BY Tobi Müller in Opinion | 29 APR 15

A Haunted Controversy

As Chris Dercon is appointed artistic director at Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany is experiencing its biggest theatre controversy in more than 20 years

BY Tobi Müller in Opinion | 29 APR 15

Lilith Stangenberg and Martin Wuttke in René Pollesch and Dirk von Lowtzow’s Von einem der auszog, weil er sich die Miete nicht mehr leisten konnte (The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth Because He Couldn’t Pay His Rent Anymore, 2015), a current opera production at Volksbühne Berlin (courtesy: LSD & Lenore Blievernicht)

(Find the original German version of Tobi Müller’s piece here)

The last major dispute erupted in 1993 when Berlin closed the Schiller Theater, as it was no longer able to fund all of the many parallel structures in the city that had been divided until 1989. In 2015, rather than the closure of a theatre shortly after the beginning of a new era, what is at stake here seems more profane: the end of Frank Castorf’s 25-year reign as manager and artistic director of Berlin’s Volksbühne, and the appointment of his successor. A month ago, on 26 March, a Berlin newspaper first published the name previously circulating only among insiders: Chris Dercon, the director of London’s Tate Modern. A Belgian curator working in the UK. Not, in other words, anyone from the usual merry-go-round of the five familiar names that starts spinning whenever a major position becomes vacant – not a German theatre thoroughbred.

Volksbühne at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin

What took place between 26 March and last Friday, 24 April – when, in Dercon’s presence, his nomination was officially announced at a press conference by the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller – was more than just theatrical thunder. Cultural policy makers were insulted; critics and theatre people foresaw the imminent demise of German theatre culture; and Dercon became a whipping boy, the ‘neoliberal curator’ opening the door to commercialization, jeopardizing the autonomy of art and planning to turn the Volksbühne into a profane ‘event’ venue. From the outset, the dispute bore irrational traits.

In last Friday’s press conference, Dercon presented his plans, almost a whole week earlier than originally scheduled. The debate had become far too heated, and untruths were doing the rounds, including claims that the Volksbühne would be receiving additional annual funding of five million euros. Although Dercon will not be taking up his post for another two-and-a-half years, he already revealed the names of the six-strong team who will work with him. Six people born between 1932 and 1980 who stand, in this combination, for an expanded definition of theatre that has already become a reality for independent dance and theatre companies and at festivals, but which has yet to make its way to the heartland of state-subsidized German theatre. The six are: the German film/television director and writer Alexander Kluge, the French dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz, the Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen, the German theatre director Susanne Kennedy, the Franco-Iranian German filmmaker Romuald Karmakar, and Marietta Piekenbrock, a German with experience of international multi-discipline projects as former dramaturge-in-chief of the Ruhrtriennale Festival. They will head an ensemble of actors and other specialists.

Chris Dercon in 2009, in front of Munich's Haus der Kunst

Dercon indicated that he expects a degree of continuity from Castorf’s Volksbühne, such as the cooperation with the directors Herbert Fritsch and René Pollesch whose current productions are popular with audiences. He also addressed the central bone of contention in the dispute, the notion of the ‘event’ (a loanword from English in German). In his view, an event should not be understood as a neoliberal format (whatever that might mean) but, following a definition by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, as a surprise, a sudden break with routine, a discontinuation of normality. But for the moment, not much has been discontinued. The bad blood remains.

Is it the pain of separation because people don’t want to let Castorf go, even after 25 years? Or is it ignorance of what’s going on outside their own little garden? Probably both. In the 1990s, Castorf was the most radical innovator. No other theatre responded to Germany’s hurried unity with so much wild thinking, tense bodies and loud actors, always on the basis of the experience of East Germany and its demise. Alongside techno music, Castorf’s Volksbühne in Berlin was the greatest integration machine for young East and West Germans (there were not yet so many foreigners in the city). For some people, this initiation, be it techno or Castorf, has lasted a lifetime. And yes, German theatre is a rather too homogenous but gigantic garden. The dominant model is still that of fully subsidized state and municipal theatres working with a core ensemble of tenured actors performing a mix of old and new plays. This theatre scene, which many critics view as their indisputable main focus, has spent the last month hyperventilating as if every theatre in Germany was going to be forced to stage The Lion King.

Christoph Marthaler, 'Tessa Blomstedt gibt nicht auf' (Teste Blomstedt doesn't give up) , a current production at Volksbühne.

