11 Jun 2018 - Ljubljana P.U.L.S.

My name is Bart Meuleman, and together with my colleague An-Marie Lambrechts, I coordinate P.U.L.S., a four-year project for new theatre makers at Toneelhuis, which is the municipal theatre of Antwerp. P.U.L.S. stands for Project for Upcoming Artists for the Large Stage, and its aim is to guide these new theatre makers in their work for the large stage over a period of four years. The project tries to offer an answer to questions about the relation between tradition and innovation. It does not want to see the relation between the different generations in terms of conflict or dispute, but of dialogue and exchange.

In order for you to have an understanding of what P.U.LS. is, how it came about and what it hopes to achieve, I think it’s necessary to give you a short explanation of the history of theatre in Flanders and Brussels (and partly also in the Netherlands). P.U.L.S. is not a project that simply came out of the blue, after all. It has a place within the history and activities of Toneelhuis, just as Toneelhuis has a place within the history of Flemish theatre. We developed the P.U.L.S. model on the basis of the theatre culture that currently exists in Flanders, and we keep adjusting it as we go along.

1. The 1980s


The history of today’s theatre scene in Flanders goes back to the beginning of the 1980s. At that time you had three municipal theatres in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (in Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent), each with its own company of actors and a number of directors affiliated with the house. These theatres had an old-fashioned image back then, and seeing as they were very hierarchically structured, there were few possibilities for the exchange of ideas or renewal. Change from the bottom up was non-existent. So it’s only logical that new forms of theatre arose in very different places, away from the big municipal theatres, in garages, basements, small halls or unusual locations. The break with the ‘classical’ form of theatre was total: the style of acting was very different – sometimes very monotone, other times exuberantly expressive (often even ‘amateurish’, according to some) – and despite the lack of funding, the use of other media was striking: music, dance, visual art and the upcoming video. Hybrid forms of theatre arose, in which a dramatic text no longer had to be the starting point, or the only starting point, of a production. It also gave rise to collage theatre, which makes associative connections, devoid of narrative.

It’s no coincidence that some of these new theatre makers did not have a formal education in theatre. Guy Cassiers, Jan Lauwers and Jan Fabre all have a background in the visual arts. Ivo Van Hove indeed studied theatre directing, but his collaboration with Jan Versweyfeld, who studied scenography, immediately had a big influence on his work. Other now-famous names are the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who founded the Rosas dance company, Jan Decorte, Wim Vandekeybus, Luk Perceval, the Dutchman Johan Simons and Alain Platel. When you look at that list, you can only conclude that the 1980s was a very flourishing, innovative and influential period in the Low Lands, with a variety of artists whose work remains internationally acclaimed to this day. This had never happened before in our history of theatre.

So the new theatre of the eighties was open to every possible kind of influence, operating on the fringes and paying absolutely no attention to the centre that classical theatre had occupied for so long. In the 1980s, classical theatre and the avant-garde were parallel worlds with almost nothing in common. But the new theatre makers were racking up successes. A new generation of critics embraced them, new magazines and platforms for publication appeared, and little by little their enthusiastic audiences grew.

And then the phenomenon of the ‘arts centre’ arose, small alternative organizations that radically chose to show work by new makers and thus helped determine the avant-garde scene. Two organizations played an important role. First, the Kaaitheater in Brussels, founded by Hugo De Greef. Initially begun as a biennial festival for the performing arts, it switched over to offering presentations on a regular basis and producing or coproducing new productions. Kaaitheater placed new artists in an international context, for instance programming them next to The Wooster Group, Trisha Brown or Merce Cunningham. The influence of dance was indeed big, for dance has no need of a spoken language and as such it paved the way for the internationalization of a totally new stage culture, with for instance the quick recognition and success bestowed on Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus in New York. In Antwerp, a larger arts centre named De Singel also programmed artists within an international context. To this day, Kaaitheater and De Singel remain authoritative stages that gave many artists a chance and, the other way around, made a name for themselves thanks to the ‘Flemish Wave’ of the 1980s.

The government’s subsidy policy followed these new developments, albeit slowly, and far too inadequately. The new generation operated in relative poverty, despite its growing success; creativity was not only required on stage, but also in the bookkeeping. The money that was available for subsidies, despite increasing criticism and contrary advice from the theatre committees, continued to be allocated to the municipal theatres.


