Luk Perceval’s theatre invites us all on stage while showing us without any subterfuges that each and every one of us belongs there. A society that is often toxic and ill where individuals look for and find comfort in community, all aiming towards similar goals and all equally united in diversity. Within FITS, Luk Perceval gave us ”Alone in Berlin” based on Hans Fallada’s novel, a play which was viewed online by many spectators.
This year’s festival theme was “The Power to Believe”, something we should think about a lot considering we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. I want to connect this idea to one of the characters from Alone in Berlin that said: “Why does each individual survivor matter so much? Me, most of all?” How important is it for us to understand each other and believe in ourselves during these times of crisis? And how do we negotiate this relationship between individuals and communities?
Luk Perceval: I think an aspect everyone’s been confronted with during this lockdown was the fact that our whole busyness suddenly fell apart and actually all you could do was wait, wait until you could go out again. And that created not only with me but with many people I’ve talked to this feeling of “what-is-our-life-anyway as waiting? And what am I waiting for?” When you experience a very dark mood, you could say that you are waiting to die. And in a sense it is similar to that but in between you are actually trying to find a way to give sense to your life, and I think without this sense – and that is something you’ve also noticed during this lockdown- from the moment that you no longer have a wider perspective to place all this uncertainty, you become very desperate, I would say. I was not surprised by it, but it was very significant that there was so much violence, domestic violence, people started drinking; and that tells us that this ability to give sense to our life is very essential, because when you’re not able to give sense to reach a perspective for your life you become very desperate, as many people were. I am more and more fascinated by how our brain works and that’s why in the last years I’ve been very busy reading intensively about neuroscience and I’ve discovered that we actually have three basic needs: one need is to feel safe, another one is to connect and a third need is to relax. And these three basic needs were lacking for many people during the lockdown. Because you were isolated at home, so you couldn’t really connect, you didn’t feel safe because everybody was wondering ”How is this going to end? Will we have work? Will we have money? Will we be able to survive?” So there was no possibility to relax either. And it has been a period of enormous crisis for many people. When I think about believing or a belief system there’s of course the belief in God, in humanity, love or whatever. But believing causes a wider perspective in the form of hope, and it also connects you with a community, so these offer you a greater feeling of trust in life and of safety. These two aspects are connected to this belief in a higher goal. So to answer your last question, I think it’s becoming more and more difficult for us to communicate, because we are living in a world that is extremely individualized and the most intimate relationship we have today is with our iPhone. It’s everywhere, it knows everything, it sees everything and so on. And that creates of course a world of people living in an iPhone isolation. So it’s important to communicate that a collectivity is necessary. In my opinion this is actually only possible through the arts. Because every other system, whether it’s economy, science, religion, philosophy has a kind of dogma, a kind of premise and when you don’t believe in this dogma you are actually not part of the community. And that’s why I see it as only possible through the arts to create a collectivity, because arts have no dogmatic thought, there’s no position in arts that is excluding… because in a way arts are about questioning. They are showing the true experiences of an artist or a group of artists, a very specific point of view and sometimes that also leads to a very individualistic point of view and experience of life.
