In Memory of the Wallaces…
If there is no miracle going to happen, the International Theatre in Vienna will close forever on June 30th after 32 years of being an integral part of this city’s theatre scene
It is a long story that connects Marilyn Wallace to Vienna, and shamefully it seems to come to an end now. The “International Theatre”, forever to be found at the corner of Porzellangasse and Müllnergasse in Vienna’s Ninth District, will be closed by the will of the Viennese authorities, who are rough-riding through Vienna’s small theatres in a furor similar to Genghis Khan – nothing is to survive. Arguments, that especially this theatre meant an awful lot to so many English speaking Viennese (to say nothing of English teachers and their pupils), are totally ignored.
When Bill & Marilyn, later “the Wallaces” for short, came to Vienna, they were two American opera singers in their twenties (she an Aida, he a Radames). Bill Wallace, who grew up in Denver, Colorado, and Marilyn Close from Cleveland, Ohio, did not know each other, when they arrived in Vienna in 1963 – well, next year it will be fifty years ago! And actually they never left town again (just going home occasionally meeting friends and family –in the off-season during summer). They met in the American Church (“And I had no chance to escape her”, Bill used to laugh), both of them were on stage in the Volksoper, singing in the chorus of “Porgy and Bess” painted “all in black”. When illness ended Bill’s career as a singer, they did not dream the impossible dream – they did it. They founded a theatre.
At this time, an English speaking theatre already existed in Vienna, there was strong opposition to Bill & Marilyn opening a new one, but there is no point to recall all the difficulties of the beginning – because the Wallaces suceeded, more so, they made their theatre an institution by its own rights in a short space of time. They encountered here in Vienna a loving, loyal, devoted audience, who enjoyed what they saw, and they were confronted in more than thirty years with hundreds of young actors who were keen to play here. “We often had difficulties to send them back home after some years”, Bill said, “otherwise they would have become P.O.V. like Marilyn and me” – and his “Prisoner of War” meant “Prisoner of Vienna…”
Anyways, some stayed, would not go away anymore, so International Theatre today cannot be thought of without Laura Mitchell, Don Fenner or the indispensable Jack Babb. They came together as a wonderful “do it yourself”-team – acting, directing, staging, making costumes, selling tickets. It is, you can’t find a better term for it, a family.
After trying out various other locations, starting in 1974 without a house of their own, International Theatre found its permanent home in the Porzellangasse 8: a left-over supermarket area was transformed by them into a wonderful little theatre. On January 14, 1980 they started with the funny play “The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” by Paul Zindel. And from that time onward they absolutely covered everything worthwhile in English speaking drama. Marilyn had her great evenings in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”, “The Glass Menagerie” or “Happy Days” (she was Winnie in five different productions over the years). Bill, who directed most shows in the beginning, is among other things unforgettable in the part of the storyteller in “Our Town”.
Generations of students learning English (many of them English teachers now, coming with their pupils to the performances) owe the International Theatre the live knowledge of masterpieces like “Look Back in Anger” or “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “A Touch of the Poet” or “Arms and the Man”, “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “Of Mice and Men”, “An Inspector Calls” or “Skin of Our Teeth” – you name it. Bill & Marilyn looked for new plays and presented “Angels of America” in Vienna.
“We always also intented to make people laugh or thrill”, says Marilyn, planning a theatre season year after year. So you could see the legendary “Mouse Trap” by Agatha Christie not only in London, but in Vienna’s International Theatre, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” was a hit everywhere – so also here. It was a lovely memory for Bill, when they played “My friend Harvey” by Mary Chase, “because when I was a kid in Denver there was a journalist named Mrs. Chase living across the street who never failed to call ‘Hello, Bill, how are you?’ How could I know that she would get world famous with this play – and that one day I would produce it in my own theatre with my wife playing the ‘bad sister’ of the lead?” Yes, there are wonderful stories…
Another one is about „Mr. Pennyfeather of Baltimore“, coming on stage as one of the typical melodramas of the 19th century and being such an enormous sucess, that even the Burgtheater thought of producing it. But when they researched the Library of Congress about the author and could not get a clue, they had to ask Bill Wallace about the play. And he had to confess, that he did it himself, writing in good American tradition. Can you imagine the Burgtheater was not interested any more? Did the quality of the piece change because it was so brilliantly faked?
When Bill & Marilyn and their actors felt a bit “homesick” around Christmas time in the eighties, they decided to do “Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, the eternal story of bad Ebeneezer Scrooge who transforms into a human being with the help of the spirits of Christmas. “Our actors said, they would do it for nothing, just to do it at all”, Marilyn remembers, and they found a way to reduce the enormous number of people in the story to ten participants, using just the necessary settings – and this “small” version of “Christmas Carol” starting in 1983 became a hit nobody would ever have imagined. “We were sold out every single evening”, Bill remembered, “and people started to phone from the States in summer to secure their tickets for December.”
