For God’s sake why?| Luk Perceval

Asking the question “why theatre?”, is not as innocent as it seems. It is an echo of the canon of neoliberal thinking – one of many. That way of thinking only accepts what ‘pays off’. Only that which generates high viewer ratings or represents a majority or a large market share has a right to exist. In that context, as a theatre maker having to explain the why, the sense of theatre, is essentially to bow one’s head before that utilitarian thinking. It feels as if you end up in the defendant’s chair and are forced to prove your innocence. In such a situation you cannot do much more than humbly bow your head to the blunt questions of the ‘system’ and try to answer them with the patience and tolerance of a wise person. In spite of my reluctance, I will make an effort.

Human beings are guided by three basic needs: 1/ a need for safety and protection, 2/ a need for relaxation and 3/ a need for social contact. If we feel unsatisfied with these existential needs, mental disorders quickly arise and symptoms such as aggression and depression follow. As if the meaning of our existence is lost.

What distinguishes theatre from other art forms is that it is a ritual of a community. A ritual that brings people together and meets three needs at hand: community spirit, safety and security, and relaxation. Essentially, the theatre is a meeting place where people of every rank and position, age and skin colour, ideas, thoughts, contradictions, emotions, energy, etc., can exchange. But what distinguishes theatre from other collective rituals – such as sports competitions or religious beliefs – is that it does not proclaim an ideology. Nor does it identify winners or losers. After all, theatre is a place for asking questions, with “To be or not to be” as one of the most well-known reflections. What these questions have in common is that they are not necessarily followed by an answer. They are questions that express a state of ‘not knowing’.

Theatre depicts the human touch in the dark. For more than 2000 years plays have been made about love and death: Eros and Thanatos. Century after century, questions are asked on stage about appearance and existence, about life in all its ungraspable aspects. They are repeated as mantras. Not so much because we are looking for an answer to the mystery of life, but because the sharing of our ‘not knowing’ reassures us, and connects us. Theatre connects the spectator with the actor who functions like a shaman in ancient cultures: someone who fights vicariously, slips and laughs about himself. But theatre not only connects us with the endearing fate of a character, above all it connects us with each other. And with something far greater than our selves: a love that is universal. Through texts, actions, images, emotions and thoughts that are sometimes thousands of years old, we experience a spiritual connection with the past, the present and the future. It is precisely this connection that we miss so much when we are denied theatre.

Furthermore, theatre is an art form that works directly and unfiltered, because it is a medium that exists only in the moment itself. A few photos or a video recording are usually all that remains of a performance. In its essence, therefore, theatre is like life: impermanent. It exists in the here and now, through a three-dimensional experience of time and space. It is not a light projection on a screen, or letters on paper. No emotion in marble, nor brushstrokes on canvas. The theatre offers a moment of contemplation, about our impermanent fate and suffering, a ritual that releases every individual from his or her isolation and connects him or her to an eternal community. This is the theatre’s essential contribution to the emotional, mental and energetic balance of our society.

The theatre is not an exclusive event: on stage there is time and space and attention for the fate of every person, whatever their background. Everything and everyone can be questioned there. That makes theatre unique and necessary: it is a space without ideology. Because of its collective and very direct character, theatre is by far a vital factor for democracy: because it responds to every voice of a community – and at best generates understanding, empathy, catharsis and compassion. That is why theatre is a breeding ground for reflection, for development, for change and for progress. It is no coincidence that the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague and the revolution that led to the creation of Belgium began in the theatre.

Luk Perceval is an internationally acclaimed director, and a yoga master. After founding the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie, and later Het Toneelhuis in Antwerp, he has been directing at major theatres in Europe. For his work he received in Russia the Stanislavsky Award, the Baltic Star and the Golden Mask; and in Germany the Faust Award.