Offstage drama at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre
Berlin - Feature Story - The Guardian

Offstage drama at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre

Speculation that Chris Dercon could take over as artistic director at the famous ‘troublemaker’ has caused outrage in Germany’s theatre world

Read it in the Guardian

Berlin’s Volksbühne, one of the most storied ensemble theatres in the German-speaking world, has built a towering reputation on the demolition of canonical works of literature. Now it is having its own foundations shaken by speculation that its artistic director, an ageing iconoclast who has been in charge for more than 20 years, could be replaced by the director of the Tate Modern, Chris Dercon.

The culture ministry has refused to either confirm or deny reports that the head of the emblematic London gallery is being headhunted to replace Frank Castorf, telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung only that “negotiations are ongoing”. For his part, Dercon told the Guardian last week that he was “flattered” by the suggestion. “But my mind is at and with the Tate,” he added.

The comments have done nothing to dampen speculation within Berlin’s theatre community that Belgian-born Dercon, who moved to the Tate Modern in 2011 from the Munich gallery Haus der Kunst (House of Art), could yet return to Germany. And, while some are supportive, others fear that the Volksbühne risks losing its spirit.

“Chris Dercon is great for the Tate gallery, completely wrong for the Volksbühne. We don’t need any curators and project developers,” wrote Claus Peymann, artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble and enfant terrible of the German stage, in an email to the Guardian.

Some media commentators have said they fear the move would continue a trend of replacing gargantuan state-funded theatres with venues for mixed-media art events.

Commenting in the daily Die Welt, the arts writer Manuel Brug said he had nothing against Dercon himself – “a good man, splendidly well-connected, glamorous but intellectual, contemporary but reputable” – but wondered what business he had running a theatre. Berlin already has plenty of “hip, zeitgeist-chasing curators”, he wrote.

James Lyons, a theatre director who has worked in Germany for many years, said he was torn. “His [Dercon’s] nomination for the Volksbühne sounds like a good idea,” he said. “But even if Peymann and Castorf, having been around for so long, seem like ‘establishment’, they come from a notion of theatre as Störenfried [troublemaking], someone to mix it up, cause irritation, challenge authority, and it seems like Dercon’s [appointment] may be a paradigm change.”

The rumours of Dercon’s potential accession come as the German art world prepares to welcome another head of a leading British institution. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, is to step down at the end of the year and will, among various projects, chair a committee advising on one of Germany’s most important cultural projects, the Humboldt Forum arts complex.

They also come amid an increasingly bitter row over the direction of culture policy in Berlin under the new mayor, Michael Müller, who, like his predecessor, Klaus Wowereit, also holds the post of culture minister.

The culture ministry announced late last month that Castorf’s contract would be extended by only one year – taking him to 2017 and 25 years in charge of the “people’s stage”.

It is no secret that Castorf would have liked to continue, and the suggestion that he could be replaced by Dercon is widely understood to have been the idea of the state secretary of culture, Tim Renner, a 50-year-old former music executive and journalist who took up his post a year ago.

The proposal raised the hackles of Peymann, who began the recent spat by firing off an angry open letter to Müller, in which he accused the mayor of delegating culture policy to Renner – “the biggest miscasting”, he claimed, “of the decade”.

“Beads of sweat literally break out on me in fear when I think of what this inexperienced man, completely out of his depth in this position, has already inflicted on us, and what still awaits us,” Peymann wrote, citing Renner’s proposals to raise ticket prices and live-stream premiers online.

Peymann also made his feelings about developments at the Volksbühne clear, remarking: “Now the once so glorious Volksbühne is to be turned into the umpteenth event barn in the city.” Dismissing the criticism with an equally personal attack on German radio, Renner called the director “an old, sad man lashing out”. He insisted: “No one intends to turn the Volksbühne into an event barn.”

But for others the idea of an interdisciplinary venue bringing together theatre, dance and performance art is nothing to fear. Annemie Vanackere, artistic and managing director of the HAU Hebbel am Ufer theatre, which itself produces many interdisciplinary shows, said: “I see every day that there is a young and international audience in Berlin that wants new types of storytelling, whether it’s performance, dance, theatre or interdisciplinary works that aren’t served by classical theatre. Chris Dercon has flair and an impressive international network – and he can enthral.”

Thomas Ostermeier, head of the Schaubühne, a state-funded ensemble theatre at least as legendary as the Volksbühne, said he had no interest in speculating about Dercon’s suitability, but had his own reasons for preferring the accession of a curator.

“For me as a theatremaker it’s only positive, because at the moment I’m trying to work at the same level as the Volksbühne and in competition with other important ensemble theatres in the city,” he said. “And I would assume that the competition of an ensemble theatre with a single, style-defining director would no longer be there, and that would put even more wind in the Schaubühne’s sails.”