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English Language Theatre in Vienna: The International Theatre

Jonathan Sharp

This paper will concentrate on one organisation—the International Theatre of Vienna, a small enterprise active on the Viennese theatre scene since 1974, and based since January 1980 in the ninth district of the city, where it has two permanent playing spaces. The paper will consist of two main parts; the first a historical survey of the theatre, its origins and operations, and the second a systematic analysis of certain criteria relevant to the wider aims of the research group.

As such, the International Theatre belongs to the rich tradition of English language theatre performance in post-war Vienna, a tradition which has developed extensively since its origins as an entertainment form for ex-pats based in the city in the immediate aftermath of World War II. William and Marilyn Wallace, the founders and owners of the IT, met in Vienna in 1963 at the American Church, an organisation central to the US ex-pat community in the city; both had arrived in Vienna in the mid-50's to pursue musical studies. After forming an ad-hoc ensemble of actors and technicians, they began as a wandering acting troupe, performing throughout Austria on a touring basis. The first permanent premises were on Vienna's Glasergasse, where the company performed for three years before the current home on the Porzellangasse was secured. In May 1990, a production of Marsha Norman's Night, Mother opened the second space, the cellar theatre still used for smaller-cast productions. I shall be investigating the extraordinary story of the theatre’s origins and development in detail, in particular the development of the status of the organisation on the Viennese theatre scene, and the general effect this had on repertoire and personnel and business policies, in the first part of my project.

The second part of the paper will be further sub-divided into sections concerning repertoire, organisational structure and personnel, and production features, in more detail. Repertoire development, and some aspects of play choice, including the elements of popularity, educational value, and new writing by Vienna-based playwrights, will be examined, leading to some conclusions about the image/s of the US and UK perpetrated by the theatre, and the effect/s of the Viennese audiences' expectations on these image/s. The organisational structure of the theatre is interesting insofar as it allowed, and continues to allow, a more repertory-based performance schedule of the kind more common in the first half of the 20th century in Britain; this in turn allows conclusions to be drawn regarding the IT as a local cultural industry and employer. Additionally, the contributions of important individual performers and directors will be assessed. The final section, on production features, will largely be based on material gathered from interviews with one of the more prolific artistic directors of the theatre, Don Fenner (AD from 1982 until his retirement in 2006). Drawing on his formidable experience of the profession, gained from working throughout Austria and Germany as well as the UK and his native US, his insight contributes to a discussion of general dramaturgical issues at the IT: what plays were/are chosen? For what reasons? How extensively are plays cut, and why? Are there any house policies regarding educational productions? To close this final section, I will be looking at the technical capabilities of the two spaces, and how this impacts on the work the theatre produces.

This paper contributes to the inter-cultural and inter-disciplinary nature of the project by offering an insight into a successful, active repertory theatre in Vienna performing exclusively in English. Moreover it aims to demonstrate the dual nature of theatre in general, and within the cultural climate specific to Vienna—how do the commercial and practical realities of running a small performing arts enterprise co-exist with the artistic and cultural mediation role of this theatre, and all theatres?


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