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NT Gent director Milo Rau on ‘redefining the European theatre landscape’

NTGent's main 600-seat Schouwburg theatre NTGent's main 600-seat Schouwburg theatre
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Milo Rau is building a new European world order and within that is a set of rules designed to break the traditions of continental theatre. Nick Awde meets the controversial Swiss-German director with big aims

Over the past few years, a sea change has threatened to overwhelm Europe’s theatre scene, driven by previously unthinkable cuts in culture-proud nations such as the Netherlands, Finland and Belgium. A curious parallel phenomenon has also emerged, namely the wave of foreign artistic directors taking the helm at flagship national icons – most recently Belgian Chris Dercon at Berlin’s Volksbuhne, and Brits Ruth Mackenzie at Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet and Tim Carroll at Niagara’s Shaw Festival (Canada being closely integrated with the European ecosystem).

Like Emma Rice at Shakespeare’s Globe, these regime changes have sparked far-reaching upheavals in the status quo, regardless of outcomes.

Just over the Channel, the Belgians are grasping the nettle. NTGent or, to give it its full title, the Nederlands Toneel Gent, forms part of Belgium’s chain of state/municipal-funded theatres. The venue has opted to rock its own boat by appointing a non-Dutch-speaking Swiss German – who just happens to have a plan for redefining the theatre landscape of all of Europe.


NTGent profile

Artistic director: Milo Rau
Founded: October 28, 1965
Location: Ghent, Belgium
Theatre spaces: Schouwburg (600 seats), Minnemeers (220 seats), Arca (150 seats)
Number of productions: Six major, nine smaller co-productions (2017-18)
Audience figures: 95,798 (2017)
Staff: 73 full-time equivalent permanent staff every season
Turnover: €7,558,101 funding; €211,211 from sponsors; €1,032,234 box office/other
Funders: Flemish Government, City of Ghent, Province East-Flanders

Maverick director Milo Rau has relaunched NTGent as no less than the ‘City Theatre of the Future’, sealed with the Ghent Manifesto, 10 commandments for making new theatre, Dogme 95-style, covering everything from authorship and language to casting and touring.

Given Rau’s track record, this is no glitzy euro-branding hashtag exercise. He means business in changing the way we think about theatre. But there’s already a lot of flak coming his way. “There is a lot of harsh critique of course from the [Europe theatre] scene,” Rau observes wrily. “Especially Germany. Every step I take seems to make me fans or total enemies, but I have the impression they haven’t even read the manifesto.

“People say it’s ambitious, but at the same time it’s very realistic. Theatre is also a business, which is why we’ve made these technical rules to say: ‘We are not continuing this ideology, because it’s like Germany and France.’ The rules are just to break with the normal way of doing things.”

Though Rau is Swiss, he’s anything but neutral. In the shadow of Europe’s capital Brussels, he has already proclaimed a new European republic, while his first season builds on the close-to-the-knuckle, post-documentary theatre developed at his own International Institute of Political Murder.

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The ideology he’s shaking up is the hold of the city/state theatre system on continental Europe – NTGent, by way of example, holds ‘stad (city) theater’ status. There’s no UK equivalent, but for the past 70 years it has been Europe’s dominant force, a network of centres with permanent ensembles and guaranteed audiences, secured by huge government and municipal budgets, often enshrined in constitutions. German and France organisations predominate, including Thalia (Hamburg), Volksbuhne (Berlin), Comedie Francaise (Paris), Chatelet (Paris).

Although Rau says the theatres have lost touch with the people they are meant to serve, the political voice these organisations wield in the name of culture cannot be understated. Change them, he says, and you change the social order of the entire European Union – and beyond. In restoring the social purpose of theatre, you restore the lost voice of the people. Change is not only in content, however, but also in the structure of such theatres, and that’s a lot to take on. Adaptability is the key, says Rau. “We’re constructing the city theatre of the future by writing down the rules of the manifesto, but in reality it’s how we try with each season. It’s based in the very continental discussion we have between the independent and city theatre sectors, that you can’t merge the systems.

“Everybody who tried to do it – such as Matthias Lilienthal at the Munich Kammerspiele – has been totally destroyed by the politics. But here in Ghent there’s a more open system. For example, you can say to the whole ensemble, ‘Sorry we are finishing full-time contracts, we are doing project-based contracts.’ Normally that would be all over the media.

Milo Rau. Photo: PhileDeprez5604
Milo Rau. Photo: PhileDeprez5604

“In Germany, you definitely couldn’t do it. But here there were discussions with the actors. They said: ‘Ah, interesting, so I’m in that project. Let’s talk about it, let’s see how we manage it.’ The same for the idea of employing non-professional actors or the idea of touring. Technicians in Germany and France or even in the KVS [Flemish city theatre in Brussels] say: ‘No, we don’t want to tour.’ And so on. But here it’s: ‘Yes, let’s tour.’

“So I saw the chance to finally find a way to have on the one hand the traditional model with repertory, ensemble, the city, and on the other the non-professionals, the touring, the international. Sociological theatre bringing together texts and directors – traditional such as Luk Perceval, with people such as Ersan Mondtag, Faustin Linyekula and myself.”

