Good storytelling is fragile

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How can we make climate-conscious theatre universal when climate change hits all regions differently? That’s the question the Swiss theatre company Theatre Vidy-Laussane answered by deciding not to tour with their work A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, a play about the mass extinction of species and climate change. Instead, they handed the concept and text over to local theatre makers in various cities, just enough for six adaptations of the same play already. NTGent hosts a lap of this relay race of theatre and brings their own version in October, with KASK alumna Martha Balthazar as the local director. On one of the first cool days of this summer, we sat down with her to talk about the piece and reflect on the imperfection of activism and the future of theatre.

How did this play come about, and how did it land here in Ghent? 

It was originally a North American play, written by the young writer Miranda Rose Hall, and Katie Mitchell first staged the play in Vidy. Because the play’s theme is ecology, they did not want to go on tour, so they looked for other ways to keep their play alive and promote international exchange. In different cities, versions of the same play have been or will be produced, each time directed by a local director and performed by a local actress. The text is also accompanied by a practical manifesto, which states, for example, that all energy must be generated on stage. Then you really realise how much power you need for one spot [Laughs].

The text is accompanied by a practical manifesto, all energy must be generated on stage

The play has been re-embodied in several cities. What is distinctive about the version you directed? 

When I first read the text, I thought the style and language were very American. Through this project, I’ve discovered what truly characterises our Belgian or Flemish style of making theatre: it is rather fluid and often metaphorical, with witty, multi-layered dramaturgy. And I think, although it’s arrogant to say that about your own version [Laughs], that we’re managing to combine the importance of the direct American style with the beauty of typically Belgian dramaturgy.

I've spent quite a bit of time looking at the other adaptations of the play in detail. It's an exercise in finding what our locality means: how the state of a building influences the carbon footprint as well as the city’s views on ecology. This play is an experiment in finding alternatives, especially for seeking international connections; in a globalised world, we are of course keen to experience international exchange, and now we’ve discovered that there are more ways to do this than through aviation.

This play is an experiment in finding alternatives for seeking international connections

I’m assuming, from the play’s title, it’s also about our loss of biodiversity. 

The crisis our biodiversity is suffering is tremendous. For a long time already and at a rapid tempo that is constantly accelerating, species are going extinct. Looking at the world through another lens than the human lens can take life-long practice, and we don’t have that time. But looking through another lens would give us such a different view of our comings and goings. I think I can speak for myself, as well as for many others, that we lack knowledge of the ecosystems we are part of. The text we’re working with explains this crisis in hard, unveiled words. I think the title A Play For The Living in the Time Of Extinction sums up the theme perfectly. 

Is theatre then a durable medium for art? 

I believe it has the possibility to become a durable form of art. The era of the director who doesn’t give a shit about ‘their environment’ in a broad sense is over. Instead of simply turning to different media to express our message, it’s so valuable and important to be able to adapt to the challenge of our time. I believe in the strength of theatre, and if anything defines theatre as a medium, it's the endless possibilities.

You put an emphasis on experimenting, which brings imperfection along. How do you deal with the imperfection of activism? How do you stay motivated despite that? 

When NTGent asked me to direct this play, I decided that all the critical questions I had wouldn't be answered by declining the opportunity. Saying yes meant committing to an exercise of thought, with the ability to fail or change course. If even a small thing comes out of it that makes a little change happen, that opens up our imagination of what is possible; it will be worth it, as well as all the doubts that came with it. I sometimes feel like we are not giving ourselves space to try to do something morally good, or ethically interesting, that there is no trying possible - it just has to be morally good from the first second, which is bound to fail. So emphasising experimenting is exactly what brings forth the motivation 

You have to juggle between the attractiveness of the content and its completeness

You’re also a writer. Do you notice a difference in how you use theatre as a mouthpiece for your activism versus writing? 

Writing is something you do on your own. It’s an exercise in poking and prodding and finding the right words. Theatre is a group sport, especially when several institutions are involved. You can sometimes be more radical on paper and you don't have to justify yourself as quickly. But in theatre, you have this immediate tension between theory and direct action. There is power in the act of translating something from theory to your body. But activist writing and activist theatre are both typified by the fact that you have to pull your reader along. You have to juggle between the attractiveness of the content and its completeness. Good storytelling is so fragile.

It’s remarkable that NTGent is giving a platform to many young graduates. How do you see the future of the city theatre?

As young people, we must always hope that our affiliation is not merely symbolic. I hope that we can influence the functioning of the institution in a profound way. A city theatre can mean so much. But then it must also take responsibility, support urban enterprises and give people opportunities. A large institute always has many pitfalls because of its size: information often has to pass through three channels before it reaches the right person. Many ideas and principles are lost through that kind of communication and it isn’t always clear who makes decisions and who is responsible. But this is becoming a house of new experiments with a lot of very interesting voices inside, and I’m very curious about what the future will bring.


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