‘We’re in the now’: how Brussels theatre KVS keeps up to the minute

Safety precautions during its late-19th-century renovation gave Brussels’ Flemish theatre KVS a set of tiered fire-escape balconies wrapped around its exterior. But if the building’s distinctive design succeeds in getting audiences out, then maverick artistic director Michael De Cock has proven similarly adept at drawing them in.

“We represent the city – we are a city theatre,” says De Cock, who took over in 2016. “We want to be a crossroads where people can meet and share emotions and talk and be free,” he continues over coffee at the theatre’s bar in a modern development opposite the historic Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg main house. That philosophy means that, when I visit, the KVS foyer has been given over to an artist-led gathering in response to the Israel-Hamas war, during which the names of casualties are read out. His model is of a dynamic theatre functioning like a town square – “you have to be up to the minute” – and it makes a stark contrast to many UK theatres. Last week, culture workers gathered on London’s South Bank in protest at arts organisations’ “deep silence” on the conflict.

KVS’s role is to “give a narrative to a society in difficult times”, he believes, “whether it’s a war or climate change … Culture is important and we have to put it upfront, especially after Covid.” De Cock, who has just published a collection of essays entitled Only Imagination Can Save Us, continues: “Culture as a means of healing and making community is very important for me.” Theatre is, by its very nature, all about sitting next to strangers and sharing the experience; De Cock doesn’t want it to ever resemble an echo chamber. “I don’t want to talk with people I already agree with.”

Michael De Cock, artistic director of KVS

As such, KVS has its own “city dramaturg”, Gerardo Salinas. De Cock explains his vision: “Let’s not ask what the city can give us, or what this building can give me as a career, but what can this theatre mean for the city? What can we mean to someone walking past?” Salinas’s brief is to look for stories bubbling up in Brussels and to “try to read” the capital. “That is the soil from which we try to create,” De Cock says, calling the body of work that they produce “the canon of tomorrow”. The KVS stage is duly peopled by actors who represent the community. “A gender-diverse, multilingual, multi-ethnic company is really the aim,” he says. Only this way can they “make the best quality of theatre today”.

Sometimes that means reinterpreting the classical repertoire. On the day I visit, the studio space is presenting Ifigeneia, in which the eponymous sacrificial daughter tells her own story. But it’s no pity party. Maaike Neuville and Tessa Hall’s dance-theatre production has a stunning solo performance by Adanna Unigwe who balances a tone of anger, frustration, despair and sardonic humour. “How many scenes do I get in my own tragedy?” asks the heroine with disbelief. “Three! I counted them.”

The night before, the main stage is given over to Supra – A Feast, written and directed by Nino Haratischwili. Her touring show uses the tradition of a Georgian feast to foreground the experiences of women through assorted scenes and songs mixing personal and national experiences. It is performed by an all-female cast of seven, weaving in and out of an audience seated at huge dining tables who help themselves to traditional cuisine. The informal, open spirit resembles an evening meal with friends, confidences shared over the clatter of cutlery and the clink of glasses.

De Cock, who oversees an open ensemble of theatre-makers, elaborates on the notion of sharing the stage. “We don’t want to always have the power,” he says. “We share spaces. Last week there was an amateur company from Molenbeek playing here. The venue was full of young people.” But he is quick to make the point that this was not some sort of philanthropic act, a gift bestowed to non-professionals. “It’s not us ‘knowing better’ or ‘handing down’ but a participatory way of making art.”

Iphigeneia by Maaike Neuville and Tessa Hall at KVS.

Art must be collective, he says, if institutions like his “don’t want to become like an island”. Art and politics are also inseparable, De Cock believes. The proof is in the programming. Next year KVS will present RISA (Reckless Idiots Seeking for Absolution) by Junior Mthombeni, which asks, “how can you be resilient through laughter?” One of its most acclaimed recent productions is Mimi’s Shebeen by Alesandra Seutin, a tribute to the legacy of singer and activist Miriam Makeba.

“We don’t have the philosophy of saying, ‘What Shakespeare or Molière are we doing?’” he says. “You can be very proud of having that heritage but we don’t have it. We have Vondel, nobody knows him.” A bust of the Dutch dramatist Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679) surveys the street from the the theatre’s exterior. Just don’t expect any trad revivals of his plays any time soon. “We’re in the now” is the way De Cock puts it. And if they do decide to stage Hamlet one day? “We can fuck up Shakespeare as much as we want and nobody will mind. If we don’t fuck it up, what are we doing?”

He breaks off to recite a few lines from Sonnet 18, recalling a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon in his youth, before putting forward his theory on Brussels’ international reputation for dance, which is regularly showcased at KVS. It is due in part to the absence of one dominating playwright (like Molière in France), he believes. Then there is the 80s wave led by choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. But it’s also down to the very nature of the city where so many languages are spoken (KVS use two sets of surtitles for each production) and gesture becomes integral to communication. “This is Babel. Expression looks for other ways.”

Belgium has elections next year and Vlaams Belang is one of several far-right parties on an upward trajectory in Europe. “If Flanders had an extreme rightwing government, that would be the worst thing. You cannot just say it will pass,” he says. “It will be a big problem for many vulnerable people. We cannot let that happen.” Vlaams Belang’s goal is Flemish independence – does De Cock see that on the horizon? “Not in my time – it’s too complicated. I’m Flemish but against separatism. I stand for working together, for joining, not for exclusion.”

His outspoken views – which include disagreeing with the rightwing politics of one of his own board members – are a contrast to those arts leaders who prefer management-speak. And while De Cock happily admits to his own ego, his vision for KVS is admirably collective. “The time of the big directors who claim an institution and say, ‘This is mine and all this goes to me and I block the venue for three months,’ … that’s over. It’s not the way to the best result.”

During Covid, when UK arts freelancers weren’t sufficiently supported by either the industry or the government, De Cock did what he could to keep his freelance workforce active. Paying the artists, after all, is an investment in the future and keeps them in the profession. Some of the actors performed in hospitals and schools. His determination to reopen the theatre according to his own timetable, while other venues were closed and waiting for the green light, led to the government working directly with them to use KVS as a test case.

“I think it was incorrect not to label us as an essential service,” he says frankly. And when theatres were closed but educational institutions remained open, he and the choreographer Wim Vandekeybus and slam poet Lisette Ma Neza went to teach theatre in schools. Now, when an artist is given six months of work at KVS, four of those may be creating a show and two may be for teaching. “Theatre should be used in more ways every day ideally,” he says. And above all else? “You have to protect the artist,” he says. After all, he adds: “We’re not here to look at the walls!”

  • Chris Wiegand’s trip to Brussels was provided by KVS

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