Inspired by Broadway at Every Stage season guest John Eric Parker's journey to Germany, we asked Cats ensemblist Callan Bergmann to share his experience performing in the Vienna production of Mary Poppins.
When I left the Mary Poppins National Tour in March of 2013, I never thought I would get to do the show again. So it came as quite a surprise when Disney called two and a half years later and asked if I would be interested in joining the first German-language production of the show in Vienna, Austria. In all honesty, I thought they were joking at first, but alas they were not. And how could I refuse an offer to live in the beautiful city of Vienna and revisit this wonderful show? I couldn’t.
I packed my bags, got a sublet squared away for my NYC apartment, and made the journey to Vienna in August of 2015. I was nervous and anxious, as this was my first time ever going to Europe, but also beyond excited. Myself and a few others would be joining the pre-existing cast for the final six months of their smash, sold-out run. Only two of us were being brought over from the U.S. and thankfully I knew the other American from the National Tour (where we were dance partners).
I arrived in Austria on a Saturday, two days before rehearsals began. I had requested this with the hope of getting settled in and dealing with some logistical things. I needed to set up an Austrian bank account, get an Austrian phone number, register myself with their government, and do everyday things like grocery shop. Unfortunately, doing almost all of these things over the weekend was impossible because they were closed, but I did grocery shop and get settled into my “flat."
The rehearsal process was both easy and extremely difficult. I already knew the staging and choreography so that was quite easy. Memorizing an entire musical in a foreign language was the tough part. We had three weeks of rehearsals, and I certainly needed it in order to memorize. I was given private lessons with a German teacher to help me learn how to properly pronounce the words. And for those of you who are not familiar with German, it is a difficult and guttural language. However, after accomplishing the difficult feat of memorizing the entire show, it became surprisingly easy and was stuck in my head and muscle memory for good.
Adjusting to life in Vienna took work, but the worthwhile “wow, this is a cool life experience” kind of work. I familiarized myself with the city, began learning the basics of the language, and figured out how to live my best life despite a language barrier. I spent a lot of time just wandering and getting lost in the beautiful architecture of the city. I also joined a fancy gym where I spent a lot of time. And, of course, made friends both in and out of work.
The production of Mary Poppins in Vienna was world class. The talent in the cast was really remarkable. They assembled a cast with performers from all over Europe. Some people from England were also beginners at the language, and so they made a rule to address the entire cast in English as much as possible. The whole theatre was a well-oiled machine. Everyone was professional and highly respectful of their job in the theatre. Experiencing this work environment was not any different from the professional jobs I had worked on in the US, but really gave me a lot of respect for the musical theatre circuit throughout Germany and Austria. Like myself, this was their profession. Not just some hobby.
Though the show and professionalism were very similar to the U.S., there were some things that differed from what I was used to. For instance, we didn’t have any stage managers. We had a resident director and dance team who took on some stage manager-type responsibilities and a position whose job it was to call the cues of the show. I actually forget what title that person had. I wouldn’t say this method was better or worse than having stage managers, but did take some time to get used to. There were instances where I was unsure of who I had to talk to about a situation, because back home I would’ve gone to my stage manager. Another difference that was, quite frankly, awesome was that we only did 6-7 shows per week. I had never experienced this luxury before, and my mind and body were both big fans of this type of show schedule. The last main difference was the pre-show schedule. In Vienna, everyone (girls AND boys) was assigned a time to get their wig/microphone prep done, starting at 90 minutes before the show. I was so used to a standard 30-minute call time that this threw me off a bit. I ended up canceling my slot (which I believe was 75 minutes before showtime) and putting on my microphone on my own. The show didn’t require me to wear any wigs, so it was very simple for me to just clip my microphone in myself.
I grew to adore my cast and crew in Vienna so much. The local workers were so kind to me (especially because I was the worst one at German) and would go out of their way to help teach me the language or just make communicating easier. My main maske (or makeup) lady even started a program for me called ‘#awordaday.' She would write a German verb on my makeup mirror every show and teach me what it meant and how to conjugate it. Though I wasn’t fluent when I left Austria after six months, it really did help me a lot and also built a great friendship.
I really couldn’t feel any happier about spending half a year of my life performing in Vienna. Revisiting Mary Poppins was a dream come true, but more importantly it was an invaluable life experience that helped shape who I am as a person and exposed me to a culture that I knew nothing about. My friends and peers sometimes joke about my love for Vienna because I constantly reflect and share my experiences with them. I would urge anyone who is given the opportunity to perform in a foreign country to do it. Oh, and one last thing… in German the word is SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPEDIALIGETISCH!