Peter Atanassow

Promoting “prison theater”
Berlin’s aufBruch theater project

December 4, 2014
Peter Atanassow

©aufBruch Gefängnistheater

Peter Atanassow

Born in Dresden in 1968, Atanassow studied acting at the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television, and after graduation he was active as an actor in many stage performances with Berliner Ensemble and other companies as well as television roles. In 1998, he undertook directing for the first time with a production using students and homeless people. In 2001, he began participating in aufBruch projects as an actor and voice trainer, and from the next year he became aufBruch’s resident director.


Set in an Italian prison, the movie Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die; directors: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) follows convicts in their rehearsals in preparation for a prison performance of Julius Caesar. The promoter and producer of such “prison theater” in Germany is the Berlin theater project aufBruch. In German prisons, efforts to actively support convicts’ successful return to society after their prison terms is a movement that dates back to Germany’s Weimar Republic era (*1). These efforts involve treatment aimed at correcting the cause that led them to crime (alcoholics are put in anti-addiction programs, those under the stress of not being able to speak German are given German language training, etc.), and in addition to labor that enables them to earn pay and job training programs, a variety of programs are offered for the inmates’ free time. One of these free-time programs is the aufBruch theater activities launched in 1997. In this interview we speak with aufBruch’s resident playwright for the prison theater program, Peter Atanassow, about these activities.
Interviewer: Akiko Yamashita [journalist]
It was 17 years ago that aufBruch was born. Would you begin by telling us how that came about?
 In 1992, the British director Jeremy Weller put on a stage adaptation of Camus’ novel The Plague at Berlin’s Volksbuhne theater. For that production Weller used not only the Volksbuhne’s resident actors but also homeless people, and out of the wish to continue theater activities by the homeless, the theater company “The Rats” was formed. Then in 1995, Assistant Director of the Volksbuhne at the time, Roland Bruce, used this company for a production of Woyzeck, and while they were working on it a number of the participating homeless members were put in prison for some reason or other. Each time, Bruce went to the prison to negotiate in order to get them temporarily released to return to the production. Having established this connection with the prison, Bruce realized the artistic potential that lay there and proposed a prison theater project that led to the establishment of aufBruch (meaning departure or awakening in German) in 1997.
In Germany, prisons are under the jurisdiction of the departments of justice of each state. So, I believe that to realize a program of prison theater, it was first necessary to negotiate with the Berlin State Department of Justice. What sort of situation was that?
 At that time I wasn’t involved in the project, so all I know is from the records of events at the time and things I have been told by the people involved, but I hear that from 1996 there was about one year of discussions with the Tegel Penitentiary (JVA Tegel) and the Berlin State Department of Justice. The intermediary for the discussions between aufBruch and State Department of Justice was organization Kunst im Knast (*2). There are a number of prisons in Berlin and Tegel Penitentiary is one of the largest prisons in all of Germany where convicted criminals serve out their prison terms. In 1996, as the result of repeated discussions, the State Department of Justice agreed to accept the prison theater project and it was decided that it would provide support for the project as well.

The first event aufBruch engaged in was a series of performances along with a Berlin drum performance group at Tegel Penitentiary. Then, 20 inmates who had seen these performances formed a theater group and began meeting twice a week for rehearsals. In July of that same year their first prison theater performance was held at Tegel Penitentiary, performed by 21 inmates and four professional actors. Permission was received for outside visitors to attend this performance. Since then, new productions have been created and performed at a rate of about three a year, with performances held at Tegel Penitentiary and other prison facilities in Berlin and the newly constructed Heidering Penitentiary (JVA Heidering) in Brandenburg State.
The Heidering Penitentiary is a new prison that was completed in January of last year and began housing inmates from June, isn’t it?
 Yes. The chief warden there was very positive and agreed almost immediately to accept the aufBruch activities. Although it is located in Brandenburg State, it is actually a Berlin State prison. Actually, Brandenburg State has the Brandenburg-Görden Prison that was built back in the Weimar era. It is the prison where the former East German Prime Minister Erich Honecker was imprisoned for resistance against the Nazi Party. We tried to initiate aufBruch activities at the historic prison, but in the end it didn’t work out. The different prisons come under the jurisdiction of different state justice departments, so just because we can work in Berlin State, there is no guarantee that we can do projects in other states.
Would you tell us about the organization of aufBruch and what your budget is?
 Currently, aufBruch has three full-time members in myself, Sibylle Arndt, who is the assistant director for all of our productions and our dramaturge, and Holger Syrbe, who is in charge of our stage art. In addition, we have many outside artists (dramaturges, musicians, choreographers, costume designers, stage art designers, sound and lighting planners, actors, etc.) participating for each of our productions. Our aufBruch activities are supported by the passion of all of these artists.

