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The curtain falls on the occupation of Berlin’s historic Volksbühne

" It means stage of the people and that’s what it is supposed to be. It has never really been that.”

lead Luis Eckenberger plays his saxophone on the lawn outside Volksbühne in Berlin hours after police ended a six day occupation of the theatre. Monisha Caroline Martins. All rights reserved.Sitting perched on the edge of the lawn in front of the Volksbühne, Luis Eckenburg played a jazzy serenade on his saxophone as a crowd of 100 people milled around behind him.

Their six-day occupation of the historic east Berlin theatre had been brought to an abrupt end by police hours earlier.

“They took this dead theatre, they made it alive again,” said Daniel Sekanina, a street artist, as he cavorted shirtless on the lawn making huge soap bubbles. He did not want to leave.

On Friday, Sept. 22, the collective Dust to Glitter claimed the Volksbühne building for the people. They took over every space, staging a 60-hour long dance party, film screenings, writers’ workshops, concerts and debates.

The peaceful sit-in gave Berlin’s artistic and anti-gentrification community a glimpse of what the Volksbühne could be.

Although hundreds streamed in through during the occupation, the theatre was left unscathed; save for two small graffiti tags and a tiny chip in the flooring.

“We will talk. We will talk for months,” said spokesperson Sarah Waterfeld on Tuesday. She was thoroughly optimistic and dismissed the suggestion that the police might shut it down.

“This is so beautiful what’s happening here,” said Waterfeld, a novelist and mother of two.

The activists wanted the theatre to be operated by a collective, with a two year-interim council put in place to work out exactly what that would look like.

In their initial statement, they lamented the changing face of Berlin whose vibrant art scene is being threatened by rising rents and the closure of cultural spaces. They planned to occupy the building for three months, staging performances for free.

“We really fear the future,” said Waterfeld. 

An acrimonious start

Plans to take over the building first surfaced nine months ago as fears heightened that the fabled theatre was headed towards a wholly commercial fate under the helm of new artistic director Chris Dercon.

Founded in 1890 with a mission to bring art to the working classes, the Volkbühne am Rosa-Luxembourg Platz has mostly stayed true to its scrappy socialist aesthetic. It is highly subsidized by the city and operates with a core staff.

Former artistic director Frank Castorf is credited for bringing the theatre international renown by staging experimental, controversial and protracted productions, which could last seven hours.

With relatively little theatre experience, Dercon’s appointment as his successor had been controversial from the start. Dercon suggested he wanted to refocus the theatre’s direction by bringing in more international, interdisciplinary acts. This year’s diverse playbill reflects that. The season kicks off in November with a work by Syrian playwright Mohammad al-Attar. It also features an evening of one-act plays by Samuel Beckett and performances by Berlin-based artist Tino Seghal, as well as the premier of Susanne Kennedy’s episodic drama Women in Trouble.

In 2015, just months after Dercon’s nomination, theatre staff penned an open letter decrying the change in direction. They viewed Dercon’s appointment as “an irreversible turning point” and a further break from the theatre’s storied history. Dercon also received letters of support from prominent figures in the art world but he failed to calm the brewing mistrust. As months went on and he officially took over this year, the debate became more acrimonious. A petition with more than 40,000 signatures asking officials to reopen the discussions about the future of the Volksbühne was ignored.

Dercon and his staff were barred from entering the building at one point. For two weeks this summer, piles of faeces were dumped outside his office door. Many in Berlin’s artistic community saw Castorf’s departure as an opportunity to reclaim the space. This belief and what they viewed as a lack of engagement from those in-charge culminated in the occupation of Volksbühne on Sept. 22.

“There are a lot of unspoken issues in this city and theatre should be a place where this stuff becomes visible so you can address it,” says dramaturg Dietrich Töllner. He characterized the occupation as six “very inspiring days”. It wasn’t about removing Dercon but rather a progressive process toward the opening up of the theatre. “It’s about the current meaning of Volksbühne. It means stage of the people and that’s what it is supposed to be. It has never really been that.”

Whilst inside, the collective staged an artistic but “true-to-the-original reconstruction” of the atomic bomb “B61-12.” A symbolic explosion of the theatre’s current status. They invited artists, activities, theatre staff, pensioners, musicians, DJs and rebels to share and discuss ideas.

On Tuesday, Dercon offered the protestors the use of theatre’s Grüner Salon and Volksbühnen-Pavillion so rehearsals for the new season could begin in other areas. But negotiating through consensus and chaotic plenaries takes time so Dercon’s offer was never discussed. Other concerns such as those of the theatre staff took centre stage. The occupiers didn’t take stock of the fact that it was perhaps more pertinent to respond to Dercon.

He got tired of waiting, said Töllner.

“If we had reacted sooner, it could have been different.”

Volksbühne interior: the bar, 2016.

On Thursday, Berlin police sent 200 officers to clear the building. Of the 50 protestors who were inside when police arrived, most left voluntarily. Only 21 had to be accompanied out.

In a statement, Dercon said asking police to intervene was a difficult decision. He added that the squatters had rejected his offer as well as that of the Senate to use another performance space.

“We could not find a common path.”

Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s senator for cultural policy, expressed support for the underlying concerns of the activists but criticized their methods.“The Volksbühne was and is a public cultural institution, which belongs to all Berliners alike,” Lederer said. “It can continue to be a place for urban and social discourse. However, this must not be carried out in a manner seen by the employees of the house as an unfriendly act, if not as a hostile takeover.”

Outside the Volksbühne Berlin 2016.

The curtain falls

On Thursday as the people who were tossed out of the theatre regrouped on the lawn for a plenary, there appeared to be a prevailing consensus. Everyone still wanted to talk.

Töllner even believes Dercon can redeem himself in the eyes of the artists and activists. Just a few years ago, Dercon was on a jury that awarded the Teatro Valle Occupato, a European Cultural Foundation award. The theatre in Rome had been occupied for a similar reason.

Calling the police was a no-go and he should fix it, Töllner said.

“This was about pushing people out and building a fence. That’s the opposite of what a person who is leading a theatre should be doing,” he added:

“If he finds a way to make peace with everybody here, and also include them in the creative process, he would be such a winner. He would be victorious.”

UPDATE:

On Saturday, the group behind the Volkbühne occupation announced it was dissolving.

“It retreats into clandestinity, back to the contradictions, the unspectacular edges and crannies of this city. No glitter, but the sadness of grey, everyday life, not the theatre,” the group said in a statement.

About the author

Monisha Caroline Martins is a Canadian freelance journalist, currently based in Berlin.

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