Chamäleon Theater: A Century of Shaping Berlin's Arts Scene

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Chamäleon Theater: A Century of Shaping Berlin’s Arts Scene

Is it too romantic to say that a place, a building, has an essence or a spirit that draws a certain type of person or group to it? Is it possible that such a building, despite being built many generations ago, having survived two wars, an occupation, and a reunification, exists to attract such a person or group? If such an idea were not too romantic or idealistic, it could be argued that the Chamäleon Theater, located in the Hackesche Höfe area of Berlin, Germany, is such a place. 

Over the years, the Chamäleon Theater has lived many lives. At each point, it has been a place for live performance, gathering, and celebrating the arts. After its construction in 1906, it hosted Vaudeville-style acts until World War Two broke out. Despite being spared the worst of the bombing during the War, under the division of Berlin, the Chamäleon Theater ended up in the Soviet-controlled East Block where it fell into disrepair after years of neglect. 

But the show must go on, and the Chamäleon Theater was resurrected in 1991, after the reunification of Berlin, by a group of local artists. The space was reclaimed and transformed into a theatre once again, the Berlin Varieté.This incarnation of theChamäleon showcased cabaret acts of all kinds, wild acts that reflected the city’s newfound freedom after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the people’s excitement to explore their new city.

Fast-forward. It’s the early 2000s. Times are changing and the Berlin Varieté has closed. But, the Chamäleon Theater is destined for something new. Something different. And, in 2004, it was taken over by a small group excited to bring the new world of contemporary circus to Berlin. Artistic Director Anke Politz has been on the Chamäleon Theater staff since 2004 and has watched its transformation into a world-class circus venue. Here she reflects on the past 20 years of work, the present, and the future of the company.  

Chamaeleon Theatre crew (photo by Dorothea Tuch)

Looking back, Anke remembers her boss, the artistic director of the Chamäleon Theater at the time, travelling to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, to find fresh acts for the newly renovated space. He saw many acts, including Cirque du Soleil, but it wasTracesby Les 7 Doigts that caught his attention. In 2005, the cast of Les 7 Doigts arrived in Berlin and presentedTraces with great success. The show stayed on for months to sold-out audiences and ultimately led to the decision to focus on presenting and showcasing contemporary circus artists and companies at the venue.

In the years since, the Chamäleon has helped to launch world leading international companies like Australia’s Circa in Europe, alongside supporting local makers in Germany as a producer, presenter,  or commissioner on productions likeLeo andSoap.

The years of hard work and dedication to developing the contemporary circus theater and audience in Berlin were rewarded this year by Germany’s government when the Chamäleon Theater was awarded the prestigious Federal Theater Award for “Private Theaters and Guest Theaters.” For Anke, it was an honour and recognition for contemporary circus as the art form that it is: “The award confirms not only the achievements of the Chamäelon team, but also the wider contemporary circus industry in Germany. An enormous amount of hard work and dedication has helped to shift perceptions and bring contemporary circus to the wider public consciousness. We’re really proud!”

Along with the prestige of winning the Federal Theater Award comes a prize allotment of€100,000. Anke, alongside Hendrik Frobel, the managing director ofthe Chamäleon, accepted this prize money and has committed to allocating the funds towards fostering innovative concepts, residencies, and creative processes. “In this way, we aim to support budding talent and offer independent artists in our field the opportunity to thrive,” Anke expressed.

While the recognition, and accompanying prize money, for the theater’s contributions to the Arts in Berlin and Germany are met with graciousness and gratitude, a question that is often still on Anke’s mind: What’s next and how will it be funded? “Where will the funding come from to support new initiatives and creativity? In the end, the Chamäleon is a commercial space and needs to sell tickets to stay afloat,” she says. So, over the years, the role of the Chamäleon Theater has evolved to ensure the ongoing production of new, creative, and high-quality acts are available for their seasons. Much more than a presenter of works, the Chamäleon Theater is now involved in partner producing, commissioning and co-commissioning and producing new works. 

“We received a large grant from the City of Berlin to produce the international touring showRaven by still hungry. This was an important grant and piece of work for both the company and the theatre,” says Anke, because it was the first time that a production that was started at the Chamäleon Theater and brought to fruition there has toured elsewhere. 

By working with international partners, there is more opportunity to bring larger shows and world-renowned groups to Berlin, something that would be difficult otherwise. Australia’s Gravity & Other Myths is currently playing a return season at the Chamäleon of their hitThe Mirror through to the end of 2023. Co-commissioned by the Chamäelon with the Sydney Opera House,The Mirror initially premiered in Berlin in 2022 and then completed a four-week run at the Opera House in early 2023. Anke welcomes and looks forward to more of these international collaborations. Producing shows of all types is very expensive. She feels that if presenters and producers can work collaboratively to share costs, this is better for all involved, including artists. 

