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Almost two years ago, the Berlin government announced that Frank Castorf’s contract as the artistic director of the Volksbühne would not be renewed after the end of his current term in the summer of 2017, and that his successor would be Chris Dercon, at that point Director of the Tate Modern in London. But if you care at all about European theatre, you’ve probably heard about that, and if not – well, you can read more here, here, and here; and also have a look at this nicely in-depth report on how the news was received by employees of the Volksbühne workshops. If you read German, Nachtkritik has compiled a near-complete chronology, with tons of links, of the debate.

Flash forward to this week, when Dercon and his team announced their programming for the upcoming season – in detail for the period from September through February, in a preview sketch for the rest of the year. And it’s a little bizarre. It’s as if someone took one of the many international, interdisciplinary festivals of art and performance, extended it over a year, and called it a theatre program. It also looks an awful lot like the kind of work that is already happening elsewhere in Berlin, at the HAU and the Sophiensäle, at the Berliner Festspiele, and in other venues. It’s heavily focused on dance and features a number of visiting engagements that will come ready-made and with their own cast. The season will start not in the Volksbühne’s iconic building in central Berlin, but at the repurposed old Tempelhof airport. The Volksbühne itself will not spring back to life until November, with “an evening about art and language” featuring the performance art of Tino Sehgal and Beckett’s one-act plays – and a trio of those one-act plays will also open the season on the Volksbühne’s main stage, the same trio of Not I/Footfalls / Eh Joe that audiences all over the English speaking world saw on tour over the past decade, including in Toronto, directed by the same director that was in charge of that well-travelled production (Werner Asmus). In fact, those Beckett plays are almost literally the only works of dramatic literature mentioned in the 212-page-long program.

Instead, there is a steady diet of dance, devised work (Yael Bartana’s What if Women Ruled the World), and other projects that all may or may not be interesting in and of themselves – but have little need for a space as specifically built for and ideally suited to theatre as the Volksbühne. The only piece of theatre made specifically for the main stage is Susanne Kennedy’s Women in Trouble; in the second half of the season, it’ll be joined by the film maker Albert Serra’s original work Liberté. Everything else is imported from elsewhere and/or a dance piece; at best (as in the case of Bartana’s work) it’s a co-production that will have its first run elsewhere – in that case, in Manchester.

In some ways, the new program looks exactly like the Volksbühne of old: for many years, the space has been used for musical acts; for many years, the theatre’s Red Salon has been used for the kind of literary and event-based programming that will continue under the new leadership. Even dance is nothing new in the Volksbühne: very early on in Castorf’s first term, within a year or two of taking over as the artistic director, he brought the Austrian dance-theatre-maker Johann Kresnick on board as a resident director, and other choreographers have produced work there as well (including some of the ones Dercon is bringing back). So when the new program proclaims that the reinvented Volksbühne will take its inspiration from the art world, where artists “no longer see their disciplines as single disparate categories,” that attitude perpetuates rather than breaks with a long-standing tradition of the space.

The problem is not that the program Dercon and Co have put together is diverse and interdisciplinary. The problem, rather, is that it isn’t diverse and interdisciplinary enough: it largely leaves out the very discipline for which the building was constructed. The new leadership breaks decisively not just with Castorf’s Volksbühne, but with the entire tradition of the building and the institution it represents in longer putting theatre at the heart of the enterprise.

From their intellectual perspective, that appears to make sense. Dercon’s director of programming, Marietta Piekenbrock, essentially announced at their press conference that theatre as we know it is moribund anyway:

The stage of spoken-word theatre is indebted to a sense of the world that is centred on the human. On the stage of the 21st century, however, we find a new distribution of power, a new dynamic of creatures, ghosts, machines, objects. The things we once invented to define identities or let them manifest themselves on stage have lost all traction. The [human] subject – is that even a topic anymore these days?

From Piekenbrock’s perspective, a post-human world cannot rely on forms of representation that still focus, naively, on the human. At the same time, she also thinks that “the body – that of the refugee, the maimed, the rebel, the injured – has returned to the centre of political discourse. Across all boundaries of language its signs and messages are universally comprehensible.” So perhaps not post-human after all, just post-discursive. Bodies that stand for other bodies: old-fashioned. Bodies that speak for themselves: cutting edge. Which is presumably the reason that dance is taking centre stage in this new vision, and it obviously is the reason Susanne Kennedy comes to stand for whatever future the theatre may have: a director who hides her actors’ faces behind masks and takes their live voices away, replacing them with recordings (of their own or other voices).

