P.U.L.S. was born in answer to a question. Why does it often take young theatre artists so long to make it to the large stage? And a second question. What can you do to change this? Guy Cassiers asked himself these questions with his own experiences from the 1980s and 90s in mind. Artists of his generation, who started out on the fringes of the ‘official’ theatre scene and completely renewed the performing arts landscape, had long since graduated to the municipal theatres and major playhouses. But they often had travelled a long road to get there. Sometimes it could even seem like the large stage were a ‘reward’ for a long record of service. Guy Cassiers wanted to make the large stage a more self-evident part of the artistic sphere of action for young theatre makers. This could benefit not only them, but also the dynamics of big theatres themselves. So, together with An-Marie Lambrechts and Bart Meuleman, he developed a model in which the expertise and mastery of a generation of established theatre makers who work for the large stage could be passed on to a number of new artists. After all, theatre makers don’t just ‘automatically’ acquire skills for the large stage. P.U.L.S. was nothing more or less than the initiating, organizing and guiding of that process.
The idea was to seek out five new theatre artists and invite them to follow a four-year trajectory (it ultimately became five), guided on a daily basis by An-Marie Lambrechts and Bart Meuleman, and conducted under the ‘godparent-hood’ of senior artists Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers, Ivo Van Hove, Alain Platel and Guy Cassiers himself. We found the search for artists extremely fascinating, not only because of our many conversations with the candidates themselves but also with organizers, teachers, dramaturges, people in the field. However, we did meet with some resistance. Should a big theatre company be doing something like this? Wouldn’t the young artists be crushed, figuratively speaking, in the mill of such an organization? Wasn’t this a form of paternalism? And, for that matter, should the theatre itself actually be choosing the new artists? Shouldn’t outsiders be doing this? None of that made us deviate from our course. We felt that a municipal theatre like Toneelhuis was perfectly suited to take on such a responsibility.
We ultimately selected Bosse Provoost, Hannah De Meyer, Lisaboa Houbrechts and Timeau De Keyser. In retrospect (and as we already sensed at the time) this was a radical choice, because despite the many discussions and deliberations, in the end it was fairly intuitive, based on a ‘gut feeling’. What’s more, three of the four artists were graduates of K.A.S.K. Ghent, a poor example of ‘dispersion’, while the fourth (Hannah) had studied performance at the Toneelacademie Maastricht. So you could hardly say we started with something like taking a broad survey of the landscape in order to make an equally broad and balanced selection. Instead, we radically opted for idiosyncratic artists. In doing so, we acted according to the DNA of Toneelhuis that Guy Cassiers had called into life: Guy always put the emphasis on the individuality of each of the Toneelhuis makers; in other words, not on hierarchical or collective ways of working that represented the repertoire and/or the ensemble.
We never did select a fifth artist, and seen in retrospect, that’s a big disappointment. Over the course of our search (2015-2016), we became expressly aware that at least one of the five should be somebody with a different cultural background. We also felt we needed more time, an extra year, for this, but right at that point Toneelhuis had to bring out the famous financial ‘cheese slicer’ for the first time: the search would have to be postponed. This led to the decision to stop looking for a fifth artist from another culture altogether. Here, we passed up a very important opportunity for more diversity. Perhaps it even could have had an influence on the overall activities of Toneelhuis. The financial problems probably would have increased, and it might have forced us to make painful decisions at a later stage, but it remains a major shortcoming.
We started with a sketch, something we could put down on paper as a theory or a drawing – a ‘model’, as we said earlier. Then we adapted it day by day, depending on what presented itself in reality. This was an attitude that we adopted very quickly. It meant that, for all aspects of the entire process, we paid the greatest possible attention to the questions, wishes – and sometimes even the demands – of the P.U.L.S. artists. To do this, we stretched the possibilities of Toneelhuis to the limits, or at least as far as possible, which we think is only proper if you want to be a house for artists. In that sense, the artists in P.U.L.S. were treated no differently than the other Toneelhuis artists.
