P.U.L.S., the four-year pathway for new makers for the big stage, officially began in the 2017-2018 season. However the links between Toneelhuis and the four young artists had already been firmly established before this. The makers had previously familiarised themselves with Toneelhuis and vice versa through intensive discussions, and through the co-productional support or presentation of earlier work (including The Winters’ Tale and 1095 by Lisaboa Houbrechts & Kuiperskaai, Moore Bacon! and The Act of Dying by Bosse Provoost, Yvonne, prinses van Bourgondië by Timeau De Keyser & Tibaldus, and Überdramatik by Hannah De Meyer). So talking about the official start of P.U.L.S. feels somewhat artificial.
Although it became much more intensive in the past year and a half, this longer collaboration between Toneelhuis and the makers in fact means that we are already over halfway. So it is time, not to take stock – as this would mean thinking too much in terms of results – but to take a look back and to look forward. What has happened up to this point? Where are we currently? What does the future look like? This is an opportunity to see how the starting points – which are by definition theoretical and conditional – were surpassed or adjusted through the artistic practices. And this is a good thing. Rather than being a pathway with fixed benchmarks and objectives, P.U.L.S. is proving to be a process whose direction and scope cannot always be predicted in advance.
In the second half of 2018, the four makers experienced their first ‘real’ P.U.L.S. premiere. Timeau De Keyser, together with permanent Tibaldus colleagues Simon De Winne and Hans Mortelmans, staged Het Huwelijk, which after Yvonne, Prinses van Bourgondië is already the second text by Witold Gombrowicz. The two performances ran into, collided and resonated with one another. Lisaboa Houbrechts and Kuiperskaai adapted Hamlet, with Grace Ellen Barkey as a militant Gertrude at the side of her son Victor Lauwers as the Prince, and her daughter Romy Louise as Ophelia. Thus Kuiperskaai explored what it means to take history – the repertoire – and “pull it through your own body”. Hannah De Meyer continued with her highly personal quest in new skin, which was as intimate as it was political. All three pieces were first performed at the Love at first Sight festival in September 2018. Bosse Provoost was the only one to premiere two months later, with Matisklo, based on the poems of Paul Celan. A perfect example of what he describes as “unstimulating theatre”, with a particular focus on light, scenography and ‘semi-human figures’.
Both Timeau De Keyser and Lisaboa Houbrechts have now already chosen to perform on the big stage, with a premiere in the Bourla Theatre. Given the nature of their previous work, with a preference for a larger cast, this is easy to understand. For Bosse Provoost, choosing the Bourla as the venue for the premiere was inspired more by the technical and spatial possibilities of the large auditorium, and by the quest for a visual language that does not attempt to conquer the emptiness and distance of the theatre, but instead embraces it. Hannah De Meyer has deliberately not (yet) taken the step into the large auditorium. She is the only one of the four to perform her pieces herself. Her pathway is less about the relationship between the director and the actors, and more about the possibilities of the performance.
It may seem obvious, but after roughly two years it has become clear how singular the four makers are. Upon further reflection, this also means that it is impossible for their pathways to be parallel; and as these take shape, even that not everyone will necessarily be crossing the same finishing line.
It is already clear that one of our initial starting points, namely the step-by-step progression to the big stage, starting with two or three smaller projects and with a ‘big’ performance from each maker in the final season, was abandoned along the way. In hindsight, this makes sense. Artistic plans cannot necessarily be shoehorned into neatly defined stages. The questions and challenges with which the makers were confronted and the themes and contents that inspired them opened up a pathway that could not be mapped out in advance. The final year of P.U.L.S., the 2020-2021 season, will therefore be more about presenting an overview of the work of the previous years than about creating a grand finale.
There are budgetary restrictions. That means that globally speaking, there is currently still room for one smaller and one bigger production per maker (with Hannah De Meyer being an exception). The plans for these are partly known.
Lisaboa Houbrechts will be collaborating with Kuiperskaai to make a performance about the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Mad Meg will be making a journey through time to illustrate the transformative power of history. Houbrechts is especially interested in the historical: she evokes this in her pieces in a ritual deed, and shows human beings in a chain of instincts. But she does this with a consciously female gaze. The performance is a collaboration between visual artists, musicians and performers. Bruegel is the first theatre text from Lisaboa Houbrechts since The Goldberg Chronicles (2014).
Together with a group of colleagues, Timeau De Keyser is reading through the repertoire of a variety of writers such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lou-Andreas-Salomé and Jean Genet in search of interesting, lesser-known and sometimes unstaged work. Without wanting to make the play into the essence of a theatre performance, they are considering what the (re)staging of texts can mean. They are also asking whether and how this can have value for the world outside the theatre walls. From March onwards, Etangs Noirs, the film that Timeau De Keyser made in collaboration with Pieter Dumoulin and with the support of Toneelhuis, amongst others, will be released in cinemas.
In collaboration with the artist Ezra Veldhuis, Bosse Provoost is exploring the possibilities of light and space “to arrive at a cosmology” in his next projects. On the boundary between performance and installation, these allow the viewer to experience the passing of time, through unusual constellations of light, objects and theatre machinery, with a backdrop that “rises up against the people”.
