A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor
Gayle Tufts: An American Entertainer in Berlin
Gayle Tufts

Since 1990, Gayle Tufts has been living and working in Berlin as a singer, comedian and writer. Drawing on her experiences as a foreigner in the city -she's originally from the U.S.-, Gayle has written and performed several wildly popular shows, and in 1998 published the book Absolutely Unterwegs: An American in Berlin. That same year she received the Berlin Critics' Prize for her contributions to the city's cultural landscape.

Gayle took a few minutes to answer several questions posed by our always-inquisitive Associate Producer Linda Fahey.

You grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts - how did you get interested in acting/singing/performing as a kid? Was your family musical or involved with acting or performance art?

I think I started out the same way a lot of kids I know did - I saw The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday and saw The Supremes or Lulu or Petula Clarke and thought what they were doing on TV was much more real than whatever I was experiencing in Brockton. The seeds of my dreams of show biz were planted there. I also had a cousin who had her own dance studio, so I started tap-dancing at the age of 4...classic. It also really helped that my high school (4000 students and no windows that opened) had a really fantastic drama club which did a giant musical every year and basically gave me my raison d'etre and survival strategy in high school. (It also helped to get me a scholarship to New York University, so I am still very thankful about that.)

It seemed like you had an interesting career going in the US - what was it that led you to leave NYC and move to Berlin in 1990?

Health Insurance! I had an offer from a dance company here (Tanzfabrik Berlin) to work with them for two years and have a chance to make my living as a full-time performer - including benefits! That was music to my ears at the time because although I was working with great companies (Yoshiko Chuma, David Gordon) in New York - I was still working day jobs to pay the rent in-between gigs. Thirteen years in Manhattan does tend to burn one out, but I had really only intended to stay here for two years...life moves in mysterious and wondrous ways...I had no idea there would be a market here for funny women who sing.

How is it that you ended up being such a multifaceted performer: 2 languages, several different artistic mediums (writing, song, stage performance, dance)?

I went to the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. The training we received there placed huge emphasis on doing it yourself. We learned not only how to work as actors (speaking, singing, moving), we also learned to think conceptually and as our own producers. They taught us not to sit around and wait for a break to happen, but rather to create a happening for ourselves. Sometimes I think of my entire career here in Germany as one long, involved site-specific theatre piece.

Why did you choose Germany as opposed to another European country? And, why did you move to Berlin, as opposed to other German cities: Hamburg, Cologne, or Munich?

Well, first of all Berlin is to Germany as New York is to America - there's no place like it in the rest of the country. I had met some young actors from Berlin while I was working with director Anne Bogart in New York, and eventually I found myself visiting them. That was in 1985 when the Wall was still here. Needless to say, I was fascinated. I still am - this city is in a constant state of flux, it's sort of a never-ending work-in-progress. I couldn't live anywhere else.

Were you fluent in German when you arrived in Berlin?

I spoke absolutely no German when I first got here except "kindergarten", "Volkswagen", and "Fassbinder". My first year and a half here was like a long bizarre conceptual silent film. After 13 years of loud, chaotic Manhattan, it was kind of nice to just watch everything go by from a distance. (Although, it has to be said nearly everyone speaks at least some English). After a while, though, that approach gets rather lonely and one has to learn the lingo to really feel involved in real life here.

Can you describe your first year in Berlin -- things that you had to adjust to, noteworthy surprises, welcomed changes, interesting observations, etc... It must have been a very exciting time to be there.

I think any time one moves to a new city the first year is a kind of state of shock. All the fundamentals need to get sorted out. Where do you buy your milk, who makes the best Milchkaffee, why can't I get this heater to work - never mind the big questions like how do I pay my taxes and where's the man of my dreams? It actually took me about five years to really get myself settled in.

Is it difficult being an "auslanderin" in Berlin or Germany generally? Are there things you miss from life in the US that you don't have in Berlin?

Being a white American in Berlin I have never had any difficulty being an Auslšnderin here - Berlin is the melting pot city of Germany. Having said that, in all honesty, I would not want to be an African migrant worker in the East - and as long as that is the situation, I'll stay here and let them know my views on it and be a vocal critic of any kind of nationalistic or right-wing violence.

It certainly is a different experience being the "outsider" - that's basically what I've based my career on here. I couldn't speak the language properly, so I mixed enough German into my English so that I could be understood. Now I'm kind of the resident American Girl here - I make observations about the Germans, but also about the Americans. I always explain to them that we in America come from a nation of immigrants - that they have to understand us in that context. When they see us as "superficial"(always a critique of the "typisch Amerikaner") I explain to them that we're just being polite - we're trying to just get along with each other. Of course, that's what I miss about the States - a certain friendliness, the optimism, waitresses who ask you if you "want another cuppa coffee, honey..."

As an observer of Berliners, how would you describe them to Americans?

Much warmer than I ever expected them to be...and funny and hip.

And how would you describe Americans to Berliners?

I always say that when there's an American in the room you'll hear him...we do tend to be loud.

You have released three CD with your accompanist and songwriting partner, Rainer Bielfeldt. Can you provide a title and brief description for each.

Absolutely Unterwegs - Live CD from our first tour. Songs and monologues about the true story of an "Amerikanerin In Berlin". Rainer is a truly great composer, pianist and onstage-partner from Hamburg. Meeting him really turned my life around here. He's my total opposite -a blond, slight, gay German man and a real yang to my yin.

Dictionary of Delight - Four song EP written and produced from Rainer & me including three songs we wrote for a dance piece for the Rotterdam Dance Group

The Big Show - Live recording from the Bar jeder Vernunft in Berlin -all our own compositions including gospel number with gospel back ups and a cover version of Annie Lennox's "Love Song for a Vampire"

All available through Megaphon Music, Berlin- www.megaphon.com

How would you describe your book "Absolutely Unterwegs"?

"Absolutely Unterwegs" is a (if I do say so myself) delightful little collection of monologues, songtexts and autobiographical material about my first years here in Berlin and my struggle to get my career (and life) moving . Lots of photos. It's in Dinglish, so a little German knowledge helps (if not you can just enjoy the pictures). It's available from Ullstein publishing and is available through Amazon.

What are your current projects?

Right now I'm finishing up a run of our latest show "Miss Amerika", which features two fantastic American gospel singers - Ingrid Arthur and Ardell Johnson. We'll be touring that in the spring and at the same time Rainer and I are busily at work on a new show that will premiere in Berlin in December. (We're also looking for a new record company so if anyone out there has an uncle in the business let us know!) I'm also writing a new book for Ullstein ("The Wahre Wahrheit: Further Adventures of an Amerikanerin in Berlin"), which will come out in spring 2002.

Gayle's biography

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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