You probably already know that you will not see any more performances on our stages this season. Kaaitheater and the Kaaistudios will remain empty in May and June, and we have no programme to announce. And yet we decided to write you this letter. To connect with you, to offer insight into our work, and to share our perspective on the current situation. This is – for us too – a period of intense self-scrutiny, advancing insight, and the imagining of an unknown future.
In early April, a hush fell over a team meeting when we – each from our own homes – realized that the list of cancelled performances was only growing longer. So much work by so many people that could not be presented or seen. This was no longer a question of a short interruption: the emptiness that each of us was facing struck at the very core of our raison d’être. Kaaitheater exists to make work by artists possible and public. A sense of uselessness threatened to overcome us. And yet, our staff have not all been made redundant.
Cancelling all of these productions and lectures demanded a great deal of work, in many conversations with theatre companies, freelancers, coproducers, and partners, not to mention you – our audience. Postponing, re-organizing, negotiating, and then communicating. It is no coincidence that the Kaaitheater staff members who ensure that activities can take place live every day are precisely the ones who are now temporarily unemployed: our technicians who build the sets, our evening teams who receive the audience, and our maintenance staff who ensure that we have clean spaces.
More than ever, we realize that the performing arts exist by virtue of a group of people who temporarily form one whole: the audience. In essence, going to the theatre means getting together, and the self-evidence of that collective experience is now gone.
what solace can we find?
As with all sadness, an attempt to find a replacement, to search for something similar to what one has lost, offers little comfort. Over the past few weeks, innumerable video recordings of productions have been posted online. These are opportunities to see works despite the current situation, or perhaps to revisit them. And yet, these experiences are of the order of archival material, of the documentary, an echo of that which may not be, and which will not attain its intended form.
A difficult and collective experience of loss may be beneficial for one’s capacity for empathy. Many of you responded positively to our request to forego your ticket refunds and to support a solidarity fund instead. This was followed by many generous gestures, often accompanied by messages of support and concern. A thousand thanks! Your donations will offer tremendous relief to the artists and freelancers whose productions were cancelled.
We can also find comfort in the proliferation of all kinds of new activities, whereby artists, festivals and cultural organizations create content that can be shaped by the (im)possibilities of other media, online or offline.
open up: a strategy
Today, 20 April, nobody is surprised by yet another cancelled festival, even if it was programmed months away in the late summer. More and more of us are being struck by the heavy blows of seeing the momentum of festivals, premières, and doing things together go up in smoke. Those worst affected by this lockdown are indisputably vulnerable women, men and children. People without a safety net who have nowhere else to go. The self-employed, artists, refugees.
After one month, the impact of this crisis has become immeasurably great. And at the same time, everyone feels that we are on the cusp of a different kind of momentum: the opportunity to question major systemic relationships and dynamics and to make proposals for change. The number of opinion pieces, appeals, and analyses from as many scientists, columnists, or activists has reached a new peak revolving around an Exit Strategy. But is that term not misleading? It will be a long time yet before this crisis is a thing of the past. Indeed, we must search for perspectives for a world with this virus, a new terrain in which life will be different. Is an Open Up Strategy not more appropriate?
what might the significance of Kaaitheater be in a world in which we (learn to) live together with a virus that shuts down public life?
Familiar certainties and habits no longer apply. We are faced with a question that has no simple answer. And so we will have to face this unknown and ungraspable future with manoeuvres. This means to speculate, venture, act, reflect, adapt, and start over. In other words: to learn. To ask for help and advice from others, artists, experts… And to navigate based on our convictions and values.
Collective experience and exchange is our point of departure, on whatever scale it may be. We will be led by a search for (alternative) ways of coming together – rather than alternatives to coming together. We see the theatre as part of the public sphere, and the public square as a possible terrain.
The programme of the 20-21 season, which is almost complete, will drastically evolve with the curves and guidelines. In consultation with artists, we will search for new possibilities to make artistic work public. Due to the unpredictability of the coming months, we have chosen not to print the season brochure on paper and have opted instead to launch the new programme online – and for the flexibility that that allows.
We are even looking further into the future, having spent these weeks intensely imagining a new theatre complex in tandem with the architecture studio ambiorix and the Flemish Community. Ready together, we are investing in a building for the performing arts of the coming decades. It will comprise two spaces (for a total of 900 seats) in which you will frequently rub shoulders, both literally and figuratively. We are also planning smaller audience spaces and a large open-air balcony across the city. However much this project appears to be at odds with our new reality, we see it as an ‘act of faith’: the conviction that the performing arts as a collective experience will have an abiding place in tomorrow’s society.
You may be wondering how you can continue to be part of an audience in that new reality. A group of people getting together in public is now called ‘gathering’ and it is punishable. Now that we are taking our collective responsibility by living in isolation and keeping our distance from others, it will not be easy simply to shake off the corona conditioning again when the time comes.
Let us not forget that it is precisely this sense of responsibility – and above all trusting in it – that will ensure that proximity becomes possible again.
A different kind of proximity no doubt, with new rituals and habits, in different forms, in a changing world. That is what we are preparing for.
Agnes Quackels & Barbara Van Lindt
Artistic & General Coordinators Kaaitheater
* Currently (5th May), you have already raised €32 054.