Those who read German can consult a detailed chronicle of the dispute on the website . But a mere chronicle cannot explain the intensity of the debate. There are five key points that sparked the controversy.

Firstly: With Chris Dercon, German theatre, unique in the world for its geographical density and levels of public funding, will become a little less German. It is not Dercon’s nationality that matters, at least I hope not. In recent decades there have been a handful of theatre directors (admittedly not very many) whose native tongue was audibly not German: the Italian Roberto Ciulli in Mülheim; the Polish-Austrian director Anna Badora and the Swede Staffan Valdemar Holm in Düsseldorf; or the Dutchman Johan Simons, currently completing his last season at Munich’s Kammerspiele. There is no doubt that non-German directors have enriched the German tradition with visual impulses (Ciulli) and experiences from other linguistic or dramatic traditions (Simons and the Flemish-Dutch theatre). But German theatre’s tolerance of difference is deceptive, as it leaves untouched the underlying model that calls for a text-centred approach executed by a stable company of actors with similar abilities. Dercon is now reconsidering this structure, at a single theatre. If he succeeds with the mix of profiles he will be bringing to the Volksbühne and with his expanded vision for the company, it will exert pressure on others.

Secondly: German theatres have in fact already been feeling this kind of pressure for some time. In the provinces, local politics has been acting forcefully, merging budgets and closing theatres. In the cities, the situation is similar. The reason is wage rises for unionized technical staff, increasingly covered by borrowing from artistic budgets, and the desire of many theatres to expand: more productions, more additional programmes, more venues, more niches – and that is expensive. Nevertheless in the United States, Britain or the Benelux countries, the German system is still viewed as a dream. And rightly so, as Germany is helping to fund the international avant-garde. Sheffield-based experimental theatre group Forced Entertainment without guest appearances in Germany? Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker without German co-productions and festivals? Unthinkable. This prompts many theatre people to view their structures as being totally open already, and to interpret any request for change as an outright attack. One of the biggest changes of the last decade is surely the entrusting of a theatre to a German woman with Turkish roots: as director of the Maxim Gorki Theater, Shermin Langhoff has many actors with immigrant backgrounds, and she has staged many productions dealing with intercultural Germany, including the current programme. But relatively little has changed in terms of the overall model and aesthetic. Dercon will take a different approach.

Christoph Schlingensief on 17 September 1999 in front of Volksbühne Berlin, as part of his action 'Deutschlandsuche 99' (Searching Germany 99)
© Schreibkraft / Wikipedia

Thirdly: With Dercon at the Volksbühne, the 1990s will come to a belated end. It is no coincidence that the ghosts haunting this controversy have their origins in this period when Berlin saw an epoch-making process of radical change. The end of the divided Germany in particular was not smoothly swallowed by the Volksbühne. In the 1990s, Castorf described himself to me, and to many others, as ‘the stake in the flesh of this new, good Germany’. But in the 2000s, this topic was more or less over for the Volksbühne, as Armin Petras at the Gorki Theater became the one dealing with the legacy of Germany’s history as two states. Now Castorf is being painted as the last historian of the theatre, the only one left who points to these ‘wounds’. For one thing, this is no longer strictly true, and for another, such claims are coloured by a sense of grievance that Berlin finally stopped devoting so much attention to itself. While the explicit link to Berlin established by instalments of the Berlin Biennale of contemporary art over the years increasingly started to feel not so much critical but rather touristy, no major theatre with its own company has yet adequately addressed the profound internationalization of Berlin since the 2000s (except, to a limited degree, the Gorki under Langhoff).

Fourthly: Many people have pre-emptively accused Dercon of wanting to turn the Volksbühne into an ‘event venue’. Claus Peymann, the 77-year-old German theatre legend and parting director of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, was the first to voice this concern. Many others have adopted his arguments. A more polite but no less alarmist tone was struck in a letter signed by three more leading directors from Munich, Hamburg and Berlin who warned cultural policy-makers against breaking up the Volksbühne. How a publicly subsidized theatre would take on the character of a commercial venue remained unclear. Initially, this crude accusation was aimed less at Dercon himself than at Berlin’s Secretary-of-State for Culture Tim Renner, who reports to Michael Müller, Berlin’s Governing Mayor and Senator for Culture. Dercon is Renner’s big coup. Until 2004, Renner was Germany’s best known music manager, signing bands including Rammstein and aiming to restructure Universal Deutschland into a complex of smaller firms. Then he resigned and founded his own label and radio station (Motor and Motor FM, now FluxFM). His move to the field of cultural politics a year ago prompted questions as to whether a player from the pop music business is qualified to run a department that spends 95 percent of its budget on theatres, opera houses and museums.