The P.U.L.S. trajectory consisted of three pillars, in which the artists:
The first overall problem we encountered after making our final selection stemmed from the fact that we had considered the young makers to be individual artists. After the final selection, however, it became apparent both to the artists and to us that they could not see themselves as separate from the people with whom they had already been working. These were usually their peers, often coming from the same drama school. The artists could not make their work, could not complete their trajectory, without the co-authorship of their fellow artists. As a result, we realized that we could not and should not cut these makers off from their artistic biotope. In fact, we were facing a new form of collectivism, in which the group or artistic core determines the artistic process, but each member still has their own role or responsibility, and the final decision lies with the director, the person who keeps an overview from the audience. This was an essential difference with, for example, STAN or De Koe. It meant, however, that we not only had to relate to a particular director – the maker we had chosen – but also to the people with whom he or she worked artistically.
Organizationally, financially and promotionally, this often turned out to be a difficult exercise, but also a fascinating and in all respects necessary one. We could not have allowed ourselves to have taken a different attitude. It was Timeau De Keyser and tibaldus, Lisaboa Houbrechts and Kuiperskaai, and – two years later – Bosse Provoost and Ezra Veldhuis. One might wonder whether the strictly individual approach toward young makers could allow them to hold their own within an organization like Toneelhuis. Whether, in retrospect, the collective aspect wasn’t partly responsible, or even necessary, for the success of the individual trajectories.
In the future, we think it is important for artists/directors who are invited to participate in such a project to clarify beforehand how they want to work, and especially with whom. This can of course change over time (as was the case with Lisaboa Houbrechts and Bosse Provoost), but the starting point must be clear. This doesn’t mean that every young collective can or must be invited to the large stage. Final artistic responsibility ‘from the audience’ remains a very important condition, and developing this expertise for the large stage is precisely why Guy Cassiers created P.U.L.S..
The idea behind the internships was to familiarize the P.U.L.S.ers with working for the large stage by putting them under the wings of senior artists (a term we dropped fairly quickly because the P.U.L.S.ers found it inappropriate) who already had an international reputation in that area. The internships were also part of why we could register the P.U.L.S.ers as full time: internships are not only considered a learning process, but also work.
So, the P.U.L.S.ers interned with the internationally renowned artists we had invited to join the project, and at the same time, we strengthened our own ties with these artists by presenting their work. This created a unique situation: we were programming both the 'old' and the 'new' generations in comradely fashion, side by side. Toneelhuis had already collaborated with Ivo Van Hove and ITA a little earlier, but Jan Lauwers and Jan Fabre could also present their work at the Bourla now, and the productions by Alain Platel that were playing at deSingel could be included in the Toneelhuis season ticket offering.
The intern experiences were different, just as the personalities of the artists were of course different. They ranged from ‘being part of a well-oiled machine', which the P.U.L.S.ers above all experienced with Ivo Van Hove's Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, to a more personal encounter such as Lisaboa Houbrechts had with Alain Platel and composer Fabrizio Cassol for Requiem pour L.. Being part of a well-oiled machine did not mean that the interns didn’t appreciate their experience with Van Hove, by the way. On the contrary, they were unanimously impressed by his way of working (and by the entire ITA team, for that matter).
Interning with Guy Cassiers had the added advantage that the P.U.L.S.ers became better acquainted with the Bourla Theatre, not an easily tamed hall, which furthermore – but is also what made it interesting – has a unique, ‘old-fashioned’ technical infrastructure with manually operated rigging. Doing an internship with Guy Cassiers meant really getting to know Toneelhuis’s own theatre, and seeing someone at work who knows it inside and out.
The internships with Jan Fabre ended in the aftermath of a public letter accusing him of the abuse of power and sexual misconduct. Moreover, there had been a confrontation between Fabre and one of the P.U.L.S. artists. Without passing judgment on the merits of the case – a court of law will decide that in the near future – this is an example of how a changed reality can drastically alter plans.
On top of that, some of the P.U.L.S.ers indicated that they also wanted to do an internship with artists who were not part of the initial setup. Hannah De Meyer, for example, did an internship with Amanda Pina; Bosse Provoost with Marc Vanrunxt; and Timeau De Keyser even did one with Olympique Dramatique, a company in the Toneelhuis stable of artists.
