany a short time ago (most have only been there a few months), because they are so much like their European comrades. In this group of 16 students there are chatty cliques of girls, shy boys, bullies, and kids who show up late with no excuse and whisper, baseball caps twisted sideways, while the others are singing their hearts out. There are class clowns, and the ones who squirm in their seats, and those who cling to the adults and only speak to the teacher... it's as overwhelming as it is fun. What’s different about these teenagers is that they are clearly motivated, and participate with energy and enthusiasm. Even those who start out complaining about the singing participate enthusiastically into the other activities.

Which are their favourites? The alphabet: "We walk around the room, I say a letter, and you have to think of a noun that starts with that letter. Once you've found one, give its declension and its plural [in German, nouns sometimes change in the plural]."Answers fly in all directions, hands are raised at the same time and shouts ring out: fruits, vegetables, animals, musical instruments - it's such a pleasure to finally be able to use all those vocabulary lists they've memorized! The other highlight of the workshop takes place at the piano. Jeruscha plays them Beethoven, Yann Tiersen and Mozart. After each song there is an awed silence, then applause. Ronan asks them, "What was it like? Sad? Joyful? Which animals did you hear?" Lots of hands go up to share what they felt. They heard tigers, elephants, birds and mice. Their imaginations are alive and well. It's moving.

After the break, they visit the main theatre of the opera house. As the kids settle into the balcony, the theatre echoes with their admiring sighs. Some of them have already been to theatres in their home countries, in Lebanon for example. Others have seen plays or operas on TV. When Ronan tells them that those who are interested can join the opera's children's chorus this year, 14-year-old Asel's eyes light up.

The workshop ends with a little theatrical improvisation. “What do you think is funny about Germany? What’s different here from how things are in your country? What makes you laugh?" Everyone sidesteps the question; it's hard to focus on little things when comparing two completely different worlds. Instead they bring up funny experiences they've had in Germany: “A lady came out of the subway with her shopping bags, she fell down, and all the fruit went rolling everywhere!" "A man was dancing in the street; he had a bottle of alcohol in his hand and he was completely naked!" Once again, story follows story, in stumbling but perfectly understandable German. It’s impressive.

Then Ronan divides the class into three groups. Each group has to make up a short skit that includes a typical German expression. This time the students understand right away; they already know some of those expressions by heart. How about "Wie bitte?" Or "Ach so!" The ideas come pouring in, and everyone is speaking entirely in German. Occasionally, one of them translates a word into Arabic for someone who hasn't understood. Ahmed, completely absorbed in the project, even complains that his partners spoke Arabic during their presentation. "We have to start over!"

In closing, the group forms a circle again. It’s feedback time. "What did you like most? Least?" "The alphabet game" and "the skits" get enthusiastic reviews. Several of the kids, understanding how lucky they are to have been invited to the Staatsoper, take this opportunity to thank their two teachers. Everyone says they liked the whole workshop. Jilo has just one little criticism: some of the exercises were difficult because of the language barrier. It’s true; Jeruscha realizes that she spoke quite a bit, very quickly and without using her hands, when describing the songs she played at the piano. No one holds it against her. For a little while, everyone forgot that these children have only been studying German for a few months!

Interview with Asel (14 years old) from Baghdad, Iraq:

How long have you been in Germany?

I've been in Germany for one year, and at school in Berlin for one month. Before we arrived here, we were in Hamburg and Schwerin. I came with my mother and my two sisters. My father died in Iraq. My mother speaks a little French, but she's forgotten a lot, and so have I. On the other hand, she speaks English really well. I’m learning English online, at the computer. I have an Internet friend who lives in the United States, her name is Deborah. She gave me this bracelet.

Do your sisters go to school too?

Yes. They are younger than I am, and they learned German really quickly, so now they're in normal classes with Germans. I'm a little bit jealous!

Did you ever do any theatre in Iraq?

No. I knew about theatre, I'd seen some on television, but I'd never participated. But I played the guitar in Baghdad, and I sing. (During the workshop she sang 'My Heart Will Go On' from the film Titanic). I asked our teacher if I could sign up for the opera choir, I would really love to sing here.

Would you like to stay in Germany, or are you hoping to go back to Iraq?

No, no, I want to stay here. I want to study and become a doctor.

Frau Schröder, teacher at Berlin's Friedensburg-Oberschule:

How did you hear about this workshop?

There is a coordinating centre that receives all of the offers for refugees and sends them out to the schools. We get all kinds of offers from theatres, from museums offering free admission, and also from political institutions. It’s pretty incredible, and it's very interesting for us to participate in all these activities.

What is the goal of the Willkomensklassen?

We want to teach them the necessary grammar and vocabulary so that they can start figuring things out quickly and integrate more easily. What I like, and what I think is most important, is that all of us are certified teachers. That way we can also teach them what they would be learning in regular classes: respect for each other, group dynamics, etc. The problem is that they tend to stick together, so they don't speak German very much outside of class. Many of them are still living in emergency housing. But everything depends on the schools. Other establishments organize things so that the students mix as much as possible.

What characterizes these students?

Their motivation. They really want to learn the language and the culture of this country that has welcomed them. The problem is that they don't come to class regularly. [They often have administrative or medical appointments during the day, and many of them were actually ill last winter]. This year I had three students who never came back. It's difficult for me when I'm trying to create a group to see that three of my students have been pretty much left behind.

