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‘More Democratic, and Less Toxic’: Turning a Troubled Theater Around

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BERLIN — This fall, a new era at the Volksbühne theater got off to a curiously muted start. René Pollesch, the theater’s new artistic director, did not deliver a splashy opening salvo or unveil his first season with a flourish. Instead, four actors parlayed the writer-director’s signature banter in the cumbersomely titled “The Rise and Fall of a Curtain and Its Life In Between.” If the low-key chamber piece seemed typical of Pollesch’s work, it was also hardly earth-shattering.

Then again, considering all of the recent turbulence at the Volksbühne, maybe a little restraint isn’t such a bad thing.

Ever since the storied Berlin theater’s longtime artistic director Frank Castorf was fired in 2017, the Volksbühne has sailed on choppy waters. Castorf had run the playhouse since 1992 and had doggedly kept the theater’s East German spirit alive in the newly reunified Berlin: His leadership style was iron fisted, but he transformed the Volksbühne into one of the most exciting and influential forces in European theater, and he built a cult following for his own punishingly long reworkings of the classics from a Marxist perspective.

From Castorf, the torch passed to Chris Dercon, a Belgian who was previously the director of Tate Modern in London, and who planned to turn the Volksbühne into a showcase for visiting performers from around the world.

The regime change didn’t go as planned. For many in Berlin, the replacement of a provocateur from the former East Germany with a slick international transplant was an all-too-potent symbol of a city that was losing its edge. Protesters briefly occupied the theater and, after a series of increasingly hostile episodes — including one in which feces were left in front of the artistic director’s office — Dercon quit, only a few months into the job.

In 2019, Dercon was succeeded by Klaus Dörr, a veteran theater administrator who was supposed to stabilize the Volksbühne until a permanent artistic director took the reins. But this March, Dörr abruptly resigned after 10 of the Volksbühne’s female staff members accused him of sexual harassment and creating a hostile workplace.

Pollesch said the Volksbühne’s spirit came from “the way people interact with each other here, how the entire staff is involved in what’s happening onstage.”Credit…Thomas Aurin

It was against this stormy backdrop that Pollesch, 59, arrived this summer to lead the house. All of the theater’s hopes for a return to its former vibrancy have been pinned on Pollesch, a veteran of Castorf’s Volksbühne who is considered one of Germany’s most distinctive theatrical auteurs, and whose start here is both a homecoming and a new beginning.

In an interview at the theater, Pollesch spoke lovingly of the “spirit of the old Volksbühne” that he had felt since he saw his first play at there at 17. “It’s the way people interact with each other here, how the entire staff is involved in what’s happening onstage,” he said.

But he was also quick to dispel the hope, or the fear, that he was a Trojan horse for reinstating the theater’s old guard.

“We are not Castorf,” he said. “Castorf ran the theater very differently than we do.”

By “we,” Pollesch means himself and a team of actors and theater professionals that he has assembled as an advisory committee. It’s a cooperative model that is rare in the German theater world — and unique for a theater the size of the Volksbühne, which has a large staff and a full-time acting ensemble.

Pollesch described how the members of the committee helped him plan his inaugural season: The actor Martin Wuttke, a regular collaborator who is best known for portraying Hitler in the film “Inglourious Basterds,” recommended the Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo; the actress Lilith Stangenberg proposed the Filipino experimental filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz. The Volksbühne will premiere works by both directors early next year, Pollesch said.

With the young French director Julien Gosselin and the Argentine choreographer Constanza Macras also working at the house this season, the Volksbühne’s globe-trotting lineup looks like it could have sprung from one of Dercon’s unrealized seasons. But that program was not the result of any agenda to make the house more international, Pollesch said. It emerged organically from his discussions with the advisory board.

That collective approach also mirrors the way the director develops his own quirky plays through intense collaboration with a small group of artists he knows and trusts. A typical Pollesch show is characterized by fluent, chatty dialogue that combines the silly with the philosophical, and by high-energy performances from a group of charismatic actors. Pollesch devises the text of his plays, as well as the staging, for specific performers, whose creative input during the rehearsal process effectively make them co-authors.

From left: Franz Beil, Astrid Meyerfeldt, Inga Busch and Christine Gross in “Mr. Puntila and the Giant Thing in Mitte,” a show by Pollesch.Credit…Luna Zscharnt

“Often, he sets out with nothing more than a theme, a title,” Wolf-Dieter Ernst, a professor of theater studies at the University of Bayreuth, said in an email.He added that performers loved working with Pollesch because his method created a “a kind of safe space for exhausted actors and actresses.” By applying a similar approach to running the Volksbühne, Pollesch was trying to “run a theater in a more democratic, and less toxic, way,” Ernst said.

Pollesch, who was born in Friedberg, a small city outside Frankfurt, studied theater at the nearby University of Giessen. In the 1980s, that school was considered the theoretical cradle of “postdramatic theater,” a self-reflexive and deconstructive approach to writing and directing for the stage. Inspired by the theories of Bertolt Brecht and by postmodern artists like the director Robert Wilson, the playwright Heiner Müller and the performing ensemble the Wooster Group, postdramatic theater is less concerned with plot or textual fidelity than with exploring — and exploding — the relationship between a stage presentation and its audience.

Postdramatic theater is often dense, difficult and theoretical, yet Pollesch’s work is anything but. The lack of narrative or conventional characters may confound expectations about what theater is, but his plays rarely feel obtuse or obscure. In fact, they’re surprisingly fun and punchy — and rarely exceed 90 minutes.

In Pollesch’s first stint at the Volksbühne, he ran its smaller, off-site venue, the Prater, from 2001 to 2007. He also staged shows on the main stage, where his work contrasted sharply with productions by Castorf, whose dark, demanding shows could last up to 12 hours.

Since Castorf’s ouster, Pollesch has been a fixture at another storied Berlin playhouse, the Deutsches Theater, and has also worked on main stages in Zurich and in Hamburg, Germany. Last year, Berlin critics and audiences went gaga for a Pollesch show unexpectedly staged at the Friedrichstadt-Palast, a 2,000-seat revue theater.

Yet the director’s inaugural work for the Volksbühne has met with a different response.

“Rise and Fall of a Curtain” hardly amounted to the grand statement of purpose that many expected. If it was unmistakably Pollesch, it also felt slight, as if the director was up to his old tricks at a time when he was expected to wow everyone with a bold new vision. The critical consensus was that the auteur was writing tired backstage chatter for an audience of his own groupies.

Margarita Breitkreiz in “The Rise and Fall of a Curtain and Its Life In Between.”Credit…Christian Thiel

“Instead of timpani and trumpets and manifestoes to usher in a new start, we get a display of cluelessness,” wrote Peter Laudenbach, a theater critic, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Reviewing “Mr. Puntila and the Giant Thing in Mitte,” the house’s third new Pollesch production in three months, Laudenbach concluded that it added to the “disappointing picture that the Volksbühne under Pollesch has offered so far.”

The director’s flexible and collaborative approach to programming, and the fact that the theater is tight-lipped about its plans, make it difficult to say what the future of the Volksbühne under Pollesch may look like. The director is much clearer about what not to expect. The old Volksbühne’s classic productions won’t be coming back, he said, recalling the disappointment he once felt after seeing a decade-old revival at the theater during the Castorf era.

“It had nothing to do with now,” he said. “You can watch movies that were made in a different era,” he added. “Theater ages insanely fast.”

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