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THEATRE AND EXPANDING HORIZONS HOUTMAN: How do you feel about your productions abroad? PERCEVAL: There is a huge difference between directing plays in Flanders and in Germany. For instance the German theatre is organised on the basis of the repertory system, which implies that they stage a different play every day. As a result a big city theatre is able to program every evening different plays on three or four different locations. But in Flanders we have the 'en-suite'-system in which every play is staged uninterruptedly forty or even more times. As such the German system has a big advantage in that it gives actors the opportunity to play almost every day the most diverse plays directed in the most varying ways. This is the reason why these actors have an astounding métier, dramaturgical insight, consciousness of space… The craftsmanship of a German actor is frankly impressive. On top he isn't averse to the big stage. I feel often jealous when I compare the Germans who're comfortable with playing for audiences as big as 1200 people with the Flemish actors who get cold feet about playing in a big theatre like the Bourla. The other side of the picture being that you're often confronted with uninspired acting in Germany, which is perfectly understandable as the actors get blunt by the pressure of work. Moreover these actors work for big theatre companies who have a workforce of over three hundred or even five hundred employees. A lot of these theatre companies accommodate not only a theatre group, but also an opera and ballet group. HOUTMAN: Is this German way of working not curtailing the creativity? PERCEVAL: Indeed, these companies have to plan a lot well in advance to get everything more or less organised. As a result directors are often obliged to outline half a year in advance their scenery, costumes and direction and everything else that comes with the realisation of their project. Of course this makes it impossible to embark on a creative adventure during the rehearsals. As such it isn't surprising that Germans come to scout for Flemish directors and pay a lot of respect and admiration for Flemish directors' adventurism. Indeed, our German neighbours would only be too happy to import this Flemish adventurism. Because no matter how you look at it, without Flanders' sense of directing, a project such as Schlachten wouldn't have been possible in Germany. Furthermore the German theatrical school system is completely different from the Flemish one: German actors are educated as performers and not as artists with their own attitude and view about what they're telling about each other, about theatre, about society and about life… In Germany the criteria for becoming a good actor are defined completely different than in Flanders: a German actor is very much trained on his perseverance, but is never asked to explain 'why he wants to convey this or another story to his fellow human beings'. My 'love-strategy', if I may describe my way of directing in this way, is unknown to German actors. The German way of acting often interferes with personal acting and for me it is very challenging to react against the former. Moreover a theatrical production such as L King of Pain shows that Dutch-spoken and German theatre can lovely intertwine with each other!

THEATRE AND ABANDONMENT HOUTMAN: Is it possible to shed some light on Ten Oorlog as a perplexing turning point between BMCie and HTH? PERCEVAL: Ten Oorlog catalysed the various movements and troubles within our company. Ten Oorlog was an enormous enterprise, by moments larger than life. During the making of this production some parts of human beings were literally killed in action. It goes without saying that after such a megaproduction it wasn't so easy for me and my company to get charged up again and return back to the old, classic regime with its two or three new productions every season. HOUTMAN: Moreover some actors of BMCie left with blazing rows‌ PERCEVAL: Indeed the entire former theatrical company was disbanded by Ten Oorlog. One can't lump the reasons for this break up together. Some actors clearly wanted to do something else, such as earning more money. This wasn't really surprising as the commercial television came up with more and more special offers. The actors were getting older and wanted to improve their living standard. Others thought they were being choked by the company's intimacy and still another group of actors couldn't handle the stress in the family anymore and fled from the house. The whole thing resembled a marriage that had had its day and in which the married ones didn't take the rough with the smooth after 7 good years. Luckily the group of people that stayed showed the readiness to continue in spite of everything that had happened. The split was painful for everyone involved. We were left with the shattered pieces and a hell of a job to patch everything up. As such we had to start from scratch again. And the best thing to do this is to start all over again with a clean sheet. We all welcomed that new beginning as we all got the best out of BMCie. It was impossible to gloat even more over BMCie. Furthermore the financial possibilities had already been taken to an extreme. Even before our split we'd already discovered that the BMCie was not big enough to make the necessary transfers possible. The idea of an expansion and a merge intrigued us from the very start this idea had been voiced. It offered us the opportunity to turn into a new project all the criticism we had on the functioning of the big theatre companies. This project should avoid all the pitfalls of large-scale enterprises and should eventually make a massive and well organised transfer to the big stage possible‌ The latter being a big challenge as a lot of things had gone wrong on the big stage in the Flemish theatrical landscape.

THEATRE AND LOVE HOUTMAN: Once somebody told me that you can measure love by tracing how profoundly your beloved can creep into your thoughts. How deeply is the theatre rooted in your thoughts? PERCEVAL: Theatre IS love, deals about love and can't be realised without love. And as in a relationship this love can turn into hatred. As the saying goes, one has the most passionate sex after a fight. A deep-rooted love always causes clashes, but never shatters. Fully in love with theatre and just graduated from the academy of performing arts, I first signed my contract with Ivonne Lex' company and one year later, in the early eighties, with the Koninklijke Nederlandse Schouwburg (KNS). But within these companies I didn't really find my passion for the theatre. There was no love, but a lot of hatred. Luckily I fairly quickly met some soulmates with whom I was able to get things going. As such the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie, or BMCie, was founded. HOUTMAN: When football players talk about their trainers, it is remarkable that the former prefer trainers who come very close to their players and are good at mancoaching. How do you relate to the actors you're working with? How close do you come? PERCEVAL: In order to be able to make good theatre I need to have close ties with the people I'm working with. The nice thing about this profession is that it inevitably confronts you with your dependence. The director is only doing a good job if his actors are playing well. Without the actors' creativity and energy you're nowhere. In the same way each actor is in his way dependent of his partner(s). Such a dependence obviously asks for a big confidence in each other and this confidence can only grow if you give yourself over entirely and unconditionally. Once again it all boils down to 'love'. Love is the most precious thing theatre has learned me. I wouldn't go as far as to say that an ensemble should function as an 'ersatz'-family, but there has to be the kind of trust, the sort of willingness which you can only have for your close family members. In the BMCie the members shared this feeling. We had very close ties with each other. The same bondage exists in a marriage with its big passion and warmth if you click with each other; and its downright dislike for one another‌