But what I like about arts and what gave me the feeling that I am connected to the arts, is that this higher individual perspective showed me that I am not the only idiot in the world, to say it bluntly. I’ve discovered all this through reading, through films, by going to the theatre or to the museum. In confrontation with art I’ve discovered that I was not the only one who felt lonely, desperate, down and didn’t know how to deal with life, and in that connection you start to look for a meaning. And what was beautiful about this lockdown was that for the first time, the fact that we are connected was not a pure intellectual idea, it was not just a concept. There are things we are learning in school, through religion, that we are all one, one body and so on, but all these ideas remain conceptual. And through this experience it was not conceptual at all because my idea of freedom could threaten your health, so it is my responsibility to take care of others and it is a matter of life and death. That is a huge, intense experience. And I am pretty convinced that this experience will change a lot of people. I don’t like to say that it will change the world because that’s such a huge step, but I am convinced that this experience will lead many people in making small steps towards awareness. How it connects to the arts? But also what it means to live together? Or to have a family? To be a father or a mother? Because that becomes much more essential actually, the time we spend with each other, or the time we don’t. So there are a lot of things related to this pandemic that led to the experience of a deeper sense, but how can we cultivate it? Like everything in life, it is a question of individual responsibility now. I’ve been many times thinking about theatre because that’s my job and it’s also my passion. What kind of theatre should we play now? And more and more I was thinking that we are coming from an age in which theatre was more or less a space where we gathered to complain about capitalism, about our neighbor, to complain about love, death, and all the facts we can’t deal with in life. I got sick about complaining this period, I turned off the radio because I could no longer hear all the people complaining, and in the newspaper also.. and there are people dying right now but we just forget cause they are 70, 80 or 90 years old and we think ”ok, they are old anyway, just let them die.” So this complaining is also something that doesn’t bring us further, but what brings us further is action. Let’s provoke each other and think collectively about how we as individuals can take our own responsibility in this society. I think that is much more a question of believing because responsibility means not only taking care of your sick neighbor or your sick dog or grandma, but taking care of yourself. And why should you take care of yourself? That’s a question of believing.
In your discussion with Mr. Banu you’ve talked about your need to act or react, in terms of helping others especially in these times when physical contact is forbidden. That made me think that maybe a more subtle action would be to refrain ourselves and harness the power of staying still. Which brings me to yoga and meditation which I know you practice dearly. Is this something you’ve thought about? Could this perceived inaction be actually a way to move forward in our context? Is this something you incorporate in your theatre work?
Luk Perceval: I try. I try to incorporate it in my own life. I am doing yoga with my actors and I am also meditating with them, and I try to talk with them about responsibility, but there is always a ”but”. You know, I did an opera in January and right before I’ve told the people ”Listen, I am doing yoga in the morning but it’s not mandatory, you don’t have to join me if you don’t want to”. And this was an opera where I mixed actors with singers and the actors were all coming and the singers were not, because they said they just have to use their voice and prepare and that they don’t need this yoga. After a while that led to a completely different attitude while being on the stage, when communicating with each other, being aware of your responsibility on stage and what you are telling and how you represent what you are telling. It was such a huge difference between actors and singers and after a while I realised that it was not working because we didn’t have a ritual in the morning to bring ourselves together. Of course you are confronted with a completely different awareness in the culture of opera singers and actors. Because in the meantime, the actors are trained that they should be part of the thinking and creation process, that they are actually seen as artists while opera singers are still instructed that they must have a wonderful voice and the rest is the responsibility of the director.What costumes are they wearing, where are they standing, how they move, that’s not their responsibility. It is changing however, I must admit, that there are more and more young singers that train in a more modern way, but the majority of them are only a voice. That’s it. Since then, I decided to say ok, from now on yoga and meditation are mandatory in the morning. And even during the pandemic I’ve worked with the actors online, doing yoga and meditation. So they’ve joined me from Warsaw, from Oslo, Berlin, from Hamburg, everywhere where I’ve worked, actors came together three times a week and we just sat. I felt how important it is to stay in touch because we all went through the same questioning, and sometimes we all had doubts about our job. Because we are not only sitting home, although we’re still paid and that’s good, but there is also no creativity when there’s no exchange, when there is no community or life exchange. When there is no creativity there is no joy, there is no energy, there is actually just one big depression. So then I noticed how important it is and the more important it became to stay with these people and meditate and do yoga. Am I integrating yoga into my work? Yes, more and more. I’ve been doing yoga for almost 25 years so it changed my language in terms of my theatre work. I’m completely focused on the human being, on the actor, I am not interested in video images, or big turning scenographies. For me, the most spectacular and interesting thing is the human being. I love to watch human beings, to sit in railway stations and airports and to consciously put my phone away, and just watch people. When you saw “Alone in Berlin” – and that’s actually a good example-, you saw that there’s only one table and the rest are actors in this empty space so yes, that has to be an enormous influence to my aesthetics and my way of working.
