Should Berlin's legendary Volksbühne theater cater to an international audience? Its new director Chris Dercon thinks so. But critics worry that Berlin is losing a one-of-a-kind gem in the name of diversity.
Next summer, Belgian Chris Dercon is slated to replace Frank Castorf as director of Berlin's Volksbühne, a century-old theater in downtown Berlin.
While Dercon has plenty of experience in culture management - he headed the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich and currently directs London's Tate Gallery of Modern Art - he has not yet managed a theater.
That a museum curator should take over "the most legendary German-speaking theater" in the country has caused quite a stir and some are "stunned," Klaus Siebenhaar, director of the Institute for culture and media management in Berlin, told DW. Siebenhaar worked for 11 years at the nearby Deutsches Theater.
When he was announced as Castorf's successor in April, Dercon said at Berlin's City Hall that he intends to balance forms of expression at the theater, creating equality between dance, performance, film, music, musical theater, visual art, digital culture and other artistic disciplines. As he said, he also sees the whole city of Berlin as a stage and envisions larger art projects at expansive locations like the former Tempelhof airport, now a park.
Critics fear an impending "event machine."
Theater staff fear job cuts
In particular, Volksbühne staff have expressed concerns over Dercon's plans and have sent an open letter to the Berlin Senate, which is responsible for cultural affairs like the theater. They wrote in the letter that they fear that in the name of internationalization and diversity, the Senate is working "intensively toward the destruction of originality and forwardness," for which the Volksbühne is renowned worldwide.
Many of the staff both on and behind the stage fear for their jobs.
Tim Renner, Berlin's Secretary for Cultural Affairs, has promised a "radical new beginning" following the Castorf era, adding that no more jobs would be lost than is typical under a change of leadership. Berlin's daily "Tagesspiegel" sees a "vital question for the entire city" in the issue.
When the Volksbühne, located on what is now Rosa Luxemburg Square, opened its doors in 1914, it was emblazoned in large print with its motto, "Art for the people." It was to be a cultural temple for the working class and arose out of the so-called "Volksbühnenbewegung" - a movement promoting theater for the masses - from 1890.
The organization that had built the Volksbühne aimed to distance itself from private theater companies and circumvent the Kaiser's censorship. Performances were reserved for members who had financed the building of the Volksbühne with their sweat-earned pennies.
A century of war and rebuilding for the Volksbühne
Artistically speaking, the Volksbühne made waves in the 1920s. In 1924, theater reformer Erwin Piscator made his debut. Just a few years later under the Nazis, the organization lost control of the theater. Instead, only classics like Schiller's "The Robbers," light Berlin entertainment pieces and operettas were performed.
In 1943, during World War II, the Volksbühne was damaged by a bomb and in 1945, during the final days of the war, it went up in flames.
After the war, the theater found itself in what then quickly became East Berlin and was rebuilt. During the communist era, the leading director was Benno Besson, a Swiss student of Bertolt Brecht who took over in 1974. He modernized the theater and organized large-scale spectacles on stage that caught attention across the country.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the theater remained in the hands of the state and Frank Castorf took the reigns in 1992. In the theater's century-long history, Castorf has served the longest term.
His so-called "long nights" full of opera, theater and film productions are legendary, as are his collaborations with other directors like Christoph Marthaler, Christoph Schlingensief and René Pollesch.
How international should the Volksbühne become?
The current debate over the future of the Volksbühne is a "typically German discussion of nearly culturally revolutionary dimensions," said Klaus Siebenhaar. Under Castorf, the Volksbühne "wrote theater history," he said and became a frequently copied prototype of a "totally new type of city theater" with its trans-disciplinary schedule of rock concerts, spectacular productions, dance theater, film and media events.
Not much more is known about Chris Dercon's plans, except his announcement in April that he wanted to turn the Volksbühne into a "global 21st century theater" and build bridges "between the present and the history of theater."
Culture Secretary Renner has rebuffed the protests of the theater staff. In an April interview with "Tagesspiegel," he spoke of an "increasing internationalization" of Berlin. "There are other demands on our culture. The world is looking with astonishment at Berlin and hoping and expecting our experiment to succeed."
Renner praised the Maxim Gorki Theater and the Komische Oper, which he said have - under the direction of Shermin Langhoff and Barrie Kosky, respectively - have said goodbye to elitist culture and cater to an international audience.
The future of a one-of-a-kind theater
But that's exactly what critics are afraid will happen to the Volksbühne as well. On the other hand, Dercon has received support in an open letter signed by respected curators, museum directors and culture managers, including former Documenta director Okwui Enwezor.
The Berlin Senate is sacrificing "without need an institution that is unique in the world - in exchange for a certain attractive concept that can be done anywhere in the world," Klaus Siebenhaar summed up the current criticism.
It's certainly exaggerated to "denounce Dercon as a neo-liberal," said Siebenhaar. "But Dercon is not an artist." And that, he added, is crucial in an artistic organization like the Volksbühne.