THEATRE AND CONFUSION HOUTMAN: Is theatre provocative? PERCEVAL: Nowadays it is our duty to perform plays that don't take up or impose a moral stance. This will create a lot of confusion, but will also bring joy because you doesn't partake in 'the story of the good and the bad cowboy', the blueprint of a lot of TV programmes. The theatre must defend against all odds the view that every human being is merely human, exactly the very message which Tsjechov brought home. This implies communicating openly instead of pursuing a hush hush - policy. These days it is no longer possible to come out with a sound world view, is it? You simply cannot ask a question which has a single answer because this means that you rule out all freedom. It is our duty as theatre artists to play critical performances and to hold a mirror to society's face. Which certainly doesn't entail that you have to bring realistic theatre. What you should do is create a space on stage where actors are able to engage the public in an open conversation. Proceeding from theatre's role being a mirror to society's face we have to start a dialectic which in its turn brings about reflection. HOUTMAN: Dialectic sounds so rational! PERCEVAL: No, don't understand me wrong. A dialectic can only be started when the performance hits you emotionally. If you focus only on the rational and intellectual, you get a contrary and pedantic effect. Theatre must engage in answering questions such as: what do we want to communicate to our fellow human beings, starting from which emotion, with what kind of humour? And all this without the intention of being involved in politics. I don't believe theatre is able to change mankind. On the contrary, I am convinced that plays should mirror man's perversity. When you're questioning society, you end up questioning your role as theatre company in this society. I don't support the idea that theatre should voice political ideals straightforwardly. Good theatre has a certain directness which should trigger more than a mere 'It was nice' respond. Good theatre always creates confusion. This confusion can also work on a very personal scale and shouldn't therefore be socio-political.

THEATRE AND SOLACE PERCEVAL: In my view theatre isn't about telling stories to entertain people. I make use of stories, but they only constitute the first layer. These stories only serve as a way to tap a fundamental story . This basic story is hidden under these superficial stories. In every good play you experience that hidden universal or existential story. HOUTMAN: Do you think that a playwright has a moral duty to fulfil by tapping these 'hidden' stories? Must theatre in sensu strictu fulfil a moral duty in society? PERCEVAL: We live in an age in which people are exploited as hungry animals. This society imposes enormous expectations on man. The advertising companies tell us we must be a happy couple, must be prosperous, must look so-and-so‌In this way it is perfectly sensible that man fails. Therefore theatre must give solace for the various forms of depressions this society suffers from. This doesn't entail, however, that theatre should be reduced to sentimental emo-theatre or should celebrate a cult of self-pity. Theatre should serve as a kind of antidote for this society dominated by ads by denying its existence. I believe that the essential duty of theatre, or call it the moral duty of theatre if you want, consists of showing that all human beings, and by extension all living creatures, are equal. In this way theatre gives solace to people for their negative selfimage. Which performances fascinate me utterly or bring me the most joy? Indeed, the performances that show all sides of humans, their loving sides as well as their hopeless ones, however without taking a moral stance.

THEATRE AND CONTRADICTION LUK PERCEVAL: On my bathroom's wall I've stuck a cutting by Gerrit Komrij, saying: "How is it possible not to be furious nowadays? How can anyone say humbly that we have to give some more clothes to the Polish, that we have to give support to Sarajevo‌When you think about that there remains nothing but one gigantic fury about ‌" However most of us suppress such morbid secular views. From the moment you show part of man's savagery on stage, you become marginalised. My aim is to stage this bleakness precisely because by recognising our dark side we are able to come to terms with it and get liberated. JOOST HOUTMAN: You characterise your plays as gloomy, but I would rather call them stingy tragic comedies PERCEVAL: Nothing is simply black and white. In all things ambiguity is to be found. In my view Buster Keaton epitomises gloom perfectly as he is the ambiguity in persona. By being gloomy he became an immortal comedian. He shows us how a sombre character is able to create joy. It al depends on how you look at life. A sombre world view can drag you down mercilessly. Nevertheless the moment you reach mental rock bottom you'll experience a counter-force which enables you to change your way of looking at things. What appeared before as black and insurmountable you'll be able to overcome and put into perspective with a laugh. As such the trick is not to experience life as unequivocal. On the contrary we must continuously search for that equivocality in life: black and white. This ambiguity doesn't only characterise life but is exactly the essence of what theatre is all about. What is theatre but pure conflict? I like to laugh, and that has a lot to do with drama and contradiction: even in your downfall you have to be able to view the funny things. My sombreness doesn't paralyse me. On the contrary, I draw creativity from this gloom. Despite or just because of this sombreness I am continually searching for joy. In your plays you're always communicating something that is rarely understood because the public doesn't want to see or hear it. The moment you're able to laugh with it, you gain a sort of acceptance, joy. And that is exactly what fascinates me in theatre.


1997 interview with Luk P