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Issue 25

Roundtable: Volksbühne

What's behind the outcry againt Chris Dercon's appointment at the Volksbühne? A roundtable with theatre critics Eva Behrendt and Tobi Müller

BY Eva Behrendt, Tobi Müller AND Dominikus Müller in Interviews | 23 AUG 16

frieze d/e Why do you think the debate about Volksbühne has become so heated?

Eva Behrendt A change of director at a theatre is a perfectly normal procedure, but in the case of the Volksbühne it’s not routine for various reasons. For one thing, Frank Castorf has held this post for 25 years, and for another – and I think this is the key reason – the Volksbühne is a highly symbolic venue that has always held a specific promise. Since the early 1990s, the message has been that at the Volksbühne, German reunification will not resolve quietly into the new consensus of the Federal Republic. And this has remained the case, eventually becoming a myth throughout Castorf’s tenure: something remains unresolved – dissent is permitted.

d/e The departure of some artistic staff when a new director arrives is also normal, right? In spite of this, the debate is also fired up by fears of job cuts and precarious working conditions.

Tobi Müller Yes, the former is also a normal procedure and the latter is part of a campaign. What turns me off about this whole debate is the way the theatre scene is spreading alarmism via the media even though no unusual cuts have been planned, at least not that we know of so far. Technical departments are not being shut down and people are not being fired in large numbers. The Berliner Zeitung reported 50 job cuts without fact-checking.

d/e At present there is talk of 15 to 25 job cuts.

TM That’s a low figure, and it may be misleading to speak of ‘job cuts’ when artistic staff are being replaced. At the Schauspiel in Dortmund in 2010, for example, the whole company was replaced, with just one actor staying on. Initially, Dercon wanted to carry on working with directors Herbert Fritsch and René Pollesch. In this context I think it’s significant that Fritsch stands for something other than Volksbühne’s strong self-image as a left-wing, political and rebellious theatre. Fritsch is a great director but his work does not directly fall within this tradition. In theatre, if a scene doesn’t work well the director will often ask, ‘Is it because of the scene before?’ The same applies to this debate: the actual problem lies in the decade before, the 2000s. André Schmitz, Berlin’s erstwhile cultural secretary, who had previously been administrative director of Volksbühne, would not hear a bad word uttered about his friend Frank Castorf. He quite openly said as much. After such an era of male comraderie anything will come as a rupture.

Der Kaufmann von Berlin, directed by Frank Castorf, Volksbühne Berlin, 2010. Courtesy: ullstein bild/Lieberenz

d/e  A rupture further aggravated by appointing someone like Dercon: following the ‘genius director’ with a ‘curator manager’.

TM  The decision was made to change the model – to bring in Dercon as an outsider and try something new at one of Berlin’s five major theatres. The debate is about models. The idea was to take an institution of this size and with this kind of funding – formerly €17M, in the future probably €19M per annum – and to create a structure that does not yet exist in the German-speaking world, but that is already widespread internationally at performing arts venues. The aim is to reflect the changes in the city. Berlin has internationalized, mainly in the independent sector, and there are many people here who are losing work and whose lives are becoming unsustainable. Funding of Hebbel am Ufer, for example, is comparatively precarious with €5.5M per annum. Almost every production there depends on third-party funding. Volksbühne could thus become the first venue where it would be possible to try something new without this precarious third-party funding structure.

EB  But this is precisely not what was communicated. A curator from another artistic field was appointed while it was consistently denied that the institution’s structure would change – even though that’s exactly what one would expect after such an appointment. I have the feeling that it’s still rather unclear whether this structural change will be enacted. Considering the current debate it seems more like everyone is backtracking and nothing will change for the time being: the structure itself will remain, with subtle changes made via programming. But I’m not sure that’s a good approach if the goal is to create a major venue for independent productions in Berlin. If that’s the aim, then it should have been announced and discussed in a different way.