Ronan Favereau, actor and Theaterpädagoge, and Jeruscha Strelow, Musikpädagogin:

At the beginning of each workshop you ask which languages the group speaks. What are the most common ones?

R: I would say Arabic, Romanian, Farsi and Kurdish.

J: Once we had a group that spoke 16 different languages. Actually, many of these students speak several languages.

You also do certain activities in their languages, teaching a group how to say "left" and "right" in Arabic or Kurdish for example. Is it important to validate each student's culture as part of the workshops?

R: I think that, when you belong to a minority culture in a very European country like Germany, it's easy to develop an inferiority complex. It’s really important to me to make sure that, when they come into an institution like the Staatsoper that is patronized by the European elite, these kids know that they can speak their mother tongue without embarrassment.

J: At one point in the workshop, we ask the students to sing in their languages. Once we had a boy who came from Afghanistan. He wanted to sing a certain song, but he couldn't remember the words because the song is forbidden in his country. Twenty minutes later he stood up and asked if he was allowed to sing.

R: It was very moving, for him and for us, and I think it was one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.

We talk a lot about the cultural differences, beliefs and customs of the emigrant groups that come to Germany. But in the workshops I have been surprised to discover that there is no real difference between these students and the ones in so-called "normal" classes.

Opera has a reputation for being a closed institution, reserved for the élite. How do the members of that world feel about these workshops?

R: The intendant of the opera, Jürgen Flimm, got involved early on in helping the refugees. Most notably, he organized a free concert at the Philharmonica for refugees and volunteers. He is someone who cares deeply about opening opera's doors to everyone, no matter what their social or cultural origins. This philosophy also fits Daniel Barenboim's personality, since he belongs to so many different cultures. [Daniel Barenboim is the conductor of the Berlin Staatsoper. Born in Argentina, he also has Israeli and Spanish nationality, and a Palestinian passport].

Interview with Rainer O. Brickmann, director of the Jungen Staatsoper:

How has the Jungen Staatsoper gotten involved?

The Staatsoper invites adults to opera performances and concerts. The Jungen Staatsoper's mission is to create a special program for children and teenagers. We also support several projects and clubs. In addition, we work with groups like SOS Kinderdorf and the Dimicare Anneliese Langner Foundation.

We are striving to help at every level. Opera is often reserved for the elite. Seats are expensive, the operas themselves are difficult to grasp, and that's why it's important to use things like these projects to make opera more accessible.

Where did you get the idea for these workshops for the Wilkommensklassen?

Last year, when the huge wave of refugees arrived in Berlin, we all wanted to help. We collected all kinds of donations. But we wanted to be more directly involved. We wanted to use our tools, music and theatre, to give them a fun way to gain an understanding of this foreign country, and to learn about language tools, communication, and the German way of life.

On that subject, do the workshops leave any room for the past, for each participant's history? Or are they focused on the European and German future that awaits these young people?

The workshops don't deal with those kinds of problems. They take place in the here and now, with the group that is there on that particular day. We focus on enjoying ourselves, on having fun. Of course, the things that the students learn during those few hours may help them in the future. These young people take part in activities that German children learn in school: clapping hands in a circle, listening, feeling comfortable in a group.

You have researched and published many books and investigative articles about musical and theatrical performance. Have these workshops contributed to your research?

This project is part of a larger program called "Learning By Opering," funded in cooperation with the Deutsche Bank Foundation and the Akademie Musik und Theater.

We asked them to fund ten workshops that would allow us to gain experience in the domain, and to support and develop our research work. After each workshop we note down what we have learned and absorbed in those few hours, what worked well and should be used again, and what didn't work. We strive for quality and continuous improvement.

France's efforts pale in comparison to the multitude of individuals and organizations, particularly arts organizations, working on projects such as these in Germany and especially in Berlin. How would you explain the deep, sincere efforts of so many German people to help the past two years' refugees?

I think it’s a reaction to the terrible images we have seen in the news. Many Germans have a deep desire to help the people who are coming here. That's the positive side of the current situation. The negative side is the appearance of extreme right-wing groups like Pegida that remind us strongly of Nazism and a time that we thought had vanished forever.  But many people long to show the world that those movements are not representative of Germany.

Every single act of solidarity has given me so much strength and energy. It’s a great feeling to see that so many people feel the same way I do, and are acting.

We have an old saying in German: "es gibt nichts gutes, außer man tut es" [actions speak louder than words]. It’s very 1970s, but many Germans live by those words. This is "learning by doing,"  or "learning by opera-ing." It brings out people's creativity. So many ideas are abandoned, but others come to fruition. The most important thing is to try, and to learn by trying. If an institution like the opera can help, anyone can.

In addition to these workshops, the Junge Staatsoper organizes another project for migrant youth in Germany called 1000 erste Wörter [the First 1000 Words]. What is it about?

We go to refugee centres and work with the children, teaching them German through song. Music is a perfect tool for learning words, but the songs are often difficult, the grammar is ancient or adapted to fit with the melody. We transform the texts to make them more accessible, while keeping them correct. The best example is "Bruder Jakob, Bruder Jakob, Schlafen Sie ? [Are you sleeping Brother John?]" We change it to "Ich bin Jakob, ich bin Jakob, wer bist du? [I am John, who are you?]"