Premiere of "der die mann" by Herbert Fritsch at Volksbühne, 18 February 2015

These questions were justified. But the notion that such reservations are confirmed by Dercon’s appointment, or by the figure of Dercon himself, can only be explained as a product of arrogance. Or as a product of the fear of similarity, since the much-maligned ‘eventification’ – if this means the differentiation of once central positions into a multitude of individual events – has long since taken hold of the German theatre scene. Today, a municipal theatre has up to twice as many items on its programme as it did 30 years ago; the job description of the dramaturge has shifted from being the intellectual focus of a theatre towards being an organizer. The punchline here is that no one made this shift as successfully as Frank Castorf at the Volksbühne, bringing in ambitious pop and avant-garde concerts, theoretical congresses, dance evenings, and performance groups. And this was a good thing.

Fifthly (and finally): a last argument that has gained weight among those opposed to Dercon concerns a ‘duplication’ of existing structures in the city. According to the established theatre critics, Berlin already has enough performance venues and anti-theatres. Jürgen Flimm (73), another theatre legend coming to the end of his tenure as artistic director, proclaimed that performance as an art form is dead apart from in the work of Marina Abramovic. This could be taken as a joke, if it weren’t for another article printed by a major daily newspaper in which a critic abandoned any scruples and wrote that the city doesn’t need ‘another theatre where a troupe of one-legged, transgender Albanian performers dance Germany’s crimes in the Herero Wars’. This was not greeted with outrage. Does that mean it reflects widely held views of anything that does not conform to conventional theatre? This reveals a deep rift of ignorance or pure resentment that has been glossed over by the cultural consensus for too long. It is true that a number of works by artists named by Dercon have been and still are present in Berlin. But that by no means implies a duplication of existing structures. Independent venues like Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) with its three stages rely for the majority of their productions (such as the work of the Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen) on external funding. This means that for every production, the artists and the theatre itself have to submit proposals to bodies such as the Capital Cultural Fund and the Federal Cultural Foundation. This complicates planning and continuity. HAU has no company of its own, and nor does the aptly titled annual festival Foreign Affairs. The Volksbühne under Dercon would be the very first venue in Germany capable of funding these and other projects largely out of its own budget, together with a steady artistic staff, even if they are not all actors. This alleged creation of a ‘two-fold’ structure would take its place in an institutional landscape that could be described, using the same logic, as ‘fivefold’ with regard to publicly funded five theatres in Berlin, and ‘threefold’ with regard to the city’s three opera houses. The ‘duplication’ argument is an attempt by the hegemonic model to defend itself against a comparatively minimal shift in emphasis.

Kean - a staging by Frank Castorf
, featuring Alexander Scheer (Edmund Kean)

The real difference between Chris Dercon and Frank Castorf is their artistic profile: Castorf is a creative genius, Dercon is a curator. After all, a theatre director does nothing other than curate: he puts together teams, suggests programmes, takes care of the repertoire or collection, and is under pressure to keep up with the times. There are many theatre managers in Germany who do not direct plays themselves. Castorf was one who did, often brilliantly, in a style that influenced more than one generation. But for many years now, the critics have stopped discussing the merits of his stagecraft, defending him instead as a rebellious role model against anything and everything else. Castorf became an abstract figure of difference that constantly emptied itself, while his theatre permitted trademark styles and, yes, events. Castorf creates his most liberated productions when he goes elsewhere, staging plays in Munich, or in Bayreuth where he made a fantastic job of Wagner’s Ring cycle two years ago. Chris Dercon is a man I believe to be capable of not covering up this empty centre with another artistic genius. When the 1990s come to an end in 2017, perhaps the 2000s will begin in Berlin. This phenomenon is known as cultural lag. Theatre is a slow art form, and it will remain that way. That is its strength.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Tobi Müller is a freelance journalist writing mainly about pop music and theatre. He lives in Berlin and works, among others, for Deutschlandradio Kultur, Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger, WDR und SRF.