Right from the beginning, “Christmas Carol” became an institution and was played every year – and the crew in the International Theatre never, never became lazy about it, never repeated a version from one year to the next, always found a new way to do it, always sent new “Scrooges” on stage. It remained fresh and vivid and wonderful, “and when we started singing ‘O Tannenbaum’ in the end and the auditorium joined us, there were always tears”, Marilyn says. Tears of joy in any case. She herself thinks of it – “I don’t think there is a part in ‘Christmas Carol’ – except Scrooge naturally – I did not play in all these years…”
They never let go. In 1990, on their 15th anniversary, they found a second room, five minutes away from their theatre, in a cellar of the Servitenkloster nearby. They named it “Fundus” and did the most remarkable things there – from a “Hamlet” in a very small version to “Into the Woods”, a charming musical. All seemed to go well. But in 2000 Bill died, only 65 years old. There was no question to continue with the theatre, but Marilyn and her helpers faced hard years. The “Fundus” was taken away from them with weak arguments, just out of spite. No, today it is not the first attack they had to suffer. The Stadt Wien had already tried to eliminate the annual financial support some years ago – but then there were big lists of people who signed in favour of the theatre, and the danger could be averted. But not for ever. Now it seems that International Theatre has come to an end.
Does Marilyn look back in anger? Definitely not. She knows that she had absolutely the life she wanted to, founding and leading the International Theatre, making so many people on stage and in the auditorium happy. She also knows, that at least “Christmas Carol” year by year never will be forgotten by those who have seen it once (not to mention the many, who saw it every year, not wanting to miss it ever). She would definitely love to continue with all her heart and strengh – but if at last the final curtain is drawn on June 30th, she knows, that she and Bill – the couple from Cleveland and Denver – had their fair share in the history of Viennese theatre over more than three decades. And that they will not be forgotten by those, who loved to come to their cosy little theatre – for far more than just brushing up their English. It was somehow a question of the heart.
is a theatre critic who knows the Wallaces and International Theatre since the beginning and prides herself having seen most of their productions
Der letzte Vorhang ist gefallen
Viele waren gekommen, um Abschied zu nehmen. Man sagte nicht Servus, nicht Lebwohl und nicht Adieu, man sagte vor allem nicht: Auf Wiedersehen. Dieser Abschied war endgültig: Nach 37 Jahren hat Wiens International Theatre am 30. Juni 2012 seine Pforten geschlossen. Der Kahlschlag der Gemeinde Wien traf ein Haus, das englischsprachigen Wienern unendlich viel bedeutet hat – aber wen im Rathaus interessiert das schon?
Von Renate Wagner
Nie mehr wird Marilyn Wallace an der Kasse des Theaters sitzen, das sie und ihr Gatte Bill gegründet haben, nie wieder wird sie hier auf der Bühne stehen, wo sie unzählige Rollen gespielt und unzählige Stücke produziert hat. Wunderbar der Humor aller Beteiligten, die hinter ihr bisheriges Leben einen Schlussstrich ziehen mussten: Es wurde viel gelacht an diesem Abend, und wem nach Weinen zumute war, der tat es vermutlich im stillen Kämmerlein. Es sind ja alle sehr gute Schauspieler, die hier auf der Bühne standen, die können uns auch ein letztes Lächeln vorspielen…
Wie schicksalhaft mutete es an, dass Don Fenner, der seit Jahrzehnten ein unverrücktes, unabdingbares „Möbel“ des Hauses war, unendlich geliebter Regisseur, Ausstatter und Schauspieler („He scared the shit out of me“, gestand ein junger Schauspieler), beschlossen hatte, sich zu verabschieden, noch bevor der letzte Vorhang zugezogen wurde: Er ist vor wenigen Tagen gestorben. Marilyn Wallace wird in Wien bleiben, desgleichen Laura Mitchell, während Jack Babb nach Amerika zurückkehrt. Für immer nach Austin, Texas. Wir können es nicht glauben. Zu viele Schauspieler des International Theatre haben Wien als ihre Heimat erwählt und wollten nie wieder weg. Aber wenn es das Theater nicht mehr gibt…?
Die Zerstörung des geliebten Hauses begann schon beim Abschiedsfest – die wunderbare Bilderwand der Bar, wo die Triumphe von Jahrzehnten nahtlos an der Wand hängen, muss weichen. Der „Flohmarkt“ war eröffnet, viele Bilder fanden ihre Fans.
Marilyn Wallace mit ihrem großen Fan Heiner Wesemann, der zum 25jährigen Jubiläum des Hauses die Broschüre geschrieben hat. Sie nannte sich „Look back in joy“. Auch heute will Marilyn Wallace nicht „in anger“ zurücksehen. Sie hat Großes für Wiens „kleine“ Theaterszene geleistet. Die Stadt Wien mag das nicht wissen, die vielen Fans des Hauses, die ihm ehrlich nachweinen, wissen es sehr wohl.