Theater der Zeit


The utopia of international theatre

Luk Perceval and Milo Rau talk to Thomas Irmer about their vision for theatre in the 21st century

von Luk Perceval, Thomas Irmer und Milo Rau

Erschienen in: Arbeitsbuch 2019: Luk Perceval (07/2019)

One thing you both share is a sense for reorga­nising the theatre, of finding new ways for it, something that is highly necessary. Milo Rau, you have released the Ghent manifesto for NTGent, which defines ten rules for the work of your thea­tre. Luk Perceval, you were working with manifestos many years ago. Have you talked about the Ghent manifesto?

Milo Rau: We only met in 2017 for the first time, in Cologne. The manifesto was written in 2018, after I had experienced the German system. It is a very technical manifesto, but the idea behind it was the way that theatre is produced in Germany. I wanted to bring the focus away from management and back to production, and away from routine and toward working with a motto for the season and then finding the right direc­tors and designers for it and so on. The manifesto is not an aesthetic blueprint for theatre, you can do whatever you want with it. By the way, for my new production “Orestes in Mossul” I didn’t adopt all its rules myself. It is a bit like it used to be with the Dogme manifesto, where you can’t find a single film in which all of the rules were fully applied. But I wanted to bring the machine down a bit. That’s why I made the rules – to make the productions smaller and more personal.

Luk Perceval: First of all, I was very happy with the manifesto because I understood it as a provocation. The aspect of provocation is disappearing more and more in theatre. During the 18 years I was working in Germany, the economic aspects took on an ever-­increasing role, meaning productions had to bring a full house and be successful. The theatre became more and more of a consumer product. The aspect of theatre as a free space for breaking taboos and classical conceptions is on the way out. Even the theatre of Frank Castorf, one of the most provocative theatre-makers, is now coming to an end.

You said the manifesto first and foremost addresses structures of theatre. When you say it relates to the German theatre system, what is the difference when we are in Flanders now? The issue of mobility and the language situa­tion, for instance, have been much different here for a long time now. Much of this may not reflect the situation in Belgium.

Perceval: I wouldn’t say so. When I first read the mani­festo, I was pleasantly surprised by the many things that can be applied to the Belgian system. That doesn’t mean I agree one hundred per cent with every point in it. For me the most important point is that somebody says let’s try to focus on what is actually our task, on what is our position. That’s also the reason why we both work here. Because we miss this “discourse” so much. Theatre directors seldom meet one another, we are constantly touring around the globe. There is almost no exchange of ideas and information. The theatre community is often stuck in something that is described in German as a “harmoniesüchtige Gemein­schaft” (a community hooked on harmony). We all dream of peace and love. But theatre is in essence conflict. When you go back through the history of the theatre, from the very beginning it was a tool that gave a platform to the people and that was used to provoke the powerful leaders. Here the theatre is rooted in the Catholic Church and was later banished from the church. Provocation is an essential part of the nature of theatre. So the reason I was attracted to Milo’s manifesto and his presence here in Ghent is that at last somebody is standing up and saying: Whether you agree or not, this is the stone I have cast into the waters. Conflict is good. Conflict is necessary in the theatre. We had a conflict last week, for example, when we had a crisis during our rehearsals of ”Black“. I have learned over the years not to react in the Belgian way. Which is, let’s hold our horses and overcome the crisis by pretending everything will pass in silence. A great lesson I learned in Germany is to trust the conflict, to discuss, even when it’s painful, and to try and find a way out.

Rau: The manifesto aims in the first place to create a discussion about a feeling that has been present for many years now, here and in Germany, to make it ­explicit. And it refers to a certain point where somebody says: No, I don’t agree, a classical text is important to me, why should we change this? We have to discuss things. Stop adapting and using only twenty percent of the source text, this is something we can discuss.

Back to Luk’s notion of directors not meeting often enough to discuss what matters to them. My notion of German theatre is that it is not only a community of harmony but a highly competitive culture where people have reason to avoid each other. This culture of competition out there prevents mutual efforts to change the system as a whole and is often counterproductive.

