Some thoughts about the Volksbühne, re-opening this Sunday, September 10, from an ambivalent Anglophone editor.
The biggest culture war in Berlin right now is being waged by theatre people, which means it is confusing as hell. The statements from each side are more like performance art than articulate speeches. The windows of contentious incoming intendant Chris Dercon’s new offices are postered with red papers: FICKEN FÜR DIE VOLKSBÜHNE – BLASEN FÜR DIE VOLKSBÜHNE. Who put them there? What does it mean? On Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz where Bert Naumann’s beloved Wheel once stood, the new VB team strung up silver Mylar balloons that spell out: “Time heals all wounds.” Then, on the Volksbühne’s Twitter, a GIF of an aphoristic slogan: “A City in the City. A Place of Dreams and Waiting. A utopia lives here again.” Are we being trolled? The latest news is that someone literally pooped on the steps of the theatre.
All the empty symbols are kind of fitting because the theatre itself stands empty. The fall programme of the new Volksbühne will take place in a huge hangar on Tempelhofer Feld designed by architect Francis Kéré. So the Volksbühne itself hulks like a hollow mausoleum, only for what? Departing mega-star Frank Castorf and his team of dissident directors? The OST? “The Left”? Theatre itself? The relationship between the aesthetics and politics of the Volksbühne was never too clear to me anyway – it was vaguely antiglobal-neoliberalism and purportedly anti-capitalist, but not actually socialist (or feminist or anti-racist) in any discernible practical way.
For Evelyn Annuß, it’s all crystal clear: A monument of German theatre has been “liquidated”. And so the theatre scholar has initiated a petition to “renegotiate the Volksbühne’s future”. Some 40,300 people have signed it. Hasn’t the decision already been confirmed? Annuß clarifies: “Our ultimate goal is to have the decision to liquidate the Volksbühne revised.” Yet according to the new direction, “almost all” of the theatre’s 200-plus employees remain, including all but eight members of the acting ensemble. They also say that outgoing directors like Rene Pollesch and Herbert Fritsch were offered to stay and collaborate; Annuß and her gang of dissenters insist otherwise. Meanwhile Tim Renner, the culture minister who put forward Dercon, is now distancing himself from the decision as he prepares to run for office in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf.
I feel slightly sorry for the incoming team – unable to even tour the theatre without a security guard until late summer. As for myself, I wish I were excited about their new programme: many of the best things I have seen in Berlin have been from visiting international companies who have blurred the border between stage theatre and installation art and dance. But instead, I feel like something important has been lost.
The German state theatre system, which subsidises the Volksbühne at 90 percent, gives directors extraordinary freedom, including the freedom to piss off their audiences. This kind of public theatre is an endangered species, something we should care for and value. Which doesn’t mean it can’t change, or evolve. But I’m afraid that this isn’t what’s going to happen. Even the new season’s big premieres, from well-established touring artists like Kate Tempest, Jerome Bel, and even the big opening from Boris Charmatz, are mostly tweaked versions of existing pieces. For the German government to keep an entire repertory theatre ensemble is an act of poetry. To replace the Volksbuhne with a touring house like BAM or the Barbican or any other is, then, simply prose.
Like the walking wheel, I too am leaving Berlin. I’ll miss this city that uses giant balloon letters instead of advertisements, that actually finances its wild, weird theatre. I’m so grateful for every second I spent sitting in the dark with you. Dercon Volksbühne, prove me wrong. When I come back, I hope it’s the utopia you advertised.