Broadway behind bars

German prisoners put on historical play

BERLIN Forget “Prison Break.” In Berlin, local prisoners are putting on their own show.

Aufbruch, a theater group working at the Justizvollzugsanstalt Tegel (JVA Tegel) correctional facility, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with “Raeuber.Goetz” (Robber Goetz). The open-air stage production, which premiered at the prison June 13, is inspired by Goethe’s “Goetz von Berlichingen” and Friedrich Schiller’s “The Robbers.”

Like those 18th century works, and in the tradition of more modern tales depicting the noble criminal, from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to, well, “Prison Break,” “Raeuber.Goetz” is a celebration of the mythic outlaw as folk hero.

It’s the story of Goetz, a knight pushed aside by both the church and the nobility, who, in a time of social upheaval, joins a marauding band of rebellious peasants, only to be caught and imprisoned.

Naturally, it’s a story many inmates can relate to.

Director Peter Atanassow, who has helmed JVA Tegel productions for the past five years, tends to select historical German works that explore the often overlapping themes of crime and revolution.

“Without criminal energy, revolution is not possible,” Atanassow says.

And it’s that criminal energy that makes working with his actors exciting.

“We work with unusual people, people who tend to exceed normal limits,” adds the director. “Their personalities have been shaped by the fact that they are not confined by social restrictions. That’s what you look for in good actors — people who go beyond their limit.”

While the performers include hardcore criminals — among them murderers, muggers and sex offenders — the group employs a casting system that weeds out potential troublemakers, overly aggressive types and drug addicts. In addition, weapons or weapon-like props are not normally used, with the exception of last year’s adaptation of sword-wielding Teutonic saga “Nibelungen.”

For the 25 inmates who make up the prison ensemble, Aufbruch provides an opportunity at least to taste artistic freedom while sitting out their sentences behind bars.

One of the Aufbruch team’s main goals is to bring together people from the outside and from the inside by way of theater. The actors and audience members have about 30 minutes of discussion time after each performance.

In addition to theater work at Tegel prison, Atanassow and his seven-member Aufbruch team work in Berlin throughout the year with former prisoners who have retained a passion for theater. In 2004, Atanassow also directed a production at a Moscow youth correctional facility as part of a Berlin-Moscow cultural event, although the project’s long-term prospects were nullified by lack of funds.

Due to the high security measures at JVA Tegel, seating at the open-air theater is limited to 200, and auds are kept locked in during perfs. Theatergoers also must reserve tickets at least five days ahead of the performance, provide detailed personal information, present a picture I.D. at the prison and submit to a full security check.

Nevertheless, the shows are regularly sold out.

The correctional facility will host a total of six performances through July.

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