from Opening Dutch Theatre Festival 2020

Re-see what we see we cannot unsee | Edit Kaldor


Thank you for the invitation. And thank you for the question. Why theatre?
That’s exactly what my mother asked me when I told her that I’m quitting my medical studies because I want to go and study theatre instead. I’m not sure what I answered her, if anything. I was 18 at the time, and by then, so it happened, I had already seen a lot. By then I already went through a political defection from my home country, with the related interrogations and all else that it involves: uncertainty, refugee camp, tumult and confusion, displacement, unfounded hope, and a new life in a big city far, far away, full of grit and glamour. And I’ve seen other things. Things, I deem, even today, to be unspeakable.

They say that what you’ve seen you cannot unsee. Even if you want to. Once you have seen something you cannot ever unsee it. But you can re-see it. You can see it again. You can look at it again. Take time for it. Review it. Reflect on it.

And if my mother would ask me that question now: Why theatre? I think that’s what I would tell her. Because live performance, theatre is a way to re-see what you cannot unsee. It’s a way to bring it close, To make it concrete. To give it time, to give it attention To look, and look again. And look longer. And look better.

So yes, I have seen a lot. Also since then. And I guess I’m no exception in that. I guess that many of us have seen a lot. And that we continue to see – and also to live – a lot. Every day. I’m not sure, but it feels like this might be especially true now. These days, these months. We see a lot. Maybe even too much. Often from very close. Because we are also living it. We see extreme precarity, we see mechanisms in place that thrive on exclusion and oppression and we’re confronted daily with the countless concrete manifestations of these mechanisms. We see refusal and denial to reckon with the past and to come clean in the present. We see pain, and we see anger, and we let our pain and anger be seen.

Time and again we see our collective inability and failure of owning up to our roles in halting the destruction of our planet, thereby making it unlivable for our children. And yes, especially now, we see illness, we see loss. And we see care and generosity and integrity. (Beyond imagination.) But we also see fear, and a politics of fear and of division on pretty much all levels. And double speak, and straight out lies, and misunderstandings and violence.

What we see we cannot unsee. But, we can re-see it. We can stay with it. We can give it attention, we can reflect it in ways that are tangible for us. That’s something that live performance is good at that: making things tangible and experienceable. It’s an apparatus that enables us to re-see and also to re-imagine what we cannot unsee. Because it works that way as well. It allows us not only to re-see, but also to pre-see, – so to speak, – to preview, to pre-configure what we have not yet seen. To imagine it and to rehearse it. It gives us time and concentration, which in turn allows for complexity. And it gives us each others’ presences. It gives us togetherness, so we can become aware of our own accountability.

In one of my favorite novels, Fateless by Imre Kertesz, the protagonist, a 13 year old boy, who survives the concentration camps, upon his return tries to explain to those who stayed behind how it was possible for something like what happened to him, to happen. He tells them: ‘It’s about the steps. Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home…. As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us.’ We’re in it, and there is never a moment to stop and to consider what it is that we’re in.

What I’m suggesting here is that theatre is one way to stop and consider. To take the time and re-see – and reflect – before a next step is made. To reckon with things we cannot unsee, to rehearse thinking together and acting together. And to practice accountability.
Live performance, theatre can let us do that. This is its potential. And just to clarify. I’m not suggesting that all theatre actually does that. For theatre and performance to do this it needs to be aware both of the world and of itself, it needs to be fierce in continually reexamining and reinventing itself and going to what it does not yet know. And it needs a context that understands, appreciates and supports boldness, experimentation and risk taking.

The potential is there. For theatre to be a place where we re-see what we cannot unsee. Where we review and reflect the last step we took. And where we re-imagine and rehearse the next ones.

Edit Kaldor is recognized internationally as a unique voice in the contemporary theatre landscape. She works mostly with nonprofessional performers, mixing documentary and fictional elements, and often integrating the use of digital media. Born in Budapest, raised in the United States, she lives now in Amsterdam and works internationally. Her theatre performances have been presented in over 30 countries and four continents.