An escalating row over the future of Berlin’s most iconic theatre

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“DOCH KUNST”, or “Art after all”, read the blue banner tagged to the façade of the Volksbühne, a theatre in central Berlin. It was put up by a group of left-wing activists who occupied the building in late September. They want the theatre to be managed by a “collective”. The stunt was part of a wider protest against cultural policies which the occupiers believe favour “mass tourism” and gentrification at the expense of local artists and poorer residents.

The occupation (or “transmedia theatre performance”, as the activists call it) was the latest act in a drama over Berlin’s cultural politics that has dragged on for over two years. At the centre of the row is Chris Dercon, a Belgian manager who ran London’s Tate Modern museum before taking over as artistic director of the Volksbühne (“people’s stage”) this season. The appointment, announced in the spring of 2015, ousted Frank Castorf, a famous East German director who had led the theatre to international renown with politically charged productions—and generous state subsidies.

Many in Berlin’s cultural establishment worry that Mr Dercon, who has little experience of theatre, will ruin the Volksbühne’s avant-garde credentials by putting on a bland, crowd-pleasing programme of international productions. Others regard his appointment as a breath of fresh air in a place that had become set in its ways. “When it comes to theatre, Berlin is a divided city these days,” wrote Hubert Spiegel, a culture editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For each theatre fan who wants to give Mr Dercon’s globalist approach a chance, there are several who mourn the old ways. The Volksbühne has taken on a symbolic role in a wider debate over the relationship between art, globalisation and the future of the city.

There is no sign that things will get less dramatic. After talks failed—the activists were offered rooms for debates and performances—the occupiers were kicked out by the police. The actors have returned to rehearsals. The activists have moved to the square outside, named after Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist heroine. There they host talks and performances, and vow to continue their fight. Over 40,000 people have signed a petition asking Berlin’s mayor to renegotiate the theatre’s future. The next act has begun.