Rau: That’s a tricky point. But, nevertheless, I refer to my own work here and agree with Luk that we don’t look to the others often enough. Moving outside the manifesto, it is liberating for me to curate the program and the repertoire a little bit here. Ersan Mondtag will be working here. He has a different approach with actors, one that is also quite removed from Luk’s; then there is Miet Warlop, who is very different again. And Alain Platel. On that level of art, there can’t be competition, except where it can be good to see how other directors are struggling and having to cope with the same problems I have to deal with too. That’s why I love it so much. To name one of these problems: For a long time, I have been having problems with preparations beyond rehearsals. Learning about how Luk does that is part of this good exchange between us. For me it is really about learning through others. That’s very new for me. That’s also because, as an artist, you are so idiosyncratic, and you have to go your own way. The manifesto, again, is not meant to define limitations but to signal: Let’s come together and find out what theatre can be. To name another problem – I was very unhappy with the conditions in Germany. Touring was almost impossible, because it was too expensive. But it is extremely important to me that my work tours. That’s why I’ll also take care to tour with the work produced here. That is the structure we are working in.

Mobility and international exchange have increased tremendously in the last two decades. Luk’s productions are shown all over Europe and in countries as far as China. That has certainly changed theatre culture as a whole. And the manifesto picks up on this for good reason. Yet, I see limitations in some points, which one German critic even described as “dancing in handcuffs”. Luk, you have already stated that even Castorf’s theatre is about to come to an end. In fact, if we take this manifesto seriously at this moment, then we should say perhaps that an era of fifty years of Regietheater is coming to an end, a culture of reinterpreting old texts and engaging with the audience. I think this manifesto is in large part a critique saying that this tradition should cease, and it is at the least a confrontation with this tradition. Art always goes against tradition, doesn’t it, but here there is more to it.

Rau: Take Luk’s “Schlachten!” (Ten Oorlog!) from twenty years ago. This was a new version of Shakespeare’s classic history plays, created together with a team who rewrote the plays. There is not exactly a logical timeline of theatre history for such adaptations. I saw Schlingensief’s “Hamlet” when I was a student in ­Zurich. There the rendering of Shakespeare’s text was used in a completely different way, nothing like existing “Hamlets”. When I am doing ­Oresteia as “Orestes in Mossul” now, I use different translations, merging them. I am not against using classical text. I want to use it, also as a provo­cation.

Perceval: But since the 1960s and 1970s, something has changed in a more fundamental way. I watched “Hearts of Darkness” (1991), Eleanor Coppola’s documentary about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, and at the end of the film Coppola says that, in ten or twenty years, everyone will have a camera and everybody will be able to make films. They already have festivals for iPhone feature films in America. The hierarchic model that says good art can only be made by specialists, no longer exists. That also led to a transition in the theatre which is very difficult to deal with. The old Schaubühne in Berlin was very successful as long as it was part of the island of West Berlin. It was a kind of propaganda zone for the so-called “free Western world”, against the whole of the East it was surrounded by. From the moment the Berlin Wall fell, and this Schaubühne dissolved into greater Berlin, they lost their enemy, and their role of reacting against threatening superpowers. They could no longer preach against the bad guys up there controlling our lives and pushing the buttons. We now live in a world where we are not only invited to create our own artistic presence in the internet, but at the same time we are responsible for climate change, and we also know that this all-pervading neo-liberalism is ­living off our consumerism. We are all part and parcel of what is happening, for instance in the Congo, or in Africa as a whole. We are part of that story. That means you can’t be as simplistic as you could be in the 1970s and just blame the boss. Today it’s even worse, we can’t really point to where the guy who pulls the trigger and pushes the button is hiding. The veils of power are much more sophisticated and are disguised in an almost subtle way. We don’t know who is pulling the strings, and to be honest: we ourselves love to be disguised. As a theatre we are obliged to say: OK, when it is no longer clear who is responsible, we have to ask ourselves, what is my responsibility, what is my position? And that has changed the perspective of theatre-makers enormously.