TM  Yes, the plan for a major production venue is no longer on the table in this radical form. Instead, we’re now talking about more of a hybrid: in the tradition of Germany’s city-run theatres, the focus is more on a repertoire and a company – although it must be said that Germany has a high density of top-level actors. Maren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann, for example, is full of theatre actors.

EB  Even if the Volksbühne company now only exists in a lesser form – at least as far as actors under permanent contract is concerned – it’s an important part of the sense of identification communicated in the staff’s open letter. Regularly seeing on stage such prominent actors as Sophie Rois, Martin Wuttke, Lilith Stangenberg and Alexander Scheer was certainly one of Volksbühne’s absolute strengths.

frieze d/e Has Volksbühne taken on the character of a family? At the very least there’s a strong sense of identification, a notion of longstanding solidity and organic growth – which is now being contrasted with insecure ‘project’ conditions.

EB  Well, local contem­porary German theatres that are equipped with in-house workshops for sets, costume, make-up and props and that base their programme on company and repertoire can be traced back to 18th and 19th century theatres. Much has been modernized since then, but the hierarchical (and often, as in the case of Volksbühne, patriarchal) structure based on the division of labour has remained essentially unchanged – even if convincingly masking this is Castorf’s apparent lack of interest in management and the presence of a self- identified feminist like Pollesch. It’s perfectly possible that the technicians at Volksbühne have a good working relationship with the actors, based on solidarity, and that they exert a special influence on the theatre. But the same applies at Berlin’s other four main theatres. In my view, the idea that Volksbühne’s city-run theatre structure has allowed it to escape the mechanisms of the market is a myth.

frieze d/e In mid-July, an anonymous statement published on the website of Texte zur Kunst claimed that it was this culture of ‘long-term, communal – and spirited – production’ that would soon be broken up.

TM  This situation is so political that I find the anonymity of this letter unacceptable – especially as the authors clearly don’t have a clue about theatre. Of course identification with a regular group of artists who work at a theatre is important. Has Dercon announced anything to the contrary? Dercon’s success will depend on whether he achieves this. He mustn’t restrict himself to a kind of ‘festival mode’. But this will take time. In the theatre people say you have roughly three years to establish such a set-up.

frieze d/e But what, then, of the fears of ‘neoliberalization’?

TM  Currently Volksbühne has a core company of just 11 employed actors. Many of the directors – Pollesch and Fritsch for example – have long since moved towards the model of an independent group that docks onto the theatre on the occasion of a production. This is the model I hope Dercon will pursue. In response to why this must happen at Volksbühe, one need only mention the argument cited by Volksbühne’s staff in their open letter, namely that what ‘the new man’ is suggesting is not new at all, but rather an established practice at Volksbühne. And one can say: precisely, that’s why this is happening at Volksbühne and not the Berliner Ensemble or the Deutsches Theater. It’s a cynical argument to contrast this with the neoliberal conditions at HAU or Sophiensaele in Berlin or Mousonturm in Frankfurt or Kampnagel in Hamburg. Because these institutions are chronically underfunded their continual project applications are borne out of necessity, not out of a wish for more fluid structures. In my view, this proposal for Volksbühne is an opportunity for project-based work and to develop a non-German aesthetic without making everything ‘precarious’. If this is not the case, Dercon will fail.

EB  One could hypothesize about who else could’ve been appoin­ted. What if a typical city-run theatre director had been hired, someone like Karin Beier, or – probably the preferred option for many who are against Dercon – an East German director like Armin Petras or Sebastian Hartmann? Either way, Volksbühne would’ve probably moved back toward the municipal theatre model. Which is ultimately the less courageous option. After all, Volksbühne is the mother of all theatres where projects are initiated and where seasons are given a thematic and discursive structure. There were seasons in the 1990s that were especially outstandingly curated.

TM  Absolutely. The ‘event venue’ into which Dercon is supposedly going to transform Volksbühne is, of course, an invention of Volksbühne itself.