It seems to me that the answer to Piekenbrock’s question is an obvious and resounding “yes” – of course the subject is “still” a topic. How could it not be? If anything, the omnipresence of vulnerable and injured bodies in our newsfeeds is surely a reminder that we’re very far from being post-human. We still walk and talk amongst and with other bodies, we still interact with other beings in their embodied form, not merely through their avatars; we aren’t quite machines yet. Our lives may be more and more affected by algorithms and mediated by devices; but those lives are still the lives of bodies – bodies that speak, and feel, and sometimes think. That the relationships between bodies and feeling and words and thoughts is complicated and subject to alienation and distortion is hardly news – it is, after all, one of the main themes of the drama of the twentieth century. And certainly not just Beckett’s. But despite that complexity, and because of its awareness of it, the theatre seems to me the place where art can insist on the abiding centrality of lived human experience even and especially in a world that seems to move towards the post-human. Theatre surely is the place to highlight the inadequacy of that discourse rather than yet another art form used to echo and represent a human-made world devoid of humanity.

Nor does it strike me as obviously accurate to say that existing means of representing identities no longer work. The opposite seems closer to the truth. Take the resurgence of long-form storytelling on TV; take the continued appeal of realist modes of acting on stage all over the world – including in Germany, and even in Berlin. There is little to suggest that the conventions that allow us to turn real people into fictional characters have fallen apart. On the contrary: they have proven remarkably resilient to formal experimentation.

Pieckenbrock and Dercon in their program are keen to reduce the “true magic” of performance to “the form of an archaic ritual: actors, dancers and audience breathe in the same room art [sic!] the same time. The whole beauty of the theatre, its very essence, lies in the simplicity of this moment.” But that isn’t true. It’s almost never been true. Co-presence is a key, perhaps essential element of theatre, sure. But it’s not the only one. Representation, of one kind or another, in however complicated form, is just as essential: if theatre were simply two people breathing the same air, it would be indistinguishable from everyday life. Nor is the occasional nature of theatre what makes it distinctive: a lecturer and her audience, a politician and a crowd, a preacher and a congregation also breathe the same air, and yet none of them make theatre, exactly. Rather, the essence of theatre is the agreed-upon assumption that one of the two parties in the room is not quite herself – and the only reason the other party has shown up is because they are interested in the thing or the person or the idea that the first party represents, in full knowledge of the fact that that representation is in some sense profoundly untruthful.

This probably feels like a massive digression to first principles, so let me loop back to the Volksbühne: there is no other theatre in the world that has explored this fundamental element of the theatrical situation in a more sustained fashion than the Volksbühne, that has pushed the boundaries of representation more violently, that has tested out the limits of what “acting” might mean more insistently and more infuriatingly. In doing so, it has been an engine of renewed theatrical experimentation for the last quarter of a century throughout Germany. There is no other place like it anywhere else – just as there in no other theatre culture as rich, as diverse, and as determinedly inventive as Germany’s. But while the influence of the Volksbühne has been unusual, how it functioned as an institution is not: a core ensemble of actors interested in a shared project, a director (or directors) pushing that project, a space flexible enough to accommodate the project, financial conditions that allow the project to take off, either through sustained work on a single show or sustained-enough work on successive shows. Going back to the nineteenth century, that is how theatrical experiments were made possible in Germany, and since the early twentieth century, there has been a succession of theatres that turned into revolutionary cells of just this sort. And because that model is so wide-spread, and so well-established, it serves to erase the distinction between mainstream and avant-garde so common in other art forms and in other theatre cultures: because what can be done at one ensemble theatre can be tested out at one of the dozens of others. Stability of structures not only makes aesthetic change possible – it makes it desirable to most of the parties involved, including audiences. That, too, does not exist anywhere else (and many theatre makers in Germany would argue that it’s under assault there, too).

But that very extraordinary position also, paradoxically, makes places such as the Volksbühne vulnerable to the charge of provincialism that Chris Dercon has repeatedly made. In a certain sense, he is right: the theatre made there is made within a specific national, even provincial, context. Flip that around, though, and it sounds rather better: that context anticipates and demands a higher level of formal experimentation than in other theatre cultures.

Here’s the thing. Theatre is almost necessarily provincial. A mantra in Germany is that Stadttheater, the city-funded theatres of which the Volksbühne is one, make theatre primarily for the city they’re in – theatre is always local first. But there is a larger truth in that. Conditions of theatre production differ far more widely internationally than those in the other arts. Actors, by and large, have far more difficulty moving between countries than most other artists, and most other performers – if nothing else, they are limited by the languages they speak. The same applies to performances: sure, some travel, but how they are received elsewhere, even just one country over, differs significantly from how they are received at home. And what kinds of shows are compatible on the international market is telling, too: far and away the most successful German theatre on the international scene is the Schaubühne, but their touring repertoire is much more limited than what they offer in Berlin. It consists almost exclusively of Thomas Ostermeier’s productions – and those increasingly favour a filmic realism that often ignores the pull towards experimentation so prevalent elsewhere in Germany.