Our activities budget comes from grants from the Berlin State, the national government, private sector foundations and individual donations, etc., and it totals about 70,000 Euros annually. We continue to make efforts to apply for grants from public agencies and foundations as much as possible. Since 2009, the Berlin State government began offering 2-year “fundamental grants” to freelance art activities organizations. We at aufBruch have been receiving these fundamental grants since 2009. Although the amount doesn’t change, the fact that we continue to receive this funding is evidence of the state government’s trust in our activities, I believe. Also, for the past three years we have been receiving funding from the European Social Fund, and since we have been involved in projects for youth prisons, we have been relatively well funded, but unfortunately this grant ends in 2014. Securing stable sources of funding is a big issue for us in terms of continuing our activities.
How did you become involved in aufBruch? According to your resume, you studied acting at German’s oldest film university, the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and Television.
 After I graduated from the Academy, I acted in television dramas and on the stage. Before I graduated, I imagined that a rosy future in acting awaited me, but in reality, it isn’t that simple. In my case, I was fortunate to be taken in by an agent who got me work consistently in television. But, my agent didn’t have strong connections in film, and since I was also interested in working in film, that was a source of discontent for me. When you have worked for a while as an actor and gained a certain amount of experience, you begin to seek new challenges, and so I saw my actor friends move from acting into directing or writing. It was when I had reached the point where my desire to get into film wasn’t being realized that I got an offer from aufBruch to work as an actor with in a play with prison inmates. That was in 2001. That was my first encounter with prisons and inmates, but it turned out to be a big event for me.
What actually was it about this encounter that made it enough for you to give up your career as a television actor?
 I realized that the inmates had a particular type of movement and gestures. This type of movement and gesture that they shared was in fact similar to those I experienced when I was serving my time in the army. Like in West Germany, the young men of East Germany also had a mandatory period of time they had to spend in the military. When I was drafted into the military, it was the first time in my life that I had experienced living communally with people I didn’t now. For me, that was a very difficult experience. That was not the kind of physical harshness one imagines in connection with military service but a mental and emotional pain and distress that comes from being taken away from your family and being forced to live communally with people with whom you had absolutely no previous involvement, living in the closed environment of the military barracks where you had absolutely no freedom at all. Now I was realizing that the military barracks had been a form of prison for me.

I realized that the gestures these inmates shared was the same type of gestures I had come to know in the military when I had to interact in a harmless and inoffensive way with people I didn’t know. That is what made me feel the desire to make theater with inmates in the prison environment at a juncture in my career when I was feeling the limitations of continuing to work as a television actor. Then, in 2002, I worked as a director there for the first time.
Now, more than ten years later, you continue to in the aufBruch project, and in 2002 you took over Bruce’s job as its resident director. Do you ever have regrets about having abandoned your career as a television actor?
 Not at all. The potential of the prison inmates is great, and I never tire of working with them. Working with them brings me new ideas one after another. As Heinrich Heine once said, I feel that it is ideas that drive me.
Now I would like to ask you about the works aufBruch performs (*3). The works you perform are not new works written for you but works of the past that are rewritten and adapted for your performances. What kind of works do you choose and how are they adapted for your purposes?
 In order to receive funding from the Berlin State government, we have to prepare a two-year plan. For these plans we choose a theme that we will focus on. The theme for each two-year plan is decided in discussions primarily by the aufBruch members, and then the works to be performed are chosen in line with the theme. When we choose classic plays by Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare, Becket and others, we cut down the longer spoken lines and create a stage script specifically for our performances. Part of the reason is technical, to reduce the length of the performance and shorten the lines to lengths that our [inmate] players can memorize, and also for the purpose of creating clear outlines for the characters in the plays and the situations in which they are set. If we are unable to find plays that fit our chosen theme, we also make stage adaptations of novels or short stories.

