The Chawwerusch theatre has been around since 1984. The acting companystarted as a wandering troupe in the Odenwald until it found a permanent home in Herxheim in the Southern Palatinate. It has demonstrated for decades what ambitious professional theatre in the countryside can achieve and that it reaches people and wants to act as an interloper. And sometimes it brings half the town’s population on stage.

The Elmar-Weiller-Festhalle festival hall in Herxheim is abuzz with people being busy like bees in a hive. They go in and out, back and forth between the rooms, up and down the stairs. They carry costumes here and bring scenery parts there. A bronze-coloured unicorn’s head is waiting on the stage to be used. Someone is loudly practising a monologue in the small adjoining room. It seems that half the town of Herxheim is here today—joining the rehearsal weekend that the Chawwerusch theatre has organised to train for the upcoming theatre play Neuer Wind in Herxe (winds of change in Herxheim). The play comprises a number of stories that are performed at different venues, requiring the audience to wander through the town. It is a highlight of the 1250th anniversary that the local community celebrates in 2023.

The figures of the village fountain come to life in Neuer Wind in Herxe.

Actor Stephan Wriecz stands in the middle of the hustle and bustle and visibly enjoys the merriment. “Almost 150 people from age eight to over 70 are involved in making this play happen. 80 out of these are actors, amateurs, most of them from Herxheim, others from elsewhere in the region,” he says. Other people involved are the sewing team, the construction team, the props team and the guides, who later lead the audience through Herxheim from one stage to the next. And there are, of course, the six professional Chawwerusch producers and writers, who have created six scenes for the different stages showing the performance, which tell one great story about five fictional Herxheim locals as examples of the town’s history from the 1960s to the future.

Making costumes for over 80 actors and actresses is quite a challenge even for the Chawwerusch sewing team.

Neuer Wind in Herxe is not an average Chawwerusch play. However, the unusual project is no exception for the go-getting troupe and it impressively shows what theatre can achieve and why the Chawwerusch was founded in the first place: bringing people together, getting them excited about theatre and, above all, involving and encouraging them to tell stories they want to tell and their own life stories.

The troupe has been around since 1984. It has won a multitude of awards over the years. “The acting company toured through the country as a wandering troupe in the beginning,” Stephan explains. Hence the name. The term Chawwerusch comes from Rotwelsch, the secret language of vagrants—the “wandering people”—and refers to a gang of people who come together to carry out a robbery and then disband again. That is exactly what the founding members did at the beginning. They lived in different places, came together to play theatre and then split up again. The Palatinate term Kafruse, according to the theatre’s website, goes back to the same root word and refers to a gang of cheeky children. “Chawwerusch is a snotty theatre gang” that rears its head and points out evils.

“I find it satisfying to work in an environment, where everyone of the production team is involved in the creation of a play, that it is developed further together and that you don’t just bring the final product to the stage. As an actor, you’re never just a performer here

Stephan Wriecz

The theatrical troupe has had its permanent home in Herxheim since 1989. A young section of performers, the Expedition Chawwerusch, was added in 2014. We are now following Stephan, who leads the audience from the festival hall into the centre of Herxheim. The theatre is located directly on the main street in the dance hall of a former 19th century restaurant. There is an inner courtyard where a fig tree and grape vines grow and some of the rehearsals are held. Founding member Walter Menzlaw directs and gives instructions to a group of young people who are about to rebel against their conservative, religious teachers—in their roles. The place between the white-painted wooden columns can accommodate up to 135 spectators. A gallery encloses the auditorium in a U-shape. From there, a staircase leads up to the attic. Props and clothes are stored on about 100 square metres and bear witness to the more than 120 plays that the troupe has performed here and elsewhere. “About half of the performances take place here, but we are always on tour as well,” Stephan explains. On the Chawwerusch’s schedule there are always plays that they use to tour the country as in their early days, especially during the open-air season in summer, such as Animal Farm based on George Orwell in 2023.

Shoes for every occasion and every decade are on stock in the basic equipment of the Chawwerusch.

For the troupe it was a very conscious decision to settle in the countryside. After all, Chawwerusch prefers to tell grassroots stories, bringing the lives of the ordinary person to the stage rather than those of the powerful ones. It is a troupe that performs in the tradition of critical popular theatre of the alternative, ambitious and sometimes uncomfortable type; even when amateur actors are involved and even when it is a play performed on the occasion of the anniversary celebration of one’s hometown. “Nothing is glorified or glossed over,” says Stephan. On the contrary. Neuer Wind in Herxe addresses feminism and racism and refers to the social unrest occurring at the height of the flood of refugees in 2015, which was evident in this town as well.

Theatre work is always a process of team spirit in the Chawwerusch.

Stephan has been a member of the troupe since 2012, when Chawwerusch was looking for guest actors. Stephan lived in Mannheim and worked in the children’s and youth theatre at the Pfalzbau convention centre in Ludwigshafen at that time. “Then I went to the Palatinate. Chemistry was right from the very beginning.” It was the time when the first Chawwerusch generation was figuring out how to lead the institution into the future. “They approached Miriam Grimm and me to see if we wanted to step in and run the young section together.” Stephan agreed. He admits, however, that he’d never thought he would end up in the middle of the Southern Palatinate. But the work in the troupe appealed to him. “I find it satisfying to work in an environment, where everyone of the production team is involved in the creation of a play, that it is developed further together and that you don’t just bring the final product to the stage. As an actor, you’re never just a performer here.” Like many Chawwerusch plays, Neuer Wind in Herxe is based on interviews the troupe conducted with residents beforehand. It is actually their own stories that they can then see on the stage—or even take part in.

Stephan Wriecz reizt die Arbeit im Kollektiv: “Man ist hier nie nur Schauspieler.”

Back in the festival hall, Ben Hergl, another founding member, rings a bright little bell. The murmuring around him falls silent. The figures of the village fountain come to life on the stage of the Elmar-Weiller-Festhalle hall. As a founding member, Ben is still actively committed, just like Walter and two other founders: Felix S. Felix and Monika Kleebauer. They are all united by the joy of working with amateurs for such projects. “That keeps your mind open,” Stephan agrees. And so does his work with young people in the Expedition Chawwerusch section. The young section deals with the gender issue in the play Livename, for example. “Some of these topics are new and exciting for me too. And I might not otherwise engage with them so deeply,” he says.

He loves to get young people excited about theatre. And he is proud when former members of the Theaterscouts youth club appear on stage as professional actors later, just like Moritz Hahn in the play Animal Farm. “By the way, his mother acts in Neuer Wind in Herxe, too” Stephan adds. This actually happens quite often at Chawwerusch. Several generations of a family live out their joy of theatre here—be it on stage or backstage. It is a theatre very close to and with the local people.


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