2. The collectives


In the nineties we saw the emergence of another defining phenomenon, the theatre collective. Partly as an answer to the malaise within the municipal theatres, the collectives sought a new way of approaching the classical repertoire, or, more generally, the play as the written score for a production. Characteristic features of the theatre collective are the absence of a director and the importance of artistic discussions around the table. This is where everything is collectively decided. The classical rehearsal period, during which the company does on-stage rehearsals of what eventually will become the production, no longer exists. The fact that the production largely takes shape around the table does not mean that the final result has to be cerebral. On the contrary, the theatre made by the collectives actually allows the actors a tremendous amount of freedom on stage, and is experienced by the audience as being extremely ‘alive’. In fact, the time spent around the table is a long period that enables the performers to not only discuss the text, including every scene, every sentence, every word, but also the visuals and the mise en scène. In this period, the performers get to know everything about their roles, both their own and those of the group. During the performance, this stored ‘knowledge’ intuitively comes to life.

The spearhead of this development was the Dutch company Maatschappij Discordia, which put these principles into practice in the most radical way of all. A Discordia premiere meant that the performers were standing together on stage and performing the show for the very first time. No rehearsals of the action had been made prior to this, only collective text rehearsals and discussions.

TG Stan is the most famous Flemish example of the collectives, and was also one of the first in Flanders. Companies like Stan and Discordia focus their attention on the autonomy of the performer and want to keep their repertoire, ranging from Shakespeare to contemporary authors, alive in a relatively simple manner, without big sets. Although the theatre collectives expressly concentrate on repertoire and mainly rely on language, Stan’s work has over the course of time gradually found a reception abroad, particularly in France and Scandinavia. Rather than working with surtitles, Stan doesn’t think twice about doing their shows in French or English. This contributes to the spreading of their ‘method’, which nowadays is for instance very popular and gathering a following in a city like Paris.

The ideas of collectives like Discordia and Stan were to have a growing influence on the theatre schools in Flanders and the Netherlands. Inspired by the success of Stan and others, students would sometimes even start their own collective while at school. From their side, members of Stan and other collectives also taught at the theatre schools. The collective method of working became a leading movement in the theatre of the Low Lands, next to the multidisciplinary theatre of the generation from the eighties. The two are somewhat mutually exclusive, however, because on the one hand, working with different disciplines and technical media requires a lot of preparation on stage; and on the other hand, the autonomy of the performer does not leave any room for a complicated and/or technical scenography. Yet they can exist perfectly well side-by-side. Together, they are part of a culture that determines the theatre scene to this day.


3. Situation in the late nineties


In the meantime, the artists of the 1980s were systematically shifting from the former fringes to the centre. Literally. Ivo Van Hove and Guy Cassiers became directors of the municipal theatres in Amsterdam and Rotterdam (Flemish theatre makers were very popular in the Netherlands at a certain point). Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers and Alain Platel each had their own internationally operating company (Troubleyn, Needcompany and Les Ballets C. de la B, respectively). And in 1997, Luk Perceval housed his company, the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie, an actors' ensemble that came closest to classical theatre, in the Bourla Theater in Antwerp, thus making the formation of Toneelhuis a fact. A number of years later, however, Perceval left Antwerp to direct at the Schaubühne in Berlin and the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. His successor would be Guy Cassiers. One by one, the artists of the 1980s became the ‘biggest’ directors from the Low Lands; and by ‘biggest’, I first of all mean that they received the most funding and made the biggest productions. So the avant-garde took over the centre. In the late nineties, the Minister of Culture, Bert Anciaux, authorized a major financial overhaul. The performing arts in Flanders finally were able to professionalize.

At the same time, the theatre schools – under the influence of the collectives – were placing more and more emphasis on the autonomy of the actor. They increasingly profiled themselves as schools who preferred to educate ‘makers’ instead of ‘actors’. This meant that in the first decade of the 21th century, considerably more students graduated as theatre makers. Often they were actors as well, but in the first instance they wanted to make their own work. (Some saw this as a way of creating work for themselves, through project subsidies.) The result, for a small region like Flanders with a population of 6 million, has been an extremely broad and highly diverse performance landscape. Some organizations have devoted themselves entirely to this. A workplace like Campo in Ghent, which might be known to some of you here, has been guiding and producing the work of a limited number of new stage artists and successfully presenting them in Flanders and abroad for many years now.

