Teenagers in Trouble
History of Platypus Theater
The huge success of “Teenagers in Trouble” was a welcome surprise. It was like a band having a hit record. Just like a hit record, “T.I.T.” has gone on to have a life of its own. Thirty years later, despite massive obstacles like the current pandemic, the play is still going on.
There’s a lot of talk about sustainability these days and I love to think of our plays as being “sustainable.” How would I define “sustainable” in this context? “Long lasting” is perhaps a good word. Long lasting, because Teenagers in Trouble is about human nature and human nature doesn’t change all that much. Habits change, fashions change, but our desire to love and be loved doesn’t, and our strivings to love and be loved are forever interesting. The risks and silly things we are prepared to do in life to achieve our aims are also interesting and an audience can learn a lot by watching a couple of characters living out their imaginary lives on stage.
Why was (is) Teenagers in Trouble so successful? It’s a simple but gripping plot, it’s presented in an interesting way with two actors and one musician, and it has a minimalistic but effective set. The two actors mainly perform the roles of “Biggy” and “Dave,” two teenagers who meet unexpectedly at school and who, in the end, after a few crises, fall head over heels in love, sealed with a kiss. A Hollywood ending. Over the years of putting on plays for young people I have learned that the young audiences want a happy ending even though it’s not always like that in life. On the occasions we have employed them open endings have left our young audiences disconcerted.
Should one pander to the desire of an audience to have a happy ending? I tend to think yes. Or at least, a very clear ending that doesn’t leave the audience scratching their heads and asking what is the author’s intention. Part of the deeper function of theater is to enable an audience to dream of how things may be, to give them the chance to imagine that things can be different and even unimaginably good. Anja doesn’t agree with me about happy endings being desirable. She says that there are examples of successful plays which don’t have happy endings. So dear reader, what do you think? Opinions welcome on email@example.com
The play ends on a big kiss, orchestrated by live background music. The teenage audiences, often at the beginning of puberty or in the middle of it, cheer and laugh and applaud. They are relieved and elated all at once. The adults in the audience, usually teachers and occasionally parents, love that moment too. It’s a message of hope. Fortuitously, the premiere of the play was on February 14th 1992, Valentine’s Day! How appropriate, how fitting, for a play about romance and love!
The play is wonderful mixture of comedy and tragedy. All five of the characters take themselves very seriously, they are not deliberately trying to be funny. That’s one of the golden rules of good comedy, take what you are doing seriously. The harder you try to get things right, the more likely it is that things will go wrong and when things go wrong, the audiences laugh because they can relate to mistakes and it’s generally much easier to relate to other people’s mistakes than your own mistakes. And I love the sound of an audience laughing. It unites the audience.
How did the idea for the play originate?
Back in 1990, when we were still doing plays in German, a teacher friend once said to us “Why don’t you do a play in English?” I had never really considered this idea. A play in English, for young people who are learning English. What an obvious idea! Why didn’t we think of that before? Here was a pathway to playing for older children, for tapping into the market place for school audiences. I had done some performances in English for the children of the Allied forces in Berlin but never for young people whose first language was German. The idea of me being able to perform in my native language was very attractive. Acting in a foreign language is a big challenge. I had been in Germany for almost 10 years and I was fluent, but it was clear at this stage that I would never be able to work in German as an actor on professional German stages. I couldn’t speak accent free German and if you can’t do that you can’t work in German plays for adults.
It was possible for me though to act in our own plays in German. We were part of the independent scene, we were on the fringe. “Hochdeutsch” wasn’t required. These plays were well received but often, after the shows the kids would ask me “Wieso sprichst du so komisch?” Why do you speak so strangely? It was always a bit difficult to provide young children with a satisfactory answer to this question, so, for me, the prospect of performing in English was very attractive.
Anja and I thought it would be a good idea to do a play in English, and asked Detlef Wintzen if he would be interested in developing a new play with us. I had performed together with Detlef in Matthew Burton’s Commedia dell’ Arte group and we’d kept in contact. At that time, Detlef had been working as an assistant director at Caroussel Theater, now Theater an der Parkaue. He had his heart set on directing and being in charge. Anja and I and wanted to do the play together and had the idea that the play would include music and that Anja could play keyboards. Anja speaks excellent English but her German accent is detectable. We decided to use this in the development of the play. Anja would play a German teenager who had just arrived in the U.S.A. and who, like the kids in the audience, was not entirely at ease in the English language. There’s a good word for it in German, “sympathieträger.” Equivalent to “sympathizer” but probably better translated as “character with which the audience can identify”.
We improvised a lot of scenes which were based on our experiences as teenagers, and Detlef’s as well. We came up with quite a lot of material. Delving into own experiences as young people was at times painful and we had our doubts in the process about whether we could rise to the challenge of playing two main roles, three minor roles and singing and doing rapid costume changes as well. Detlef was quite demanding as a director. He wanted to get a lot out of us and in the end he did. He was inspired by Grips Theater, especially by the way the actors doubled up on roles. “Linie 1” which premiered in 1986 and became a huge hit, being a good example of that.
