28 Nov 2023
Thu 03 Sep 2020
For this year’s State of the Union, Gorges Ocloo breaks with tradition and shares the stage with the whole arts sector, including testimonies from the cleaning ladies to actors, directors, technicians, and everyone in between. ‘The balance between the administrative part and the artists isn’t right.’
Gorges Ocloo is struggling to find the right words. Taking a break from preparing his unconventional State of the Union, the Ghanaian/Belgian director starts a sentence, swears and gesticulates passionately, moves on to another thought, before looping back to find what he’s really trying to say. He’s frustrated but on the bright side ‘I’m alive’ he jokes. Covid-19 has been an obvious crisis for the arts but also a rare time to stop and reflect: ‘Because we just work work work. There’s no time to even think! Was it a good or bad show? No one gives a damn! So long as we keep producing, it’s ok. What are we doing?’
Ocloo was asked to do the State of the Union after a meeting between artistic and executive directors, representing not only DE MAAN in Mechelen where he is co-artistic director but also the countless freelancers who have little to no voice. ‘I asked two questions: are the emergency funds meant for the freelancers? And everyone says ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah of course’. The second question I asked: is there solidarity? And it was quiet for two or three seconds. I said ‘For example, Toneelhuis can’t play to their older audience but FroeFroe can. It would be perfect. All the children can come.’ And the reply was ‘Oh but it’s very costly to rent the space.’ I’m not talking about rent I’m talking about sharing the space, it could mean a lot for Antwerp if these two could join together…. Silence. And that really hurt me because there is no solidarity. When it came out that the emergency funds were for organisations I was really pissed. We should stop with the slogan ‘Kunst is solidair’. That’s bullshit.’
However, he’s quick to note: ‘There’s a lot of solidarity horizontally, between actors and directors and technicians, the working bees. But vertically there’s nothing. People who work in the office have no idea how the artist lives.’ It’s clear why he was invited to speak but he was hesitant nonetheless: ‘As artists we have a problem, we’ve closed ourselves off, it’s very elitist, we have someone else to do this and this and now it’s shifted so much that it’s a problem. Artists are taught to just work, we’re not taught to think about money and systems, we’re ‘just artists’. But that way of thinking has to stop. I had a feeling that I’m not the only person with a lot of questions and that was true. My generation has been afraid for a very long time to speak out. We’ve lost control of our own industry.’
So is it time for a revolution in theatre? Well, revolutions tend to die as soon as they start, often ending up worse than before. In the process it divides more than it unites. ‘Of course some people won’t like it,’ admits Ocloo ‘but I hope this sector sees it as a chance to have an honest conversation, not to polarize. It seems as if every year we have a new problem like diversity – no no no we have so many problems in every part of it. It can’t all be changed today. I’m not saying the administration should leave, I’m saying the balance between the administrative part and the artists isn’t right. You can’t explain to someone outside the arts how it works. It’s not right.’
The gap between salaried and freelance workers has never been clearer, not only in Flanders but worldwide, and Ocloo’s righteous anger is infectious. There’s an overwhelming sense that he fundamentally, genuinely cares, almost too much by his own admission, and this transfers into his work not only as a freelance director but as co-artistic director of DE MAAN. He reels off story after story of standing up to accountants trying to cut costs at every turn, some of which he’s successfully fought and others where he’s had to concede. His decision to share the role of artistic director with fellow artists Greet Jacobs and Femke Stallaert seems significant, allowing him to make systemic changes whilst not hoarding power and control. Similar to his decision to include the voices of other artists and arts workers he interviewed for the State of the Union.
‘It’s really complex, there are some things you can change. For example, when someone gives a workshop the research has to be paid. We can’t pay for everything but we’ve installed that when someone does a workshop they have two or three extra days paid for the research. If someone makes a piece for two or three months then they get an extra two weeks paid for the research. Normally if you play two times a day you’re only paid for one performance – it’s absurd. There is the balance, a house can’t pay the full amount and survive. But now if you play twice they should at least try to pay not 200% but 175%. As we’re directors and performers we know the small things that we can change. Artists are the only ones who can change how we’re represented or our conditions.’
Care before capitalism
In amongst all the discussion about inequality, capitalism, and systemic change the topic shifts to another hot topic of Flemish theatre: decolonization. It increasingly sounds like to decolonize means to dismantle capitalism. ‘It’s slavery. Imagine a plumber comes and fixes it and you don’t pay him? But in the arts even people in the office don’t see an actor as a job. If I have to ask you to pay me that means you don’t care. You see it as a hobby. So imagine someone who has nothing to do with art – my father when I was studying, asked what do they teach you at school? I told him we learn how to be prostitutes and how to beg. And he got that. And it was a joke but it is like that. You have no social security but the pimps are fine. If you want to see the best place that capitalism takes place it’s the arts. And we don’t realize that. We deny that.’
Despite his anger and exhaustion with the status quo, Ocloo remains open and empathetic. Theatre’s value is in its social role, encouraging empathy in actors and audiences alike, so let’s put that into practice in theatre’s internal structures. The way to deal with dehumanizing capitalism isn’t to vilify and resort to in-fighting but to listen. With the State of the Union ‘I want to create a meeting that never happened but we wish took place. I hope all the voices will be heard and every person in the room sees the other functions differently, that a director sees a musician, a technician sees a director. I believe that way with that point of view we can change things. So we know what everyone needs. If you don’t know it you can’t change it. It’s very simple really, we need to know how the other feels.’
A return to empathy, to feeling more, as a way out of this current mess. That definitely sounds like a job for artists.