German fest eulogizes pirate with productions

BERLIN — Legend has it that 14th-century pirate Klaus Stoertebeker, on the day of his execution in Hamburg, struck a grisly deal with the town’s mayor that guaranteed freedom for his captured shipmates: All the men that he walked by, after his beheading, would be set free.

Although the headless Stoertebeker managed to stumble past 11 crewmembers before collapsing, the mayor is said to have reneged on the deal and ordered the decapitation of all 73 of his followers.

The fateful day ended Stoertebeker’s attacks on merchant ships, but the buccaneer has remained a beloved “Robin Hood of the high seas” in German lore — robbing and pillaging up and down the Baltic Coast while helping the poor and downtrodden. He’s also become a massive box office draw on the German stage.

The summer Stoertebeker Festival has been selling out shows on Germany’s picturesque island of Ruegen for the past 14 years. The spectacle has gone on to become one of the most popular open-air festivals in the country.

Staged in a specially designed 8,800-seat theater built in the seaside town of Ralswiek, the show, which regularly runs from June to September, sells some 300,000 tickets a year on average. In August, the production celebrated its 4 millionth admission.

The Stoertebeker Festival was launched in 1993 by Peter Hick, a former engineer and stunt coordinator who fled from East to West Germany in the 1970s.

After German reunification, Hick returned to eastern Germany to revive the open-air Stoertebeker shows that had been produced at the same location on Ruegen by East Germany’s communist government from 1959-61 and again in 1980-81. For East German apparatchiks, Stoertebeker’s legendary war on the merchant class proved the right stuff for a socialist hero, but the lavish outdoor productions were far too costly for the cash-strapped government.

By 1993, there was little left of the old outdoor theater, and Hick, now well versed in the ways of the West, found willing sponsors in the likes of Nissan, and won over local banks, which granted millions in credit for the ambitious project. Current sponsors include brewery Warsteiner and commercial radio station Antenne Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Hick had gathered plenty of experience in open-air entertainment after having served in the 1980s as director of the Karl May Spiele Bad Segeberg — an open-air Western show based on German author May’s “Winnetou” tales. Hick says the success of the festival has made it possible to improve the show year after year and keep spectators coming.

“We all make a good living from our work, but we also invest the money we make back into production,” Hick says. “If one of our writers says we need to have an exploding ship or the entire bay in flames, we’ll do it regardless of the price. It’s those things that keep the audience coming back year after year.”

This year’s summer production cost E4.5 million ($6.1 million), and with regularly sold-out perfs, the fest guarantees recoupment and then some. Audience turnout has grown steadily since the fest’s inception, from just over 78,000 to this year’s 335,000.

Also insuring the audience returns next summer is the show’s cyclical setup. “Stoertebeker” plays as an ongoing series in a four to five-year span and follows the swashbuckler’s career in new chapters every summer.

This year’s installment chronicles the young Stoertebeker’s transformation from a nobleman into a pirate after his father is killed and his family swindled out of its estate by an unscrupulous merchant and a dastardly knight.

And continuing Stoertebeker’s story as an outlaw buccaneer, next year’s production should again attract sell-out crowds.

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