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In Berlin, an Iconic Theater Gets a New Leader. Cue the Protests.

“Dercon definitely doesn’t doesn’t know anything about theater,” said Jürgen Kuttner, a director and performer who has been involved with the Volksbühne for 20 years.

The reaction grew more intense after Mr. Dercon suggested that he would refocus the theater as an interdisciplinary space hosting international productions, which many saw as undermining the theater’s ensemble tradition. In the summer of 2016, about 200 people affiliated with the Volksbühne signed an open letter warning of “the destruction of originality and obstinacy, which has gained the Volksbühne an international reputation and worldwide recognition.” Another open letter in support of Mr. Dercon appeared a few weeks later, signed by many prominent figures in the art world.

Since then, the ongoing conflict has become favorite fodder for Berlin newspapers. Mr. Dercon and his team’s access to the Volksbühne building was restricted. At Mr. Castorf’s request, the “robber wheel,” a statue that stood on the lawn in front of the theater and which had become an icon of Berlin as well as of the Volksbühne, was removed. (Mr. Castorf did not respond to a request for comment.) An online petition arguing that officials should reopen the debate about the future of the Volksbühne has gathered over 40,000 signatures since July. Over two weeks this summer, feces were left anonymously in front of Mr. Dercon’s office.


The “robber wheel,” statue, which stood on the lawn in front of the Volksbühne, was removed in June.

Jens Kalaene/Picture-Alliance, via Associated Press

“That was the limit,” said Mr. Dercon of the feces incident. The 59-year old was sitting on a structure built by the Burkina Faso-born architect Francis Kéré inside Tempelhof’s hangar space. “It is about more than me or the theater. There is the rage and the anger in this country, in Europe,” he said. “People are angry about change — they are angry about what is going to change, how it is going to change.”

As Mr. Dercon pointed out, the Volksbühne has become a symbol for the city’s ongoing debate about its future amid rapid gentrification. After decades of gritty poverty, Berlin’s economy has become one of the fastest-growing in Germany. In many parts of the city, apartment prices have soared, and the city is facing a widespread housing shortage.

“The Volksbühne is a symbol of the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” said Amelie Deuflhard, the director of Kampnagel, a performing arts venue in Hamburg, who has been closely following the debate. “There were all of these spaces that were empty, they cost almost nothing. You could open a gallery anywhere. All that has gone.” Mr. Castorf’s Volksbühne, she pointed out, embodied the period’s scrappy aesthetic and often grappled with the ideological questions raised by the collapse of Communism.

Others see the change as a threat to the German theatrical tradition in which subsidized local theaters produce new work with a core staff, while others view it as an attempt to make the theater more palatable to tourists. According to the office for statistics for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, the number of annual visitors to Berlin has almost doubled in the past decade, to nearly 13 million. “A Castorf play that lasts seven hours is a challenge and imposition, it is not the kind of thing that will entertain Czech bus tourists,” said Mr. Kuttner.


“Fous de Dance” marked the start of Chris Dercon’s tenure as the director of the Volksbühne, one of the most influential theaters in the German-speaking world.

Barbara Braun, Volksbühne Theater

Supporters of Mr. Dercon have accused his opponents of conservatism and xenophobia. Unlike the Berlin-born Mr. Castorf, Mr. Dercon is Belgian and has spent much of his life in New York and London. On the Volksbühne’s Facebook page, one commenter compared opponents of Mr. Dercon to the “angry citizens” who take part in anti-immigrant rallies in the eastern German city of Dresden.

Mr. Dercon says he consciously put together a program that includes international artists, with works by the Syrian playwright Mohammad al-Attar and the British-German artist Tino Sehgal, as well as a project involving the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as a way of marking the city’s increasingly global culture. “If there is a city where the most and the best international artists are living, it’s Berlin,” he said.

The event on Sunday was billed as an “invitation to a city, to perform itself,” and included performances by the famed choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who performed a looping solo as the sun set over the building. At one point, the audience formed a “giant soul train”; more than a hundred people, including many children, enthusiastically shimmied their way across the tarmac to blaring funk music.

Now, Mr. Dercon hopes that he can put the controversy behind him. In a hopeful sign, the local media gave a cautiously warm reception to “Fous de Dance,” with the Tagesspiegel newspaper arguing that it showed “Dercon is not afraid of big dimensions.”

The next big step will take place on Sept. 30, when Mr. Dercon’s Volksbühne will present its first play, “Iphigenia,” by Mr. Attar in the hangar at Tempelhof. For a long time it was unclear if the theater would be allowed to use the space given the needs for refugee housing. Mr. Dercon pointed to a row of abandoned signs for the residents. “I feel almost like a refugee,” he said. “I got my permit to stay.”

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