Friday, January 11, 2019

Theatre and Power in Europe: Volksbühne

Back in May, I was invited to present a paper at a conference in London called Systemic Crisis in European Theatre. My paper about the occupation of the Volksbühne theatre in Berlin in November 2017, a 6-day event where circumstances and people came together to reclaim the 'People's Theatre'.

The occupation is significant on a number of levels, occurring at a time in history when the neoliberal project in Berlin accelerates out-of-control, with 20%-per-year rent increases and tepid gestures from government to regulate (the so called mietpreisbremse, or 'rent handbrake') on one level, and influxes of people to Berlin looking to escape their own crippling capitalist systems - or military conflicts in its name - on the other. The 'slogan' of the occupation, a parody of the previous artistic director Frank Castorf's own parody slogans draped over the theatre's prominent facade - 'Doch, Kunst!' (translated to 'Art After All' but perhaps better translated to something like 'Art? Hell Yes!') - attempts to reclaim the role of art in this context, washed away in a tide of profit-making and exploitation.

On this level, the events around the Volksbühne have a symbolic resonance. In 2016, Chris Dercon, former director of the Tate Modern in London, was appointed the new Artistic Director, taking over from the directorship of the Marx-minded Castorf (whose directorship has now reached mythical status, if it had not before). The appointment was controversial from the beginning: Dercon had never directed a show, and was never previously an artistic director of a theatre, and was apparently employed over dinner with Berlin's Mayor, Michael Müller. That alone would be enough. But the early warning signs were that the Volksbühne was set for a complete overhaul - from the old, worker-built repertory theatre, known for being a hallmark of East German culture pre-90's and a key component of post-socialist socialism after that, the new language was about 'artist hybridisation', attracting a tourist audience, branching out into dance and visual art, and event-based programming. Of course, this had many workers of the theatre, some of whom had been there for eons, fearing for their jobs. Who needs a set-builder when your theatre is only ever hosting touring performances? What's the role of an in-house dramaturg in a place that's no longer producing any actual drama? So that in June, a year after the appointment was announced, an open letter emerged, signed by approximately 3/4 of the entire staff, seeking to bring attention to the proposed changes, and their seemingly inevitable job losses.

The appointment can be seen as an attempt to impose the worst principles of curation - now pervasive in the West's customisable lifestyles - onto the theatre, replacing the routine of show-making and building a loyal audience (and public) with a stream of events that can be marketed to different sections of the community. As the occupation points out, this fits neatly into the logic of neoliberalism that causes rent rises and destroys the fabric of communities, especially those most vulnerable. Its tactic is to sew instability among an already-precarious cultural scene, so that efficiency drives and sell-offs go unnoticed.

All of this is justifiable, rational, and evidence-based argument. But it doesn't stop people believing what they want to believe.

4 weeks before my paper, I found out that Chris Dercon was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the Systemic Crisis in European Theatre conference. 1 week before, I found out that he had resigned. On the day of the conference itself, it emerged that he would be present anyway, and nobly fulfill his commitment that evening.