This past summer, the English Theatre Frankfurt (ETF) presented Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, currently one of the best-selling plays in the United States. The ETF, the biggest English Theatre in continental Europe, staged Bad Jews in co-production with the Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara (ETC). After premiering in April in Santa Barbara Bad Jews transferred to Frankfurt in May, where it ran successfully through July. Join us for a talk with ETF director Daniel Nicolai about Bad Jews in Germany.
Why did you programme Bad Jews?
We closely follow what is going on in the USA theatre scene. Joshua Harmon’s play Bad Jews touches very relevant questions about identity, tradition and faith (as does our identity trailer; watch below). The focus lies on culture, language and “where do I come from.” This is delivered with a Jewish-American touch that a German author would never be able to deliver or dare to touch.
Germany is currently dealing with a giant influx from refugees with a Muslim background. How we deal with tradition and religious laws will be a key question for the refugees who join us, as well as for the “native” population. An American audience might also have registered that Germany deals differently with the Muslim refugees than the rest of Europe. This has lots to do with our history. And opening your house means opening your beliefs and talking “tacheles.”
Did you not worry that people would be put off by the title?
Actually, no. In order to sell an English language production in Frankfurt, we need “catchy titles.” A play like August: Osage County might be wonderful, but it does not say anything to my audience. You can imagine that in the country that started the Holocaust the title Bad Jews is a bit of a shock. We had many discussions about it, but most of our audience (in talk-backs and Q&A) expressed that they were shocked at first, but also intrigued: “What is this about?” I am quite proud that 70 years after the Holocaust it is possible to present Joshua’s piece in Frankfurt (the original home town of Anne Frank) without anybody imagining that we would run an anti-Semitic show.
The Jewish community in Frankfurt has Bad Jews as their number one cultural recommendation on the start page of their website. Which shows again that Jews have a wonderful sense of humour and are very open to self-criticism and reflection.
How was Bad Jews received in Frankfurt?
Our core audience and our sponsors as well as the Jewish community, were very positive. We had amazing revues, also a nice feature on the radio. We have quite a following from the high schools and many teachers did not dare to watch the play with their students, as they felt that it might be too much of a challenge for classes with a mixed cultural background.
We also programmed Bad Jews for the Muslim community in Frankfurt and had Muslim audience, but rather small. We will work on that.
Is it not unusual to have an English language theatre in Germany?
Well, there we are back in World War II and Nazi-Germany: Frankfurt is in the middle of Germany and after WWII it was considered to appoint it as the capital of the new German state BRD. The USA army for many years held its European Headquarters in Frankfurt. Since then Frankfurt has developed into the most international city in Germany with the most important financial centre in Europe (European Central Bank) next to London.
Thirty percent of our audience are native English speakers. The other seventy percent are Germans that work for international companies or are students […] We aim to be more than a theatre; we strive to be a “meeting point in the heart of Frankfurt” for the international community and its German friends. Poetry Slams, readings, panel discussions, the US election night — all this has a home base at the ETF in Frankfurt.
How did the co-production with Santa Barbara come about?
For financial reasons it is in general much easier for the ETF to produce in the UK and transfer the productions from there. Bad Jews is so very Jewish American that it would have been really difficult to cast the show in the UK. Jonathan Fox, the artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre in Santa Barbara, has directed for us several plays and had the show on his playlist in Santa Barbara. The dates worked out fine and it was therefore easy to bring the finished production to Frankfurt. Only the set did not come from the USA; it was built in Frankfurt.
What comes next?
We have taken a shot at the American Dream with the current season. Next year we will be strictly British and present three German premieres of UK plays. We do hope to present more American plays in the following season; if possible also in co-production.
P.S. We would again like to thank Oi Va Voi for their support for the Identity Trailer of the English Theatre Frankfurt.