This brings me to the issue of documentary theatre today, which is largely about the unknown present, while the documentary theatre of the 1960s and 1970s was concerned with revealing facts about the past. Perhaps this has to do with the shift from the tradition of interpretation, which means you have to have knowledge of what has come before, to the creation of adaptations as an open system of meaning out of the uncertainty of what the present is about. This would also connect with the manifesto, where it asks that we leave the classical text behind in order to explore the present.

Rau: Yet you still have a lot of decisions and options left with a classical text. Like with “Schlachten!”, the final version of Shakespeare’s text is a result of the rehearsals. And even that can be adapted again …

As was the case with “Schlachten!”

Rau: … and now maybe “Black” will be further adapted by someone else. When we look into Luk’s material for “Black”, we see this black priest going to the Congo at the beginning of the 20th century. But he is defined by the limits of what was known in his time. We now know much more. So we have to put everything on the table in order to develop a view of that genocide. Then, the next version of our plays will be different again for the next artists to deal with them. That’s what I mean about using such texts. It shouldn’t be the same. That’s why I do theatre. Theatre as a model, and this is very Brechtian, is also what happens within your team within a given project, what happens in the production process of which the premiere is only one moment. It is the smallest possible group reflecting what society may think about Hamlet or the Belgians in the Congo or freedom of speech in Russia. It’s all about opening the door so that we can arrive at such reflections. Then you might forget about dancing in handcuffs.

Perceval: Let’s not forget that theatre is part of an oral tradition. We are telling the same stories over and over and over again, in different styles, in different langua­ges to different mentalities, to different social realities. The same story presented in different forms. So it is no surprise that we want to do that in a different way, like cinema has revolutionised its language of images over the last thirty years. Why shouldn’t theatre do that? That is one aspect. But the need to change, to find more modern ways of telling stories is coming up against the economic aspect of making theatre. Economically we depend, and here we touch on the German system again, on subscribers, the theatre customers. We live from whoever brings in the money. Meanwhile, we live in a part of Europe where politicians say: We will subsidise your heating for the theatre and the cost of your building and structure, but we won’t subsidise the art. Everywhere in Europe, art is being forced to survive from the income made at the box office. And the majority of the audience reacts to a rumour in the newspapers, or on the internet, or to an eye-catching title or a media star on the stage. I’ve been in dramaturgy meetings where we had discussions about the absurdity of these holy parameters, the so-called “golden rules for success”. This economic dependency of making “successful” productions drove me back to Flanders. The obligation to create a ­secure box-office income has become as strict and rigid as the production system in London’s West End or Broadway: Let’s rehearse in as short a time as possible, let’s reduce the production costs to an absolute minimum, and then send the show out, hoping for a success. That’s the advantage of working here in Flanders, where you have less of this kind of pressure. Because the structure is less expensive, it doesn’t matter if we play for 150 or 1,000 people. The Thalia Theater in Hamburg has to have 750 people in the audience every night, seven days a week. Otherwise they accrue debt and would ultimately have to dismiss people. That forces the theatre to do “Hamlet”. It is ridiculous, but it is the reality we have to deal with. The whole neo-liberalist system we are caught up in in Europe has reduced the space for theatre and for the artists to really stand up for freedom of speech and thought.

Milo Rau, do you agree with that? Are there more generous production conditions in Belgium? After all, you went through very different models of theatre and its organisation in a very short time, from independent theatre to working at Berlin’s Schaubühne and big international ­co-productions with your own International ­Institute of Political Murder as a company. On what basis do these possibilities present themselves in Ghent?

