Following two years of offstage drama and 14 months of suspense, it’s now official: René Pollesch will take the helm of the Volksbühne in 2021, following in the footsteps of his legendary mentor Frank Castorf. Until then, Klaus Dörr is the man looking over what’s become a three-year interregnum. He’s the one who saved an embattled institution after uninspired politicians miscast an outsider – former Tate Modern head Chris Dercon – to take over the iconic east Berlin institution. After Dercon was forced to resign in April 2018 following a seven-month tenure, the theatre was left in limbo. Dörr brought a wealth of experience to the table, having previously managed Gorki and Schauspiel Stuttgart under director Armin Petras, and patched things together in a matter of weeks.
When you took over, the Volksbühne had plummeting visitor numbers and was on the verge of bankruptcy. After just one season everything seems to be on track again, with only a small deficit and an average capacity of 80 percent. What’s your trick?
I think a lot of people stopped going to the Volksbühne as a form of protest against Chris Dercon and programme director Marietta Piekenbrock. There was a fundamental rejection from all sides. What we’ve been doing so far, on the other hand, has been very positively received. Our programme is a mixture of inhouse productions, with which we’ve had 100 performances this season, and eight guest productions totalling 24 performances, which were all completely sold out.
Your appointment was both spontaneous and provisional. How would your tenure have looked under normal circumstances?
Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have been made intendant in the first place. They would have chosen an artist instead. However, I don’t think things would have looked much different to what we have planned for this coming autumn: hiring a younger generation of theatre makers, addressing gender imbalance and promoting diversity.
What can we learn from the Dercon disaster?
It’s always important to respect the tradition of a cultural institution – and that applies to theatres, opera houses, galleries and museums too. But aside from all the insults and public outcry, the main mistake here was a structural one. You can’t appoint someone like Dercon and leave everything else as it was. He and Piekenbrock wanted to do something completely different, but a theatre like the Volksbühne is a complex machine with many moving parts – and they’re all programmed for repertoire productions with an ensemble. If politicians want another system then they also need to offer a new structure to support it.
Berliners get very emotional when it comes to the Volksbühne. Why is that?
Over 25 years of theatre history under Castorf was naturally very formative for the city. His Volksbühne was probably the most successful German stage ever. To end that in a situation where it was still hugely successful, not just in Berlin but also internationally, opened a wound. But there’s also a symbolic, political aspect to this all. People accused Dercon of being a neoliberal, a gentrifier.
An underlying theme of the coming season is “Geschichtsmaschine” – history machine. What do you mean by that exactly?
There are lots of historical anniversaries coming up in 2019 and 2020, from the financial crash of 1929 to the outbreak of war in 1939 to the founding of the FRG and GDR in 1949. Some projects are directly related to this theme. For example, for the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender on May 8th 1945, we’ll be staging Peter Weiss’ 1965 play about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, The Investigation. But we also want to build on this concept of the Geschichtsmaschine through discussions on postcolonialism, identity politics, racism and feminism.
Lucia Bihler is joining the theatre as resident director. Does this mark a commitment to a more feminist focus?
It was important for us to create a more equal gender balance, that’s why we chose to have a male and a female in-house director: Lucia Bihler and Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson. Bihler is in her early thirties and won’t just bring another perspective to the table but also a new aesthetic approach.
The 2019/20 season kicks off with new drama director Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson’s An Odyssee Sep 12, 19:00.