Italo Calvino says that he feels embarrassed and discomforted when he hears himself speaking. And that is why he prefers to write. He can keep working on a sentence until he gets it right. I very much recognize myself in that embarrassment about speaking. I struggle with my words when I speak, and certainly in public. Unlike Calvino, alas, I am not a writer. That medium is not my forte either. But I am a reader. I have an intense love of literature. Of the beauty and the depth that can be expressed in writing. Much thought goes into those words and sentences; they ripen in the author's imagination until they find their exact form. Precisely because the words and sentences are formulated so exactly, readers can fill the white around them with their own imagination. As a theatre maker, I see myself as a kind of medium between literature and the audience. I try to present the words and sentences of writers such as Proust, Musil, Woolf, Conrad, Brouwers, Lanoye, Mortier and so forth to the audience in a different way than in a novel. It is in and behind their words that I express myself through theatre. I try to be the white that stimulates the spectator's imagination.
In one of his books, the historian Tony Judt wonders why we have such difficulty imagining a different society. His answer is as surprising as it is astounding: according to him, the powerlessness of our imagination has to do with the impotence of our language. We no longer have the words to imagine an alternative. Calvino speaks first of all about the monetary thinking that has become so deeply ingrained in our language that we understand ourselves in economic terms. Our lives have become a career in which we invest. To increase our chances of success, we try to market ourselves as economically as possible. We translate the existential choices we make into profit and loss. Our problems and our emotions are something we have to learn how to manage. Society consists of winners and losers. Meanwhile, we have all become the CEOs of our own existence, which we continually have to plan, evaluate and restructure. And I could go on like this for a while.
Calvino calls this impoverishment of language 'an epidemic', a word that we now even physically sense. But in addition to this impoverishment, another phenomenon is on the rise: the development of a language that has become detached from reality and no longer feels any responsibility for the correct representation of that reality. The breakthrough of social media and the introduction of fake news have played a big role in this. Twitter has become a platform for global politics. False data is retweeted so often that it acquires a semblance of truth. There are no facts, only interpretations. Previously nonexistent worlds are created out of nothing. What once was the prerogative of the professional writer can now be done by anyone, it seems. That makes President Trump the postmodern artist par excellence! We are far beyond the Newspeak that George Orwell once warned us about.
It is not just words that have become devalued, but also images. We are inundated with words and images that take up more and more space but mean less and less. They lose their exactitude. We are using words with increasing thoughtlessness, licence, indifference, carelessness. Nuances are disappearing. Our language is becoming harsher, more intolerant, more polarizing. The images are piling up with a speed that is impossible to keep up with anymore. They are becoming bolder, more aggressive, more obscene. Words and images are detaching themselves from reality and creating a make-believe world in which interests other than ours are at play. And in this way we are losing our grip on the world and its multitude of possibilities. We now are only moving within the parameters of an ideologically preconceived reality.
For Calvino, there is only one remedy for the plague that is eating away at (visual) language, only one medium that can create antibodies: literature. The language of literature approaches things with discretion, attention and caution, with respect for that which things communicate without words. I would like to add theatre to this. Theatre is also an antibody. It is a space and a time in which attention is paid to words and images in a special manner. Making theatre is searching for the right word, the right expression, the right movement, the right image, the right silence…. And doing it again and again, for every performance is unique.
I find that great attention for detail in the work of Benjamin Verdonck, in his fascination for the unsightly, the marginal, the no longer usable, the apparently meaningless, with which he gives objects renewed significance: in his collections, in a performance, in a story he tells. He has a very precise attention for what there is, and for its history. An attention for simple materials like paper, cardboard, pieces of wood, strings, etc. To my way of thinking, that attention is craftsmanship. On an entirely different scale, I also find such craftsmanship very much evident in the work of FC Bergman. Through their attention for the concrete and the material, both FC Bergman and Benjamin Verdonck succeed in creating their own incomprehensible and mysterious worlds that in turn ask very essential questions about our concrete reality.
This tension – between the exact and the undefined, between what we can calculate and delineate and that which constantly eludes our grasp, between the visible and the invisible – also exists on the organizational level at Toneelhuis. Theatre is not a blank page or an empty canvas on which the writer and the painter can start working at any given moment of the day. Theatre is a collective work process that requires a great amount of preparation and planning. Certainly a large theatre like Toneelhuis, which has many different theatre makers under one roof, operates between creation and production, operates between the imagination and its complex material translation into a production that can be presented in a series of performances. The tension between on the one hand wild imagination and creative energy and on the other the financial constraints and practical agreements within which one must do the work can be felt in a theatre every day. That tension involves constant negotiating. This is the only way that big projects like the productions of FC Bergman can be realized: projects that exceed every measure and precisely because of that must be made. And only in this way can Benjamin's miniature shows be staged and presented in all of their precision.
This precision has just as much to do with the process of working on a production as it does with the end result. The exact outcome of the shows we make in Toneelhuis is not predetermined. After all, artistic imagination follows its own winding movements. What Toneelhuis tries to do is to create the right conditions for making that often elusive artistic process possible. In order to ultimately arrive at something that could not possibly be foreseen. Chuang-tzu's perfect crab from the last memo, perchance?
Guy Cassiers, 15 July 2020