EB  I found some interesting figures on this. According to the audience statistics for the 2013-14 season, Volksbühne had a total of 180,000 visitors. But only 66,000, around one-third, came for the theatre. The rest came for concerts, film nights and the events taking place at its two salons and satellite venues. Yet currently Volksbühne is being defended as a predominantly drama-based theatre.

Herbert Fritsch in Pension Schöller, directed by Frank Castorf, Volksbühne Berlin, 1994. Courtesy: ullstein bild/Esch-Henkel

TM  Ultimately, an excessive focus on events – not at just Volksbühne but German theatres in general – leads to a disempowerment of the dramaturgs. For many years the dramaturgs were the in-house intellectuals. Today they often become managers of a kind of events agency, with twice as many events as 20 or 30 years ago. The discussion about the ‘artist’ Castorf being followed by the ‘manager’ is one we’ve had many times before. For example in 2001 when Frank Baumbauer took over from Dieter Dorn after a long tenure at the Kammerspiele in Munich.

EB  Good example. Baumbauer originally came from the artistic manager’s office, more of an administrative background, not so much from directing or dramaturgy. No one took him seriously at first, then he became the most important director in German-speaking theatre at the time.

TM  He was initially met with a lot of resistance. Peter Sloterdijk complained in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that genius directors were being forcibly replaced by admini­strators and event managers – ‘event managers’, that’s an original quote from Sloterdijk in 1999. As this shows, lamenting the victory of administrators over artists is an old and rather reactionary pursuit. The fact that Castorf must now be named in the same breath as Dieter Dorn, his onetime antithesis, is actually quite amusing.

frieze d/e Zeroing in on the term ‘curator’, people are insinuating that theatre is being taken over by fine art – a takeover that’s being dressed up as the epitome of neo­liberal cultural production.

TM  By way of comparison, it’s worth taking a look at Belgium, where a model totally different to that of the city-run theatre has emerged over the past 25 to 30 years.

EB  The key quality of Flemish theatre is that since the 1980s artists have been able to create the structures of their productions and institutions themselves – the state provides just a minimal framework. As far as I know, theatres and companies apply for new funding every five years; the distinction between established theatres and the independent scene has become largely irrelevant.

TM  I find it interesting that groups and artists like Jan Lauwers, Jan Fabre and Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker have created something within this system that is far harder to achieve at German city-run theatres with their supposedly secure structures: continuity. And this is something else that’s absent from the current discussion about Volksbühne: the rivalry and discontinuity at municipal theatres, the fear within companies. There’s this impression that German city-run theatre is an ideal kibbutz – there’s a huge disconnect between this fantasy and reality.

EB  In the course of these reforms in Belgium, everything expensive at German theatres was cut back, to include technicians on permanent contracts, workshops and administration. And the Flemish model has another downside: where cuts have been made once, there are likely to be more – the most recent reductions to the arts budget were considerable. Which is why, for some time now, many Belgian artists and groups like to work with theatres and venues in German-speaking countries. In the countries where they originally made their names, they are now often unable to fund themselves alone. And this money is available in Germany in part because it is linked to more permanent structures. So I can under­stand the worries over these structures becoming less secure.

TM  Sure, the avant-garde comes to the money that’s available here. But it must be said that some things have eclipsed Berlin in the last ten years. In the performing arts, the city wasn’t always as edgy as one might have liked. Such an institution – a fully funded artists’ group venue where three or four groups can work continually with a company – doesn’t yet exist. It should be facilitated. And then it would have the chance to grow and to work at a high level beyond the aesthetic of city-run theatre. The chance to do this in Berlin is a unique opportunity.

EB  Well, since last year Matthias Lilienthal has been attempting something similar with the Kammerspiele in Munich. He too has been met with serious scep­ticism and resistance, especially in the local press. But I think he’ll find his groove in his second or third year.

TM  If Dercon fails in Berlin and Lilienthal fails in Munich, then I fear a similar failure to what happened in the 2000s when Tom Stromberg at the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg and Elisabeth Schweeger in Frankfurt wanted to try different models and failed.

