A modified version of the notorious logo of «Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz» on a flag outside a house oppsite of the Volksbühne | Photo: Norbert Bayer
Linguistic, Performative

Volksbühne in Berlin: No consensus – but bonus material galore

After 25 years director Frank Castorf has to stop working at Berlin theatre «Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz» — more than a pardigm shift, but a warning to all of us and especially our politicians

Frank Castorf had to leave the Berlin theatre «Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz» as head of directors in the summer of 2017 after 25 years of successfully changing the aesthetics of postmodern theatre — and he and his team of directors and actors left after a fulminating season. For example Castorf himself directed a seven our long version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s «Faust», were he integrated also questions of colonialism and Paul Celans «Todesfuge» among several other debates and sources.

Frank Castorf (* 1951 in Ost-Berlin) of Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz applaudes to his team to make it come back on stage after the last performance of his adaption of «Baumeister Sollness» by Henrik Ibsen, 1st of July 2017. | Photo: Norbert Bayer

Frank Castorf (* 1951 in Ost-Berlin) of Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz applaudes to his team to make it come back on stage after the last performance of his adaption of «Baumeister Sollness» by Henrik Ibsen, 1st of July 2017. | Photo: Norbert Bayer

On the photo above he stands under a flag with the so-called «Räuberrad» created by Bert Neumann (1960–2015) for the drama «Die Räuber» by Friedrich Schiller in 1992 which later turned into a logo for Volksbühne. It also stood as a sculpture in front of the theatre since end of June 2017, before it was taken away to make clear that the times there will have definitely changed when the new director will start working. The sculpture was taken on tour to the theatre festival in Avignon where the company played its very last shows early July 2017. It is planed to bring it back and then it has to be decided where it will be displayed. ⠀

A few days before the take-down of the sculpture Frank Castorf had removed the famous «OST»-sign from the roof of the building. This was designed for a performance of Bertolt Brechts «Der gute Mensch von Sezuan» by Bert Neumann in March 1994 and in the adaption of Andreas Kriegenburg it was the logo of a cigarette brand, designed as an oppisite to the brand «West».

The first attempt to remove the statue of the logo «Räuberrad» by Bert Neumann took place on 28th of June 2017. | Photo: Norbert Bayer

The first attempt to remove the statue of the logo «Räuberrad» by Bert Neumann took place on 28th of June 2017. | Photo: Norbert Bayer

The whole discussion as it was evolving in the summer 2017 about the Volksbühne and the change of direction and with it the take-down of the classic ensemble-based theatre model for which foreign theatre-directors are envying directors working in Germany also signifies that theatre in general — not only as a place and a meeting point hasn’t come to an end, but can still engange in discussions and nurture the will to deal with the problems of our time, at least at theatres with a style like Volksbühne — and maybe even only there.

For example the Volksbühne was one of the hubs of transformation after the Berlin Wall had fallen and even long before that: ⠀
Actors and staff of Volksbühne has filed the petition for the big demonstration at Alexanderplatz at 4th of November 1989 when the whole place was filled with people who wanted to protest for a change of the policical system and for freedom. ⠀
Volksbühne set a signal when it played Alfred Döblins «Berlin Alexanderplatz» in the half demolished Palast der Republik, which was turned down to rebuilt the Berlin city castle.
Volksbühne also put the name of the place into their official name to avoid that the place where it’s located is renamed to somebody else then Rosa Luxemburg in the times after the Berlin Wall came down when a lot of people wanted to get rid of the cultural heritage of the GDR and to wipe out a lot of acchievements. ⠀
From the next season on it will be renamed again and officially be called «Volksbühne Berlin»…

The way Frank Castorf has to leave Volksbühne is a lecture about the relation of politics and art as concepts, and politicians and artists as personalities. ⠀
A very bitter one. ⠀
Especially as it was built with the money of the poor working class that wanted to have its own theatre that they could afford to go to and not beeing excluded any longer from cultural input through the bourgeoise theatres.  The whole change we have to deal with now came from a choice by social democratic politicians who were not overlooking the damage they inflict on an cultural institution with a long tradition and history through their short-sighted decisions.
The discussion as it is going on now also touches significantly the questions how we want to work and live together in our society: ⠀
Ether in an appreciating way working together as a team committed to create results that deal with the questions of our times like the Volksbühne did it. And with the will to say yes to employees and stick with them. Is is the only theatre in Berlin not having outsourced their technical crew and it saw itself as a team in a whole from the doorman to the actors, at least in the last 25 years under the direction of Frank Castorf. ⠀
Or to have short-term and meaningless work and relationship engangements instead and to deal with all the consequence deriving from it. ⠀

It’s more than the change of direction at a cultural institution — it’s symbolic for our time, that’s why it can be seen as a pradigm shift and it should make alarm bells start ringing in everybody’s head.

In René Pollesch’s «Dark Star» at Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz Trystan Pütter surfs through the air to the music of Beach Boys while Martin Wuttke is watching from his space capsule. | Photo: Norbert Bayer

In René Pollesch’s «Dark Star» at Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz Trystan Pütter surfs through the air to the music of Beach Boys while Martin Wuttke is watching from his space capsule. | Photo: Norbert Bayer

Actors gently caressing the black strings covering the walls and sometimes the stage — this is the gesture which signifies the love and appreciation the actors and the visitors have for Volksbühne. The decoration by Bert Neumann covers not only the stage, but also the auditiorium — so the borders are disappearing. ⠀
René Pollesch has integrated this gesture into every of his plays which were performed this last season, closing with a new trilogy written by him. ⠀
The third part was called «Dark Star» and it combined the science fiction classic film with a fireworks of theory, in the typical style of René Pollesch. ⠀
In it one character raised the question «Wo geht ihr denn jetzt hin?» — meaning: Where are you going now, when we won’t be playing any longer at this place for you? ⠀
Which is a question especially hard to answer after this last season at a very high level where everybody at Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz gave their best — and more of that, going on stage with physical injuries and emotional wounds. ⠀
Especially when everybody knows that their creative output could have gone on for longer. Or as it was put at the end of «Baumeister Solness»:

«But we still have so much bonus material!»⠀

Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz the first night after the neon-sign «OST» was taken down from the rooftop in the night from 24th to 25th of June 2017 | Photo: Norbert Bayer

Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz the first night after the neon-sign «OST» was taken down from the rooftop in the night from 24th to 25th of June 2017 | Photo: Norbert Bayer

A lot has been written about the Volksbühne in the last weeks (and I’m sure there will be lots of it to come), about its history and what it represents. To get an overview I warmly suggest you to read the personal memories by Annett Gröschner on ZEIT ONLINE about her time at Volksbühne, the feature about the backgrounds of the change of direction at the Volksbühne by Rüdiger Suchsland on Telepolis and a big personal feature about the general mood in the city of Berlin nowadays by Alexander Osang in Berliner Zeitung.

There’s English features on Deutsche Welle and elsewhere also — get yourself informed what’s happening, because your city and its cultural institutions could be next!


Preview image: A modified version of the notorious logo of «Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz» on a flag outside a house opposite of the theatre | Photo: Norbert Bayer

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