It was one table but I felt it was a very powerful object there. And the whole setting was pretty sharp and uncomfortable and that table was also a bed and also a place of execution. I felt that this object is very animated in your show.
Luk Perceval: Yeah, I think the art of art, art’s sensuality lies in putting aside as many things as possible in order to create a maximum of imagination. And that’s how I am trying to educate myself for many years. How can I reduce to maximize the imagination of the spectator and my imagination? Because this is what it makes me evolve. When I have no imagination, I am not interested. So I need it to be activated in order to evolve.
On the same register, what roles do limits play in your creative process (be they self imposed or not)? Can limitations make us more creative? Consider our current situation these days when as you said, theatre as we know it is impossible at this time. How can this seemingly impossible obstacle turn into a creative spark?
Luk Perceval: One of the beautiful things about theatre is that it is like weeds. It is always growing. Theatre is beautiful because it is a form of playing. People like to play, children like to play, to express, to imitate, we are imitating our parents, people we admire, we imitate people that we find ridiculous. So nature has created this huge imitation process and we develop ourselves through imitation. Theatre is very much part of this imitation process. The nice thing is that whatever happened to the theatre, it always survived. At it’s beginning in Europe, theatre was part of liturgy, part of a church, then it was thrown out of the church. Afterwards it was protected by maecenas, then by kings and other important people who eventually kicked out the theatre because it became too subversive. After Shakespeare, theatre was closed in England for a hundred years. It’s incredible that it still living. When I was in China, I was doing a workshop in Shanghai and one day a girl who was working there on a project asked me to come and watch her show. It was an underground show. It was actually forbidden. So I asked her if it wasn’t dangerous to do a thing like that in China. And she said “No, actually it’s not”. “Well you must explain that because we all think China is the most unliberal country in the world”. And she said that in fact it is like that. Because when she was doing this show she had to get permission. So somebody was coming from the censorship and he was giving the permission and when this person was gone, they started doing whatever they wanted. And that’s very typical actually for the theatre, I think it has always been like that.
I’ve noticed you like to talk a lot about the idea of us growing as individuals. And it’s something that obsesses me lately, because I have mixed feelings about it. While I can see this need for growth as a basic human need, I can’t get over the fact that this obsession for growth is at the root of many of our troubles as a society and as individuals. Ever expanding economies and corporations, over exploiting the earth and human labour, individual burnout syndrome. It seems as though growth is not a need anymore, but an obligation. How can we grow without capitalizing that growth the way society wants us to?
Luk Perceval: I think that is very simple. There’s good growing and bad growing. Growing is part of our nature so you can’t say we should stop growing because we have to grow. But how we should be growing, what should we aim at in this growth, that is the question. And in my opinion the goal of growing is freedom for human beings. But when I have to impose other people to become my slaves to guarantee me my freedom, I think it is not my freedom anymore, it’s just fear. That’s something else. It’s fear to lose your freedom. I agree with you that not all growing is good growing, because becoming more wealthy or more powerful doesn’t mean that many people are also becoming more powerful, more rich. Most of the time, it’s quite the opposite. So that’s the kind of growing that’s immoral and that has absolutely nothing to do with freedom. That’s a growing that is connected to fear because why do you have the need to have so much power that you want thousands, sometimes millions of people to be suppressed to give you this power that’s connected to fear? Why do you want to control so many people? I think that when you ask what we should do to grow, that’s a very interesting question ’cause when we see the good plays of Shakespeare (let’s say he’s also written a few plays that are not that interesting, maybe they were too much related to his time), but let’s say these universal and immortal plays like King Lear or Macbeth, Richard the 3d, the 2d, Hamlet, these are all plays that are actually questioning the real freedom, and how much we are afraid of real freedom. And all these plays talk about not being afraid to lose everything, in the case of Macbeth, Richard the 3d or King Lear. All these myths, all these stories have one essential point: all these people go crazy because they are afraid to lose and in the end they must admit that life is a dying and losing process. So if I would be able to accept that, then I would be free of my fear. And I think that in this case – to come back to your first question – theatre must not only appeal to the individual responsibility but I personally also have this need to become more spiritual in theatre. Because I really have the feeling that this is something we lack completely in our society. This is a spiritual awareness and now we are brutally confronted with it through this lockdown and pandemic. So we are all connected, there are no landmarks, it’s everybody. So yeah, now it’s the question of how can we develop our awareness and to my opinion that has a lot to do with spiritual awareness. We’ve seen how vulnerable we are and who knows if after this pandemic there’s not another one coming. We are living in a very uncertain world for the moment and we have only each other to find safety in this uncertainty, as a group.