Rau: Sure, the conditions here are a bit different. In fact, we have subscribers as well but we play first and foremost to the general public. When we opened with “Lam Gods” the gesture according to the manifesto was: You are invited, you are the theatre. That’s why it was founded and why you are paying for it. Because of economic pressures, we have to tour and co-produce, and we have to reach a seventy percent minimum audience turnout. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I would say that even Hamburg could have theatre without the Hamlet-system like we do here with all the tools we have. The problem is the machinery, and here I would talk to management about bullshit jobs. With structures like the holy grail of a fully-employed big ensemble we could never have done projects like “Lam Gods” or “Black” where we add actors from outside or even amateurs to the cast, depending on the needs of each respective project. At the Schaubühne, the management would say, if your production needs 14 actors, you are required to cast most of them from our ensemble. Here we reverse that system and give actors from outside a contract for a year and try to tour with them as much as possible so that they earn enough money. There are certainly limitations to that, but here they emerge from what a director wants to do and not from what a machine allows you to do because it has to provide output in its rigid ways.

Perceval: This topic is emphasising something that I often feel is missing in the theatre: the necessity. Why was this production made? Why? Sometimes I have the feeling that shows are produced just to pay the rent of the participants, to pay everybody’s bills. That’s legitimate, but it is not enough to make art. And that is the basic question: are we being subsidised to make art, or to entertain the people? Our European culture, of course, has installed the notion of subsidising art to create a free space to question our democracy, humanity I would say. So, firstly we should search for this dimension of making art, a unique perspective, a unique interpretation of reality, a very personal, very individual form of expression. And this unique way can only inspire the audience when it is rooted in a burning necessity. What do you really want to say? Because there is often a lack of necessity, I don’t believe in the force of big structures anymore. They are buried under their own load of social and economic obligations. They suffocate the art.

Milo Rau, you are in favour of using a project- related cast. Luk Perceval, as I understand, you are still in favour of the idea of a long-term ensemble that is not under any non-artistic pressure due to requirements. Where are the actual differences in your ways of working here? After all, this was one the most fiercely debated issues in the whole Volksbühne affair in Berlin.

Rau: I want to look at the example of Andie Dushime, a non-professional actress in “Lam Gods” who is working again with Luk in “Black”. The same applies to Frank Focketyn, who has worked with Luk before. This is a very beautiful thing to my mind. We continue to work with them and have an ensemble of 25 actors at the moment. We dissolved the previous ensemble but, strangely, most of them continued in the first season and will do so in the next. Speaking of necessity, it is about the special need of a given project and its director to work with this or that actor. And not because someone in the cast is sitting around the stage, and therefore I invent a role for him or her. The need must come from the project in the first place, and must also make for a better level of collaboration and participation by the actors.

This is in fact very different to thirty years ago, where hired actors were simply ordered what role to play.

Rau: When actors would come to the first rehearsals scared about what was expected of them. Opening up that system is very important to me.

Perceval: We also have to say that, in Flemish theatre, all ensemble structures with permanently hired actors have been dissolved. Most of the Flemish actors are now freelance, which means that they hardly earn enough money to survive. That’s why I have always pleaded for a big national ensemble, where actors have a basic income, and earn extra money when they are involved in one of the productions they work for. It would also give theatre-makers the freedom to work with an open ensemble, and the theatres would have more financial means for the productions. It would be a broader and more open idea of an ensemble, and not just an exclusive one. For now, I know some older actors who ended up in poverty after a great ­career, which is a shame in a civilised country. That’s another aspect of the ensemble issue which should not only be understood as a model for city theatres, of which we only have three: in Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. It should be a national responsibility. Also, we all know that good ensembles exist for about six, seven years, a maximum of ten years. That’s part of the chemistry between people. In the beginning, in the first year, and I have experienced this in several theatres, there is revolutionary excitement because it is new and everybody is curious, there is an enormous amount of positive energy. After two years everybody is so tired, there are injustices and frustrations about not gaining the best roles, etc… So I think it is also healthy and necessary for an ensemble to stop at some point. On the other hand there are advantages from people working together in the long term. As a director you don’t have to explain everything from zero, because there is an ongoing dialogue. That not only brings the actors further but also the director. The professional formalism falls away and they become partners. You begin to dive together into the unknown. This kind of togetherness can be utopia and the audience feels it as well. A unique company of theatre people with a unique sense of freedom, like there was with the Living Theatre, or the Amsterdam Werktheater, is also inspiring and gives the audience the courage to think and act differently, to express their hidden thoughts, their opinions, their awareness. That’s the vital role of the theatre, to create awareness. This inspirational role can only be expressed by a unique form, and this unique form was always the result of a strong ensemble, a unique encounter between a unique group of actors. And, of course, an ensemble, like every family, has a lot of limitations. We know how difficult it can be to be the father of a ­family. But does that mean you don’t want children?

