23 feb 2024
za 02 sep 2017
I am happy to be here with you and to have been invited to address the first State of the Other speech at the TheaterFestival. It feels good to be the Other. When I think about it, I have always felt good about being the other, the visitor, the foreigner, the traveller. I ended up transforming that “otherness” into an artistic practice without even acknowledging it at first. In most of the theatre pieces I have made, I think I have behaved like the other. Each piece has been an apprenticeship of a subject, a world that I ignored before. Joseph Brosky wrote that each poem encapsulates a whole world. I think that can go for theatre pieces as well.
In most works I have done, I’ve been the Other, visiting people and objects of a real or fictional world I was learning about: journalists and cameras, historians and archives, cooks and food, indigenous guerrilla fighters and the jungle, neurological patients and memory, writers and their language, characters and their stories. I am nourished by the idea that during the creation of a piece we are traveling through a subject as if it were a country or a continent. And later we present those pieces in order to travel with the audience.
Most times, the performance is a totally different trip than the original own. Because what drives me is not reproducing the original world I visited or making it so that it looks authentic. I don’t search the objectivity of journalism or documentary, even if those strategies are involved sometimes in the way I look at things.
Basically, I just search for worlds that I’m curious or passionate about enough so that I spend a part of my life learning about them and another part of my life performing about them. In between there is subjectivity, manipulation, fiction, creation. On stage, we transmit. And in the phenomena of transmission there is always what we forget and what we add to the original experience. That’s why transmission in itself is an original experience. The performance does not only encapsulate a world. It becomes a world, just like any poem can be a new world in itself. When I travel through Chekov, I don’t want to do a performance about Chekov – I want to do a performance about traveling in a world named Chekov. And doing so, performers and audience together, we invent a new, ephemeral and alternative world called Chekov that lasts only the duration of a performance and explodes at the sound of applause.
Being the Other also applies to the way I engage with the people I work with. I was brought up as an artist in a collaborative and collective way of working, aiming at the most democratic way possible to make theatre together. That education happened mostly here in Belgium, actually, collaborating with tg STAN since 1998 to this day. Colaborare, from the latin, working together (but it can also mean “feeling pain together” or “being tired together”) was always for me an exercise on empathy. Since I started working in theatre, 20 years ago now, I have asked myself how can I understand the people I am collaborating with, how can I share their vision of the world. It’s not about adapting to the aesthetics or politics of someone else, because a director tells you to or because you’re being paid to do it in a certain way. Not at all.
When I chose to do theatre as a living, one of my main motivations was the fact that I would not spend my life obeying orders. So, it’s not about cancelling my will or my own voice. I try to understand and adapt to others because I like singing in the choir. Sometimes I sing out of key, but still as part of the choir. I want to participate in the world, be with others, be tired and in pain and, if possible, happy with others.
When I started writing my own plays, about 10 years ago, I tried to continue to be the Other, as opposite to being the One, the author, the centre. So, I never really just write. I always write for someone. And more than writing for actors, dancers or performers, I try to write for Isabel, Pedro, Sofia, Vitor, Frank, Jolente. In Parallel Lives, Plutarch wrote that after Antony and Cleopatra, to love became the ability to experience the world through the sensibility of the other. Becoming the other while still being yourself. That’s what I look for, a romantic collaboration that is only possible if I am able to see through someone else’s eyes.
And hopefully that will make for performances where people are what we see first. People that encapsulate different aesthetics, forms, opinions and ideologies. Not always agreeing, but collaborating. People in the front line. And not a closed univocal form invented by an author, a director, a visionary that then needs to discipline a number of people to perform his dream. No. People in the front, agreeing or disagreeing, collaborating, always thinking about what it is to be the Other, always borrowing other worlds to invent their own with an audience. I live on borrowed worlds.
