Dear friend of Toneelhuis,
“Nothing exists that does not touch something else”, writes Jeroen Brouwers in his novel Sunken Red. In the novel, this refers to a person's life in which everything, past and present and future, is inextricably and often painfully connected. But it could also be a perfect description of the globalized world in which we live, where the failure of one bank can cause a worldwide financial crisis. Or of the situation we have been in for the past few months, which possibly originated somewhere on an animal market in China where an unknown virus passed from an animal to a human being. With a pandemic as the result.
Some have claimed that the virus is blind to all differences and strikes everything and everyone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The health and immunity of people are closely related to the social, material and financial conditions in which they live. We have succeeded in destroying our natural environment and blemishing our society through inequality and exclusion. We should be more aware of the awesome histories, human and non-human, that surround us.
In his novel The Overstory, Richard Powers describes a man in a prison cell who is trying to read the wooden top of his desk with his hands. He realizes that there is a knowledge and history stored deep in the wood which ranges far beyond that of mankind. But he does not have the ability to decipher and translate the wooden desktop. “His finger moves across the prison desk, trying to learn this alien script, transcribing it like a monk in a scriptorium. He traces the grain and thinks of all the things this antique, illegible almanac could say, all the things that the remembering wood might tell him, in this place where he is held, with no change of seasons and one fixed weather.”
During the last few months, each of us was in his or her own cell. I often had to think of Marcel Proust, who in the last years of his life retreated to his bedroom and with pen and paper reconstructed from memory the lost time of his youth. Like the prisoner in Powers' novel, I have been reading in order to understand something of history and of what is happening now. One of the books that lay on my table in recent months was Six Memos for the Next Millennium by the Italian writer Italo Calvino. The book was originally meant to be a series of lectures, but Calvino died before he could give them. His widow published the lectures under the title Six Memos.... The lectures are constructed around six terms: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity and Consistency. The last of these, Consistency, Calvino was no longer able to write.
I do not have Calvino's ambition to analyse the situation of our society on the basis of these six terms (and their opposites), but they stimulate and inspire me very much to think about what the next season at Toneelhuis could look like. The form of the 'memo' also appeals to me highly: short remarks that you write down in order to remind yourself of something later on. That's why, from now until the opening of the new season at the end of August, I am planning to write five memos to you based on Calvino's six concepts. The sixth memo – Consistency – is actually the new season itself. And it will be up to you, the spectators, to judge whether that can be called consistency.
Over the next two months I will be using the first five concepts to reflect on what this long and unwanted break has taught us, and how Toneelhuis is going to translate these new insights into its activities and its communication with the audience next season.
In his first memo – Lightness – Italo Calvino refers to the myth of Medusa. According to mythology, the goddess Athena, jealous of Medusa's beauty, turned her beautiful hair into a cluster of writhing snakes. What's more, anyone who looked Medusa in the face would immediately be turned to stone. By now I do not need to explain to you, dear readers, that the corona crisis had the effect of a glance at Medusa. The whole of society seemed to come to a standstill. A state of petrification. All that was left was weightiness and immobility. In the theatre, too. A lockdown lasting months, forced inactivity and empty auditoriums. It was if a heavy blanket had been thrown over the theatre and every movement, every plan, every idea – which always necessarily have to do with the future – had been made impossible.
Theatre is a fragile medium. People who work in the theatre know how vulnerable the making of a production is and how many factors its success depends upon. That is now becoming very clear. Theatre only exists in the direct, physical relation between the actors on stage and between the stage and the audience. Theatre is essentially being together in the same space at the same time. One moment there is theatre and the next moment it is no longer there. In essence, theatre is illusory. And thus light. A world of mere appearances that disappears a moment later.
That lightness suddenly became impossible under the weight of the pandemic. The harsh reality of the numbers – of infections, hospitalizations, intensive care treatments, deaths – threatened to crush the imagination. And not just the imagination. The whole material underpinning of that imagination as well: the administration, the communications, the technical crew, and so forth. Not only had hard times begun for the artists, but also for all the other employees. We considered and still consider it to be our first and most important responsibility to safeguard everyone's financial situation in these difficult months.
Simply making theatre as usual was no longer possible. Everywhere, theatres tried to communicate with their audience digitally and often in a very inventive and creative manner. We certainly have learned from that for the future. But at the same time this also made clear how specific our medium is. Theatre is a physical and a social event. It cannot simply be captured on a computer screen, no matter how sophisticated. Theatre is a total experience in which ordering the ticket, going to the theatre, meeting other spectators, having a drink beforehand and discussing the show afterwards are integral parts of it.
But wherever there is danger, a hero always shows up in the myths too. It is Perseus who succeeds in chopping off Medusa's head without looking her in the eye. He catches her gaze indirectly through a reflection on his bronze shield. For Calvino, Perseus, who flies with winged sandals, stands for the lightness that can break through petrification and immobility. For him, Perseus symbolizes the artist who deals with reality not directly or straightforwardly but through a detour.
The theatre, too, tried to shake off the gravity and weight of the corona crisis. Some theatres resolutely opted for monologues. Or public space. We also thought and discussed long and hard with the Toneelhuis makers. We decided to make the shows we had already been planning to do before the crisis. After all, those shows were based on the artistic choices of the various makers – and their artistic choices have always been the driving force behind Toneelhuis. The corona crisis has not made them less important. On the contrary, in fact. Certain choices have even gained an extra dimension because of what has occurred. The next show that I myself am making – a diptych consisting of Antigone in Molenbeek (Stefan Hertmans) and Tiresias (after Kate Tempest) – is more relevant than before for me because of the crisis and the debate on racism. Antigone and Tiresias are two figures who because of their choices are in the margins of society, and from there they give us a look not only at the codes and conventions but also the prejudices and discriminations that society is based upon.
This also applies to the other shows; but more about that in the next memos. Toneelhuis wants to wait until the end of August before announcing the programme for the next season. By that time there may be even more clarity about the conditions in which theatre productions can be made and shown. By that time we can make more informed decisions about how and where we present our shows.
We want to approach these ‘heavy’ circumstances in a ‘light’ way. Like Perseus,we want to avoid the petrifying gaze of Medusa. “It is in self-limitation that a master shows himself”, goes the famous saying by the German writer Goethe. The limitations imposed by the virus also give us the opportunity – if we take the time for it – to think about other forms of communication. We must avoid two extremes: on the one hand quickly coming up with obvious alternatives and on the other hoping that everything as soon as possible will be just like it was before. Because then we will have learned nothing.
Guy Cassiers, published on 18 June 2020