So the question is, how can creative energy be maintained and made productive for as long as possible? Either with an artistic ensemble for long-term endeavours or an open system for single artistic projects?

Rau: I think this idea of a great family is still linked to the classical canon. I am sure we could do a good Shakespeare and maybe a great Chekhov with our theatre. There’s nothing to say we wouldn’t. Think of ­Peter Stein’s achievements. His ensemble had incredible quality and output. And yet, that concept nevertheless limited us and it could not have accomplished such productions as “Black” or “Orestes in Mossul”. Again, in the manifesto we ask what texts are ours and, by doing so, there is a suggestion that the classical canon is insufficient because the Congo is not just the Congo, the Congo is here as well. How can you make a global realism out of our global reality? And develop a global ensemble for it? One more word about the canon: When you look at the Flemish ­classics, you can read them in one afternoon. (Luk Perceval laughs.)

Which brings us to the issues of Belgium’s colonial past and of deco­lonisation and the current debates about post-colonialism. Luk Perceval used to talk about this when it was still un­charted territory in the arts here. You come from Switzerland, and you approached this by ­engaging with the Congo, into the biggest and bloodiest economic war in human history, which you then made a documentary film about. That is certainly explosive for Belgium, as is your theatre and Perceval’s “Black”, which ­examines the colonial past as part of the trilogy “The Sorrows of Belgium”.

Rau: Well, we all know how Germany had its “Aufarbeitung” of the Holocaust, a thorough confrontation with the worst and darkest part of its history. Nothing like that can be found here. Instead, you still find equestrian statues of King Leopold in some cities, which are basically the equivalent of having memorials for Adolf Hitler in Germany. At the same time Belgians are afraid that their nation could fall apart. It’s a very special situation.

Perceval: Right now there is a debate going on about whether Belgium should apologise for what happened in the Congo or not. The fact that this is even questioned is shocking to me. Of course we should apologise. This country has a deep-rooted culture of cowardice. This started in the times when Flanders was ruled by the Spanish in the 17th century. Since then Flanders has been overruled by the Habsburgs, the Spanish, the Dutch, and then followed by two world wars in which we were overrun and occupied. That has led to a mentality of surviving undercover, not talking about the truth. The attitude in Belgium is that nothing is allowed, while everything is possible as long as it is kept hidden. That has led to corruption and other such phenomena, where horrible things are covered up, like the Congo or – more recently – the Dutroux case. That’s why we need somebody like Milo, who says: voilà, here is my manifesto. Whether you like it or not. Which is very un-Belgian and very un-Flemish. But this country needs that. And it is easier for him to do it than it is for me. Just like it was easier for me to stage Fallada as a non-German in Germany.

Rau: And it is a surprise when you keep hearing here: Oh, we didn’t know about that. Even though Belgium’s prosperity is based on its colonial past. ­Another conflict arose from the jihadist in our “Lam Gods”, who represented the crusader in van Eyck’s painting from almost 600 years ago.

Luk Perceval, I remember when you arrived in Germany twenty years ago you mentioned that the good thing about Flemish theatre is that there is no burden of tradition. You can work unhindered from an underdog position without worrying about tradition. Is that still the case, now that ­theatre from Flanders has become well-known and recognised all over Europe?