I believe I have been invited here mostly because I don’t belong here. So that I play the role of the Other, the one who comes from somewhere else and might tell you things about where he comes from and maybe look differently at what you look at everyday. I am Portuguese and I am based in Lisbon, it’s true. But I had to talk in vaguely poetic terms about the “otherness” I find in my artistic practice, so that our starting point wouldn’t be geographical. You see, as a choice for the role of The Other, I am not that exotic or distant from Belgium. You’re also not that exotic to me. As I told you, I worked a lot in Belgium, with tg STAN for the last 19 years. I have thought at PARTS, here in Brussels, for almost a decade. I have worked with Dood Paard, in Amsterdam. I have been presenting my work in Belgium, mostly at the Kaaitheater or at Kunstenfestivaldesarts. One of my favourite restaurants is just around the corner, Den Boer, at Saint Kathleen. I am going there tonight. Actually, going to Den Boer was half the reason why I accepted the invitation from Theater Festival to be here today.
That’s why I wanted to find alternative reasons to the geographical ones in order to be the Other today. And my brief experience has also taught me that I probably have more in common with an artist that lives in Beirut than with a fellow Portuguese artist that lives in the same street I do in Lisbon. Of course the place where I come from plays a role in this speech, but I believe the quality of “otherness” is in fact a common link and not a difference between us in this room. Because we are homologous. Like when a President of a country visits another country, he meets his homologous, the President of that country.
I think you are the Belgian Others. So, we are homologous. And it’s great to be in a room full of Others.
Actually, spending time in rooms full of Others has recently became one of the central activities in my life. Two and a half years ago I accepted the invitation of the Portuguese Government to be the artistic director of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, Lisbon’s national theatre. For the first time, instead of being the nomad, the visitor, the traveller, I became the host, the one that helps building the tent and warms up the tea and invites the tired traveller to sit for a while. And of course I dedicated myself to searching for the “otherness” in this new job.
I believe that not only the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, but any national theatre, any public theatre actually, should be a building for the impossible. A national theatre is one of the tools within the reach of a people in order to pursuit happiness and imagine a country that is better then the one that’s possible. And I truly believe that theatre, the field of all possibilities, can be an assembly that serves as a hallway to action. We desperately need buildings for the impossible to fight the dominant and constant notion of inevitability that people are faced with – I’m sorry but there is no alternative, there’s yet no other system, we have to bail out the banks, you will have to sacrifice, TV only shows what people want, borders must be kept because otherwise we’re not a nation anymore, we must extract oil even if it gets a little warmer, there’s just no way to keep the same social benefits conquered with the blood, sweat and tears of workers during the XIXth and XXth century, etc. etc. and etc.).
I believe a National Theatre should work in two worlds, the possible world and the impossible world. They are parallel worlds most of the time. Sometimes they are so distant that you almost doubt they both exist. But, in a theatre, many times they touch each other, they collide and produce tremendous energy. I accepted to become the artistic director of the National Theatre not only because I believed it was possible to interpret its mission and do necessary public service with the tools available, but also because there were many impossible things that I believed only seemed impossible.
I could tell you about how we have been trying to build a project of change rooted in the heritage of this 171 years old building, certain that its doors must be ever more open to the different theatres of our time. I could tell how we decided that, in the first season we were at the National, we would only present artists and companies that had never worked at the National Theatre, as an attempt to enlarge the landscape of what’s possible in Portuguese theatre. I could tell how we have been challenging the most ground-breaking artists of our day to reconcile with repertory, text and authors, rediscovering its radicalism and immense possibilities. I could tell you how, in the last two years we produced and coproduced more than 40 performances based upon new Portuguese texts. Or how its now normal to see international artists and companies at both our venues. Or how we work with 150 schools and 500 teachers every year, how we present performances in schools, from kindergarten to highschool. How we welcome, every year, more than two thousand chidren under 6 years old that enter a theatre for the first time. How we created a network of several small theatres in small towns of the rural part of the country were there were almost no performances being shown, and we go there with our pieces every three months for the next years, until theatre is normal for the people who live in those communities. I could tell you how we did more international touring of Portuguese performances in the last two years than the National Theatre had done in the 169 years before. I could tell you about our library, our research center, and our archive. I could tell about our bookshop, the only theatre bookshop in the country. Or the dozens of theatre texts and theatres studies we publish every year. Or our profound work in accessibility and inclusion, going from the lowest theatre prices in the country to audio-description for blind audiences. Or our living poets society, massive monthly meetings of poetry lovers in the presence of a poet and its work. Or the way we started working outside the building, with the people and spaces that form the centre of Lisbon, the touristic historical centre, but also the centre of our country’s social inequality, where the homeless guy sleeps in front of the Luis Vitton shop, and also the centre of our cosmopolitanism. I could tell you about our masterclasses, workshops, exhibitions, cooperation and so many other projects. In sum, I could claim our profound belief in the public service mission to which our magnificent team devotes itself, to very limits of what’s possible.