The internship system thus resulted in important, instructive and fascinating experiences, although we did adapt it as we went along, due to ‘the Fabre affair’ and the desire of the P.U.L.S.ers to work with other ‘intern masters’ in addition to the senior partners. This is another example of how we deviated from the sketch with which we started P.U.L.S., how we responded to a changing reality. Thinking further about what the significance of internships could be in a trajectory for young theatre makers, perhaps we should ‘tailor’ them to the specific artist even more. The desire or need for one or more internships can also crop up while a trajectory is underway; it doesn’t necessarily have to be part of a predetermined plan. Suppose for example that ‘lighting’ is becoming increasingly important for a particular artist. He or she could then do an internship which meets that requirement. This would make the internship trajectory (even) more personal, more related to the individual's own artistic needs.
Apart from that, we saw how important it was for the makers to be able to spend enough time working in a big theatre – on their own productions of course, but also as interns for the work of others. Learning how to master the large stage remains a priority. This is why artists need to be able to ‘punch the clock’ in a big theatre, ideally in a job such as assistant director or production assistant.
Another pillar of the P.U.L.S. trajectory consisted of workshops and meetings – mini versions of the internships, as it were. These were short practical or informative sessions and inspiring conversations with various artists from the performing arts world, again with the large stage as starting point. Among these artists were Fabiana Piccioli (lighting), Eric Sleichim (sound), Viviane De Muynck (acting, voice), Johan Leysen (acting), Julien Gosselin (directing) and Meg Stuart (directing, creating). Here, the same goes as for the internships: in the future, such workshops could be (even) more specifically tailored to the individual’s own artistic process. Although it must be said that taking a workshop with someone you don’t know – and therefore wouldn't necessarily choose – could offer a short adventure that, perhaps much later, might have an influence on your work. For example, as a result of Lisaboa Houbrechts’ becoming acquainted with Fabiana Piccioli a few years ago, in 2023 Fabiana will be designing the lighting for Lisaboa’s De geschiedenis van kinderen. Workshops, whether specifically requested by artists or not, can be stimulating sessions that help them move ahead in a future artistic process or point to previously unsuspected side roads.
Love at first Sight, the annual Antwerp festival for new artists, was not part of the initial plan. It was primarily set up as a way of creating an audience for the P.U.L.S. makers, an audience Toneelhuis did not have at the time. This was the public that frequented the smaller venues where the P.U.L.S.ers (and other young stage artists) had made earlier moves. In the years prior to this, it had already become clear to us that we needed to make an extra effort to attract a new audience that was open to alternative forms of expression. Season ticket holders had shown that they had a lot of difficulty with the work of Abke Haring, for example; they would undoubtedly have the same problems with the new crop of makers. So, whereas P.U.L.S. was based on the new makers, Love at first Sight was conceived as a tool for building up an audience for them. In order to link the two projects, it was necessary for Toneelhuis to establish connections with other, usually small(er) platforms in Antwerp. As a result, different venues of various sizes were suddenly sitting at the table with us: Monty, Troubleyn, detheatermaker, deStudio, Zuidpool, Arenberg and, more recently, WP Zimmer, HetPaleis, deSingel, KAVKA, Rataplan and Trix as well. It is amazing how we managed, in a very short time, to set up a festival that was quickly regarded as an important annual platform for new work. We were added to the list of TAZ, Bâtard... and, partly because of that, established our own profile.
As a context for the presentation of P.U.LS. work, Love at first Sight was certainly successful. The festival facilitated the transition of our artists from smaller venues to the large stage, as for example Lisaboa & Kuiperskaai’s 1095 in Monty, and their Hamlet and Bruegel in the Bourla; or tibaldus’s presentation of Yvonne in the Bourla, followed by Het Huwelijk and Gekken & Specialisten. We do feel, however, that the P.U.L.S. artists have gradually outgrown Love at first Sight.
That doesn’t alter the fact that Love at first Sight has thus far been an important and even necessary platform. People look forward to the programming and to the event itself, which fans out across the entire city. It has generated an ongoing conversation between the different venues in Antwerp and has reconnected Toneelhuis, in combination with P.U.L.S., with the field of new artists, theatre schools and a young audience. It is important to cherish this festival, to keep it going and, where possible, intensify the teamwork between the partners. Ideally, this would occur as part of a larger policy plan, with some venues working together on a more structural basis when it comes to young makers. In other words, Love at first Sight could be a model for further collaboration with organizations like Monty and d e t h e a t e r m a k e r, and as such could generate new P.U.L.S. artists, young makers who start out on a smaller scale and eventually want to develop toward the large stage.