During the devising phase, we realized that the material we had come up with in the improvisations needed to be sorted out. Detlef was insistent that we needed an author to do this. He felt he needed to have someone to exchange ideas with, someone else to rub up against. Anja and I had imagined we could be responsible for the script as well, but we saw the sense in what Detlef was saying. We needed someone who was slightly more detached. I’m not exactly sure how we found Lindy Annis, but we did. Once again, fortune was playing into our hands.
Lindy had moved to (West) Berlin from New York in the early 1980s, had studied theater and had written her own shows. She enhanced our own ideas and came up with a wonderfully minimalistic text for the play. We all agreed to set the play in the 1950’s to remove it from the here and now and hence create a different, slightly romanticized world. The language that Lindy wrote was precise, witty and simple. She was very careful to only use words and expressions that our target audience, fifth and sixth grade pupils, would understand. She used lots of repetition. Some passages were difficult to learn because of the repetition. The simple sentences were, however, really great to perform and when you are doing theater in English for audiences whose first language is often German, you want them to be going along with you, you want them to be understanding the words which come out of your mouth, you want to make sure they are following the characters and the plot.
Dave Are you sure?
Biggy Yes, I’m sure.
Dave Are you really sure?
Biggy Yes, I’m really sure.
Dave Really, really, sure?
Biggy sternly Yes I’m really, really sure.
This production was subsidized by the Berlin Senate. It wasn’t heaps of money, perhaps 30,000 deutschmark, but it was enough to pay for a director, an author, a stage designer and a costume maker. It’s so beneficial and enriching to be able to work with other people and having a budget. Detlef introduced us to his friend Thomas Schenk who was beginning to make a name for himself as a set designer and we were very privileged to be able to make use of his services. He understood our needs very well. We were a mobile touring theater. We would be moving into theaters in the early morning and “bumping out” again after the show at midday. Thomas was a skilled carpenter and an architect and could make everything himself and had his own workshop in Kreuzberg. He took pride in his constructions and built fantastic and sturdy props such as a crowbar made of wood which looked like it was made of metal. He constructed three curved shape boxes which were used in various functions on stage and then to store the costumes for transport. Everything for Teenagers in Trouble fitted into and on top of our small Renault Rapid van. Sustainable!
Anja and I introduced Detlef to Annette Bätz who had made costumes for us in our earlier children’s shows and who, was very good at designing and sewing robust and great looking costumes. She also really enjoyed the challenge of making 50’s- styled dresses with petticoats for the Biggy character and Dave’s classic bright yellow sports coat. (Still in use!) The costume style was pure 50’s American style rock and roll and the spirit of the play reveled in that period, part of the plot centering around breaking into the school at night with the intention of robbing the Coca Cola machine. Joerg Metzner
also stepped into our lives at this point. Joerg is a professional theater photographer. Detlef met him at Carroussel Theater, where Joerg was employed at the time. Joerg took great black and white fotos of Teenagers in Trouble” and has been fotographing Platypus plays ever since.
The style of music had to be Rock and Roll. It quickly became clear that it would be impossible for Anja to play keyboards and perform her roles, so we looked around for a piano player and luckily found Carolyn del Rosario, a very talented jazz pianist who was playing in various combos in all of the clubs in Berlin and in the Theater des Westerns on Kant Strasse. I had seen her once playing jazz in a club. I remember thinking that she had a fantastic way of playing but it wasn’t in my wildest dreams that we would end up being on stage together and that our working relationship would endure all these years.
Carolyn came to the Werner Voß Damm rehearsal room in Tempelhof to audition for the show. I was in the hallway outside the room when she arrived and dressed in the Tante (Auntie) Crystal costume, high heels and all, as we had just been rehearsing that scene. Carolyn was a little perturbed by this, wondering what she would be letting herself in for. But a gig is a gig is a gig! We clicked, and suddenly we were a trio. I played acoustic guitar on a couple of songs and the music was and is a very important part of the show. To hear Carolyn playing on the BKA Theater grand piano is a feast for the ears.
Carolyn has perfect pitch, a brilliant sense of timing and a great ability to adapt her playing to what the actors are doing on stage. She could round off the music so brilliantly at the beginning and end of scenes. In the beginning, she played on a very simple, lightweight Roland synthesizer and used a drum machine as well. Again luck was with us as we were unexpectedly given 5000 deutschmark from the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs to pay for the necessary sound equipment, two small sized speaker boxes with tripods and a power mixer. The music for the play was mainly covers, but Carolyn did great interpretations and some of her own original compositions. On top of playing, she operated a small mixing desk for the lights. The lights were four 1000 Watt lamps on two tripods. We had quite a few blacks between scenes and Carolyn had to be ambidextrous to do everything at once. She was multi-tasking long before the word became fashionable.