Making the Volksbühne more international, as Dercon is determined to do, will necessarily mean going against that localist grain. And, sure, there is value in that. There is value in making work that is internationally popular; there is value in exposing Berlin to work from elsewhere that might not otherwise have a place in the city; there is value in finding ways of reflecting Berlin’s status as an international city on the stage of its theatres. From that perspective, the only thing that is disappointing about this first season program is the large number of remounts: there is little evidence yet of how the Volksbühne might become a place where new internationally compatible work will originate in a sustainable way. For now, it has been reduced to little more than a receiving house.

But there is a cost to that shift in direction, too. Dance, like opera, like film, like music, like visual art, like performance art, like sculpture, like literature, even, travels well. Theatre is almost unique among the arts in being much harder to translate into other cultural contexts – and when that happens, it often comes at the price of being exoticized (what’s familiar and expected in the original context becomes othered and fascinating to audiences in another culture). In fact, it seems to me that Chris Dercon himself is the best example of how poorly theatre travels: all he seems to be able to say about the Volksbühne’s work is that it’s very loud; or, in a complementary mode, that it’s “rock ‘n’ roll.” Then again, it might just be that he doesn’t particularly care for theatre of any kind: London’s theatre is “out of touch with the time.” I have not been able to find any interview in which he discusses productions or directors, let alone actors, that he admires, loves, or even enjoys. Sorry – except for Beckett. About whom he has profound things to say: “there is a lot of talking in Beckett, lots of things for the ears.”

In one sense, what is happening at the Volksbühne now is commonplace. All over Germany, whenever a new artistic director takes over, it is normal for the old repertoire to disappear completely, to be rapidly replaced with new productions in the new Intendant’s first season. It’s also normal for an ensemble to be disbanded (though there is such a thing as tenure for actors, and a new AD might not be able to replace everyone). What is rather less normal – unheard of, in fact – is for a new Intendant not to establish a new ensemble to speak of (Dercon has named three actors that may remain, one of whom will be on leave next year – Sophie Rois, by far the most prominent of the three. But all of them have tenure: he couldn’t in fact have let them go.). Also not normal? A new AD that only programs two entirely new pieces of theatre on his theatre’s main stage. Also not normal? A new AD that presents a 200-plus-page program that contains all of five pages that give any real indication of the institution’s new direction. Compare, for instance, the season program of the Schauspiel Frankfurt, where Anselm Weber is about to take over as artistic director: half as long as Dercon’s, but rich in interviews, vision statements, and detailed, reasonably concrete descriptions of productions, it also presents (of course) the new ensemble. And it features eight brand new productions on the main stage, along with 3 remounts from elsewhere (as well as another dozen on the smaller stage). Admittedly, Weber has one advantage over Dercon: he’s run a theatre before. And like all Intendanten, he could bring actors and productions with him from his previous appointment in Bochum. Unlike Dercon, he didn’t have to start entirely from scratch. But that – having to start from scratch – is also not normal.

But it isn’t unheard of either. Günther Rühle, for decades one of the most high-profile theatre critics in West Germany, took over that same Schauspiel Frankfurt in 1985 without having run a theatre before. But even though Rühle had no productions to bring with him, he was obviously qualified for the job in another way: he had spent a lifetime thinking and writing about theatre. Dercon lacks that qualification, too.

The program he has now presented seems to try and turn a set of weaknesses into a strength: having no background or evident strong interest in theatre, Dercon appears determined to turn the Volksbühne into something other than a theatre – into a place for internationally co-produced or at least compatible live art of various kinds; plus some film; plus some photography; plus some digital stuff that sounds terribly familiar in its present iteration. And although that program is just the new team’s first year, and not even a complete overview, it’s probably fair to take them at their word: Piekenbrock describes the volume as a collection of “what we love, what we dream of, what attracts us magically, what puzzles us, what we cannot put into concrete terms, what matters to us and what we consider important.” It’s evident that theatre — especially theatre in which actors have a significant, shaping role to play — is not something Dercon and his program director find especially important, attractive, or worthy of their love.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with that: as a cultural endeavour, a venue for performative arts other than the theatre is perfectly worthwhile. What is unclear, though, is why Dercon needs the Volksbühne for that — why it couldn’t be offered at Tempelhof alone, or perhaps there and at the soon-to-be-empty Schiller Theater. Why is it necessary to turn a marvelous theatre, a place that is architecturally astonishingly well suited for the “true magic” of theatre, a place that has for a long time supported the long-term, sustained, collective engagement with theatrical experimentation, into a space where that particular art form will at best be a partial concern?

