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René Pollesch Aims for a ‘Safe Space’ at the Volksbühne in Berlin

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.

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