It is another winter’s night, the chilly Berlin air shoves me into a dimly lit bar. Rejoicing at the warmth and welcome I celebrate by removing my winter garments. Coat and scarf now hung, I proceed to the bar. As I order my deserved beer, the keeper of liquids, asks - a question no doubt born from my English accent - if I am here for the spoken word event. I respond through still chattering teeth that I am not, but I would be intrigued to know more. And so he points to a clandestine door. And so I make my way down rickety stairs, to a basement that seemed to have been built for other purposes than art - dare I say that this is where people would have hidden from falling war time bombs. But instantly I realise that this is no mundane shelter. The scene is crowded and the buzz of the room ripe as people sit and stand, filling every last inch and corner of the room. Their necks stretched and their eyes fixed upon the stage as they eagerly await what is to come.
Dressed in a dress that belongs to a more formal occasion, the host of the night calls upon the next performer. As the audiences hushes with respectful anticipation, the spotlight glare reveals an eager yet nervous early-twenties woman holding a shaking Moleskine. As she begins to read, gaining confidence with each word and sentence, the audience warms to her bravery. She would be the first of many that night to grace the stage. Some would take to the the spotlight full of confidence and certainty, others meanwhile would fret and sweat with obvious anxiety.
Spoken Word - a generalism that includes slam poetry, song and prose - has been around Berlin, and other major cities for that matter, for some time now. However, in recent years it has seemingly taken an entirely firmer hold of the ‘live event’ scene. Once an arty alternative, it is now often the main event. These events and evenings, all different and style and character, have mushroomed up and around the city. Frequented by the young and the old alike, by the seasoned performers and the novice, by the gifted and the “less gifted”, they have become the thing to do and be seen to be doing.
Mind you, it is not all sparkles as on occasions these nights smack of presumptuousness and hollow sophistication as too often the young hipster want-to-be-poet takes the stage to read some glum heartbreak tale of woe that barely rhymes or makes sense. There is only so much I can take of 20-something kids tearfully recounting some story of barely-post-pubescent heartache. But this is not that bad since performers are limited to 5 minutes of stage time, and not to mention this creates a pleasant anticipation to the whole thing, as one sits there wondering what the next performer will bring to the stage.
The evenings are no doubt guided by the host, whose charisma and skills dictate the tone of the event. On this particular occasion, I had the pleasure of witnessing the contagious energy of Mary Vlasuk whose mastery of the stage was exemplary. When I asked her about her impressions of these evenings, she answered,
“One of the most enjoyable and exciting things about running these evenings is seeing how each week develops to become its own exciting and unique evening. We have a different theme, a different audience, and different performers coming together to make an individual evening that will only happen once. We have a core following of regular audience members and performers who help create the familiar and communal feeling that people coming for the first time notice. This makes it easier for everyone to interact and enjoy the evening to its fullest”.
But beyond such events, there is a wider communal discussion to be held with regards to the role that Spoken Word plays in the community. Berlin, no doubt a multi-cultural and expat haven offers not only different groups the opportunity to come together. “Our goal is to create a safe and familiar atmosphere for people from around the world, with varying talents and differentiating ideals and histories, to come together and express themselves in a way they might have previously”. To this end, I was pleased to hear that though on this occasion the performances were predominantly in English, all languages are welcome.
Spoken Word art is an ever-growing medium by which people speak to and about the issues that most concern them. It is the space in which the artist and the public become one. Situated at the intersection between art and politics, the power of this platform is not only one of supporting the performing arts, but building contact and communities and ultimately encouraging positive change in the environments in which we belong. Be that through direct discussion, activity, or even the simple act of bringing new ideas and different points of view into a room; performers have the potential to grow, share their stories, express themselves, and ultimately come together to support an open and aware community.
Mary’s Berlin Spoken Word is just one of many such events that are increasingly dominating the live performance scene in Berlin by not only providing an artistic space but serving a wider communal purpose.