We can try to give a broad answer to that question, but will have to consider it artist by artist as well. Which is only logical. Artists are not interchangeable; they each follow a highly individual path. That became increasingly clear over the years. We can be pleased that none of them dropped out, which was a real possibility, given the pressure they were under.
Overall, we can say that P.U.L.S. gradually ‘decomposed’, to the benefit of the individual artists. This was a logical process. Toneelhuis always put the individuality of the P.U.L.S. artists first, as it does with all of its artists, when presenting and promoting their work and publicizing their artistic identity. Nevertheless, we also undertook the requisite publicity for the P.U.L.S. ‘brand’ as such; after all, we claimed we were developing a long-term way of working with new makers, and we wanted to communicate information about that model and, where necessary, provide the context in which we were presenting their work – for our ‘old’ season-ticket holders, for instance, but also for interested venues and organizers from abroad. P.U.LS also made its mark abroad (especially in France). Presenting the artists under the P.U.L.S. ‘brand’ undoubtedly had an effect on the attention they received. It enabled us to combine their strengths as a package, and sometimes we got an opportunity to explain our way of working. For example, it led to a 'P.U.L.S. week' in Paris (Théâtre de la Bastille), and a similar week in Amsterdam in the near future (February-March 2022). Weeks such as these make it clear how different the artists’ work is.
Lisaboa Houbrechts may have taken the most complicated path. She had a clear ambition in mind: to make big productions for the large stage with a big cast, and to do so as quickly as possible. She explicitly saw herself as a director within the artist collective Kuiperskaai. The manner in which she presented herself had to make that clear: Lisaboa Houbrechts & Kuiperskaai. Lisaboa lived up to her ambitions: she is considered a promising talent for the large stage, even as far off as France or Poland.
In a way, Lisaboa was already making productions for the large stage with Kuiperskaai before she entered P.U.L.S., but they were performed on a smaller platform by necessity. It was theatre that was almost bursting at the seams, with lots of performers and multimedia, baroque and expressive. Not surprisingly, she was the first of the P.U.L.S.ers to want to create work for the large stage: after Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale (2016) and Victor Lauwers’ 1095 (2017), 'big' productions presented on smaller platforms, she staged her adaptation of Hamlet (2019) at Toneelhuis. She made Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, the central figure and, according to Knack, "mastered Shakespeare's mythical tale with distinctly contemporary impetuosity”.
Lisaboa struck out in a new direction with Bruegel (2019), an international co-production with Le Phénix in Valenciennes and the baroque ensemble Harmonia Sacra. Here, the central figure was De Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), Bruegel's most notorious character: a battle-axe who, according to tradition, plunders for hell. Lisaboa turned her into a tender character in a production that, far from any binary thinking, speaks of the desire to fluidly accept and represent what people call ambiguous and reprehensible. “Captivating and provocative theatre,” wrote De Morgen. Bruegel was also the first production that Lisaboa Houbrechts made under her own name. That choice was the upshot of difficult decisions and a complicated relationship with her former artistic allies from Kuiperskaai. Toneelhuis had the task of serenely guiding her through that process.
Since then, Lisaboa has made the impressive I Silenti (2021), a direct result of her internship with Alain Platel and the composer Fabrizio Cassol. It was Cassol who invited her on behalf of Théâtre de Namur to direct this production about the Porajmos, the forgotten Roma Holocaust during World War II, with the blind violinist Tcha Limberger as pivotal figure amidst a choice selection of top international musicians and vocalists.
Lisaboa Houbrechts has wholeheartedly dedicated herself to the large stage. It is her natural biotope. And yet this has not led to evermore spectacle. Her productions are evolving toward a more restrained register, with an important role reserved for composed as well as improvised music from different cultures. Her future undoubtedly lies in music theatre, whether or not based on classical scripts, and possibly also in opera. Lisaboa is the only P.U.L.S. maker who will continue to work for Toneelhuis during the new policy period, in a collaboration with Les Ballets C de la B and the Flemish Opera.
