When I first came to Berlin in 2002, Pfefferberg was just about the coolest place I’d ever been to. Sitting out under the stars in the Berlin summer, drinking a good German beer, and listening to live music was for me the absolute height of sophistication. On the way up the hill along Schönhauser Allee going towards Mauerpark and what was then the pretty scruffy, vibrant east of Berlin (now much more touristy and rather gentrified), Pfefferberg was (and still is) a bar, club, restaurant, and cultural complex occupying the half-derelict site of an old brewery and beer garden, whose presence could be dated back to the mid-nineteenth century. In the in-between time, the site was used for other industry (pre-WWII ) and as a printers and publishers (GDR). But the beer garden was in active use throughout. Post-reunification the site stayed in public hands. Local groups got organized to make the area into a communal area for culture. Renovation started in 2000, a gallery opened in 2001, the beer garden was still there, and the rest has built up gradually, with the latest addition being the Pfefferberg Theater Berlin – celebrating its opening on 13 – 15th November. And that’s what I want to talk about here.
The theater group moving in – now called the Pfefferberg Theater – is not without its own history. First known as Hexenkessel & Hof Theater, it was founded 21 year ago in Prenzlauerberg as an East Berlin alternative to Theatergroup. Many of the original members of the group are still involved. 17 years ago they moved from Prenzlauerberg to Mitte, finding a spot to perform just across the Spree from the Bode Museum. If you’re familiar with Berlin, you’ll know the Strandbar (the very first beach bar along the Spree), which back in its pre-touristy days was a very hip and fancy place set up purely to provide visitors to the theater with something to drink.
Thanks to their innovation, commitment to high culture, and general brilliance, the Hexenkessel & Hof Theater have been the most successful independent theater in Germany for years. Director Jan Zimmermann is particularly well known for reinventing Grimms’ Fairytales and showing them in a strikingly new way at the Märchenhütte ten years ago and attracting 50,000 visitors over the course of its showing. They still run there today. It is this spirit of reinvention that the group will bring when they move into Pfefferberg early next month.
There is a typically Berlin tale in all of this. First, the popular agitation to have a communal place for theatre. Second, the dedication to art which breaks boundaries and reinterprets tradition. Third, the ever-evolving nature of the city – things coming, going, moving around, shifting their purpose, old meeting new again and again. Fourth, that the most recent iteration of what Pfefferberg and the Pfefferberg Theater represent is about family, inclusiveness, creating something from which everyone can benefit and enjoy. Watch this space for details of their program. I’ll be taking my little ones, because in wintry Berlin, you just can’t get enough of cosy and inspiring theatre. Do go and support them if you’re a ‘Dickes B’ (read Berlin) German-speaking resident.