Revolt at the Volksbühne: behind the scenes at Berlin's troubled theatre
The real protagonist of Herbert Fritsch’s play , a dada cabaret revue in repertoire at , is a seven-metre-long wooden tube. At the start of the play, the tube funnels the cast of 13 men and women in Minnie Mouse dresses on to the stage, then gets pushed back and forth like the cylinder of a monstrous steamroller, and eventually triples up as the drum of a human hamster wheel.
During last Thursday’s premiere, a collective gasp rippled through the audience as the tube came careering towards the orchestra pit, threatening to flatten not just a couple of actors but the entire front row. It was the kind of smash-the-fourth-wall-with-a-sledgehammer moment that has helped build the theatre on Rosa Luxemburg Square a loyal fanbase in the German capital, and a reputation for artistic anarchy across the globe.
Pfusch means “botch” in German, and some critics have read the play’s title as a nod to the off-stage farce that has distracted from real stagecraft at the prestigious theatre over the last 20 months. Since the Belgian ex-director of London’s Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, of the Volksbühne’s veteran director Frank Castorf in spring 2015, staff have been in open revolt.
In the months after the announcement, several of the theatre’s star directors and performers announced their departure, and in an open letter the remaining staff decried Dercon’s appointment as “an irreversible turning point” that represented a “historical razing of identity” in favour of a “globalised consensus culture”. A counter-letter in defence of Dercon, signed by architect Jacques Herzog, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and artist Olafur Eliasson, among others, dismissed the theatre’s protest as “alarmist sensationalism”. Why, it asked, was a city as proud of its openness as Berlin so afraid of change?
Now that a Left party politician, who campaigned for Dercon’s deposition during September’s Berlin election, has been installed as the new culture senator, the Volksbühne’s future looks more of a botch-job than ever. But anyone who wants to understand how a theatre can arouse such strong emotions need only take a closer look through that gigantic wooden tube.
Founded in 1890, the or “people’s stage” was born out of an eponymous movement with the express mission to bring art to the working classes, an ideal that continued to be held aloft during the theatre’s 40 years on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. Manual workers and intellectuals were to have an equal stake in the institution and its artistic output; the star performer and the cleaner would be considered equally important members of the ensemble.
The central pillar of this philosophy was arguably not the stage itself, but a workshop where craftsmen and artists collaborated on sets and props. Initially located in the theatre, it has since 1939 been based on a purpose-built site in Berlin’s Pankow district and is now the only set-building factory of its kind (all of the city’s other theatres have in recent years outsourced their stage sets to a centralised agency).
A tour around the premises reveals a curiosity shop of props from productions past: Australian phone boxes, a replica of an 18th-century machine that creates the sound of thunder, wind and rain, a giant pterodactyl. It brings to mind Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 comedy , in which a family try to keep alive the illusion of a triumphant socialist republic in rapidly westernising post-Wall Berlin. By the entrance, a sign bearing the GDR-era motto “We work for peace” has been freshly repainted.
In the carpentry workshop where the wooden tube was put together, there are portraits of Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht, the first two leaders of East Germany’s ruling party, both carpenters by training (things were bound to go awry, one old east German joke goes, when Ulbricht was replaced by Erich Honecker, a roofer).
The workshop also doesn’t strictly live up to what a management consultant might call “operational efficiency”. The Volksbühne is a repertoire theatre, which means plays can stay part of the programme for years at a time and sets have to be built, disassembled and ferried back and forth between the workshop and the stage on a daily basis. Partly as a result, it receives one of the highest state subsidies of Berlin’s spoken-word theatres.
The workshop’s manager, Frank Mittmann, who has worked for the Volksbühne since 1974, recalls how since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there has been talk of privatisation, “but then people changed their minds again”. “The market economy has a logic that escapes me,” he says.
Wouldn’t it make things much easier for him and his workers if they had to build for a non-repertory theatre where one play at a time gets a clean run? “You can answer that question yourself, can’t you?” Mittmann retorts. “Of course you wouldn’t need 26 employees … And once those jobs are gone, they are gone.”
“If we had to switch, that wouldn’t be without risk for us. Repertory theatre is our thing: the Volksbühne has done it this way for over 100 years, and all our structures are adjusted to that way of working. It’s like clockwork.”
But to describe the Volksbühne as pure ostalgie, a nostalgia for the east’s good old ways, would be to do it a disservice. When Castorf, an east German who had started directing on west German stages before the fall of the Wall, took over in 1992, he and his set designer Bert Neumann started to wed Soviet-era aesthetics with a Hollywood-sized appetite for showmanship.
The old rules of ensemble theatre, whereby actors were strictly tied to one theatre, were abandoned and many of the Volksbühne’s star performers were allowed to pursue parallel careers in film, TV and at other stages. A fear frequently voiced by Dercon’s critics is that he could turn the prestigious theatre into a “commercial events shed”, but arguably Castorf had already done that: by the end of his 25-year reign only a minority of productions were traditional spoken-word theatre, with the theatre also hosting concerts, dance works and readings.
Prop-maker Mittmann describes the early years of working with Castorf as “exhausting”. “It was madness at first. There was a premiere practically every month!” He was ordered to build a replica of London’s Globe theatre, a giant orca whale, an old-fashioned hot-air balloon, and a tank made entirely out of wood that had to be able to drive and fire rounds. For Castorf’s production of The Idiot, the audience was placed on a rotating platform on the stage and a fake city was built around them, including fully furnished apartment blocks, a supermarket, a brothel and a bar.
For a take on Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, Mittmann had to get a blacksmith to build medieval armour costumes. When he noticed during rehearsals that the actors were struggling to control their movements in their heavy outfits, he told the director: “Isn’t that a bit dangerous? What if they slide down into the orchestra pit?” Castorf replied that that was precisely what he liked about it. “He thought the risk of an accident made it more interesting. Things spinning out of control – that fascinates him.”
The Volksbühne workshop has been at the heart of the row between the senate and the theatre’s staff, who explicitly called for safeguarding its future in their open letter – yet it appears Dercon himself had already made its continued existence a condition of a signing a contract with the theatre in the first place. When Mittmann showed Dercon around the theatre, he described the workshop as “a factory that builds things you cannot buy”. “I think Dercon understood that. And I think he liked it.”