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Theatre focused on human being

fot. Maciek Jaźwiecki / promotion materials

Monika Pilch: A lot of your performances were shown in Poland and you are well known, but it is the first time, that you are working and staging with the polish team: actors and producers. How you find polish theatre in that context?

Luk Perceval: Polish theatre is not new for me. I grew up and I went to the Theatre School in the 70s and then I discovered Tadeusz Kantor. I started to read about Grotowski. I have seen his works on videos. I also discovered polish cinema. I watched Krzysztof Kieślowski’ s films. These artists were masters for me, who inspired me very much. On the other hand, I was always amazed about the connectivity of the polish audience with my work. I was wondering about the reasons for that connection. Many of my performances (that I made in Germany or in Belgium) were shown here during several festivals. When I started to work here, I discovered that Flemish actors have the same approach to work. I miss this understanding during the work in Germany.

Why? What’s the reason of such a situation?

I worked many years in Germany. Germany has an enormous shame, that influences theatre as well. In my opinion it is connected with the experience of the II World War. II World War has made Germans very suspicious towards emotions. And my theatre is very emotional. I was raised in the catholic beliefs, although I didn't choose for that.

That’s why my theatre is very much inspired by emotionality of our catholic or Christian myths. I suppose this aspect connects us.

Here there is a need in the audience for emotionality. I discovered it during my work with the polish actors. It's very important for them to be touched by a character or to be touched by a situation, or to be moved by a universal dimension in the work. When I work with a classical drama such as Three sisters I always ask the question: what makes it so timeless? And in this case it’s a common experience we share, a unsatisfiable desire for a kind of lost paradise. And this melancholy for a lost paradise is present in mine and in the cultural awareness of Poland.

You have exposed Chekhov a lot. Not only Three sisters, but Uncle Vanya or Płatonow as well. You treat Chekhov as universalist. Experience of lost paradise is universal as well?

Yes, certainly for the western culture. I ‘m not sure if it is so present in the eastern culture. But here in the West we are born as sinners. We are born with the feeling that our life is not enough that are not good enough and that we have to work on ourselves. We need to deserve heaven after death. The feeling unfulfillment is very typical for our western culture. That is strongly present in Chekhov works. The characters keep telling that in three hundred years our life will look much better. The world will be changed for a better world. Capitalism has tried to change this by introducing a wide range of products and opportunities, but it has brought no relief. I worked for many years in the Theatre Schools, and I noticed that many girls applying for a Theatre School are suffering from anorexia. They want to become an actress, but they don't like their bodies. They treat their image as horrible. Through capitalism, the ethos we are living in have become even more terrifying.

fot. Monika Stolarska

Your actors often cry on stage, show their emotions, although there is no over-expression. In Three Sisters you prepared the actors using yoga. How do you work with actors so that their emotions shown on stage seem real?

First of all, it seems to me that we don't come to the theatre to watch the actors showing the excellence of their skills. What is unique about the theatre is that we can watch human beings. And we watch other human beings to understand ourselves. So for me it's very important to search with the actors on how to become more human on the stage. Secondly of course, the theatre is sensual space. That means you confront human beings on the stage with the human beings in the audience, and between these two there's a vibration of emotions, thoughts and energy.

When there is no such exchange, we immediately feel false, because theatre is a very sensitive medium. I use yoga in acting because acting is the art of attention and concentration. When young children are playing, there is no external critical voice in their heads. They don't think about how to do something, they simply do it. They don't think about the tasks they should perform or the viewers who are watching or judging them. They only use their own imagination and sensitivity. Being a good actor means forgetting that you are an actor. You just have to play. Be fully focused on what you hear and see. You have to be receptive and have confidence in the situation in which you find yourself.