I believe to say all this would be plenty, but we would be confining ourselves to the words of the possible which, although they might inspire us, are not enough to express how a theatre is also a building for the impossible. We have to force ourselves to continue to use words for which there are no cells in spread sheets nor bullet points in strategy memos. Even if we can prove that theatre and creation has an economic value, we cannot accept a dictionary where the synonyms of words are numbers. We can’t give in to a purely economical language of applications to subsidies and reports. That language will later and violently devour any artistic endeavour with the slightest hint of radicalism or transgression. It’s just a matter of time. So, it we work in a public theatre, we have to resist even in the way we speak about what we do. We have to keep on talking about the desire and the urgency to make theatre, the pleasure, the uselessness, the doubt, the failure, the hope, the fear, the anger and all those tremendous driving forces that alone already give meaning to our work. We have to talk about all that, and also about freedom and risk, immeasurable ideas that seem out of fashion in a society obsessed with what you can translate into numbers.
I believe it’s the desire for the impossible that animates artists, audiences and theatres. I believe you should everything that is possible and then look at that with the eyes of the impossible. And while you look at it, and talk about it and work on it, sometimes you discover that the impossible only seemed impossible. The worlds touch.
In Portuguese theatre, we are still eating hope on a daily basis. The artistic work and the public service that is offered to the people in such a theatre like Teatro Nacional D. Maria II is the result of the dedication of this house’s extraordinary team but it wouldn’t be possible without the independent professionals who, at the expense of great professional and personal sacrifices and often receiving salaries much lower than what is fair, contribute with their effort for the public service that the State should guarantee to the Portuguese people. To declare this is not just elementary justice, it is also fundamental to understand the present of Portuguese theatre and imagine its future.
Cultural policies, the funding of artistic creation and the programme of public theatres are important today, but they are not the determining factors for the quality and diversity that characterize Portuguese theatre nowadays. If the audiences are growing in many venues; if there are new companies in communities where there was no theatre creation; if there is more touring, within and outside the country; if the place of theatre in education is being conquered inch by inch, then this is mainly because of the resilience and imagination of independent companies and artists that still operate in a context of great precariousness.
It’s true that times-are-a-changing in Portugal. After 4 terrible years of austerity, we now have a left wing government supported by all the left wing in the parliament. Things were so bad that the entire left wing agreed to collaborate for the first time in 43 years of democracy. During the first year of governing, most of the social, health, education and labour benefits cancelled by the right-wing were given back to people, and still the deficit was the lowest in 40 years. So, more benefits for the people and less deficit. It’s possible. And this government has also reopened the Ministry of Culture. Yes, between 2011 and 2015 there was no Ministry of Culture in Portugal. Actually, the right wing coalition had one the elections with a list of promises that included extinguishing the Ministry of Culture. And they won the election. People voted for that. Anyway, although the political discourse of the current left wing government had given back to Culture and Art a sense of dignity and social importance, the financing of these areas is still very very low, almost ridiculous, one of the lowest in Europe.
