Courage, despite everything
Jury’s report on the 2018 TheaterFestival
In a society that leaves us panting for breath, everything and everyone has to be top notch, top flight, top drawer, on top of the game. Education, chefs, sex, talent, migrants, refugees, the unemployed – they all have to be the best. Even at nursery school our children learn to exploit their talents. Better, higher, faster is the mantra, scaling up the ultimate dogma. Let’s do this! Everything is a competition. And so a new fault line runs through society, that of winners and losers, a yawning gap between those who have made it and those who have no choice but to go on trying.
The selection for the TheaterFestival is not a selection of top-notch shows. It is not the sum total of stars. It is not Michelin or Gault & Milliau. But neither is it a knockout competition or a popularity poll. It is not Come dine with me or the Eurovision Song Contest either. Neither is it a collection of the most popular shows, let alone the most hotly anticipated, the most hyped.
The selection we are presenting today with huge enthusiasm is the result of intense debate about the most interesting productions staged over a season. And good discussions are never without their difficulties; yes, they can sometimes be awkward: you must listen, you must put forward arguments, you must be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes before defending your own position with the same doggedness. So this selection is what it is, a selection that is the result of a discussion about content. And that discussion is about the productions themselves, about understanding the craft and the sense of adventure of the theatre-makers in question, about the relevance of their contribution, yes even about beauty, but also about the state of the theatre and dance scene, about its breadth and scope and about the social tensions to which it ought to relate, whether we like it or not.
Last year the jury saw 382 shows in Flanders and the Netherlands. To be considered for selection, a production must have been staged at least three times in the Dutch-speaking region, sometime between May 1st 2017 and May 1st 2018. Stand-up comedy, opera and musicals are not part of our brief, unlike dance which is integral, as are socially-engaged practice, youth theatre and circus.
They are always professional productions. So amateur theatre is not on our radar, even though we saw numerous productions made with great passion. This year we redoubled our efforts to follow Dutch productions more systematically. Almost 400 shows may sound like a lot, but that figure doesn’t even come close to the total number of performing arts productions made. In general, the number of performances of a particular production is shrinking; sometimes no more than five are programmed. As we realize year after year, distribution is still one of the biggest challenges facing us and an urgent solution is required.
Every member of the jury can nominate a play for the longlist. That nomination is an invitation to the other members of the jury to go and see the production in question. This year 54 productions found their way onto that longlist. During the course of the season, the jury met several times to discuss their experiences and in the process it was not unknown for them to cross swords about particular favourites. The longlist was whittled down during the final jury weekend and a shortlist drawn up.
The result of that exercise is not a compromise. A compromise involves looking for productions nobody has a problem with. So death in the pot. Our selection is achieved by consensus. A production is selected because it is defended through thick and thin by a significant number of members of the jury. So the shortlist is the result of fiery passion for theatre and dance, and for performing artists in general.
Consequently, some productions don’t (quite) make it, perhaps because they are divisive, even if they are fiercely defended (like JR by FC Bergman/Toneelhuis and Marx by Stefaan Van Brabandt and Johan Heldenbergh/Het Zuidelijk Toneel). In drawing up our shortlist we also tried to offer as broad a perspective as possible of the performing arts practice, from radical experimentation to generous accessibility, from in-situ installation to large auditorium and from participatory theatre to repertoire.
How to live together
Last season brought heated discussions, perhaps more often next to the stage than in the auditoria. There was #MeToo and there was the decolonization debate. Social issues filter through implacably to the arts sector. And that’s a good thing. The great diversity of languages and practices we are already accustomed to today will become even more diverse, more colourful, more contradictory and more heterogeneous. Moreover, the field is opening up: increasingly companies and institutions are joining forces, collectives are breaking out of their comfort zone and young creators are experimenting with new organizational models. Artists are increasingly relating to the social reality, sometimes even by quite literally staging that reality, for example by means of documentary research or experiments with form (as in Phobiarama, Dries Verhoeven’s haunted house).
‘Comment vivre ensemble?’ – How to live together – was the title of Roland Barthes’ first lecture at the Collège de France in 1977. And that question is still as urgent now as it was 40 or so years ago. We saw lots of productions which tackle directly or indirectly the question of what unites us today. After the postmodern fragmentation (anything goes), we want to understand what a ‘community’ can be today, beyond the homogenizing identity theory. Theatre, it seems, is looking for a new place in a society that has changed quite dramatically in the last few decades. Theatre is the epitome of community art, and yet that idea of community is far from obvious. What history do we (still) share? How do we rewrite that history? Which repertoire? And above all: for whom?
Numerous productions in this selection take up the challenge. For example, The Nation by the Dutch director Eric de Vroedt is an ambitious attempt to hold up a mirror to society and its challenges. In his show INVITED, choreographer Seppe Baeyens actively involves his public in creating a temporary community. In Ibsen Huis director Simon Stone literally builds a house on the stage, and dismantles the family as the bedrock of the community.
We need new communal stories, but at the same time we should not shy away from the conflicts and contradictions they bring. Those looking for the communal must dare to question the community itself. And so we must dare to talk about we/they, in/out, have/have-not, West/East, etc. That’s what Action Zoo Humain does in Amnes(t)ie by linking the current problem of the Syria fighters to one of the blackest chapters in Belgian history: collaboration. But Common Ground by Platform-K and Benjamin Vandewalle also puts direct opposites on the agenda, in this case by giving total equality to different forms of physicality.
Trends, however, are only what they are: lines we begin to see after the events. And so for every trend there is an anomaly, such as the intangible children’s show De onzichtbare man (The Invisible Man) by Jetse Batelaan. And 21 pornographies by Mette Ingvartsen, an unsettling analysis of pornographic imagery which explores the border between lewdness and violence. Some productions are so specific that they go beyond trends, like CONVERSATIONS (at the end of the world), in which Kris Verdonck uses stunning visuals to try and get a handle on the absurdity of our existence, but also BRONKS’ Geef mijn hand terug (Give back my hand), a poignant gem about deterioration and friendship.
A selection is people work, the sum total of individual, often conflicting frames of reference. Every production in this selection should be seen by as many people as possible. At least, we think so. Because together these productions are representative of all the other exciting things made in Flanders, Brussels and the Netherlands last season. And because ideally we would have liked to tack on another fifteen. So the TheaterFestival is not primarily a ‘best of’, a showcase, but a fiery defence of the multi-layered, diverse performing arts practice itself. It is an invitation to everyone, spectators, artists, policy-makers, young and old, green and blue, to go (on) exploring.
In True or False – Common Sense and Heresy for the Actor, a brilliant text about acting, the playwright and author David Mamet wrote that the greatest talent of an actor (m/f/x) is not his virtuosity, but his bravery. An actor doesn’t always know what he is doing; sometimes he feels like a fraud. And yet he knows he has to go on stage, he knows he has to perform despite everything, despite a lack of preparation, despite uncertainty and doubt. And that means summoning up courage time after time. This selection is an ode to that courage. Courage has nothing to do with being top notch, or on top of your game. It is the essence of life, and it is called theatre.
Evelyne Coussens, Charlotte De Somviele, Johan Thielemans, Pieter T’Jonck, Mia Vaerman, Simon van den Berg, Karel Vanhaesebrouck and Herien Wensink.
Antwerp, May 31st 2018