I’ve seen that you’ve also staged a few plays that depicted war with all its horrors and atrocities. Since we are very much exposed to violence and war through media, I think our brains have become used to the dreadful imagery and it’s been normalized in some sense. And Europe hasn’t been confronted with war for almost 70 years and soon this memory of war will disappear along with the ones who actually experienced it. I think this lack of direct contact with a huge conflagration is maybe one of the reasons why extremist movements are becoming more frequent in Europe and people easily accept it. Do you think that a certain depicted violence in theatre could make us better understand the reality and implications of war and extreme violence?
Luk Perceval: I think theatre is a media through which it is impossible to show violence. Because we have to repeat it so it’s impossible for it to be real, it’s only an illusion. When we talk about theatre I always have this problem and it’s something that irritated me a lot during this pandemic: we are making theatre for theatre people. For the people who are going to the theatre. We are writing books for people who are reading, we have museums for people who are initiated to go to the museum. Most of the time, these people don’t constitute the mass who is mobilized my nationalistic thoughts or parties, so there’s actually always this kind of deviation between cultural intellectually focused minority and the kind of majority who in a way believes simple slogans because they are maybe deeply frustrated. These are people who were disappointed in their lives, disappointed in love. So there’s a huge mass of discontent people in all Europe and all over the world, I think. And Trump is an exponent of that, and not only Trump. I don’t know what is the situation in Romania but it’s the same in Belgium and more and more you see political leaders who are representing this discontented mass.The problem is that this mass is not taught to think in a self responsible way: “Ok, I am unhappy. What can I do about it?” They are thinking in a very primitive, childish way, looking for fault in others. Sometimes it’s the foreigner that must be killed, must be bashed, thrown out. So these people actually need targets, they are fed the targets by politicians. And in my opinion, the politicians, the media press, the education have an enormous responsibility towards this mass. We with our art form which is actually screened for a minority of people, we can’t influence this mass. I can try it but the amplification somebody like Trump has, compared to what I get in the press it’s ridiculous. So there is a kind of culture which is amplifying the discontentment in the world because it brings power to the wrong people. And the wrong people who have money invest their money in amplifying this discontentment. So what can we do? I think we must keep on doing yoga, keep on reading and first of all create a space for ourselves. And what I’ve discovered through the years is that more and more people are joining me. It’s not a mass and maybe I have given up to this ambition to reach for the mass. There is a wonderful Zen story of an old monk with his young students and he’s walking over a beach which is full with starfish thrown on the shore by the sea. And this Zen master is throwing each and everyone of these starfishes into the sea. But there are thousands of them and this young monk says : ”Master, what are you doing? It makes no sense. There are so many” and the master says ”It makes sense for everyone of them”. And that’s what I believe. Our job is to take everything step by step, cause I don’t believe in sudden huge changes of humanity. I think humanity will change and it is changing, let’s not be too negative. When we see the overall statistics, there is less poverty, less child starvation. It’s still not enough, but there is more education, more people are going to school so this is getting better, although it’s still bad. So I think we must be hopeful that it will be changing step by step by step… and like Chekov says, it will take 3, 4, 5 hundred years, at least.
cover foto: Vladimir Lupovskoy
by Alexandra Coroi