That's why I do yoga, and that's why I encourage actors to do yoga during rehearsals. Yoga was voluntary at the very beginning of my work. But now it became compulsory. I noticed differences in preparation for work between actors who did not participate in yoga classes and those who took part in it. Usually, before the rehearsal, the actors smoke cigarettes and discuss current problems, problems with the theatre or with their taxes. The hour of yoga changes the way we start to work. This does not mean that I do yoga because of the ideology that accompanies it. During this hour we are trying to open our attention and then devote ourselves entirely to working on the boundary behaviours of the characters. After yoga it is easier for us to reach the extreme points of personality of these characters. Yet almost all Chekhov's heroes are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I want the actors not to think what critics will possibly write or what problems they have at home, just being in that fantasy for hundred percent. The most important thing is that the actor touches me. And after it has touched my heart, I start to think about what happened, it gets a deeper, wider context.

So we may say that you use yoga, because you want actors to overcome themselves?

Absolutely. Once, I created an opera performance with eight actors and eight singers. The singers thought only about the sound of their voices, the actors about the psychology of the characters. But after two months of working with the yoga training, there was no more difference between singers and actors and their presence on stage. Yoga allows us to interrupt our daily stress and distractions, and to breathe together. This helps us create a intense connection on the stage. This experience I found in Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre. I was fascinated by his theatre because he was doing his performances with his family and friends. And he was telling his very personal family stories on the stage. He created a very specific world. Yoga creates this specific world and because it gathers, connects the actors, and the audience. It creates a kind of family on the stage.

The Three sisters are discussing issues of common relations, also in one family.

Yes, although in my opinion family relations are only a pretext for Chekhov. The stories of the Three Sisters about their deceased parents are just a story, talking about parents is an experience that each of us has. It is only a canvas on which Chekhov shows the struggle of the heroes with their own lives. Chekhov talks about the fact that we are born, we grow up and, in fact, we struggle all our lives to give meaning to our own lives. Three sisters were dreaming of a better life but forgot to live. In my opinion, it is a metaphor for how we live today. On the one hand, we have dreams that we are trying to fulfil, on the other hand, we regret that we fail to fulfil our own goals. Suddenly, we must accept that we are becoming old and dying, an existential experience for all of us.

Are you looking for these existential experiences in playwrights? You rarely choose texts other than the classical ones, such as Shakespeare or Chekhov?

The main function of art  is to give us a space for reflection. It allows us not only to survive, but also to meditate on life, reflect on it. Besides, art is used to ask questions and confront us with our ignorance, because we have no answers to the existential questions and that bother us. And art confront us, and gives us a space to share that we have no answers.

For this reason, do you usually rewrite plays? To focus on the essence, skip the side issues?

Theatre is not a museum. Theatre is a living art, a vivid art form. When we look at the history of theatre, we always tell the same story. However, we rewrite it over and over again. Even Shakespeare was rewriting against the backdrop of fairy tales and tales of his time. Apparently, Moliere placed security guards in his theatre. The guards checked if no one from the audience was copying his stage text, because his plays were constantly copied. Throughout theatre history, we always have been interested in the same dramas and conflicts. Already Orestie describes a family drama with incest, war and crime, with all the problems that are present to this day. The only difference was that they used a different form and a different language because the architecture of the theatre itself had changed. Together with playwrights we are rewriting plays, even written by Chekhov, because they were created for a different audience. For viewers who did not go to the cinema. They were not dazzled by over a million different images like our minds today. We have smartphones, television and computer screens. The image of the reality around us has changed.

For this reason, the scenography of your performances is usually symbolic. Because the viewer reads the connections straight away. For this reason you have put on the stage multitude of costumes in the production of Hamlet or the glass on the floor in Andromache?

Set design has a symbolic meaning, but it also makes the theatre a place of a certain synthesis. The spilling of glass on the Andromache floor triggered a physical and emotional response. In Three Sisters, we have a huge mirror. I am not interested in a set design that illustrates a reality. Theatre is a place of meditation. Viewers are invited to use their fantasy and imagination. Germany has a beautiful word for it. They call it: “Kopfkino”. A film that is projected in the mind. This is also how theatre differs from film, film is one-dimensional – it is a projection on a flat screen. Theatre is three-dimensional, it touches worlds that are beyond time and space.