EB  Neither of these theatres was ruined as a result, but they did become far more conventional. There was a backlash. At the time, the discussion focused on specific productions. Now the results are being trashed in advance. The debate has taken on a destructive character. And the letter of support for Dercon from the art scene hasn’t exactly helped to resolve the conflict.

Murmel Murmel, directed by Herbert Fritsch, Volksbühne Berlin, 2012. Courtesy: ullstein bild/Lieberenz

frieze d/e Why would the discussion die down after Dercon’s appointment was first announced and then flare up again now?

TM  It’s surely no coincidence that there are Berlin senate elections in September. There’s a real possibi­lity that the city – currently under a grand coalition of SPD and CDU – could be governed by a more left-wing coalition of SPD, Greens and Die Linke (the successor to East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party). And then the culture secretary responsible for Volksbühne might be replaced by someone else. Die Linke is on Volksbühne’s side and opposes Dercon, and at the moment the same seems to be true of the Greens. Of course existing contracts cannot be cancelled forthwith. But it is possible to exert pressure. And there’s also the possibility to try to discredit Tim Renner – especially so close to election time.

frieze d/e Over the last 15 years, Berlin has become hugely internationalized. Should that be reflected in German-language theatre?

TM  German theatre responded incredibly late to the changing origins of city populations. Things got underway in 2002 with projects like ‘Bunnyhill’ in Hasenbergl, a Munich district with a major migrant presence. And in 2012, Shermin Langhoff came to Gorki Theater with a decidedly post-migrant programme – that was the next step. But all of this has to do with past omissions. In the 1970s and ‘80s, independent companies, and not municipal theatres, dealt with such topics. In Berlin, there is the added factor that ‘migrant’ as a topic no longer refers only to the failed integration of children of second- and third-generation immigrants. All of a sudden, English, Hebrew, French, Spanish and yet more languages are being spoken here – and these people are part of an educated, creative middle class. These are people who would go to the theatre and even want to make theatre themselves. That is a further break. Once again, the city-run theatre model has great difficulty in doing justice to this demographic. As in the past, it’s no good just portraying these people – they must be involved in productions. This involves struggles over interpretation and tradition, over canonical texts and forms, and that is always messy – this is a cultural struggle to which the left-liberal, culturalized theatre milieu is no longer accustomed. Such a process will of course bring a change of aesthetic and I understand the melancholy associated with that. 

EB  In the case of Volksbühne, though, I believe the aforementioned East–West aspect plays a major role in regard to this melancholy.

TM  But that’s a case of phantom pain.

EB  Sure. But nonetheless, for many people who were brought up and socialized before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Volksbühne was the only place where you could look critically at the present from an East German perspective and where you could also look back at East Germany without kitsch or false nostalgia. Volksbühne was a major East–West project. It wasn’t just people from the East – many former-West Germans were also involved, including the dramaturgs Carl Hegemann and Matthias Lilienthal as well as several actors. They turned Volksbühne into an institution of artists that held the promise of a social alternative. For many people this apparently continues to be the case, even though it has only fulfilled this promise – if at all – in isolated cases, mostly in the 1990s rather than the years since the millennium. For the time being there’s nothing capable of replacing it anywhere in Germany.

TM  Which makes me think of Bert Neumann, the great set designer at Volksbühne who tragically died last year.

EB  That’s right. Neumann invented the ‘cool East’.

TM  When I think back to the 1990s, how we used to go round dressed in second-hand clothes and went to Volksbühne to watch entertaining theatre with a cutting intellectual edge shaped by an East German sensibility – theatre on overdrive – it still gives me goosebumps. But that is my personal, contingent nostalgia. Those years are gone. The only place where they survived was Volksbühne and the aesthetic cultivated by Bert Neumann. What remains is an image, atmosphere and space. The productions themselves have long since lost that spirit.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell 

Eva Behrendt is a theatre critic for Theatre Heute. She lives in Berlin.

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.

Dominikus Müller is a freelance writer based in Berlin.