Riesenerfolg in Germany – the first English Teaching Theatre tour

The slightly scary venue for the ETT show in Braunschweig, 1973. Photo taken more recently by Jamie Keddie, who wasn't even born then!

 The venue for the ETT show in Braunschweig, 1973. Photo taken more recently by Jamie Keddie, who wasn’t even born then!

 The story so far… seven people – five performers, a director and a 60-year-old chain-smoking driver – are about to set off on the first-ever English Teaching Theatre tour.

The ferry to Zeebrugge in Belgium left at midnight, and arrived at 5.30am local time. We spent the crossing sprawled on plastic seats under unforgiving neon lights. Harry the driver, who was more used to these discomforts than the rest of us, curled up in a ball and slept the whole way. Then, fortified by a large cup of coffee at the port and several more cigarettes, he got back in the van and we set off through Belgium and Holland towards our first show venue, Bremerhaven in Northern Germany.

 The passengers slept fitfully or watched the flat Belgian countryside through the windows of the van. Why had they rented such a moth-eaten vehicle, I thought? And why had they booked us on a ferry at midnight? To save money, quite clearly.

 Alongside all his many talents, John Haycraft was a bit parsimonious when it came to spending money. When Doug Case, Hazel Imbert and I eventually took over the running of ETT tours, we made sure that actors travelled in a little more comfort than that. The actors may not have been paid a fortune, but they stayed in nice hotels and travelled in new minibuses on day-time ferries.

 The Superior minibus really was a state, and broke down several times during the tour. Harry was a wizz as a mechanic, but I was beginning to worry about his general attitude to Germany and Germans. He had fought in the Second World War, and in the Netherlands, we even drove past a bridge in Arnhem that he had defended. The trouble was he kept referring to Germans as ‘the Bosch’ and inserted war-time banter into every conversation.

Thankfully, we had persuaded him to stop doing this by the time we actually reached Germany. He re-offended only once. A plane flew over when we were sitting outside a café in Hamburg. Harry looked up. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s one of ours.”

The first two shows of the tour took place at the Stadttheater in Bremerhaven. Wow – what a venue. In those days, German cities put a lot of money into their theatres, and you could see it – good seating, good lighting and helpful and professional staff.

The woman in charge of the lights was disappointed to hear that we didn’t have any lighting requirements. “But I can do you follow spots, or blackouts any time you want,” she protested, showing a gleaming state-of-the-art lighting board.

When we said we didn’t need either, she asked for the script, so she could decide where she could provide at least the occasional black-out. She was astonished to hear that we hadn’t brought a script with us.

“You do comedy sketches, right?” she said. “You have to have black-outs, or no one will laugh when the sketch ends.”

We took our chances and people did laugh when the sketches ended. Out of politeness, probably, but they laughed. “English Teaching Theatre – RIESENERFOLG!” said a headline in the local newspaper the next day. Giant success!

Considering that this was our first tour, things went surprisingly well, with one or two glitches. The worst incident was in Hamburg, when Gillie went out to get sandwiches before the show and got lost, so we had to start without her. When she finally raced back into the hall, carrying a huge plastic bag full of goodies, the organiser walked boldly onto the stage and said: “Now, finally, ladies and gentlemen, I can introduce – the English Teaching Theatre!”

There was a huge round of applause, after which Doug and I carried on with the sketch we were in the middle of.

In Braunschweig, we played at a rather scary-looking place (see picture above) where the elevator was a paternoster. To quote Wikipedia: “A paternoster is a passenger elevator which consists of a chain of open compartments (each usually designed for two persons) that move slowly in a loop up and down inside a building without stopping. Passengers can step on or off at any floor they like.”

They told us that we were playing on the sixth floor (in the chevron-shaped section at the top in the photo). They didn’t tell us that the paternoster only went to the fifth floor. Annie and I were the first to go up, and when we passed the fifth floor, we found ourselves rattling through the machinery at the top of the system before we came down the other side. Thankfully, it didn’t turn you upside down.

The organiser was smiling broadly as we reached the fifth floor again.

“We never tell people that it doesn’t go to the sixth floor,” she said. “Just our little joke.”

Her ‘ little joke’ frightened the wits out of both of us.