Change is good. My point here is not that Frank Castorf’s contract should have been renewed yet again: 25 years is an extraordinarily long term in office, and even though he was enjoying a real return to form in recent years, there’s nothing wrong with ending on a high. The issue is not with who runs the Volksbühne. The issue, as is now evident, is whether the Volksbühne should remain, primarily, a theatre.

And this takes me back, finally, to my earlier point about the extraordinary province that is the German theatre world. One good argument for Dercon’s appointment was that he would contribute new impulses that could push the traditional experimentalism of German theatre into a new direction. But there is no trace of that in his program. A rich interdisciplinary dialogue may indeed make for an exciting basis for theatrical innovation – Kay Voges has been demonstrating that in Dortmund. But there is no such dialogue in evidence in the new Volksbühne’s program. Instead, theatre has simply been marginalized, while far more presence is given to other disciplines on the main stage. Without an ensemble, without resident directors (there’s only one: Susanne Kennedy, although she is not identified as such in the program), without a real dramaturgical staff (none is listed in the program), it’s entirely unclear how theatre – even or especially interdisciplinary theatre – could possibly remain the focus of this institution. Instead, the Volksbühne in its new guise looks very familiar: it looks and sounds like the Barbican, or BAM, or any number of comparable stops on the international touring circuit of performing arts. But none of those venues do what the Volksbühne has done for over a century, and what so many German theatres regularly do: rethink, in a sustained and sustainable fashion, what it is theatre is, does, can be, and can do. So, if the direction set in this first program holds, I fear that Berlin will perhaps gain a new, better venue for the kind of performances that can also be found in many other cultural metropoles; and it will lose a major venue for something that cannot be found anywhere else: an approach to theatre-making that constantly, insistently, passionately investigates and reinvents the modes of its own existence.

PS: A final thought. In some places, Dercon’s program has been welcomed as a necessary breath of fresh air, akin to Matthias Lilienthal’s new direction at the Munich Kammerspiele. With all due respect, that’s nonsense. While Lilienthal’s programmatic swerve in Munich upset some locals, and has been decried in some publications as a turn away from a theatre that relies on actors to one that relies on performance artists, those claims have little basis in reality. In fact, Lilienthal’s approach could truly be called interdisciplinary, in the sense that he is combining different models of performance in the same venue and with the same ensemble. At the same time, the repertoire he has built over the last two years retains a strong grounding in work that is quite obviously “theatre” — the Kammerspiele are unquestionably engaged in an energetic, creative, and vital dialogue with the traditions and canons of the art of theatre. Nothing of the sort is visible in Dercon’s first program, and there is no evidence that any structures are being put in place that would enable a development in that direction in future years.

4 Responses to How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne

  1. Ramin Gray says:

    Great article Holger, especially the broader analysis about localism and provincialism in theatre, something I’ve been banging on about for years. I’ve tried in my recent work (The Events by David Greig and The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus) to find a way of solving the conundrum of creating international work while remaining plugged into the essential nourishing localism that you talk of. Thank you! Ramin Gray

  2. Arthur says:

    “Nor does it strike me as obviously accurate to say that existing means of representing identities no longer work. The opposite seems closer to the truth. Take the resurgence of long-form storytelling on TV; take the continued appeal of realist modes of acting on stage all over the world – including in Germany, and even in Berlin. There is little to suggest that the conventions that allow us to turn real people into fictional characters have fallen apart. On the contrary: they have proven remarkably resilient to formal experimentation.”

    It should have been obvious a hundred years ago that formal experimentation was a dead end.

    • Holger Syme says:

      A fairly curious response to a post that celebrates the power and vitality of an institution deeply committed to formal experimentation for over a century. My point was not that realism is some sort of ideal and once theatre found that form in the nineteenth century, we should have frozen history at that moment. But realism remains a powerful tool — that was my point. The claim that it is no longer relevant is obviously counterfactual.

  3. Hartmut Wickert says:

    First deap reaching analysis of the change which is marked by political (subjective?/ structural?) decisionmaking. Strategy? TimRenner-Agenda? Or a real turning point?
    Volksbühne is a symbol and the work of castorf ensemble is a mark in the history of contemporary theatre. insofar this act of installing dercon’s team and their art could be a structural turning point of the history of theatre.

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