“On Tour!” That term sounds pretty glamorous, doesn’t it? Maybe it makes you think of cities like Rome, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Lisbon, Istanbul? It certainly is wonderful to go on tours to such beautiful and fascinating places, but the experience of touring through provincial Germany with a theater group, while perhaps incapable of arousing the same degree of envy, should not be underestimated. What is a tour, after all, other than a way to bring live entertainment, enlightenment, and/or inspiration to different places? It’s sometimes easy to forget, in the YouTube age, that live performance has no parallel, and that people who live in small towns and don’t travel much rarely have the opportunity to see artists of the calibre of Katharina Thalbach and Andreja Schneider.
So what’s it like on tour?, you might be wondering. Do we have private chauffeurs, catering, five-star hotels, bellhops waiting at the curb of every theater and hotel? Well.. no. But we did have Bodo, the most rockin’ bus driver, tour manager, stage manager, harp-carrier, and concierge this side of the Atlantic. Wherever we went, he knew where you could go to get lunch at 3:00 PM on a Sunday (this may not sound extravagant, but try doing that in any provincial German town and then read this again) and where you could still get a drink and a bite to eat at 11:00 PM. No matter what time we arrived at the next hotel, the rooms were always ready (sounds like a given? Shall I tell you how often I’ve sat in hotel lobbies for an hour or more with 100 disgruntled orchestra musicians?) No problem was insurmountable for Bodo. No room on the bus for the harp? Well, just take out a few seats and make space between the band members.
Of course, things happen. It wouldn’t be a tour if things didn’t happen. The tree, the central element of the stage set, wasn’t quite as good a traveler as we were, and the tour management had to send in a traveling tree technician, as it were. Sometimes music stand lights mysteriously went out in foreign theaters and left those band members most familiar with the tunes to make the show go on. During the very last show in Lippstadt, Andreja Schneider’s wireless hands-free microphone gave up the ghost right at the outset; after her valiant attempt to carry on with the emergency hand-held mike on stage and a hasty, furtive behind-the-scenes groping with the sound engineer, there was no choice but to come out and announce the technical failure and beg for mercy. Katharina Thalbach considered singing something off the cuff, then disappeared into the wings after all to help Andreja attach the new microphone and sender. Meanwhile, our pianist Christoph Israel and the rhythm section of the band, Emanuel Hauptmann and Johannes Gunkel, started jamming on Charles Aznavour’s “Tu te laisse aller,” otherwise known as “Du lässt Dich gehen,” which comes up on the show’s second half. Just to keep things fresh, they took it in a different key, in an upbeat tempo. The new mike held and did its job, and the show went on.
And then of course there is the sometimes surreal aspect of touring, those moments of “what on earth am I doing here and why?” One day you’ll be playing in a full-to-the-gills 1000-capacity hall, the next day, after a five-hour drive, you’ll be in a charming but tiny 200-seater Rococo theater, the scattered empty seats gaping like missing teeth. The pragmatic ugliness of German post-war housing blocks and shopping centers can be overwhelming. In one such place, the only place to eat anywhere near the hotel and concert hall was in the food court of a mammoth shopping center. Relieved to have found something at all, we took our food to the outdoor terrace, only to be rudely chased away by a waiter from the ice cream parlor, the “owner” of the terrace tables. The view from my hotel room in that town was of the highway. Come to think of it, a lot of my hotel rooms looked out onto the highway. Breakfast can also be a repetitious martyrdom: the same Aldi cheese and Wurst, the same packaged bread rolls and bad coffee in every hotel. The exception is always a sensation and makes your day, as it did for us in the Mercure Hotel in Hameln: Bioland free-range eggs, fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade crepes filled with sweet cottage cheese, good dark German bread, proper tea with loose tea leaves. Heaven!
Any way you slice it, touring is tiring. You get up early, get on the bus, go to the next town, check into the hotel, go to the theater for the sound check, play the show, go for a drink. Or two, or three, but never mind. Most of all, I admire Andreja and Kathi no end for their professionalism, their charisma, their energy, and their creativity in spontaneously solving technical problems. No one sitting in the audience watching these two amazing women could possibly have imagined the day leading up to the evening: the hotel room overlooking the highway, the four-hour bus trip, the probably frozen-and-reheated lunch, the next hotel room, and the two hours spent doing sound check, makeup, ironing(!), and vocal prep. It’s really pretty inspiring.
And what’s more, it’s all worth it. Wherever we went, no matter how big or small the audience, people left the theater smiling, holding hands, humming, even still giggling. It may be a lot of fun to play in European capitals of culture, and it certainly makes for an enviable facebook status, but the impact you make in small towns is incomparably larger and more meaningful. A month later, when those Londoners and Parisians would have already buried our performance under dozens of other cultural strata, the people in Hameln or Marl or Bad Salzuflen will probably still be talking about that great show, Zwei auf einer Bank.