Berlin’s legendary theater, occupied by activists, turns into a “battlefield” of direct democracy

Chris Dercon, a new director of Berlin’s Volksbühne theater, located on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, has made headlines after he tried to force hundreds of activists out of the famous cultural institution, which they took over with the aim of turning it into a collectively run theater. The activists describe their actions as a protest against commercialization of art. “Mister Dercon accompanied by his playwright-policemen”, sneered the female protesters, scoffing at the recently appointed director, who after a week of negotiations decided to enlist the help of the police and force the activists out of the building.

A group calling itself “Dust to Glitter” (an analogy on the Prophet Isaiah’s phrase “They will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears”) had been holding negotiations with the theatre administration for nearly nine months, before they peacefully took over the building on September 22-nd (a day ahead of the parliament elections) and announced a plan to stage a “transmedial and mimetic theatrical production”, entitled “B 61-12”, a title referring to a nuclear bomb.

Activists and artists associated with “Dust for Glitter” said they had nothing against Chis Dercon as a person. They rally against the decision (made by Berlin’s cultural administration) to replace the longtime director Frank Castorf with Dercon. In their opinion this replacement will destroy the legacy of virtually the most unconventional theatre company in Germany.

Under Dercon, former chief of the Tate Modern in London who has experience in curating art, the theatre plans to host a series of international festivals. There are also plans to make cutbacks and place actors on short-term contracts. Many activists fear it will abolish the People’s Theater long-held traditions, established by Castorf. Dercon’s appointment as chief of the Volksbühne came as a shock to everyone. In theatre circles, the replacement didn’t go down smoothly, and is viewed by most as an inevitable commercialization of art and the theatre’s transformation into a festival hub for rich tourists.

According to Sarah Waterfeld, a writer and a spokeswoman for the occupying group, the political situation around the Volksbühne is a kind of metaphor for inequality, mirrored in Berlin. ‘’We all live in unsafe conditions. Artists, painters, directors and dancers are out of job, with hardly a financial leg to stand on. They become dependent on their parents and are forced to make ends meet. At times of privatization and commercialization, this takeover symbolizes a peaceful protest against gentrification. It is also an attempt to reclaim the theatre as a space for public assembly”.

“Nowadays, Berlin’s status is that of displacement, exclusion, destroying the sense of community and solidarity. This situation is mirrored in other European capitals. Over-the-top rent rises and unstable working conditions have led to existential fear, obedience and isolation. We must put an end to this”, reads the activists’ manifesto.

The protesters’ goal is to create a place where stage directors, artists, cinematographers, etc. would have equal opportunities, be able to implement their short-term and long-term art projects, and get proper funding. This takeover is also a unique example of direct democracy. There were no leaders or speakers among the activists, all decisions were made collectively at plenums. Such meetings usually attracted around two hundred people and, what’s even more introduced a fifty percent female quota, rather unheard of in typically hierarchical theater institutions. 

Техt: Elyzaveta Olijnyk
Фото: Oliver Feldhaus, Kantatak Kintjkun

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