HAMAKOM – “THE PLACE” in Hebrew – is a Theater Center at the 1898 Nestroyhof In Vienna’s 2nd District (LEOPOLDSTADT) that pursues honest multiculturalism in a city that in the Nazi years preached Arianization.
Since my return to Vienna about ten days ago, I witnessed the Erdogan negation at the Hofburg of the UN tooted Alliance of Civilizations but found two activities at the renovated Nestroyhof in Leopoldstadt – or Vienna’s ever multicultural former village – now the city’s second district that you cross on the way to the Vienna International Center (VIC) – home of the UN offices in Vienna (UNOV). Because of this I decided to dedicate a posting to the history of a theater in this area – no less – “THE PLACE” – HAMAKOM.
HISTORY of a VIENNA Second District THEATER at the NESTROYHOF the HAMAKOM.
Stormy Years 1898 – 1938
On the ground floor of the Nestroyhof, an Art Nouveau rental building, designed and built in 1898 by Theodor Herzl’s friend and Zionist supporter, Viennese architect Oskar Marmorek, opened first the „Etablissement Nestroy-Säle“.
The „Mazzes Insel“ (matzah island), long a Jewish residential and business district, was turn-of-the-century heart of a new epoch of Jewish theater. Yiddish language ensembles, cabarets and small theaters sprung up bringing the Jewish life of Vienna and Eastern Europe to the stage.
Here they confronted the Viennese Kasperl (Punch & Judy) and Viennese Posse (Vaudeville) traditions, initiating a totally new style of theater, a multi-cultural counterpart to mainstream culture. The Theater in the Nestroyhof, became a potpourri showplace of a wide variety of theater groups and styles, contributing greatly to the internationality of modern metropolitan life in Vienna.
After the „Etablissement Nestroy-Säle“ filed for bankruptcy the Varieté theater „Folies Comiques“ opened its portals, presenting among others, Karl Kraus’ “Trianon” theatre troupe with the Austrian premiere performance of Franz Wedekind’s „Pandora’s Box“. Later, Theater “Reklame” added a cinema in a further tract of the building and a bar („Tanzbar Sphinx“) opened in the theater’s cellar. The bar and cinema remained in business until the fall of Stalingrad in 1942.
From 1904 to 1918 the „Intimes Theater“, a small literary theater led by Emil Richter-Roland and Oscar Friedmann produced Austrian premieres of Gorki, Strindberg, and Maeterlinck and later French comedies produced by Emil’s wife Josefine. Performances in the Nestroyhof were periodically forbidden by state censors during political crises.
Jakob Goldfliess led the „Jüdische Künstlerspiele“ in Nestroyhof from 1927 – 1938, and as anti-Jewish restrictions grew increasingly focused his program on themes of anti-Semitism. He presented famous Yiddish language actors and ensembles and touring groups such as the „Jüdisch-Akademischen Theaters“ from Moscow, the “Budapestern” and the Hebrew language “Habima”.
Lost Years 1938 – 1997
In 1938 the „Jüdische Künstlerspiele“, along with the rest of the Viennese and European Jewish theater world, fell victim to Nazi persecution.
The property was aryanized in 1940 (Arianization is the genteel word used for stealing Jewish property, or applying pressure to get it for ridiculously low prices in parallel with seeing the Jews disappear), and taken over by the industrialist Polsterer family. Restitution procedures in 1956 led to a, today still debated, out of court, settlement between the descendants of the building’s rightful owner, Anna Stein, and the Polsterer family, who still maintain possession of the property today.
The war-damaged building was renovated in 1955 and the onetime theater space served a succession of commercial tenants, most recently housing a supermarket until 1997. Upon their vacating of the premises, the drop ceiling and plasterboard walls installed in adapting it for commercial use were removed, revealing the magnificent theater structure hidden below. Ironically this temporary misuse of the theater led ultimately to its preservation.
Rediscovery of the Theater 2004-2007
Rediscovery inspired a row of cultural initiatives in attempts to re-establish the theater in the Nestroyhof as a cultural and artistic center. Theater groups and cultural organizations presented performances, art exhibitions and events dealing with themes of Diaspora, racism and social exclusion. The unclear situation of tenancy, lack of direction and inconsistent profile made long-term planning impossible. Towards the end of 2007, the Polsterer family was again setting sights on the theater’s commercial value and on halting all cultural activities in the space.
New Initiative 2008
A new privately funded initiative by theater director Frederic Lion (who’s Theater Transit, staged, et. al., the production „Abendfüllend“ by Antonio Fian, in 2006 in Nestroyhof), begun in May 2008, managed to obtain an open-ended lease, thus saving the space from an imminent return to misappropriate commercial use. Under the direction of Frederic Lion, the group Theater Nestroyhof Hamakom developed a concept for the total use of the space and its long term reactivation within the Viennese theater landscape. This concept won the support of the city of Vienna’s Cultural Bureau for September 2009 to December 2013.
The initiative is working towards the realization of a lasting and necessary restoration of the theater structure.
The history of the Theater in the Nestroyhof has been a century of repeated contestation of its right of existence. Even in its current fragile condition, scarred by abuse, deterioration and destruction, the theater space contains a spirit and energy which inspires artists with confidence, strength and fantasy. Its tragic heritage and historical grandeur, aesthetic and spatial presence reveal a topos, awakening enthusiasm and fantasy in searching for traces of the past and recounting stories of the present.
Under the direction of Frederic Lion and his team, the Theater Nestroyhof Hamakom has chosen this location in the urban village of Vienna’s second district as a performance platform for social friction, diverse fields of thought and movements happening in Vienna and anywhere. The projects will be aligned along the fissures of the current global human and cultural interaction and movement, exclusion and delimitation, remembrance and identity, flight and asylum.
The place, Theater Nestroyhof, in all its manifestations, real and imagined, is not a spiritual ghetto; as for every theater, its strength has always lain in its limitless ability to free itself. The Nestroyhof name, with its longstanding tradition, has been embellished by the Hebrew word “ha makom”, meaning “the place.” This expression includes a transcendental form of remembrance and spiritual localization that inspires an exciting pursuit of possibilities to expand and abolish existing borders.
Frederic Lion – Artistic Director & General Management
Production, office management
Johannes Gruner – Program & Production Coordination, Organization, Communication
Susanne Höhne – Dramatic Advisor & Play Readings Supervisor
Theater Nestroyhof Hamakom
Nestroyplatz 1 / 1020 Vienna
contact at hamakom.at