BERLIN -- On a typical autumn evening at a low-lit, retrofitted bar in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, the cozy murmur of conversation and music seems to foreshadow the approaching cold months. But tonight, a mysterious group in black clothing pours through the front door, and one of them begins presenting patrons with small, white menus.
"Hi, my name is Serena," the tall, dark-haired woman says with a smile. "I'm from Theater am Tisch (Theater at the Table), and this is the evening's selection of dramatic pieces."
The menu contains a list of scenes from cinema and stage, including one from the movie American Beauty, with monologues priced at 1.50 Euros and duets at 2 Euros per audience member. Serena nods in acknowledgement of some orders, situates empty chairs alongside the table, and whisks away to her colleagues at the other end of the bar.
Soon a man and woman take their seats at the table, placing a candle at its center. “The flame indicates the start of the scene,” they explain, lighting the candle.
The scene plays out believably: raised voices cause heads to turn, but only momentarily. The space of the tiny table seems to contain the captivating drama. Afterwards, thin but enthusiastic applause at the table is followed by handshakes and exchanges between the actors and their patrons.
It isn’t long before surrounding tables sneak a secondary peak at their menus and motion Serena over to place their orders.
Italian-born Serena Schimd launched Theater am Tisch in Berlin after moving to the city from Milan, where economic hard times put her previous employer out of business and made work generally difficult to find.
“We needed new opportunities,” Schimd says of herself and boyfriend Emiliano Saurin, a mobile web developer and entrepreneur.
“You can’t do the things you can do in Berlin in Milan; it’s too expensive. Here we can try things and see how they work without worrying about how to survive at the same time.”
Schimd and Saurin aren’t alone: Germany saw a drastic influx of immigrants from European Union countries in 2011, according to a report by the German Ministry of Migrants and Refugees. Immigration from places such as Greece increased as much as 90 percent from 2010.
Italian immigrants to Germany in 2011 ranked fifth in number among E.U. nations after those from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.
An interior designer by trade, Schimd says Theater Am Tisch started when she and some friends developed the business as part of a cultural association near Milan. With the project enjoying modest success in Milan after only a year, she immediately recognized a potential market in Berlin.
“There’s a lot of culture here,” she says. “You don’t have to ‘rent’ a bar to offer something like this; locale owners are happy to have you come in and try something new. Milan, on the other hand, is kind of a closed city. It’s a fashion hub, so there’s a lot of money there, and you have to pay to visit places, and you never know how much you’re going to earn.”
Schimd says Theater am Tisch -- whose Berlin rendition includes nine actors from three countries -- has been booked to perform at an upcoming awards show in Berlin, and that she is working to warm restaurants up to the concept.
“In Berlin, we’ve actually found it hard to get people to reserve performances because there’s often too many things to do in the city. That actually worked better in Milan, where this was more about food: people enjoyed the idea of sitting down to a dinner and ordering performances between courses.”
But Schimd says the project’s spontaneity has been surprisingly welcome in Berlin. She has even been able to raise prices in hip, upscale neighborhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg.
"We're looking forward to the winter, when everyone is together inside bars and cafes in the evening and pleased to come across something new."