In the mirror of the scene of The Three Sisters, the protagonists look at each other and watch each other

We look at them as a reflection of our own wishes, frustrations, everything we construct in our heads. For this reason, the characters are constantly staring at their self-reflections, staring at each other. The mirror shows their melancholy and desire. They are filled with unfulfillable longings and regrets, and therefore they drink too much. They try to fill the inner void with fantasies, alcohol, sugar and too much cake.

Eating and parties. That longings and regrets result from emptiness and inaction?

It seems to me that our lives are filled with doing nothing. We pretend to be extremely busy, but in a broader sense, we really don't do much, but searching for distraction. Meditation is watching yourself in a mirror. Sometimes this mirror is touching and nice and sometimes your reflection is awful.

Music is also important in your performances. It counts not only as an illustration of the performance, but actors' voices and vocals are also instruments. Emotions are born between the sounds. For you, theatre is also the art of hearing?

Absolutely, in that sense I am convinced that Three Sisters is my most experimental play that I have ever created. We introduced an acoustic experience in it. The actors speak quietly, very intimately. Sometimes it seems like in cinema. Their muted voices are, in a way, the score of the event. So we have close voices, despite the distance the characters keep from each other. Sound determines the space and relationships between actors. Today directors very often use video projections, close-ups of actors' images. But I want to create an intimacy through sounds and music. The theatre doesn’t come near by using the video, through the visual aspect. My theatrical experience comes closer and becomes more intimate by the acoustic aspect of the performance, it’s like music entering your ear and stimulating your imagination. In this performance it is even more extreme of what I ever did before.

Sounds are also important when it comes to language. For this reason, you change the language to one that is closer to us today.

Language is sound. When I work in a country like Poland, whose language I do not know – the language seems very abstract to me. Although I follow the script and know what the actors are talking about on the stage at that moment, the language itself is still an abstraction.

So when you are working with playwrights – here in Poland with Roman Pawłowski, do you take into account the sound of individual words?

Yes. During my work, I repeatedly ask the actors what a given phrase means and whether it is not too literary and not direct enough. The text itself is not the goal, but the goal is human being standing on the stage. The actor should be human, so I don't blame the actors when they change the text. It is living matter.

Is creating an adaptation a search for the meaning of the drama? His essence?

It's a hard question. The search for meaning in a drama is different for each scene, sometimes for individual characters. The core function of art is sharing and transforming pain through creativity, and therefore we must find the most direct and clear form, and when that means we have to change the text, we will change the text.

You change the physicality of your actors many times. In Uncle Vanya there was a young beautiful actress wearing very thick glasses, which made her a woman without beauty.

It was also related to the language. We played Uncle Vanya in the Flemish dialect because the Dutch translation was fitting to our feeling of the “countryside”. In Flanders in the countryside, people speak a dialect that is very different from the literary language that is a result of a bad or stiff translation. I asked the actors to use the language that is closest to them. Sonia, the character with the thick glasses wanted to resemble her aunt. Not only look like her, but sound like her. It was a remarkable experience that the use of the dialect also  changed their way of moving, changed the apperance of  the bodies of the actors. Language is also expressed in the body. In Three Sisters, we thought a lot about the person of Wierszynin. On the one hand, he seems unreal: he resembles a dreamlike prince or a fool who arrives on a horseback. On the other hand, he is portrayed by the handsome, young actor Jacek Beler. So how to give a young actor a dimension that there was a life in the past that was promising, but now that life has gone? And so he came up with the idea that he should be disabled, moving in a wheelchair, because something happened in the past, he is burdened with a huge baggage of experiences that are more hindrances, limiting his life.