Perceval: I think that is still the case. When I look at Belgium now, the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking parts, they are more than ever two different countries. And then there is the important fact that we were only allowed to speak our Flemish language ­after the end of the Second World War, which is less than 75 years ago. Another advantage, along with the almost non-existing canon, is that we don’t have a bourgeois audience that demands a certain cultural standard. In Paris, for instance, there is a large section of the public ­demanding their classical Racine be performed the way they expect it. The cultural awareness is maybe less sophisticated here, but that also means there are no fixed expectations. Another aspect is the special way that Flemish theatre has developed since the 1980s, with theatre being strongly influenced by dance in that time. This has ­enriched the theatre, maybe more than elsewhere, and has given theatre productions more and more the character of performance. That in turn has led to classical theatre texts being staged in a different way. Everybody knows about the influence of important choreographers like Jan Fabre, Alain Platel and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. They also made Flemish theatre very physical. And again, we don’t have a “bourgeois standard language” like they do in Germany, with Hochdeutsch for example, or Oxford English on UK stages, or the language norms of the Académie française. That doesn’t exist here. Which is why my generation started to use the language of the audience on the stage. We started to perform Chekhov in a Flemish dialect. And this created very authentic performances, which were even admired in Russia.

Rau: The language situation in Belgium makes it easier to mix languages on stage. For someone like me from Switzerland, this is perfect. Language here is not right up there like it is in Germany, where German remains a literary language in most of German theatre.

Perceval: Part of my utopia for theatre is to invent and cultivate a new language that could be understood everywhere, a new kind of theatre Esperanto. When I work in Russia, people speak hardly any English, and I only know a few words of Russian. But I like this situa­tion where people really want to communicate without a common language. I like the fact that we all speak a kind of “Eurenglish”, a language we improvise out of different backgrounds, and a language born of great necessity of reaching each other, to be part of a community. In that sense, language is a great expression of love, of positive curiosity, of the need to understand and to be understood, also a way to survive.

When you look at this in a larger context, what you find is that this kind of international theatre you both want to create is actually what is left of the idea of Europe. Although culture is under­appreciated in this European process, and within culture theatre plays a rather marginal role. It could be seen as a special tool, as it ­combines languages and communication and demon­strates how mobility can be pursued to connect ­cultures. Do you see this as a task for theatre, even if theatre might be pursuing this in a selfish way for its own self-preservation?

Rau: Yes, but not only in Europe, also globally. I really believe in the theatre as a counterforce to this culture of capital in our capitalism. Capital is everywhere and knows no borders. When I arrived in the Congo, I saw that our big companies are already there. So ­theatre could be a real counterweight to this situation. A utopian version of what capitalism once wanted to be: liberal thinking for a free association of individuals. In reality we have a system of power relations shaped by neo-liberalism. In theatre, you can create a more just model of solidarity with the same vision of international exchange. That’s very humanistic to me. So, to sum up, theatre to me is not about making money, or about repeating the canon, and it’s not about competition either – it should be a different space where just doing and watching it is the ultimate value. I am learning more and more about this utopia, although I know very well that international theatre is not a new idea. It hasn’t been done, because it has been held back by our tradition of national theatre cultures didn’t cross borders.

Perceval: Travelling also makes you humble. In Russian theatre I could sense how privileged we are in terms of our working conditions in Western Europe and at the same time I was confronted with all the clichés that I had about Russia. In the beginning I was very hesitant, even unwilling, to work there because of the brainwashed ideas I had about Russia. But then you meet Russian people and have a dialogue and you get a much more complex sense of what is happening there. And develop much more respect; that is the goal of theatre, is it not? To understand, to comprehend, to recognise the other, to give up one’s fearful ego-defined perspective and to discover the other as myself? This deep understanding, this encounter opens your mind and your heart.

Rau: I was working and researching in southern Italy for my Jesus film. There are in fact about 500,000 slave workers, and my protagonist who used to be one of them said to me: You can’t know it, you can only experience it. That’s so true!



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