from Opening Dutch Theatre Festival

Why Theatre for you? | Lester Arias

In my country we say something:
If the coat fits you, make well use of it, if it doesn’t: leave it to others.
So I’m gonna be very general and throw some pearls.
Pick up the ones that belong to you…

A production house doesn’t honour my work properly, selectively decides to stop answering some of my emails. Some months later I receive an email from the same production house. Saying their future was in danger, and with them the future of young and new makers in the field, that they needed my signature for a document that they didn’t even take the time to translate for me. A future I sign for which I have no real voice. Who’s there to say what the future of art is but me, who more than me that I’m theatre manifested, that I have tasted that blood and dig my claws in that very flesh?

I’m the definition of avant-garde, of high art, and what proves you that, is that you lack tools to break down what me and my work create in you. You want to “fight” against the disappearing of experimental theatre, yet you are afraid of the unknown, you hold on to your education, to an inherited gaze. You keep indoctrinating yourself, and us, on how to look at theatre, you force the newcomers to fit through the the eye of your needle, to domesticate themselves.
Experimentation is key to the development of theatre as long as it is Dutch or Flemish enough, as long as it is white enough. When experimentation is black, or brown, or indigenous, but overall coming from a less civilised country (where you feel very lucky not to live in, or you feel pity for), experimentation becomes
less articulated,

These are not labels to my work.
These are labels to you’re own incapacity to face the unknown;
to your failure to befriend whatever feels or looks alien to your mind.
These are labels that I’ve heard a lot during these years developing my work in the Netherlands, producing a work that successfully wins awards abroad and that tours around the world more than in the place that gave birth to it.
But anyhow: is always convenient to have a brown, queer, latino, for the palate of colours that you get founding for, for your two decolonisation festivals every year, for the page of basisinfrastructuur 2021-2024. Our works premiere at your houses but don’t tour because your audiences wont click with them / wont understand them, right? (or because programmers don’t understand it?)
No, the truth is that you lack tools for selling it. Because it goes beyond your learned language and education, and you are not open to learn about something that moves outside of your own limits, your borders, your frontiers, your peages, your aduanas, your controls, and migration policies. Anyhow, who’s your audience?

I see the colour and the privilege of your audience. I see in the streets, at the periphery of the suburbs, but also in packed music venues, the people that wont ever come to your theatres. I see whom your audience is: the art scene, hipsters that buy clothes in second hand and perform not really caring about their style, your colleagues, art students, people that wanna play in your theatres.
I propose a toast for that, with a coup of red wine in our fancy foyer (or the counter-image: a cigaret and a beer in the cold).
In my last show I had a couple of Dutch ladies, beyond 60 years old, that came to see opera and ended up dancing reggaeton with me on stage, and asked me to show them how to open an Instagram account so they could follow me and support me.
After the show I get a programmer saying that my work is unfinished. Programmers stopped long time ago listening to the room, to that very audience, to the vibration between audience and artists (which is the very base of what theatre is). My work/our work, isn’t inaccessible. You’re simply stuck and very afraid of getting fired by your own community, or someone with a higher institutional rank.

I tell you, my dad had cancer last year and a Dutch person, a complete stranger, that saw me performing at Motel Mozaiq in 2018, following me on facebook, lend me 4000 Euros because the Kickstarter of my dad wasn’t working and he was dying. She did something for me that nobody in this scene (I seem to belong to) did. I don’t keep any resentment. I’m rather here, offering you to tap in this power that I behold (of creating capital and private investment), that we behold, and that is the real future of performance art: people coming together and supporting each other beyond all differences, sharing privileges to make a better world.

I have more Instagram followers than any production house that has produced me. I have managed by myself, not even with a producer, to get to Canada, Iceland, Spain, Switzerland, Moscow. So, what am I doing here? Seems that I could do this without you.
Well, no. I need you, cause I have a mission in this country, here is where I need to tour and my work needs to be seen more than ever. Because I know, that my voice, my presence is needed here more than ever. You all talk about extreme right wing, about neoliberalist movements, but are the same ones that become the gatekeepers to whatever doesn’t resemble your understanding of theatre.

You’re the unconscious reflection of what you fear so much. A “niche” reflection.
Shame on you.

Now, can you continue doing what you do without us? I don’t think so.
Times are shifting, pressure becomes bigger and bigger, I see you full of fear, anxiety; there seems to be less steps in the pyramid but just a top and a bottom. And, oh!, my beloved ones, I see you rolling down ungracefully to that same bottom, where we have been always: migrants, artists, bodies of colour; the others.
In this deep and low space that you’ve never experienced so far, in this space of precariousness and constriction, we engender our ideas, we create with our sweat Dreams that become true, theatre that you curate, feast with; the reason you have a salary.
Because our power isn’t granted by someone of higher rank, by an institution. Our power is granted by our own selves, our fire, our spirits and Gods. We will never be empty; we don’t need to outsource anything to find a meaning or purpose to our lives.
Welcome to our basement. It is time for you to feel the fear we know very well: to feel how your future is hanging from a thin thread.
Welcome to our home: the place where theatre; the experimentation that you seem to advocate for, truly starts.

Now you think I’m nasty, that I’m populist; you say inside, “Oh, how much anger and irony, so violent”. I become your enemy and therefor now you have more reasons to not program my work in your venues, cause I’m very dangerous… you feel threatened.
Because you wanted me to be political but domesticated and well behaved enough,
you wanted me to be brave and speak out the words that you don’t dear to say,
to perform my truth to simply say that I’m wrong, that it isn’t real.
Because after all there always needs to be a fire starter, a head to be chopped,
and you know how to create contexts so that it isn’t yours.
But I didn’t come here to make you feel that you’re doing the right job.
I came here to be your biggest fear yet to challenge you to see the light in me,
to honour it, and to open the doors of your house so I can step in, shine,
we bring that crowd that is missing, we make some “money honey” (cause we got the skills for it), and we make theatre together.

My future within your circuit, within the niche you belong to, it’s obviously in your hands. And I’m offering you that future on a golden plate today. The risk is worth it, because after all I don’t make theatre for you, but for the world that is at the periphery of this very context where I’m invited to talk today. I hope my brave attempt can rather inspire you and also answer for me the question “why theatre?”.
But when I see the way you do things, how you engage in conversation only when your privilege and founding are endangered, when I see you performing “wanting to make a change” only in context, how you create these evenings: (ephemeral performances of politics to feel you’re doing the work), and just right after you go back to your habits and outdated practice (of making a theatre that doesn’t want to have a conversation with the world in suffering, that world you don’t experience), I wonder:
Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you? Why theatre for you?

Lester Arias
(Ariah Lester) is an engaging, charismatic performer who is rapidly creating a buzz internationally. Singing, dancing, film, storytelling, fashion, visual art and music merge into a sensual and emotionally charged universe. Lester Arias continues his work at Productiehuis Rotterdam and Operadagen Rotterdam with support from De Nieuwe Makersubsidie FPK.