Finally, Hannah De Meyer is curating one day of the next Love at first Sight festival (September 2019), which may point the way to new projects. Self-evidently, ecology and feminism will also play a central role in her future work. “On the one hand, I see the earth as an injured, abused body on the edge of extinction. On the other hand, I focus on rebirth, care, healing and regeneration. On stories about new symbioses between human and non-human species.”
Internships are a permanent fixture: with placements as either director’s, production or dramaturgy assistants for large-scale productions by other artists. These are the key periods in which there is contact with Jan Lauwers, Ivo Van Hove, Alain Platel, Jan Fabre and Guy Cassiers; with the ‘seniors’, as they were once described, or at a later stage the ‘allies’. But of course, these are first and foremost artists with a long track record and an international reputation who want to offer the P.U.L.S. makers an insight into their own work processes.
So far, Timeau De Keyser has completed internships in Jan Fabre’s Belgian Rules/Belgium Rules and Guy Cassiers’ Vergeef ons; and Bosse Provoost in Jan Lauwers’ Oorlog en Terpentijn, Ivo Van Hove’s Een klein leven and soon in Guy Cassiers’ Bagaar (in collaboration with LAZARUS). Hannah De Meyer also participated in a performance by Van Hove, Kleine zielen, and is currently spending a year following the artistic activities of Alain Platel. Finally, Lisaboa Houbrechts was involved in Requiem/Pour L. by Platel and Fabrizio Cassol. She will soon be assisting in Al het goede, the new production by Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, based on a text by Lauwers.
In practice, the artistic dialogue between the old hands and the P.U.L.S. artists is determined both by busy diaries and by personal affinities. Sometimes, personal artistic links are created, and sometimes the assistant’s experience is chiefly a technical or production-based learning process. The makers ‘steal’ what they deem useful, without behaving like epigones. To an even greater extent than we had perhaps expected at the start, the P.U.L.S. artists are committed to their own practice, their own vision, which emphasises the need for an individual, personalised pathway.
The artists also take away anything that they can use from the encounters – a more appropriate word than the scholastic-sounding ‘workshop’. To date we have invited the lighting designer Fabiana Piccioli, the composer Eric Sleichim, the actor Johan Leysen, the dramaturge Kristof Van Baarle and the choreographer Meg Stuart to lead short or longer sessions about their own practice. In the future, we will continue with these encounters, but they may not always be collective, but instead be based on the demands of each P.U.L.S. artist individually. In this respect too, the differences between the artists call for a personal pathway. In the pipeline are encounters with the theatre maker and visual artist Benjamin Verdonck, and with the scenographer and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld.
Aside from that, the contacts with Toneelhuis staff of all stripes, from technicians and production assistants to members of the communications department, have proved very valuable. These offer insight into the day-to-day operations of a civic theatre, which is necessary in order to understand such a large house and to be able to take advantage of its possibilities.
There is a growing audience for the work of the P.U.L.S. artists, in the first instance in the Bourla Theatre. The annual Love at first Sight festival, a shared platform for Antwerp-based houses for new makers since 2017, has helped with this. P.U.L.S. and Love at First Sight primarily attract a young audience, which is sometimes less familiar with the Bourla Theatre. On the other hand, loyal Toneelhuis visitors are sometimes surprised, astonished or even bewildered by the performances from the new makers.
Time will tell what the audience composition will look like in the future. However this does not mean that Toneelhuis does not have an active role to play in this. Indeed it is important to familiarise the Bourla’s loyal audience with these new performances, including by putting them in context and by working out special presentation formulas for them at the right moments.
In times in which the performance opportunities for Flemish theatre makers are decreasing, particularly as compared to ten or fifteen years ago, it continues to be a huge challenge for Toneelhuis to showcase work by the P.U.L.S. artists as often as possible and in good conditions. This is a slow but steady process, to which the non-profit structures that they have set up themselves make an important contribution. These are: Kuiperskaai around Lisaboa Houbrechts, Tibaldus for Timeau De Keyser and Kraagsteen for Bosse Provoost. In the meantime, all of the artists have their own network of performance venues, both in Flanders/Brussels and in the Netherlands. Moreover, the number of performances abroad is also on the increase. Kuiperskaai has performed in Frankfurt and Poznan, amongst others; Tibaldus in cities including Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, Bosse Provoost in Manchester, and Hannah De Meyer in Birmingham. For the coming period, work is being done on performance series in Paris and Amsterdam, in Valenciennes, and also in Cambridge, Vienna and Brazil.
As yet, this international distribution appears modest. However we have noted that there is interest in the project from abroad, especially France, both in the artistic formula and in the makers themselves. This makes us feel confident that wider distribution will take off over the coming years.
P.U.L.S. has not substantially changed the makers’ pathways. However, it has offered a framework for them, both in terms of production and of finance, and has helped to steer the artistic processes through a permanent dialogue, without having altered the artistic DNA. A project like this needs guiding principles and objectives, but not to in order to realise them in a rigorous or scholastic way. Daily work teaches every one of us that every new question demands an answer that it is impossible to determine in advance. P.U.L.S. is a living artistic practice.
← Back to overview
Guy Cassiers, Bart Meuleman & An-Marie Lambrechts