Timeau De Keyser, like Lisaboa, was part of an artistic collective: tibaldus, founded back in 2009. Although he had previously made explicitly visual productions with tibaldus, such as Paard: een opera (2012), from the moment P.U.L.S. started he resolutely and consistently chose repertoire plays, in particular the work of the Polish-Argentine playwright Witold Gombrowicz. By the end of 2021, he had staged all three of Gombrowicz's plays: Yvonne, prinses van Bourgondië (Yvona, Princess of Burgundia, 2017), Het Huwelijk (The Marriage, 2019) and Operette (Operetta, 2021). His decision to interrupt this series with the staging of Gekken & Specialisten (Madmen & Specialists) by Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka in 2020 should be seen in light of his love of Gombrowicz. Timeau used his time with P.U.L.S. not only to make productions, but also to develop a vision of the relation between the performance of the actor and the roles that are assigned to or forced upon people by society, by others. A vision of culture as social conditioning. With his characters, Gombrowicz searches for a naked state of being – an impossible task, but in this way he unerringly exposes that conditioning as the system of ‘being dressed’. Timeau found a similar viewpoint in Soyinka’s play.
Together with his tibaldus mates Simon De Winne and Hans Mortelmans, Timeau De Keyser developed a signature that makes extremely sober use of the means available to theatre. Lighting, costumes, props, scenography: everything is reduced to the strictly necessary, every 'fake' form of theatricality excluded. Costumes are often 'ordinary’ clothes; lighting is kept to a minimum; a single prop or scenographic element – a mitre, a dirty rag – makes anything else superfluous. This is because theatricality is imagination, and the language/script and the actor's rendering of it is more than enough to open a world for the audience and make it understandable. Against this paucity of means – but actually running in parallel – the live vocal music stands out: polyphonic madrigals, early baroque ... as a commentary, as an interlude, setting the rhythm of the performance. It has a salutary effect.
Besides theatre, Timeau’s interest in film (he co-directed the feature Étangs noirs with Pieter Dumoulin) and his written reflections on acting, for instance, make him an artist with a distinct poetics. Very much up to date, and every bit as critical of the hasty and overly facile assumptions of some of his contemporaries as he is of the matter-of-course continuation of traditions that are no longer questioned.
With the staging of Operette, Timeau is not only concluding his stay at Toneelhuis, but, together with tibaldus, probably an artistic chapter as well. The future lies open; the direction has not yet been chosen.
Bosse Provoost has never concealed his interest in visual art and installation art – and their influence on his work is unmistakable. Several times it even made him doubt whether theatre should be his medium, and whether an art hall, with the individual way in which visual art addresses its audience there, wouldn’t be a better place to show his work. Yet he has continued to face the challenge of the medium of theatre. While his work, which he has been developing together with Ezra Veldhuis since 2018, could be called installation art, it has always been co-determined by duration and aimed for an arc of tension, which nevertheless brings you back to theatre. A crucial subject for Bosse and Ezra was ‘space’ – of the theatre – which they showed in its materiality and as a place of magic. Actors were indeed present, but they set themselves aside – sometimes literally – in favour of technical means such as lighting and sound, and a theatre infrastructure with its winches, spotlights and curtains. The result was a wondrous world of its own, analogous with and as a metaphor for the cosmos in which humans, all in all, can only play a modest role. We are but a crumb on the skirt of the universe, to quote the poet Lucebert.
Bosse started his trajectory in P.U.LS. by creating The Act of Dying, a choreography for three bodies that die over and over again, together with the collective de polen. After that he started working with Ezra Veldhuis. They staged Paul Celan’s difficult poetry in the Bourla, a daring undertaking. “Rarely have I experienced such a strange evening of theatre,” wrote Carl De Strycker, editor-in-chief of Poëziekrant, “but never before have I had the feeling that poetry was being staged more accurately.” Bosse and Ezra then went back to the 'small stage' to depict the history of light with SUN-SET. “The brilliance of this production,” said Pieter T'Jonck on the website Pzazz, “is that it starts from the old, familiar visual formulas in which ‘light’ stands for a theatrical idea of ‘truth’ and ‘creation’ in order to end up elsewhere. They show us that we produce that reality ourselves.” You could also see it as an exercise for what they did with Indoor Weather. There, Bosse and Ezra transformed the Bourla into an ecosystem in which the scenic space coincided with a (utopian? dystopian? atopic?) world in the future. A science fiction fantasy with no plot and barely recognizable characters, in which the leading role was set aside for the Bourla’s fly system, designated as European heritage. An exciting, unique theatrical experience in our old theatre.
