Facing The Final Curtain

An integral part of Vienna's theatre scene for over three decades, the International Theatre closes following severe cuts in public funding, auditing disputes and changed city priorities

Top Stories | Vera Mair | June 2012

In the Buffet of the International Theatre on Porzellangasse, photographs in silver frames cover the walls from floor to ceiling – leaving hardly a patch of empty space. Many of the production shots are black and white, while in others, the colour has already faded. A group portrait shows men with whiskers, toppers and frock coats, ladies in long gowns and a child-sized turkey. "This was our first Christmas Carol." Ms. Wallace told me, her vivid voice softening, tinged with regret. "It’s been 27 years…."

Soon, all of these photographs, the captured memories of plays past at Vienna’s International Theatre, will be taken down, one by one, leaving only faded squares and holes in the wall where they have hung for so long. On June 30th, the final curtain will fall on the intimate little theatre on Porzellangasse in the 9th District, looking back on a 32-year history of repertory theatre in English in Vienna. Beloved among expatriates and Austrians alike for staging English and American classics including A Christmas Carol, Blythe Spirit, The Mouse Trap or Happy Days, the International Theatre is forced to close its doors forever on "financial grounds", as actor and artistic director Jack Babb confirmed 25 May.

Financial pressures are hardly unusual in the theatre world and the theatre’s early years often seemed like a conjuring trick. Bill and Marilyn Wallace, two American opera singers, started off the company in 1974 in Graz, touring the country from school to school with only $100 to buy their tour van. Two years later, the company shared their first permanent playhouse with a group of transvestites, who would perform an afterhours show to help share expenses.

And when they premiered in the current premises in Porzellangasse in January 1980, the Wallaces served Glühwein and asked the audience to keep their coats on to stay warm, as the theatre – a converted supermarket – was then heated only by a tiny electric oven.

On this night, as she always has, producer and owner Marilyn Wallace, stood near the entrance greeting each visitor personally, as if each were a guest in her home. Which in a sense it is. And they are. With the broad, largely mainstream repertoire – including box office hits like The Importance of Being Earnest and Driving Miss Daisy – they "intended to make people laugh or thrill", Wallace told The Vienna Review. "It is great fun to have an audience react. Then you know you have got them. At the end of Miss Daisy you hear them sobbing, and then you also have to cry."

In all the years, the biggest success of the cozy theatre with its 66 seats has been Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is annually staged from the end of Thanksgiving through New Years. "When you think of the International Theatre, you think of A Christmas Carol," Wallace confirmed. It had begun when two American actors asked the Wallaces if they could perform Dickens’ novella on the four weekends before Christmas for free, as a remedy for homesickness. Those performances were a hit and since then, the performances have been sold out well in advance. For this year’s season, the International Theatre has already received several reservation requests. As things stand, they have no idea if they will be able to fulfill those reservations. If the tradition can continue elsewhere remains to be seen.

What is clear is that closure of the theatre cannot be averted. Like so many other small houses, the International Theatre cannot live off box office receipts alone, but depends largely on public funding. Difficulties began in 2007, when subsidies of the City of Vienna were cut drastically by €50,000 from the original €130, 000 they had received the previous year. Although these cutbacks "caused us financial problems", as long-standing member of the company Jack Babb confirmed, it would be all too easy to blame it on the municipal administration alone.

"In all fairness, I have to say, we have not found ways to replace this money," Babb said.

At MA 7, the City of Vienna’s Culture Department, spokesperson Mag. Gerlinde Riedl puts the ball back into the theatre’s court. The reduction resulted from a "surplus" of €90,000 in subsidies, found by the audit office in 2007, which subsequently had to be refunded. It also found that the theatre had surpassed the approved seating capicity of their cellar theatre, The Fundus, by up to three times. Also, "Ms. Wallace had apparently not declared all revenues", Riedl explained. The theatre did not deny this, but emphasised in filings with the audit office that the money was used only "for maintenance of the theatre."

Back then, the fate of the theatre might still have been turned around, and correspondence warned the audit office that a "reduction in the subsidies as well as the required repayment […] would result in the closure of the theatre."

The "intimate atmosphere", "the quality of plays" and the "close interaction between the audience and the actors" were all cited repeatedly as things that have made the theatre so unique according to both viewers and members of the ensemble, many of whom have been with the theatre for decades.

"It is my family," Jack Babb commented. Laura Mitchell agreed. "It will be a huge adjustment, as this is what we do not just for a living, but for our lives," said the versatile actress, who has performed with the company for over 20 years.

Similar to the photos on the walls, Mr. and Ms. Wallace’s playhouse has left a mark on Vienna’s theatre scene, and its vanishing will leave a empty stage, actors and audience dispersed, that waits to be filled in the future.

For more on this topic, see Commentary: "Subversive Conventionality" by Veronica Buckley

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