As intendant at the Volksbühne theatre, René Pollesch has faced both praise and criticism. He spoke to Exberliner about juggling roles, his way of creating – and rumours of a second occupation of Berlin’s iconic theatre.
We’re now almost halfway through your second full year as intendant since you were appointed in 2021. How’s it going?
Super! Recently I attended the Give Me Life ballroom show [The Iconic House of Saint Laurent’s two-day takeover of the Volksbühne]. It lasted four and a half hours and it was just amazing! I mainly know the style from [1990 drag documentary] Paris is Burning, but getting it into the theatre was really wonderful and so fascinating. What I saw there was a form of collaborative self-organisation. And the audience loved it – they were screaming for five hours! Then there is Florentina Holzinger’s piece [Ophelia’s Got Talent]. I was actually at the premiere – normally I don’t attend premieres. But I was just so impressed, especially with our technical team and how smoothly everything went. It was a great example of what we can do with the space. When Florentina first came here with A Divine Comedy (2021), we really pushed what this theatre offers and what we can do here from a technical perspective.
These ‘me, me, me’ directors will always fail, especially somewhere like the Volksbühne.
You have been involved in the Volksbühne for two decades: as a director, as manager of subsidiary stage Prater and now as intendant. How does your current role compare?
It is something we talked about a lot when I was going through the process of becoming intendant. It was important to me to have the actors and actresses at the heart of this theatre. We don’t want artists to be here as a ‘result’ of an intendant or a dramaturg – but instead to be here, together, as part of a team. Many of the people who have put on shows here since I took on the role have been suggestions or connections of people who were already here, as was the case with Florentina. We are actually following one of Brecht’s mantras by doing this – writers and performers always need to work together. I am used to working with very autonomous, strong-willed performers, who have very clear expectations about who they want to work with.
Does theatre have a responsibility to be political or current?
This question is a little funny as every theatre asks itself this. And different institutions go about it in different ways: by making a quota, for example, inviting more women or other groups that have been overlooked in the past. In my first year in the role, I was accused of not knowing exactly what our goal or vision was with the Volksbühne; what exactly we wanted to achieve. That is one way of looking at a theatre – to have a clear manifesto constructed by the bosses that the individual performers then have to work around. But instead, we pushed to encourage the really strong individual expressions of our creatives – people like (Volksbühne music curator) Marlene Engel and Florentina Holzinger. When I saw Ophelia’s Got Talent, I thought it was so powerful and unique. And maybe the solution is that we simply have to wait until people as powerful as Florentina come along to express themselves. It was an artistic statement from a director and her team – it was not created from a committee of intendants or dramaturgs.
In 2017, as a response to gentrification and other grievances, the Volksbühne was occupied by activists in a heavily publicised move. According to reports by the Berliner Zeitung in September, a new occupation may have been brewing, and you said you would call the police if this were to happen. What’s your version of events?
The story is pretty complicated! And how rumours and stories get out in the world is always tricky. Back in 2017, the occupiers were mainly organised through a group called B6112 or Staub zu Glitzer – and theatre management, including myself, had been in contact with them. During my application to become intendant, I had lots of constructive meetings with Staub zu Glitzer and had a goal of working together with them. But at some point, their wishes were simply undoable, both financially and practically. When there were discussions about another a similar occupation, people here at the Volksbühne were very concerned. That’s why it was so important to make our response clear straight away.
You have also faced criticism in the press for continuing to direct shows at the Deutsches Theater while working as intendant at the state-funded Volksbühne – what do you say to that?
I recently had a performance [Liebe, einfach außerirdisch] at the Deutsches Theater because, before I became intendant here at Volksbühne, I had an agreement with [DT intendant] Ulrich Khuon to put on performances up until 2022. There, I usually worked with Sophie Rois, who is a wonderful actress and, like many wonderful performers, she can be picky about who she likes to work with – and we work together well. Ultimately, the fact that I directed an extra show here in Berlin only has advantages. It meant I could go to rehearsals for a couple of hours and still do my job full time here at the Volksbühne – which would not be the case if I was directing a guest performance in Vienna or Zurich. So it really makes sense. There is this accusation that I am creating rivalry for my own theatre. But my last show at the Deutsches Theater went very well, and so did my shows at the Volksbühne. So clearly that isn’t true. But I made the decision not to work with another theatre this season.
I just don’t do ‘literature theatre’
Is it important for you to always remain active as a director?
Before I became intendant, I put on around five performances every year. My plan in the first year as intendant was to put on two of my own performances, although it ended up being four for various reasons. It was very important for us to quickly have a new repertoire of shows to put on, as a rep theatre – we didn’t want to begin just with ‘alte Kamellen!’ We wanted to begin boldly! We are really missing the Prater, but at the moment we are still renovating it and – like every other building under renovation in Berlin – it is stuck due to soaring costs and a lack of materials. So from now on, I will have two of my own shows per year. I find that’s too few, but I am the only one who thinks that, so I bow to my team! Of course, I like having other directors here.
Your plays are all in German and often do not have English surtitles, unlike many other shows at the Volksbühne. How do you decide what to make accessible for English speakers?
We make these decisions together. I bring a text to rehearsals, and the performers say what they find interesting, and then I go away and rewrite. So there is only a final text shortly before the premiere. I believe that if there are surtitles, the performers become servants to the text, and that is not how I work at all. I just don’t do ‘literature theatre’. Take something like Pygmalion. The text is great and stays the same, but with each performance, there is a new cast. But I almost never allow my plays to be performed again. Accessibility in English can help universalise a play. Some people really push to surtitle everything. Sometimes it makes sense: for example, in [Julien Gosselin’s] Sturm und Drang, there was lots going on on a screen anyway, and the director was working with surtitles, and of course the text had already been translated to English. For my show Geht es dir gut? this year, we decided not to do English surtitles, but did an audio description. It really is something that comes out of the rehearsal process. You have to think about whether you take away the autonomy of the performers by putting surtitles up.
And the autonomy of the performers is important for you?
Exactly. I don’t believe in ‘auteur’ theatre, created by only one person. These ‘me, me, me’ directors will always fail, especially somewhere like the Volksbühne. Someone who recently worked here said this is a theatre where there are no show-offs. I thought that was the best compliment someone could give!
- René Pollesch’s latest play Und jetzt? premieres Dec 2
René Pollesch, born in 1962, has written over 200 plays and has been active in the Berlin theatre scene as a director in various theatres since 1998. He was intendant of Prater, a subsidiary of the Volksbühne, from 2001 to 2007 and has a long working relationship with the Deutsches Theater. With only a few exceptions, he always directs his own plays and does not allow them to be performed again. He has been intendant of the Volksbühne since 2021.