The wheelchair touches upon experiences from the past, and at the same time separates it from the other characters, from the Three Sisters fascinated by it.

Initially, I wanted to work on The Three Sisters only with experienced, mature actors. When it turned out that half of the cast belonged to a younger generation, I wanted to reflect their life experience in some way. How they experience longing for a lost paradise, a life to come that will never come.

fot. Monika Stolarska

And your theatrical beginnings were a kind of rebellion against reality?

It was 1984. I was an actor in Royal Theatre of Antwerp, I was angry and frustrated about the theatre. The directors didn’t use my potential. So I started to experiment with some colleagues to find different ways to work that appeals to the intuition of the actor, and not to the intellect, or the fear of the director. I wanted to follow the joy of playing, the joy of being creative.

Flemish theatre has overcome these prejudices?

No. Not at all. The Flemish theatre is searching it’s own identity. The Flemish theatre is very young it’s started after the II World War. We don’t have old masters we need to copy, so we need to invent our own style, language and our own masters.

Do you have your own authorities that you follow?

I am 64 years old, I am not following authorities any more. What interests me the most is my own curiosity about the world. I wonder where my theatrical language is heading. In  Three Sisters, the world does not stand on foundations, it is dissociated, we hear lines but many times we do not know who is saying these lines. Thus, the viewer becomes irritated by not being able to recognize who is responsible for certain words. What does not interest me at all is commenting on the world around. What fascinates me is how our brain works and where our thoughts come from and their consequences. The three sisters constantly dream of a life that is not theirs. Because of this dream, they become unhappy. Therefore, I look for a form in theatre that will allow us to touch the world of thoughts of the protagonists of the performance. Inspirations appear at different places and moments. Film has a much greater influence on my actions than theatre. Kieślowski is such an artist that fascinates me, but I also admire the language of David Lynch. What fascinates me about this artist is how he managed to transfer sensuality to the screen. While working on  Three sisters, I watched many of Tarkowski's films. In a way, he is similar to Chekhov, he combines seemingly inconsistent characters.

You have worked a lot in Russia. What is the specificity of the Russian theatre?

I have worked in St. Petersburg several times. Russian actors are used to working in a hierarchical order from the very beginning of their artistic career. The director is a kind of genius, in the lineage of Meyerhold, Stanislawski, ... I'm searching for a collective responsibility of the performance, a performance that we create together. Often, during a rehearsal, together with the actors, we think about how to conduct the next scene. In Russia, actors won’t participate in this kind of discussion.

I am not interested in new technologies or virtual reality, because my theatre focuses on human beings. I am convinced that the world doesn't need more entertainment, because it suffers from an overabundance of entertainment.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a seven-year contract to work at the Berliner Ensemble. It assumes the creation of a show each year. I will also work at the Norsket Teater in Oslo and I am “artist in residence” at the side of Milo Rau at the NTGent in Belgium, where, following Kieślowski, I will create a trilogy related to the three colours of the Belgian flag. I am also preoccupied with working on a new form of streaming theatre on the net that would not limit my imagination and, on the other hand, is more than just registered theatre with a fixed camera. However, I am not interested in new technologies or virtual reality, because my theatre focuses on human beings. I am convinced that the world doesn't need more entertainment, because it suffers from an overabundance of entertainment. We experience entertainment from everywhere, from TV or digital platforms. Even politicians show their entertaining images. We need meditation, silence and a physical and sensual encounter of human beings- real sensual encounter: face to face, mind to mind, heart to heart. And in that encounter to learn to accept, and to transform the dark sides of life, that is to my opinion what is art about.

This is what you are looking in life and the theatre helps you to express it?

Absolutely. When we come to a foreign country, we have our own judgement and preconceptions, that keeps us in a safe distance. That gives us the illusion that we are safe. But then it turns out that we are all the same: that we laugh with the same jokes and that we have the same fears and frustrations. When I, we would realize that completely, we will create a better world.