The ‘Scheinbar’ – Meeting point for variety artist

photo by Max Zerrahn

“When people hear ‘Variété’ they mostly think about dancing girls, naked legs and naked breasts.”, Werner Krejny laugths. He is the manager of the ‘Scheinbar’, the oldest and smallest variety theatre in Germany. “But that is not what we do.”

The ‘Scheinbar’ was founded in 1984 by students of the Berlin Artists School ‘Etage’, which provides a basic education in cabaret. Stefan Linne, a  pantomime artist, and Irmtraud Spiegel, an acrobat, had no place to perform in Berlin. They had to showcase their arts under bridges or in subway stations, always fearing police officers. This led to their decision and slogan: “Wir baun uns unsere Bühne selbst”,  ‘We build our stage ourselves’. They picked a small location in the Monumentenstraße in Berlin-Schöneberg, that had been a piano factory before. “A good prerequisite, since you always have to ask yourself whether the floor can support the audience.”, Krejny declares, “Pianos are heavy.”. To this day, the ‘Scheinbar’ is modestly placed between normal house entrances, directly opposite a cemetery. “At least we are sure, that there is more action on our side of the road.”, Krejny jokes.
When it first opened the variety theatre was called ‘Orgon Café’, after a concept of the sexologist Wilhelm Reich. Once a week, they had an ‘open night’, to which all kinds of artists could come. It was rather a meeting place for artists than a planned show; People would just come together and improvise short performances, drink, smoke cigarettes and eventually have sexual relations. Krejny even has a word for it: “Sicken”, a mixture of Saufen (to drink) and Ficken (to fuck). With its wicked and smoky ambience, the theatre stood for the alternative, libertarian Berlin. It was the beginning of the new vaudeville boom that broke out in the Federal Republic of Germany at the end of the 1980s: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, other and bigger variete theatres appeared in Berlin, as the ‘Bar jeder Vernunft’, the ‘Chamäleon Theater’ and the ‘Friedrichstadt-Palast’.

But times change: Since 2004, the variety theatre has been an association. Werner Krejny has been the managing director for 25 years. He does the press work, takes care of the finances and maintains the website. Daniela Schäfer puts the program together. Besides them, there are four permanent employees and some who only work when needed. A few years ago, Krejny bought the real estate, when the former landlord went bankrupt. As a result the ‘Scheinbar’ pays a ridiculously low rent of 700 Euros per month, fitting into a ‘poor but sexy’ Berlin.
One thing variety theatre struggles with nowadays are noise regulations. Because of complaints from their neighbours, the shows are only allowed to go from 8 to 10 pm. Then, they must not play music or serve drinks anymore. Krejny regrets, that the artists can not stay for a beer after the show to establish contacts. In addition, the visitor numbers have dropped dramatically over the last three years: “I don’t want to go too far and say climate change is to blame, but sitting in a dark room is not what people want when the weather is good and the days long. Especially as the ‘Scheinbar’ has no air conditioning.” Most spectators come from September to February. In Summer, there is a two week break, but the manager can not close his theatre for too long – as he wants to provide his employees with a steady income. Last year, Krejny was afraid of having to close the ‘Scheinbar’, which is why he started a Crowd-Funding. The fundraising campaign got the attention of the press and the Scheinbar got “flooded by fundings.”. Their other sources of income are three local sponsors, whose logos are printed on the entry tickets and the contribution of the 15 association members. Once Krejny tried to get the support of the Senate in Berlin – but this was a lot of work and provided them less then 3 gigs would have. “It was never about money anyway.“, Krejny postulates, ”And somehow it always adds up at the end of the year. ”.

The Concept, though, stayed. “And the fun”, Krejny finds. From Wednesday to Saturday there are ‘open stages’. Only on Tuesdays and Sundays there are planned Solo-Shows. During the ‘open stages’, nothing is planned. More than 500 artists perform regularly – their only payment is a free drink. Their performances can take up to seven minutes. The only paid person is a presenter. This provides more security: “If really no artist shows up, he can improvise a show.” Werner Krejny wants the ‘Scheinbar’ to be a place for young artists to practise. “It is better to mess up in front of 54 people, than in front of 2000.” This is also the reason no photos and videos are allowed. “I want artists to come here as if they were coming home.”. With its technical prerequisites as light and microphones, the theatre is the perfect opportunity for artist to improve their skills in a free space: “One could almost say we offer a training. Artists learn how to master their craft. They develop strategies to deal with surprising events, standard announcements and an own style. We interfere as little as possible. But when someone asks for feedback – and the good ones always do – we are happy to give it.”. What’s even more important to him is that newcomers learn how to deal with collegues, the staff of theatres and their contracting authority. “That is a big part of their job. It is the principal, who pays them, not the audience.”. Through this concept the ‘Scheinbar’ promotes young talents. “Newcomers play their number two or three times during the ‘open stage’. Then maybe they will take over the moderation for a whole evening. And if they are good, they get their solo show.” Many famous German comedians began their careers on the only four metres wide stage, as Mario Barth, Kurt Krömer, Meret Becker and Eckart von Hirschhausen.
Most performances are stand up comedy. “People think, comedy is easy to do. And everybody always wants to talk.”, Krejny says with regret. But the ‘Scheinbar’ still attracts singers, magicians, pantomime artists, jugglers and others: “Once a man wore a sleeping bag and pretended to be a caterpillar. I don’t know what to call this genre.”

Krejny thinks the size of Berlin is crucial for the ‘Scheinbar’: “We need a certain amount of artists and spectators to enable this concept.”. But even Munich with its 1.5 Million inhabitants has not such a format with continuous ‘open stages’  four times a week. Köln once had the so called ‘night wash’ in a laundrette, but ended up paying the performing artists. The ‘Scheinbar’ has existed for 35 years now and continues to attract viewers and artists with its atmosphere of intimacy, avant-garde and nostalgia.