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Theater art

Impromptu inventions

München, 04/25/2014

Whether crime story or the trials of a superhero – LMU student Tobias Zettelmeier and the other members of Bühnenpolka enjoy the challenge of improvising the characters they play at the behest of the audience.

Photo: Bühnenpolka
Photo: Bühnenpolka

Before the play begins, the four actors seek inspiration from the audience. “Let’s try the third last SMS on your phone,” says Tobias Zettelmeier. A young woman in the fourth row fishes out her phone and reads out the message: “Hope you have a nice trip”. In a trice, Zettelmeier has become a distracted salesman in a travel agency – and proceeds to develop up a whole plotline around this character. He and his three colleagues on the stage of the Heppel&Ettlich playhouse in Schwabing also create their offbeat characters, inspired by suggestions from the audience, on the trot. Sophie Meinecke plays a high-school graduate who holds the attention of laboratory animals with her break-dancing, Norman B. Graue assumes the role of a thoroughly domesticated figure with artistic ambitions who makes a fortune with his miniatures, and Christine Sittenauer plays an academically successful but emotionally dissatisfied wife.

“Not knowing beforehand what I will be called upon to do is what makes it so stimulating for me,” says 27-year-old Tobias Zettelmeier later. He is the business manager of the Bühnenpolka troupe, as well as being a member of the Theater Studies class at LMU. “People in the audience always assume that one has played the baker over and over, often sung that song or declaimed that poem. But, strangely enough, it doesn’t work that way. Every show has a general theme – singles, Halloween, Oktoberfest, whatever – and the outlines of a dramatic structure. But all we know is what must happen to bring the story to a conclusion.”

Western, crime story, romance
The troupe of improvisers, five young actors and two musicians, who call themselves Bühnenpolka came together in 2011. Most of its members have completed their training in music or dramatic arts, and two are LMU graduates. Like Zettelmeier, Sherin Kharabish, who looks after administration, is taking the course in Theater Studies at LMU. The group gives around 40 performances a year. They have done pieces for LMU‘s Studiobühne on Ludwigstrasse, presented improvisations in Munich’s Olympic Village, and they appear once a month at the Heppel&Ettlich Theater in Schwabing. But they have performed at theater festivals, taken part in improvisation competitions, and put on shows at corporate events and private birthday parties. They have also been engaged for this year’s LMU Sommerfest, and will appear in the Main Building.

Every show gives the actors a chance to experiment with the thematic context they provide for proposals from the audience. In “Four for Adelheid”, a series of improvised crime dramas produced in cooperation with a second ensemble, members of the audience could choose the crime scene and the murder weapon – and specify what the murderer had eaten before his fateful meeting with the victim. At a corporate event held by an insurance company, attendees were asked to supply technical terms as the basis for impromptu dramas. When the troupe appeared at a wedding reception, the happy couple was asked to name key moments in the development of their relationship. In the improvised episodes of the epic tale of superhero Captain Bavaria, Tobias Zettelmeier first storms into the dining-room, then graciously allows the guests to define the extent of his powers for the evening. The revelers also select his name and line of work in “normal” life. Indeed, for this spectacular dinner program, Zettelmeier’s colleague Lukas Maier has written a special soundtrack.

Speechless - momentarily
At one of their regular appearances in Schwabing, the group recently had to improvise on the topic (supplied by the audience, as usual) of “Sochi and Doping”. In the presentation that ensued, Christine Sittenauer played a Bavarian athlete who is allegedly allergic to peanuts (“Others break out in rashes, but with me it’s the muscles – they just get so-o-o big!”), while Sophie Meinecke appeared as an American tourist who sings the praises of Sochi as a holiday resort. The troupe does rehearse, but not like they would for a scripted play. “We don’t rehearse a prepared text, we play around with ideas – for novel formats or new motto shows.” Rehearsals are where new directions can be tried out and the group can work on coordination, on “playing to each other”, as Zettelmeier says. “One can ‘test-drive’ new characters and get a feeling for how the others react. But we don’t and can’t repeat on stage scenes that we have rehearsed. The improvisations really are created on the spur of the moment.”

After the Sochi evening – which ends with Zettelmeier playing all the parts in an improvised scene involving four characters – the troupe’s leader is still on a high. “It’s not like playing conventional theater, where one waits backstage for one’s next scene. Improvisation means being on stage all the time. Even when one isn’t in the spotlight, one is thinking where the scene needs to go.” You don’t have to learn lines by heart, but you must pay attention to what your fellow-actors are saying – otherwise you can easily lose track of what is going on. And, as Zettelmeier admits, “there are times – moments – when one is really at a loss for words, but the audience takes them in its stride.” After all, these lapses bring home to everyone that the whole play is being put together on the fly.