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Fifth memo: Multiplicity

Guy Cassiers writes Six Memos for a New Season

From now until the new season is announced at the end of August, Guy Cassiers will be sending you six memos, inspired by Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Dear friend of Toneelhuis,

Shouldn’t we dare to say ‘no’ more often? 

‘No’ to everything presented to us as inevitable. 
‘No’ to: That’s just the way it is.
‘No’ to: That’s the reality. 
‘No’ to: There is no alternative.
‘No’ to: It’s either this or complete chaos. 

Never has our future been more unpredictable than at present. The past few months have shown how vulnerable even the most modern of societies are. Social unrest is growing. Economic uncertainty is increasing. The ecological situation is getting worse. Political positions are hardening. It is true that a crisis raises new questions and also makes new answers possible. But that does not absolve anyone from the necessity of nuanced reflection. And it seems to me that that has often been lacking during this period. As if seeing and wanting to identify complexity and historical development is an outdated and old-fashioned attitude. As if the world can only be understood in contrasts of black and white. Unambiguous. Populist. Tabula rasa. The passionate emotion prevails. The historian Tony Judt puts it this way: “We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals – fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers – are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole.”

I think Calvino’s fifth memo – ‘Multiplicity’ – has everything to do with that. Calvino concentrates primarily on literature. He finds a model of multiplicity in works like In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil, novels that are also very dear to me. These are thick books thousands of pages long, on which their authors worked for a lifetime and in which they incorporated all of their knowledge and experience. Calvino regards such novels as encyclopaedias. As a means of acquiring knowledge. As a network of connections between events, people and things in the world. That network is not entirely visible, however. When he died, Musil was perhaps half finished with writing his book and Proust kept revising the proofs of his novel until he was on his deathbed, to the despair of his publisher. Abundance. Correspondence. Multiplicity. Not wanting to reduce the profusion that is reality, with all of its contradictions, tensions and conflicts. 

I would like to also use such words as ‘multiple’ and even ‘encyclopaedic’ to describe what Toneelhuis does. Making theatre has the advantage of not having to work alone. Theatre is always group work, always ‘multiple’ by definition. In that respect, a show – of any kind, even the most simple – is always the result of a complex network of ideas, agreements and decisions. Theatre productions are dialogues between words, bodies, objects, music, images, and so forth. All those disciplines intersect on stage and each can tell its own story, create its own perspective. And just as a theatre production for me is a place where different artists and disciplines come together, Toneelhuis is a common ground for many different theatre makers and theatre poetics. 

As such, Toneelhuis offers an ‘encyclopaedia’ of what contemporary theatre can be: from great technological ingenuity to pure craftsmanship, from repertory theatre to visually-focused productions, from bare-bones staging to extravagant music and dance spectacles, from performances in a warehouse to shows in private homes, etcetera. No matter how different, all these productions come about because of the need to tell something and take a stand. One and all, they are responses to current questions about power, politics, significance, ecology, dialogue, encounters and so on, and how to communicate that to an audience. I continue to believe that theatres are special places where people come together and experience an event that addresses them through the senses and emotionally, intellectually and morally challenges them. 

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is the title of Calvino’s book. He was planning to write six memos, about six principles he wanted to safeguard for the future. Only five of them were completed. He was unable to write the sixth, ‘Consistency’, because he suddenly died. So this memo is very symbolic. Consistency. Coherence. Where everything falls into place and all the pieces of the puzzle gain meaning. Perhaps this is also ‘the coherent whole’ that Tony Judt is talking about and that we so often are lacking. 

I am not going to write a sixth memo either. That would not only be very pretentious, it would also go against the intention of these letters: a somewhat long-drawn-out introduction to the 2020-2021 season, which is starting under such a strange star. 

In the first memo – ‘Lightness’, written almost 2 months ago – I said that by the end of August there probably would be more clarity about the conditions in which we will be having to work. We now are almost at the end of August and the situation has not fundamentally changed. There are many things we do not have under control at present. Toneelhuis has also sustained a very heavy blow in recent months. We have been struck at the heart of our activities. But we have not thrown in the towel. Behind the scenes, we have been back to work for quite a while. Tomorrow we are launching our new season. We are very proud of it. Perhaps even prouder than usual, precisely because it required so much effort. Working within the restrictions imposed by corona is not self-evident, but the Toneelhuis makers also considered it a challenge. They artistically rethought their shows to fit the new frameworks. Within the imposed limitations, they imaginatively searched for new forms of communication and unexpected locations in which to perform. We will be traveling less but at the same time playing more in Antwerp. All of which makes this autumn particularly exciting. 

‘No’ is the refusal to accept the existing reality as the only conceivable and only true reality. ‘No’ is the belief in the sense of possibility. 
So ‘no’ is actually a big ‘yes’. 

‘Yes’ to imagination. 
‘Yes’ to new points of view.
‘Yes’ to alternative ideas.
‘Yes’ to unexpected forms of expression.
‘Yes’ to a different world.
‘Yes’ is what everyone here at Toneelhuis also says to you, our audience.

We are glad to be able to see you again, in the Bourla and on location. 
As the sixth memo, I hereby offer you the 2020-2021 season. 

It is up to you to judge its consistency.

A very warm welcome to you,


Guy Cassiers & Toneelhuis