Tue. 11 November 2014

Frie Leysen: “A culture that shuts itself off from other cultures and influences, will die off”

Frie Leysen will be awarded the Erasmus Prize 2014 on 12 November. How she has been introducing the European public to successive new generations of non-Western artists has not only caught the attention of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, however. Since 2012 she has been programming the touring series Get Lost, which introduces the Dutch public to theatre producers they would otherwise never encounter.

Frie Leysen believes that Dutch audiences should have more opportunities to look beyond the national borders. The Flemish producer and festival organiser is bringing her third season of Get Lost (formerly: Ervaar Daar Hier Theater - literally: Experience There Here Theatre), a series of tours throughout the Netherlands with four interesting shows by non-Western theatre artists. “A fantastic initiative”, she says, “especially because so little international work is programmed in the Netherlands. There are a couple of international summer festivals in the Netherlands, but except for the Stadsschouwburg theatre in Amsterdam, the circulation is very limited during the season. That worries me. And that’s really not comparable to for example Belgium, where you can choose among several international productions every evening.”

Leysen acquired (and used) her impressive knowledge of the international theatre field when she was director of the international arts centre deSingel in Antwerp and the arts festival Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels (both of which she helped establish), the Arab festival Meeting Points, Theater der Welt in the German Ruhr area and the Berliner Festspiele in Berlin, Germany.
She has been producing Get Lost in the Netherlands for the past three seasons. Artists who impressed her in the past few years and who she feels are ready for the international stage, she invites for a brief tour of the Netherlands. She does not take this lightly. “I frequently have talks with someone for years before I invite them to come to Europe. The primary question is: what does such a show mean in their own country, in their own biotope? How does the audience react? Then the following question is: will the performance hold up if you transplant it to a different context? I think that good work is universal enough to survive such a transplantation, but sometimes when I see a really beautiful work, then I think: no, this is too vulnerable, too fragile, we cannot transfer this to some other place.”

She has no qualms about whether it is possible to translate one dramatic idiom into another. “You look at art not only with your brain, but also with your intuition. It is not necessary to understand everything. It has become a bit of my hobby horse, in recent years: spectators no longer trust their intuition, they feel that they must interpret everything rationally. But you don't have to name or explain everything. What does it mean to ‘understand something’ when facing a work of art? Art is a sensation for all your senses.”

As a producer, Leysen calls herself “an antenna that picks up whatever is brewing”. She sets off without a hidden agenda, is not looking for art that fits into a fixed framework theme or a certain mind-set. She travels from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, from the Korean Gwangju to Chile, and keeps her eyes and ears wide open. If quality can be defined at all, then it is through the idiosyncrasy that she sees in each good artist. “What I find important is first of all the urgency that I feel in an artist, the feeling that he really needs to tell me something. Secondly, how he reflects on the world, society, the time we live in. And in the third place, the search for new dramatic idioms and types of theatre. When these three elements converge, you can expect fireworks.”

At present, the Get Lost programme features 'Ivanov', by the young Iranian theatre producer Amir Reza Koohestani. He uses Chekhov's story to reflect on contemporary Iran. “He actually says: 'We are all Ivanovs, sitting in our easy-chairs waiting to see what will happen, but doing nothing ourselves.' His very personal style, combined with how he reflects on his surroundings, is impressive.”

Not the ‘best-of’
The shows selected by Leysen for Get Lost are not a blueprint of how theatre stands globally, she emphasises. No matter how much she travels and sees, she is acutely aware of just how much theatre eludes her. “There is so much to be seen in the world! You will never be able to see or follow everything. That's why I say about Get Lost: it is not a sample, not an inventory, not a state of the union, not the ‘best-of’. What this really is, is a selection of artists who have struck me over the past years and of whom I feel that they should also be seen in the Netherlands.

Look around, look across the borders, realise that the world is bigger than your own private biotope. The necessity of this is indisputable according to Leysen. “We live in a period of globalisation, so it is important to allow diversity into our lives, different views and tastes, and to embrace the variety of cultures we encounter. That is why it worries me that so little international work is shown in the Netherlands. You cannot hide under a bell jar. A culture that shuts itself off, heralds the end of that culture. A culture that refuses to absorb, process and digest the influence of other cultures, will die off.”

interview: Lonneke Kok

Random Collision is looking for experienced choreographers who are open to collaborate with other choreographers and scientists in the research week from 12 - 20 September.