Dorte Lena Eilers 

For more than a year the cultural society in Berlin is in turmoil. Press is overflowed with open letters, interviews, accusations and protests.  What’s happening?

Last year the authorities in charge of cultural politics in Berlin decided not to extend a contract with the artistic director of the Volksbühne Frank Castorf. Castorf, one of the most radical German theatre directors, was in charge of the famous theatre on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz for 25 years. During this time the Volksbühne was seeking new forms of expression, some better than others, but always going against the spirit of time and the mainstream art. Their plays always had a clear political inclination, being among the first to draw public’s attention to the problems of postcolonial society, to compare neoliberal forms of government with nationalism and fascism and to explore different public conflicts taking place since 1989. The Volksbühne itself was a work of art. Why “was”?

This time it really means the end, finito.  At least that’s what the harshest critics of this cultural-political decision think. Consequences became clear after a successor was appointed. Controversies break out with a new strength on 24th April 2015, when the mayor of Berlin announced the name of a new artistic director of the Volksbühne.  The rumors, spreading in press and theatrical cafes, turn out to be true: in the next season 2017/2018 the office of a intendant of the Volksbühne would pass toward Chris Dercon, former director of the Museum of Modern Art in London, who, as his opponents couldn’t stress enough, had never been in charge of any theatre. Administration of the Volksbühne, still working, reacted quickly. In the place of a playbill under the roof they installed a poster with only one word: «Sold».

Critics see the appointment of the new artistic director as a sign of a great paradigm shift. Chris Dercon along with choreograph Tino Sehgal and artist Olafur Eliassson had launched some pretty interesting projects and had a productive cooperation with such artists as Christoph Schlingensief and Ai Weiwei. But he never was an artistic director in any theatre. How can a curator even start to work with the most interesting of them? What place has he among such stars as Henry Hübchen, Milan Peschel, Martin Wuttke, and great actresses such as Sophie Rois, Alexander Scheer and Kathrin Angerer?  Was there some secret meaning when Tim Renner, the secretary for cultural affairs in Berlin (the second man after the burgomaster to decide the course of cultural policy), said, that we should rethink the Volksbühne?

Dercon’s opponents heated with dispute brought these questions to public’s attention. The artistic director of the respectable Berliner Ensemble Claus Paymann scorned secretary for cultural affairs Tim Renner in an open letter to Berlin’s Mayor Michael Müller. Renner, in Paymans’s opinion, was shameless enough to allow himself several outrageous statements, “starting with live transmission of opening nights to raising prices for opera and theatre tickets”. And now, what? The famous Volksbühne is to be turned into just one more hall for cultural events. “Let’s hope, that somebody would finally cry “It was all a joke”. But, as for now, nobody did. And this is just one of many examples of open criticism.

On April 19 artistic directors Joachim Lux from the Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Ulrich Khuon from the Deutsches Theater Berlin and Martin Kušej from the Residenztheater München also published their position in the open letter, but this time addressed to secretary for cultural affairs Tim Renner. “People, cities, and, thanks God, culture are always in motion.  Sadly, this motion, that you as a responsible politician would like to control, leads to destruction, because there is no way back. Shouldn’t we at least discuss if it’s right that after the Schillertheater and the  Volksbühne West third repertory in Berlin is going to be destroyed? Such important decision in cultural policies must dwell upon open discussion, not the thoughtless approval behind the closed doors. The transformation of the Volksbühne into a multifunctional theatric complex is a harsh turn and, in our opinion, totally unjustified, to say at least. The most shocking thing about it is that the Volksbühne isn’t some “rotten pigsty”. On the contrary: it is one of the best German national theatres of an international level. Sadly, all of it means nothing for our new secretary of cultural affairs”.

Both letters touched the problem at the heart of the discussion - the concern that Chris Dercon would turn the Volksbühne into one more multifunctional theatric complex, liquidating regular troupe, and open the free scene for touring groups.  But there are more than enough such complexes in Berlin. The HAU Hebbel am Ufer, the Sophiensälen, the Berliner Festspielen are well-functioning theatric complexes, attracting international festivals and all sorts of artists with interesting projects. Despite the fact that cultural policies in Germany are a prerogative of the federal state authorities, minister of culture Monika Grütters advised against organization in Berlin any structures (cultural institutions) , that would duplicate one another.

Critics found suspicious Dercon’s statements in the daily Tagesspiegel:  “Berlin, - said Dercon in one of the interviews, - have a chance to try out such form of economy, where culture plays a special role.  We could learn much from Barcelona, proving that tourism could be successful. We have three different branches of tourism in Berlin: cultural, hiking and low-cost. And that is what I want to combine: city development, tourism, culture and the Volksbühne”. All that sounds a bit unconvincing in the terms of city marketing, and for those who think about a theatre as a place to oppose mechanisms of budget cuts such words were a clear betrayal. The passions were escalating from one open letter to another

On June 20th collective letter was sent to the Senate of Berlin and minister of culture Monika Grütters, signed by 180 employees and artists form the Volksbühne, including directors Christoph Marthaler, Herbert Fritsch, René Pollesch and such actors as Martin Wuttke, Kathrin Angerer and Sophie Rois. Appointed artistic director Chris Dercon attended first general meeting. The letter describes it as such:  “On April 28th the general meeting informed future management of the theatre, that there will be no new artistic goals set for the Volksbühne. Conceptual line of the future structural and artistic development of the theatre was not accepted by Chris Dercon and his program director Marietta Piekenbrock. Such kinds of activities as ballet, musical theatre, digital art and cinema don’t fit in the strict repertory plan of the Volksbühne. The troupe was immediately informed, that “a dramatic theatre is no longer the cornerstone of this building”, and told such banalities as “the language of art should be diverse”. After proclamation of such simplified approach to our wok, we are worried that the artistic level set by our theatre would be turned to nonexistent and our potential as actors would grow weaker consequently.  (…)  Our criticism is aiming at Berlin cultural policies: the original and unique world-famous Volksbühne is being destroyed in the name of multiculturalism and diversity of forms”.

Despite the number of opponents, many sided with Berlin cultural authorities in this matter. Some artists and curators wrote their own open letter in support of Dercon, This paper, addressed to the Mayor was signed, among others, by Okwui Enwezor, director of the Haus der Kunst, architects David Chipperfield and Rem Koolhaas, choreograph Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, film director Alexander Kluge, as well as director of Serpentine Gallery London Hans Ulrich Obrist. «Chris Dercon comes to Berlin as one of the most successful and far-sighted manager in the field of museology in the past three decades. He was able to build steady structures and has thorough knowledge of important ideas, which stimulate the evolution of culture. As a respectable figure in the world of modern art he supported many artists and earn trust and admiration of his colleagues. (…) In the light of the achievements of Herr Dercon in the last three decades, one can be sure that he is not only perfectly fit to be charge of the Volksbühne, but that you couldn’t find a better candidate”.

So far it’s being hard to establish one’s position on that matter. The program presented by Chris Dercon still seems too vague to understand which way he would lead his theatre. His crew consists from such artists as film directors Romuald Karmaker and Alexander Kluge, known for their high intellectual projects. Despite that fact, one can still remember last season of the Volksbühne under Frank Castorf’s management. In the interview to the RBB channel Castrof told about his plans “to hop from one scene to another all over Europe as some kind of theatric nomad”. His last work in the Volksbühne will be Goethe ‘s Faust II. “Yes, I’ve surrendered to this thought’s insistence, // The last word Wisdom ever has to say: //He only earns his Freedom and Existence,//  Who’s forced to win them freshly every day//”.

Translated by Maria Solntseva

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