Being from East Germany, I experience the collapse and loss of my country when I was in my early twenties. Soon after the wall between East and Wes Berlin was torn down, there were new things happening completely different from anything in my life before, and there was the elation of new freedoms, but after two or three years I began to realize that the country I was born and grew up in was gone. I am not saying that East Germany was a good country. But, I began to feel a sense of loss, that I had lost something precious, my past. Probably that is why I came to have a longing for works of the past more than contemporary ones. And, for aufBruch projects, those are the types of works I choose, and through those works I conduct a dialogue with the past. For example, Schiller’s work The Robbers is a story about criminals, and Goethe’s Faust is a story that involves seduction of an under-aged girl, which by today’s laws makes him a criminal. My intention is to have the inmates who take part in our plays go through their own dialogue with the criminals in these classic theater works.
Are you the one who writes the adaptations of these works for your productions?
 I do it in collaboration with our dramaturges. Also, in accordance with the original intent of the work we are adapting, we may add parts from other works in way of explanation or comment when it is appropriate. For example, in one work there is a main character who turns to alcohol in her despair and tries to use it to have her child stillborn, and as a comment on that character, we added quotes from the chorus part of the Greek tragedy Medea as a statement on the killing of one’s own children.
In the process of dramatization or adaptation of a work, do you ever use direct reflections of the backgrounds of the inmates you are directing?
 There are some inmates who come forward and talk about their [criminal] backgrounds, but there are also some that say absolutely nothing about their background. Unless they talk about it voluntarily, we know nothing about their individual backgrounds. And, when we beginning working with the inmates, the script of the play we will be doing is already complete, so there is no process of reflecting their backgrounds in the script. When the script is written and the casting is complete to some degree, there are cases where we find that the inmate in a particular role is unable to memorize long lines, so a change has to be made in the casting. There are also cases where one of the participants in the theater project breaks some rule in the prison that prevents them from continuing in the project. With a project like ours in a prison, you have to be prepared for unexpected complications like these.
What is the process of preparing a production for a performance like? What do your rehearsals involve and how much time is spent on them?
 Once the work we are going to perform is decided, we begin by making leaflets explaining the outline and contents of the play to post in the prison as advertisements for the purpose of gathering candidates to audition for parts in it. There is some difference in the number of people who will audition depending on the play, but we normally get between 20 and 30 applicants for auditions. It is similar to the type of advertising notices for events that are posted in a student dormitory. Once we have enough people for the roles, we begin activities to prepare for the performance. The time allotted for our activities comes from the inmates’ free time after their daily prison schedule of remedial measures and work is complete. As a rule, we spend four hours a day in rehearsal five days a week. In the rehearsals, we have professionals giving the participants voice training each day, and we also have a professional choreographer give them training in body movement. The length of the rehearsal period varies depending on the play and the conditions at the prison involved, but we usually spend four to six weeks preparing for the performances.

Because the participating inmates are giving up their precious free time to be in the play, it is a difficult and strenuous commitment for them. For that reason, gathering participants is never easy. With each production we have at least four performances spread over the course of two week, and some times there are as many as ten performances. The number of spectators varies depending on the prison, but at Tegel Penitentiary, which can be considered the base for our aufBruch activities, we have audience seating for about 220. The audience seating is in an outdoor space, so the attendance is also influenced by the weather.
Besides Tegel Penitentiary, Berlin has a number of prisons. Are you active at those prisons too?
 The first aufBruch project was at Tegel Penitentiary, but we are also active now at Plötzensee Prison. Also, as I mentioned earlier, we are also active at the new Heidering Penitentiary that began housing inmates from June of 2013.

In the case of Heidering Penitentiary there are many Roma-ethnic inmates (from Romania, etc.), and many inmates who had never seen theater performances before participated. This made the working conditions different from any prison we had worked at before, and by including their Roma-ethnic music and dance, we were able to make use of their ethnic identity. With regard to the performances as well, I think we can say that the State Department of Justice was very cooperative. Berlin State may be the only place where [prison theater] performances are opened to the outside public. We consider ourselves very lucky in that sense.
As the director for the aufBruch projects, you normally direct three productions a year. Do you feel that the inmates’ encounter with theater through these projects brings about any changes in their lives?
 This year it was four productions, but it is normally about three a year I direct. Two of them will be created with inmates inside the prison and the third will be a production with former inmates who have finished their terms and returned to society or out-prison people (inmates allowed to live normal lives in society as long as they return to the prison at the designated times) along with professional actors people from the general public. It makes me very happy when former inmates who became involved aufBruch productions when they were in prison continue to have an interest in theater after they are released from prison and continue to participate in our performances. Some of them have actually taken up work as actors. And some have told me that they now go to see plays or watch performances on television and have come to watch the acting from a more analytical standpoint, so they will say, “If I were doing that role, I would do it such-and-such a way.”
Having now experienced more than ten years of doing prison theater, what are your thoughts now about it’s potential?
 Each inmate has his or her own history and background. And, they all have different capabilities. The fact that you have to take an approach that is completely different from regular theater with them is a big challenge for our participating theater artists. I believe that making the effort to discover and develop their potential provides the opportunity to find new perspectives and new outlooks for both the inmates and the artists. Of course, participating in theater activities requires that the inmates develop the ability to comply with certain rules and behavioral norms of society that they have not succeeded in conforming to in the past. For example, they may learn basic rules of living in society such as being on time, cooperating with others. However, our aufBruch activities are not “social work” aimed at instilling those qualities, but activities with no other aims but artistic ones.

Nevertheless, no matter what kind of work you devote yourself to, once you start it, there is no real end to it. Sometimes I feel as if I am a hamster running constantly in a wheel that I started turning myself. (Laughs)
Are there any new development that you are thinking about for the future?
 Besides Germany, there are other countries in Europe where local governments and artists are working individually and with different methods in programs at prisons. I believe it is very important that these groups develop cooperative relationships with each other. We are working to develop exchanges where we can share our experiences and ideas about what kinds of activities are going on in other countries, what kinds of problems are encountered between them and the prisons of the government agencies in charge, and how those problems are being solved. A project I am working on at the pan-European level is one that is putting together the information necessary for artists to begin working on arts projects with inmates in prisons. The United Kingdom is a country with a tradition of arts projects at prisons, and in France the mayor of the city where a prison is located has jurisdiction over activities there. There are a wide range of differences in laws governing prisons and how programs are operated at prisons depending on the country. I believe that putting together information about the common ground of possibilities for arts programs at prisons, which transcend these differences and diversity of conditions, is something of international significance and meaning.
The next aufBruch project scheduled for November involves a first-time experiment of using a text/script written by the inmates, doesn’t it?
 Yes. This is a first-time attempt both for aufBruch and for the inmates. It is a project in which, taking an idea from the work A Letter to My Cat Beber by the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It originated as an idea from one of our young artists teams and at aufBruch we consider it an option for a new type of activity. We had the inmates write a letter to someone important to them, and then we have them introduce their letters in a television talk show type of setting. Going forward, we want to support projects like this that young artists want to on their own at prisons.
Finally, I would like to ask you if there is anytime in your experience until now that has left an especially strong impression on you.
 What first drew me to this work and has kept me at it all this time is the chance to witness moments when people discover they can change themselves and other people. There are times when things like the lines or text in a play, exchange with the audience or interaction with us the artists when suddenly the inmates undergo a big change in the way they view things or think about things, or moments when they can gain courage to live their lives differently from now on. Such changes do not last forever, but the experience of seeing those moments of change is something that has left a deep impression on me. To be present at such moments when inmates find in theater the courage to change the way they have lived until now is an experience of immeasurable value for me.

*1 German prisons
During Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic era (1919 – 1933), the Brandenburg-Görden Prison initiated progressive policies to actively support convicts’ successful return to society, but during the Nazi regime such programs were destroyed. After World War II, the inhumane Nazi era penal practices were eliminated and reforms put in place. In 1977, the German Confederation passed a new penal law that clearly stated the commitment to efforts in support of convicts’ return to society. The death penalty was eliminated and provisions were made for the return to society after a term (up to 15 years, or 25 years in exceptional cases) of “free imprisonment” (except in the case of life sentences). Toward this end, the prisons engage in individualized treatment programs aimed at correcting the cause that led them to a convict’s crime (alcoholics are put in anti-addiction programs, those under the stress of not being able to speak German are given German language training, etc.). In addition, labors that enable inmates to earn pay are provided along with job training programs. Also, a variety of programs are offered for the inmates’ free time, and prison theater programs fall in this category.

*2 Kunst im Knast
This is an organization founded with the aim of initiating exchanges between artists of Berlin and the inmate population in its prisons and to use a variety of arts activities to encourage the state government to help prevent the bonds between the inmates and society from being severed.

*3 Main aufBruch productions
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
(1998, based on the original play by Ken Kesey)
Tegel – Alexanderplatz
(1998, based on the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin)
(2000, based on the original play by Samuel Beckett)
Offending the Audience and Self-accusation
(2002, based on the original play by Peter Handke)
( The Song of the Nibelungs )
(2006, based on the epic poem in Middle High German)
(2009, based on the original by Christian D. Grabbe)
Penthesilea and Achilles
(2010, based on the original play by Heinrich von Kleist)
Wallenstein’s Camp
(2013, based on the Wallenstein Trilogy by Friedrich von Schiller)

Photo: Thomas Aurin

Wallenstein’s Camp
Photo: Thomas Aurin