But it would be a while before we would start performing in classier venues like the BKA Theater. It was a humble beginning in 1992, in the “Antenne.” We had already set this venue up as our semi- permanent performing space. It was shared with other theater groups and with the youth club. The room we performed in really belonged to the Kreuzberg council and the youth club. Performing in youth clubs was standard in those days. Theater Strahl were and still are using a youth club in Schöneberg (“Weiße Rose”) and Atze Musiktheater were using a room known as the “Schatzinsel” in another part of Kreuzberg. Spielwerkstatt were using the youth club behind the Deutsche Oper in Zillestrasse, in Charlottenburg. Most of these rooms had stages.
We were operating “the Antenne” as a “club” (Verein) in order to make it legal for us to charge money for tickets to our shows. The room we used in the Antenne Youth Club was a general purpose room, smaller than a tennis court. There was no elevated stage. We bought a lightweight, cheap and nasty grey carpet to cover the stage area. The audiences sat cross legged sat on gym mats which bordered onto the edge of the stage and the privileged ones, the taller kids and teachers, sat on two or three rows of chairs at the back of the hall. A full house was 100 people but sometimes, when things went wrong with the bookings we had more. It was often very hot and sweaty but wonderfully intimate and there was no space for a fourth wall.
At the end of the show the kids would get up and leave the room via the emergency exit which meant they had to walk across the stage. Anja and I would stand on the stage to make sure that curious kids didn’t fiddle with our set and props or trip over the lights. This was not only good for protecting our property, it was also very good for coming into contact with the audience, saying hello, having a meet and greet, giving the kids a chance to practice their English and for us to get direct feedback about the show. We have since then tried to maintain this “getting to know you ritual” at the end of all of our plays. You get such an immediate response.
Back then, we also had lots and lots of fan mail. Paper. At the end of the play, after our final bow, we would invite the audiences to write to us and they often did. The teachers would send us thick envelopes full of handwritten letters and drawings. Usually the kids wrote in English and we would always write back. It became part of the pedagogical concept and teachers were very happy because their students had a concrete reason to write to us in English. When the audiences filed out past us, I pretended to be unable to understand German and the kids had to exert themselves to communicate in English with questions like “Was the kiss real?” and “was it good?”
Having close contact with our audiences has always been high on our priority list. We developed a participation scene for the Teenagers in Trouble show and this scene also greatly contributed to the success of the show. I played the role of the teacher, Mr. Simpson, and Anja played the naughty schoolgirl who passed notes to the students who had been invited on stage to be part of the simulated classroom. The notes were cheeky with messages like “Mr. Simpson is stupid” and “Mr. Simpson is a pig.” It was great having one scene in the play which was different every single time we performed it. It certainly kept us on our toes as performers and the audiences loved being included in the play. This is another thing that we have strived for in other productions, audience participation. It’s not always possible to have audience members on stage but we do strive to involve our audiences in the plays we present.
There were a couple of other factors that contributed to the success of the play. Firstly, we had an overwhelmingly positive response from the press and I don’t think we even put out a press release. These days, getting reviews in the newspapers has become incredibly difficult. We had highly praising reviews in all of the important newspapers, Der Tagespiegel, Die Morgenpost, Die Taz, Der Berliner Zeitung. As well as this we had great reviews in the now defunct Zitty magazine and in the Tip. “Teenagers in Trouble” was suddenly very popular.
Word of mouth was also important. In my opinion you can’t beat word of mouth. A teacher sees the play, likes it and recommends it to other teachers, the word spreads, seeing is believing. We also went out into the various suburbs and did shows in school halls, often under difficult conditions, but we did it, and so, slowly but surely began building or audience base. Some teachers became such loyal fans they would take their English classes to a “Teenagers in Trouble” performance year after year. For some, it had unofficially become part of the curriculum.
Another important factor in our success back then was the fact that the Berlin wall had fallen at the end of 1989. Suddenly we had a much larger potential audience. West Berlin at the time had a population of approximately 1.3 million people and East Berlin had at least two million. In the DDR the students had been learning Russian as their second language. When the wall went down the second language was English and the teachers and students were eager to experience the English language. It’s a cliché to talk of being in the right place at the right time but I think it’s true in this case. Another example of the truth in Erich Kästner’s words “Chance is the greatest of all the great powers in the world.”
Cornelsen schoolbook publishing company got wind of what we were doing and decide to print the play and offer it to schools as a reader. This was also very beneficial to making the play well known, although it was printed under the title “Kisses and Cokes.” The title “Teenagers in Trouble” was slightly controversial in the eyes of Cornelsen. In the United States, in American slang, when a girl is “in trouble” she has an unplanned pregnancy.
The publication of the play as a “reader” meant that schools would often do their own version of the play at the end of the year or read scenes in the classroom. A lot of books were sold and not just in Germany. There was special edition for China and one for Poland. There was even a CD, a radio play. I find it quite satisfying to know that a play which we devised and performed has reached such a huge number of people worldwide and that it’s still up and running today. It’s not quite the same as having had a hit record but there are similarities!
Stay tuned for the next episode of my Blog. This will be about “Play to Win” and is also an interesting story.