So that you have an idea the percentage of the State’s Budget for Culture in 0,2%. 0,2%, yes. This means that if I am the State Budget and I measure 1 meter 80, Culture would be this, 36 millimetres. No even half a centimetre. This. 0,2% and that includes all the museums, all the monuments, all the theatres, all the cultural centres, all the book fairs, all the festivals, all the subsidies for cinema, music, theatre, dance, visual arts, literature, architecture, everything related to culture and art. 0,2%. This means that all the subsidies for everything in performing arts corresponds to 0,03%. If I am the State Budget, you will need a microscope to detect that amount of importance that the Portugal addresses to all the independent production of theatre and dance.
The last 20 years, an incredibly vital and diverse landscape of Portuguese theatre has struggled through lack of financing and real cultural policies. They actually became the cultural policy, working in their communities and cooperating. Slowly, this generation already born after the revolution is taking over the public theatres and institutions, already free of the suspicion of previous generations that grew up in dictatorship and still regard institutions as a controlling power instead of a tool of the people.
That’s why any Portuguese public theatre has to be, above all, the shelter of independent artists and companies. Could the National Theatre become a repertory theatre that only does its own productions? Yes. Would it be fair, ethical, acceptable? No. We do at least 30 premieres of co-productions with independent companies every season. We try to offer them the best conditions within our reach, the highest co-productions in the country, we are their temporary home, from the first rehearsal to the last day of performance.
By doing that, we work in the hope of a Portuguese theatre made with more means and dignity, accessible to more citizens. That hope is the food that nourishes our daily efforts.
Jean-Jacques Rosseau, who hated theatre, wrote a text in 1758 that attacks almost everything that happens on stage. In La Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles he maintains that thh theatre only redeems itself of its terrible vices because, despite everything, it is a civic party in which each and every spectator is also a citizen because of the affirmative force of his physical presence. It’s always among our enemies that we find the most flattering compliments. A few years ago, while doing a research for a performance, I found a report written by a theatre censor that worked for the official censorship of the fascist regime in Portugal. In the sixties, this censor had allowed that the film “Desire under the elms” based on Eugene O’Neill’s play, with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn, be shown. But in the same year he forbids that the play “Desire under the elms” is produced. And the reason he gives for this apparent contradiction is that the film was something that was filmed before and somewhere else. There was nothing the audience could do about it. It had happened. While the performance would be happening right in front of our eyes, it would be real people in front of us saying and doing those things. In that case, everyone present in the audience would automatically become an accomplice. How beautiful is that? An audience of accomplices.
I believe that Rosseau’s civic party and the censor’s audience of accomplices has never made more sense than today. We live in a time in which we are told that we only have value if things come to us. Your books and groceries should be delivered at you house; entertainment and information should be at the distance of a click in the nearest screen; the whole world in the palm of your hand. And if you don’t have that, then you’re either living in the Third World or you are marginal to society. However, we, the Others in this room, insist in an activity that obliges people to get out of their couches and their houses, cross the city, spend money not really knowing what’s going to happen (while society tells you to only spend money if you’re sure about what you’re getting back). We ask them to give us their time, the most precious of resources, and let us control it. And they must sit in a room full of strangers, next to someone they have never seen before. If the simple physical presence somewhere was ever revolutionary, that time is today. If being a spectator was ever an act of militancy, that time is today. This goes for Portugal, Belgium and many parts of the world. We live a crucial moment for theatre. It is now, against all odds, that theatres, theatre making and theatre watching can recuperate its dangerous transforming power. But the theatre people can’t accept only to survive. They have to radicalise. They have to operate as buildings for the impossible.
If they cut all the funding and close all the theatres, that would never be the end of theatre. Let’s be honest. As an art form, it will always exist. If they close the National Theatre, we will perform in a basement just next to the National Theatre. No problem there. The problem would be (and is already) the democratic access to theatre and the place of the invisible, immeasurable and impossible in our societies. And institutions, public theatres, cultural centres, play a huge role in dealing with this problem.
That’s why I believe that institutions have to be as militant, radical and resilient as theatre makers and spectators already are. It would be possible and maybe even wise to be neutral. It’s maybe the path of survival. But sometimes you just want to take sides. In this case, the side of the impossible. The side of the Other.
TheaterFestival – Kaaitheater – 31 August 2017