Yet the distance between the big theatre companies and older collectives on the one hand and countless new groups and artists on the other hand remains relatively large. Although nothing about the relation between the municipal theatres of the eighties and what was then the new generation is comparable with the situation today, young and extremely vocal theatre makers are now demanding more opportunities and more funding. Which is understandable. It has led to a certain animosity between the theatre makers with established values and the newcomers.

With P.U.L.S., we are striving, somewhat like Campo, to offer several new theatre artists the time and space to work, along with a small budget, and to guide them in that work over a period of several years. There is one essential difference with Campo, however. We want the four new theatre makers that Toneelhuis has invited to join this project to eventually work exclusively for the large stage. In other words, for the stages of the big houses and municipal theatres. The large stage certainly requires special expertise; thinking on a larger scale presents specific problems and offers different possibilities. The large stage has fallen somewhat into discredit – unjustly, we believe – partly because of the developments of the last 20 years. After all, theatre collectives have difficulties working on it, and obviously do better in small or midsized venues; and their influence on the theatre schools has meant that recently graduated theatre makers also sometimes regard the big stage – and the theatre companies behind them – with a certain distrust. And yet a lot of interest lies behind that distrust, as we have discovered. It is an area of tension.


4. P.U.L.S.


As I mentioned earlier, Guy Cassiers took over the helm of Toneelhuis, in 2007, and when he did, he chose a different model than the one Luk Perceval had used. Perceval was the head of an actors’ ensemble and worked with guest directors, a model that also exists in Germany – except that in Flanders we worked on a much smaller scale and with much less funding. Guy Cassiers invited six artists from the performing arts field and one collective to join Toneelhuis, each of whom were given the time, space and budget to autonomously develop their work. Cassiers in fact implemented the activities of an arts centre within a municipal theatre. He dropped the hierarchical model of the classical theatre and instead designed a house with many rooms. As a result, the work within Toneelhuis is extremely diverse; each artist or artistic core has different requirements and even performs on a different circuit of venues to some extent. Artistic autonomy is in Toneelhuis’s DNA. Those who are part of Toneelhuis today, besides Cassiers himself, are Olympique Dramatique, a theatre collective which mainly does repertoire and performs in Flanders and the Netherlands; and F.C. Bergman, a collective which makes big, internationally touring productions; the theatre maker Benjamin Verdonck, who makes smaller, visual shows (he has participated in the Mlady Levi festival, among other things); and the Iraqi theatre maker Mokhallad Rasem, who also works internationally.

Guy Cassiers is obviously continuing this philosophy with the P.U.L.S. project. P.U.L.S. could only originate from the artistic DNA of Toneelhuis. So, An-Marie Lambrechts and I did not search for new or young directors who wanted to follow a certain tradition, but for autonomous young stage artists. There was one condition: they had to want to eventually work for the large stage. We spent two years, from 2014 to 2016, intensively viewing the shows of young makers in Flanders and the Netherlands. At first we didn’t really know what we were looking for. Little by little, we eliminated every kind of ‘assessment’, every kind of quantitatively measurable condition – it’s pure coincidence that that we ended up selecting two women and two men. We did, however, come to the conclusion that we preferred people who were just out of school or still studying. Talents and personalities that had not yet been ‘formed’, but were still in the midst of an early stage of artistic development. Why? That’s what we found most exciting. We spoke with lots of people: possible candidates, teachers, opinion makers, people with varying functions in the broad field of the performing arts…. There was also a considerable amount of opposition. Weren’t we being too patronizing? Shouldn’t we let young makers first make their own way for a couple of years, and offer them the large stage only after that, as a kind of reward? Various young makers were enthusiastic, however, despite the scepticism about the large stage shown at some of the schools. What’s more, the young generation turned out to be very good at critically examining their own work and its place in the world. We discovered, as old hands in the profession, how much we ourselves could pick up from these people. We saw a generation that is interested in all sorts of disciplines – dance, visual art, audiovisual media… but when it comes to putting things into action, is equally influenced by the collectives.

From the outset, Guy Cassiers wanted to involve his own generation in P.U.L.S., artistic contemporaries who were part of the avant-garde in the 1980s and in the meantime have an international record of service. He asked Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers, Ivo Van Hove and Alain Platel to actively contribute and be ‘allies’. All of them promised to do so. They were prepared to share their expertise and provide insight into their manner of working. The idea was to get a conversation going between different generations, out of the belief that the conflict model (‘patricide’) does not have to be a universal law. P.U.L.S. was to be a project in which dialogue had a central place.

After the four new makers, Bosse Provoost, Lisaboa Houbrechts, Timeau De Keyser and Hannah De Meyer, had been selected, and with the support and engagement of the four allies, P.U.L.S. shot away from the starting blocks over the course of 2016. We proposed a trajectory of four years to the makers, from 2017 until 2021, during which time they can develop toward working for the large stage, each in their own tempo. There are three parts to this trajectory.


    1. Own shows


First of all, the artists are given the opportunity – in other words, the time, the space and the budget – to make three or four shows of their own during this period. Time is perhaps the most crucial factor in this. There has to be enough time to develop a concept, but the prospect of oceans of time can also be paralyzing. It’s about using the time productively, without collapsing under the pressure of having to produce, or without aimlessly drifting about. Here we must add that a municipal theatre like Toneelhuis is observed with a sharper eye and judged more harshly than a smaller structure would be. In that sense, the four P.U.L.S. artists have put extra pressure on themselves by being affiliated with Toneelhuis. It is up to us to guide them in this.

Space is the second element. We have the use of a separate space for P.U.L.S., with a small hall of its own, ten minutes away from the theatre. That seemed to be the best choice. The P.U.L.S. artists largely have this space to themselves. That way they can create their own world. They come to Toneelhuis on a regular basis, of course, but having a space of their own emphasizes their autonomy. The artists can create their own environment there. But although they work and rehearse in their own space, this is not where they have chosen to present their productions. They already prefer to do this in the Bourla Theater. For their smaller shows, we adjust the playing area and/or the audience capacity to provide greater intimacy.

Money is also important, naturally. The P.U.L.S. artists do not have the same sums of money as the other Toneelhuis makers. They are each given a total budget for the four years, which they can divide up as they wish, in consultation with Toneelhuis. We assume that their first productions will be smaller and therefore require less money and that the last one, the large-stage production in the 2020–2021 season, will be the most expensive by far. In practice, it remains desirable and sometimes even necessary to have coproducers. The P.U.L.S. artists search for coproducers themselves, supported by Toneelhuis of course. This is good for their network and increases opportunities for distributing their shows. This production budget does not cover the wages of an artist or items such as publicity and bookkeeping, which fall under the general activities of Toneelhuis. So the production budgets are entirely devoted to the creative process.


    2. Working with the allies


Besides making their own work, the P.U.L.S. artists also spend considerable time working on big productions as trainees. This is where the allies come in. The new artists work as director’s assistants, dramaturges or production assistants in big productions by Fabre, Lauwers, Van Hove, Platel and Guy Cassiers. Obviously, the idea is not for them to copy that work or become imitators – they wouldn’t want to anyway – but to have the opportunity to see how these international artists deal with things and plan their approach. Artistic discussions between the P.U.L.S. artists and the allies are not imposed upon them. Whether or not they occur is up to the individuals themselves.


    3. Workshops


Workshops are also part of the P.U.L.S. project. In sessions lasting from one to five days, we confront the P.U.L.S. artists with famous people from the world of theatre. Jan Fabre has already organized workshops with Peter Brook and Robert Wilson, while we ourselves are inviting Fabiana Piccolini and Eric Sleichim. The first is a renowned Italian lighting designer who has worked with Romeo Castellucci, Akram Khan and Guy Cassiers, among others; the second is a Belgian composer who has been working with Ivo Van Hove for ten years. A workshop on lighting or music combines the development of an artistic concept with insights into the technical aspects of a production. Working for the large stage demands a special kind of expertise.

That said, there is room for failure within P.U.LS. This should be part of every learning process, even if nowadays more and more emphasis is being placed on efficiency and fast returns. Maybe precisely because of that. Failure can be instructive and even beneficial, at least if it is allowed to happen. Failure is inherent to the artistic process.

To offer interested outsiders insight into the progress of this trajectory, we have created a bilingual blog with reports in Dutch and English. The blog contains interviews, reviews of the artists’ shows, photos, schedules and related items. Four years from now, we hope to be able to present the history of an adventure that is impossible to foresee at this point. By then, we hope, Timeau De Keyser, Hannah De Meyer, Lisaboa Houbrechts and Bosse Provoost will all have become autonomous artists who have developed a theatre idiom of their own for large-scale productions. We hope that these artists will be able to work on that large scale in every possible area. We also hope that they will have increased the arsenal of artistic collaborators and accepted challenges of which they have not the faintest idea at present.


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