Born from the inside out | Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Theatre allows us to identify with others. Whether you are on stage performing a role which in real life would be so unlike yourself, or as an audience, you are looking at a character on stage you had no idea could be compelling to you, during -and after- the experience the result is the same: you know and understand more about what it means to be human. It expands you, your humanness, it broadens your horizon, it opens your soul: you can feel what it’s like to be someone you are not, it breaks the borders of your identity, it pushes you into not just relating but at times becoming someone else, even if just for a moment. Empathy, solidarity, interconnectedness, compassion… Theatre thrives because it is rooted within these essential human qualities. Theatre carries our stories into the future, it makes a moment live on forever.

One of the hardest things to pass on from one generation to the next is ‘life experience’. Here again theatre helps achieve this in the most organic way. It can find a form, a shape, an interpretation, a personal angle to keep details or essential parts of our history alive. Theatre frames the world… It also reflects it and challenges it. Taboos become discussable. Difficult subjects get a platform, there’s a freedom on stage that sometimes goes beyond the space given to us in real life. The context of theatre can be a caring home, the convention of it helps to create a secure bubble: we are challenged by it and paradoxically we feel safe in it too. The notion that theatre creates a protective place is very real, for many people it is a haven, a temple, a place of worship even, when there’s an artist’s performance you really want to see, or a story that you desperately want to experience. It creates an opportunity to see, hear, feel and meet people who otherwise would not be accessible to you. It truly brings people together, in the most simple and practical way. It’s therapeutic: through seeing a character go through something you have gone through, you feel heard, you’re not alone anymore, you feel the experience being validated. Theatre gives value to the smallest gesture, gives perspective to the biggest tragedy.

Theatre also transforms time; it allows you to experience the pulse of life differently. Through the ups and downs of the performance, it cradles you with an ebb and flow of emotions. The beauty is that our inner rhythm becomes challenged; some plays feel long whilst being objectively short, others feel short whilst being long: it often brings you in this parallel dimension where the past, the present and the future seem to intertwine. It challenges your memory: theatre only exists in the minds of those who were there. And no two minds experience the same theatre, it is incredibly personal even if it is a collective experience.

My most cherished memories of theatre are when I had the privilege of seeing the play be born from the inside out. Working on developing a text or a scene, seeing the coming together of all these letters, these words, these sentences, into one cohesive whole, has always been like witnessing a miracle. The performers connect the dots, the ideas find a form of expression which transcends the original premise. Chaos becomes order. And no two shows, even if played exactly in the same way, make you feel the same way. The same story can keep revealing itself to you. Every time you see something else, it grows with you.

The world is a place where very little seems to make sense to me; theatre somehow organises all these random events, brings them together in a digestible whole, it structures your thinking, it gives perspective. In other words, for some of us, theatre keeps us sane.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a Belgian choreographer. He has made over 50 full-fledged choreographic pieces and picked up a slew of awards, including two Olivier Awards, three Ballet Tanz awards for best choreographer and the Kairos Prize for his artistic vision and his quest for intercultural dialogue. He has his own company Eastman, and is the artistic director at the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen.