(Don’t) Kill Your Darlings: Volksbühne, Berlin

by Katrin Trüstedt

IMG_6368Something like a culture war is raging around the "People's Theater" (Volksbühne) in Berlin. In the last act for now, new director Chris Dercon had the police remove a collective of activists from "his" theater who occupied the place during the last week. In the acts leading up to this occupation and its forceful dissolution, the theater's longtime director, Frank Castorf, who had run the place for the last 25 years with a diverse array of dedicated collaborators (directors, playwrights, actors, set designers and craftsmen solely employed by this theater) was ousted by Berlin politicians and replaced with Chris Dercon, the former director of London's Tate Modern. Outcries, protests, and petitions ensued, and almost the complete ensemble of actors and collaborators has left, as they refused working with Dercon and his team. Dercon, it was argued, does not know the Volksbühne and its place in Berlin; and, maybe even more fundamentally, he does not know much about theater in general. Nor do, needless to say, those who made the decision to have him replace Castorf. What had become an iconic radical avant-garde theater where the most interesting and most incalculable productions and ideas grew out of a very particular constellation of people, backgrounds, and techniques, is now set out to become a venue for a flow of guest performances, internationally acclaimed but developed somewhere else and suitable to work as events for the international tourists passing through the city.

This culture war is about many things currently debated in many places of the world – gentrification, the economic exploitation of creative capital, and the contradictions of local and globalized culture. But it is also and decisively about theater as a distinguished art form, and its role as a public institution in a changing world. From the plays of Heiner Müller to René Pollesch's Kill Your Darlings, the Volksbühne has shaped a form of theater that was both more and less than traditional dramatic theater, but exactly in this way has remained theater in the full sense of the word. What happened at Berlin's Volksbühne was theater challenging itself instead of theater being replaced with something else.

Historically, the Volksbühne at Rosa Luxemburg Platz, literally the "People's Stage", was both theater for the ordinary people and avant-garde at the same time. The particular Volksbühnen theater is post-dramatic in that it goes beyond aiming for just reproducing a dramatic illusion and reflects instead on dramatic techniques and how they inform our dramatic self-understanding: on the dramatic performance of identity and the theatrical mechanisms that it takes to perform a dramatic character, which is, however, never finalized, stable, or fixed. Such a dramatic identity depends on the ongoing work of the mechanisms of the theatrical machinery that are being staged, played with and pushed to the limit in these forms of post-dramatic theater.

Ironically, now, some defendants of the Volksbühne, the avant-garde institution of questioning the illusion of any given identity, feel urged to ascribe a self-identical character to this theater in their attempt to protect its "authenticity". Along rather unlikely frontlines, the artists of the Volksbühne, mostly Berliners with this peculiar Berlin dialect (both from the former East and West) are pitted against what is portrayed as an international, diverse, and mobile art crowd. The defenders of the Volksbühne have been accused of the kind of populism and localism that recently brought the right-wing AfD into Germany's parliament, even though the newly elected AfD sided with Dercon and requested to have the leftist activists removed that occupied the theater in the last week. It may seem just as unlikely that the Volksbühne that as a radical avant-garde theater has forcefully questioned dramatic forms can now be depicted as defending theater against forms of performance art that claim to be even more progressive, supposedly replacing theater as a conventional, outdated, and bourgeois art form. Defending theater against performance art could be seen, at first glance, as a rather conservative project, possibly also visible in Castorf's own choice for his last production this summer: a seven-hour version of Goethe's Faust. Defending theater against performance art in this case means, however, to defend a theater that always challenges its own form. What distinguishes the Volksbühne as a theater is the use of traditional theater elements with the excessive drive to play with them, the rigorous engagement with the tradition, but also the transmitting joy of playacting and exploring rather than reproducing the theatrical conditions of this public institution. Post-dramatic theater in this sense marks the tension between theater and its dissolution into performance, without ever completing it. All the architectural, structural, linguistic, and performative distinctions that it takes to produce a theatrical display – the separation of the stage and the audience, the curtain, the elaborately produced props, the texts and their performances, the difference between onstage and backstage reflected and undermined by filmed backstage action onstage – are being brought to the fore. Playing with and against the traditions, the boundaries and differences entrenched in the long history of theater, questioning these settings without just dissolving them, the Volksbühne has managed to turn the process of theatrical performance itself into a protagonist of its plays. It staged a "People's Theater" not in the sense of the representation of a homogeneous unity of a people on the stage or in the sense of an event in which all divisions are transcended. The Volksbühne rather enabled a theater of the people in the sense of instituting a public space that reflected and played with the divisions constituting us in our positions and explored the conditions of possibility of appearing and acting in public, precisely by doing what theater is all about: playing. The theater is dead. Long live the theater.