Then there was the … ahem… disagreement in Hannover. We had perhaps mistakenly decided to bring two completely different shows with us. This wasn’t very sensible, as no one was going to see the show more than once. At the Mittwoch Theater in Hannover, a rather nice café style theatre where the audience sat at tables, we couldn’t agree which show to do. Well, to be fair, Gillie and I couldn’t agree which show to do.

Doug waited patiently with the two sets of songword cards until one of us won the argument. He then began to stick the cards for the show we were going to do around the proscenium arch with Blu-tak, as was our system then.

We were still doing this when the audience came in. The first person to take his seat at the table right in front of the stage was Robert O’Neill (anyone remember Kernel Lessons?). “I was passing by, so I thought I’d come and see what all the fuss was about,” he said. “This had better be good, or I’m leaving.” Thankfully, he stayed to the end.

The last two shows were at the wonderful Junges Theatre in Göttingen. I must confess that I had never heard of Göttingen before we arrived there, but it is now one of my favourite cities in Germany. A little like Cambridge, it’s a small city with a large university, and is situated near the beautiful Harz Mountains.

In Göttingen, the English Teaching Theatre finally got its act together. The two shows we did there were spectacularly brilliant – almost entirely because the mainly student audiences came to enjoy themselves, and their enthusiasm infected the five very tired performers on stage. They wouldn’t let us leave, and brought us back for about seven curtain calls.

Backstage, Doug and I looked at each other and smiled. We both knew that we had something special on our hands, and this four-month stint as actor-teachers might continue a little longer. And it did. We worked together for 29 years. Altogether, the ETT did more than 250 tours to 55 different countries, employing more than 100 actors, teachers and musicians along the way.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the van gave up the ghost on the way back to the ferry (from Hamburg this time). We abandoned it in a garage in Paderborn, hired two cars and drove the rest of the way in more comfort. The Superior minibus is probably in a transport museum somewhere now.

So, end of story. There will be no more anecdotes about the English Teaching Theatre. Future posts will deal with the value (or not) of drama, role-play, stuff like that, in the English classroom.

Thank you for reading. Hope you enjoyed this blast from the past.

Opening song from the 'What's Going On?' show, sometime in the 90s. Garry Fox and Wendy Parkin on guitars; Nigel Wild, Angela Carr and Lizzie Lewendon in front
Opening song from the 'What's Going On?' show, sometime in the 90s. Garry Fox and Wendy Parkin on guitars; Nigel Wild, Angela Carr and Lizzie Lewendon in front

3 thoughts on “Riesenerfolg in Germany – the first English Teaching Theatre tour

  1. Dear Mr Wilson,

    This is funny in itself! I would never, never thought I would be emailing you tonight. If this reaches you, thank you for reading this.
    I have chosen to use your wonderful sketch Bus Stop to discuss Interpersonal Grammar in a course of Systemic Functional Linguistics for my Masters of TESOL in Australia!

    Actually quite difficult because it is much LONGER than the other texts others are using. But because my specialisation is teaching ESL through Drama ( and Music) … i couldn’t resist using it.

    But it is proving very problematic because I need it as a word document so I can do a grammatical analysis of your sketch line by line about the interpersonal grammar ( declaratives, interrogatives, commands, exclamations) and the power relations and relationships entailed in the dialogue etc.

    All i can find ( which is GREAT in itself) is a PDF… and as yet I haven’t been able to change it to a word document.. but I will try again tomorrow in a new way.

    Yet until tonight, I never thought to Google and research YOU! And now that I have I am glad and want to thank you for all the great fun your sketches have been for me and my students. Wonderful! The Bus Stop and Fire Practice are my favourites.

    AND… if by any chance you have a word document of The Bus Stop lying around.. and you are near that computer… could you send it to me asap??!!

    Hope you don’t think I am being too rude…. but thought I would try… AND have the opportunity to thank you.

    I will see if this gets to you,

    Hope you are well and having as much fun as your blog implies,

    Yours sincerely and with thanks,

    Kate Clarkson

    Creative Arts Coordinator
    Lurnea High School Intensive English Centre

    South West Sydney,
    New South Wales,

  2. Thank you for a nice story. Perhaps it’s high time to start it again 🙂 and organize performances somewhere further than Europe. What about Kazakhstan?

    1. Hi Irina, thank you for your message and apologies for not replying sooner. I only just started looking at my blog this weekend. I have actually been to Kazakhstan twice and I know what lovely students you have there. It would have been great to bring the ETT there.

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