The Chamäleon has evolved over the years to become a space not only for performances, but also for residencies. There was a need identified that artists required a safe space to develop ideas, try new things, and fail. “It began as a small room that was cleared out in the basement of the theatre. If there were four people in there it felt cramped and tight,” says Anke. Now, there are four residency options offered at The Cave, located in the rehearsal basement of the Chamäleon. The space is still small in size, and with only one ceiling point, it cannot accommodate groups that are larger in size or include multiple aerial acts, but it continues to be a place to start incubating ideas for others.

The first is the Chamäleon Residency, a four-week residency at the theater supported by the Company’s dramaturg and technical staff, culminating in a “work-in-progress” showing. If you happen to be Finnish, you may apply for the next option, the German-Finnish Circus Residency, a six-week programme, that culminates in a showing at the Chamäleon. Twice a year, the Chamäleon hosts the Zirkus On residency. Pay attention to the open calls and application process for these programs!

The fourth option is selected by and offered through a group of leading contemporary circus producers, The Utopians, formerly the Commissioning Working group. Established in 2020 as part of the MICC festival, this group was founded by Anke, Ruth Wikler of TOHU, and Jeb Wheeler, Director of Arts and Cultural Programming at Montclair State University in New Jersey, USA.Julieta, by and with Gabriela Muñoz, is the second internationally touring show produced by the Chamäleon Theater in cooperation with Montreal’s TOHU and the Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen, but it started as a residency in The Cave. 

“We’re delighted with the diversity of artists we are able to support with ‘The Cave’,” Anke commented. “For international artists, it provides a connection to the Berlin scene, and for local makers like Raum 305, who developed bothWir Wollen Nie Nie Nie andOder Doch? in the space, it provides room to breathe in a city where space is at a premium.”

Inside the theater (photo by Lucia Gerhardt)

It is not merely the artists that are a focus for Anke and the Chamäleon Theater, though. Equally as important is building and sustaining a strong relationship with the community and audience members. Yes, the space is beautiful and the work is top-notch, but the company does not stop there. It works diligently in many spheres to continue fostering its existing audience and while developing and growing new audiences. “The theatre audience has not changed much over the years, but there are some differences. Audiences are more open to shows that focus on storytelling along with highly skilled acrobatics. Shows that have social, political and autobiographical elements are popular. The work is becoming more theatrical in nature,” says Anke. 

The community is also looking for “add-ons” that bring more overall “value” to the experience of the show. Artists and groups are encouraged to provide audience talk-back sessions and Question-and-answer periods during some shows, allowing audiences a further glimpse into the process and not merely the product being presented on stage. Other events may include workshops in the community or skill-sharing at the local circus school in Berlin. Additionally, students of the local circus school are invited to showings and to discuss work with artists. 

As the Chamäleon moves forward into the future, Anke wishes to expand the theater’s offerings and also make events more accessible to all. The Chamäleon is already moving in this direction. As an example, during the run of Gravity and Other Myths’sThe Mirror, there will be two performances with live sign language translators, and the Chamäelon’s ‘Play’ season in January 2024 will see productions accompanied by live audio description for the first time. There are also dreams of providing access to the theater experience outside of the venue for those audiences that cannot make it to the show. Anke talked about bringing the theater to locations such as elder care homes. This would include all of the accoutrements normally reserved for in-house guests: catering, drinks, table service, and all while watching the performance live-streamed. 

 Providing more accessible options is an important part of the theater’s plans going forward, but Anke’s visions for the Chamäleon are many. She knows that there will be challenges to overcome. There always have been. Somehow the theater and the people behind its ongoing success have always continued on, in the pursuit of sharing art in its many forms. And it will continue on now, and hopefully for the next 20 years, commissioning, producing, incubating, and showing exceptional contemporary circus from around the world on its stage in Berlin. As Anke said, “No other art form connects the artist to the audience quite so directly, or with such joy and provocation as contemporary circus. We see it as our mission to share it with as many people as we possibly can.”

Jackie Houghton
Writer, Performer -Canada
Jackie Houghton is a recreational circus performer, elementary school teacher, and freelance writer. When she is not teaching visual arts to school children, Jackie dreams about running away with the circus, but until then she is happy to write about it. She has been the exclusive writer for Femmes du Feu's Circus Sessions residency program for the past two years, and has also written for Circus Talk and American Circus Educators magazine.
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Jackie Houghton

Jackie Houghton is a recreational circus performer, elementary school teacher, and freelance writer. When she is not teaching visual arts to school children, Jackie dreams about running away with the circus, but until then she is happy to write about it. She has been the exclusive writer for Femmes du Feu's Circus Sessions residency program for the past two years, and has also written for Circus Talk and American Circus Educators magazine.