Activists Occupy Volksbühne Theater in Berlin as Conflict Widens

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Activists draped a banner reading “Doch Kunst,” or “Art After All,” outside the Volksbühne theater in Berlin after they occupied the building.

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Clemens Bilan/European Pressphoto Agency

The drama surrounding Berlin’s iconic Volksbühne theater took another surprising turn on Friday afternoon when a group of left-wing activists moved into the building and proclaimed they were occupying the institution with the aim of turning it into a collectively run theater. The Volksbühne had become a flash point for a tense debate about the city’s future, fueled by concerns about gentrification and globalization, ever since the announcement two years ago that the theater’s longtime director, Frank Castorf, was to be ousted and replaced with Chris Dercon, the former director of the Tate Modern in London.

According to Sarah Waterfeld, a spokeswoman for the occupying group, the takeover had been planned for several months and was carried out with the approval of a large portion of the Volksbühne’s staff. In an online statement, the collective described their goal as the “reclamation of public space in a decade of privatization and commercialization” and invited artists working with the new director to collaborate with them. Mr. Dercon, it stated, was welcome to continue his work at a stage his team had already built at the city’s disused Tempelhof airport.

Established in 1890 as a theater for the working class, the Volksbühne had become internationally renowned under Mr. Castorf for its ambitious, politically inflected productions, and Mr. Dercon’s appointment by Berlin officials was seen by many as a rejection of the theater’s left-wing, experimental pedigree. The Belgian-born Mr. Dercon, a powerful figure in the art world with relatively little experience in theater, planned to turn the site into a venue focusing largely on international productions.

The feud between supporters of Mr. Castorf and the new leadership had become especially heated in recent months, as the official debut of Mr. Dercon’s tenure approached. Over 40,000 people signed an online petition to reopen the debate about the theater’s future, and for two weeks this summer, feces were deposited in front of Mr. Dercon’s office door. His directorship officially kicked off two weeks ago with a 10-hour dance event at…

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