Steven Heene, head of the artistic office at NTGent, offers a Flemish perspective: “It’s an interesting exercise to reshape the apparatus, and of course with Milo you also get the practice of the small, lean, mean fighting machine of between five to 10 people multitasking.

“Since we do co-productions with bigger organisations, NTGent already has expertise in a hardware sense at least – we run three venues and we produce a lot. Apart from the Flemish city theatres, we have co-produced with Thalia, Munich Kammerspiele and toured to places such as China. Reaching out is our context.

“The audio-visual element is now really important in this. You cannot deny it any longer in theatre, and for us it adds multiple layers to our new work in mixing fiction and non-fiction. It’s not just a gimmick. And that’s what I admire in Milo’s work, that he’s a sociologist among other things. He looks around, and asks: ‘Where am I, and where are the wounds in our society or its conflicts’.”

“There are still elements from the past, but the thing about Flanders is that the tradition is not to have a tradition – or to be experimental”

The first season, happily described by the theatre as “overcrowded”, brims with eight new in-house productions, three revivals and more than 40 guest productions, plus a host of political events and festivals. The inaugural show La Reprise efficiently set the tone for what’s to come, as well as putting the manifesto into practice. Professional/non-professional actors, languages, research, shared authorship, tour-ready set – all converge for a hard-hitting narrative about the real-life murder of a young gay man in Liege.

Other productions include Lam Gods, a mash-up of Cain and Abel with the pillaging of Ghentian art treasures, Histoire(s) du Theatre II – Linyekula’s study of colonialism in Congo addressed through dance – and Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun, which takes interviews with refugees and those in war zones in Africa and the Middle East to ask: how do we endure the misery of others and why do we watch it?

The theatre is also adding more on the national level, fractured by Belgium’s linguistic divide, with collaborations that reach out to the French-speaking side, such as creating a Belgian trilogy with Perceval at the Theatre National in Brussels. “Normally theatres are fighting against each other,” observes Rau. “This is the best thing that can happen to a city theatre,” adds Heene. “NTGent used to be more of a place for the classical approach and heritage. There are still elements from the past, but the thing about Flanders is that the tradition is not to have a tradition – or to be experimental. We’re at a tipping point, but it’s not about throwing it all away, because you can keep what works.”

La Reprise, performed as part of NTGent's programme. Photo: Michiel Devijver
La Reprise, performed as part of NTGent’s programme. Photo: Michiel Devijver

NTGent has just emerged from a dark period of serious funding and personnel upsets, so now is the perfect time to reinvent, particularly as the theatre has finally secured funds for a much-needed refit.

But, as Heene says, it was the luck of the draw. “We really had to rise from the ashes but none of this was planned, it wasn’t in the script. The theatre’s co-workers were really eager to re-install a big narrative and to be proud of what we make, to reach out to audiences.

“That Milo is Swiss makes a difference. The ‘little’ Belgians like to sympathise with the underdog and not to be overly ambitious. But now we’re calling ourselves the City Theatre of the Future, which is such a big ambition. It’s a lot of work but it’s like a puzzle coming together.”

Rau chips in: “I was a little afraid of Ghent’s ‘classical’ public but they admitted they were a bit bored – even the serious theatregoers like musical theatre and all that. They’re prepared for this, particularly with Europe changing so much. You have far more new milieus in our cities than 20 years ago. The real public is not in the bourgeois spaces of the cities and if you include them in the programme they will come.”

ntgent.be; ntgent.be/en/manifest

Five things you need to know about NTGent

  1. Flanders and Wallonia represent the Dutch and French-speaking regions of Belgium respectively. NTGent is one of three major Flemish city theatres, along with Toneelhuis in Antwerp and KVS in bilingual Brussels.
  2. Ghent, with a population of 250,000, is a major cultural hub, with 80,000 students.
  3. Milo Rau’s ideas come from his work at the International Institute of Political Murder, founded in Zurich in 2007. Its controversial productions push a ‘Real-Theater’ agenda.
  4. Rau courts controversy. He was censured for running an advert for actors who had fought for Islamic State for NTGent show Lam Gods (Mystic Lamb). In 2017, he caused uproar with Five Easy Pieces, which cast children in a play about Belgian paedophile and killer Marc Dutroux.
  5. In 2013, Rau co-published a Manifesto for a European republic with political thinker Ulrike Guerot and Austrian novelist Robert Menasse. This November 10, they will proclaim a European Republic, freeing the continent from its political and artistic past.

The Ghent manifesto

  1. It’s not just about portraying the world. It’s about changing it. The aim is not to depict the real, but to make the representation itself real.
  2. Theatre is not a product, it is a production process. Research, castings, rehearsals and related debates must be publicly accessible.
  3. The authorship is entirely up to those involved in rehearsals and performance.
  4. Literal adaptation is forbidden. If a source text – whether book, film or play – is used it may only represent up to 20% of the final performance time.
  5. At least a quarter of the rehearsal time must take place outside of a theatre.
  6. At least two different languages must be spoken.
  7. At least two of the actors must not be professional.
  8. The total volume of the stage set must not exceed 20 cubic metres.
  9. At least one production per season must be rehearsed or performed in a war zone.
  10. Each production must be shown in at least 10 locations in at least three countries.

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