Hannah De Meyer has always been a maverick in P.U.L.S., and living proof of how far we could stray from one of our initial goals. In all of her productions, she was on stage herself. What’s more, in two of her productions she did so alone. She has an extraordinary presence and is a very precise, strong performer. She fuses text and movement into a distinctive, hybrid theatrical language.
Hannah made an impression with her solo Levitations (2017), a first, hallucinogenic step in search of a fundamentally different way of dealing with things. The intriguing body language with which Hannah accentuated her words was particularly striking. Steven Heene noted in TAZette: “A sensually meandering journey along peaks and valleys in De Meyer's rich imagination.” With the impressive new skin (2018), another self-written solo, this search took on a distinctly social aspect. Hannah De Meyer explicitly based this piece on her admiration for a young generation of anti-racist writers, economists and climate activists. She feels an affinity with their anger and indignation, but also with the gentle determination with which they create their alternative stories about success and prosperity, and about what a thriving society could look like. It earned her a selection for the Theaterfestival 2019. From the jury report: “new skin is a strong piece of theatre: one woman, presenting an alternative history – in the form of a fantasy – in a totally credible manner, and what’s more, instilling in you the idea that all life and all things on this planet are intensely connected, even without God. That can never be done in film.” After Hannah De Meyer tried out her essentially intimate solo work on the Bourla stage – where it effortlessly held its own and perhaps even gained strength – she made her first 'real' production for that stage: hi Baubo, (2020), this time with performer Adina McPherson at her side. hi Baubo, was a universe of joyful unruliness; a landscape in which animal, ghost, human and plant merrily merged.
In her most recent show, Spirits & Pleasures (April 2022), Hannah has set herself the challenge of working with a larger group of performers to create a sci-fi world inspired by the same social concerns as her previous work. The difference this time is that instead of describing a world, she brings it to life on the (large) stage through the actions and dialogue of the performers.
At one point, at the very beginning, we may have rather naively and overly enthusiastically stated that by taking on these artists we would provide the ‘changing of the guard’, the newest generation to occupy the large stage. It doesn't work like that, of course. It's not a relay race, not a matter of handing down the line. But we are proud to have offered these young artists opportunities that are not ‘‘normally’ available to them. By giving them time, space and resources, by providing them with access to a system of internships and workshops, by engaging them in an ongoing artistic conversation without losing sight of the technical, production and business aspects of theatre-making; in short, by passing on to them expertise and mastery in all areas, they were able to develop their work under the best possible circumstances. In the past several years they have created productions they had not even dreamt of before – and yet they are unmistakably their productions. Each and every one of them has a highly individual artistic signature.
The other way around, Toneelhuis profited from and enjoyed a dynamic that only younger generations can bring about; they introduced current forms of theatre and new ideas, which a theatre like ours needs. They brought topics into the organization and onto the stage that none of our other makers had so explicitly placed on the agenda. P.U.L.S. is coming to an end, but we hope that a model like this, adapted to ever-changing circumstances – life itself, shall we say – will continue to provide reciprocal influence between generations of theatre makers.
Bart Meuleman & Guy Cassiers
internship 1 with Jan Fabre (Belgian Rules/Belgium Rules)
internship 2 with Guy Cassiers (Vergeef ons)
internship 1 with Jan Lauwers (Oorlog en Terpentijn)
internship 1 with Alain Platel (Requiem pour L.)
internship 1 with Ivo Van Hove (Kleine zielen)
internship 2 with Ivo Van Hove (Klein leven)
internship 2 with Jan Lauwers (Al het goede)
internship 3 with Olympique Dramatique (Angels in America)
internship 3 with Guy Cassiers (Bagaar)
Gekken & Specialisten
internship 4 with Marc Vanrunxt (Pink & Orange)
internship 3 with Ivo Van Hove
internship 2 with Amanda Pina (Danzas Climaticas)
internship 4 with Alain Platel (Mein Ghent)
preparatory work for De geschiedenis van kinderen
Spirits & Pleasures