KVS: A house of creators in the heart of the city


Michael De Cock, who’s about to enter his second season as artistic director of the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels, has an eye on expanding his audience

Team effort

Two weeks ago, the Rivierenhof open-air theatre in Antwerp staged Malcolm X. An audience of 1,300 people watched the controversial play by Junior Mthombeni, Fikry El Azzouzi and Cesar Janssens in a picturesque setting that during the summer is mainly reserved for rock bands.

But for this, the organisers made an exception. The production opened last year’s season at the Royal Flemish Theatre KVS – Michael De Cock’s first as artistic director – and it’s one he calls “iconic”.

So it’s no surprise he mentions it when asked to pick out three productions that illustrate his approach – cross-generational, cross-disciplinary, multicultural and multilingual. Malcolm X will run again at the start of this season.

After 10 years in the artistic driving seat of Arsenaal in Mechelen, the Mortsel-born writer, actor and director shifted his professional career to the capital in 2016, where he succeeded Jan Goossens at KVS. He has since gathered together various stage directors, playwrights and others, combining their individual talents with a team spirit.

“Often, the best theatre comes from in-house,” he explains. “If you don’t have an ensemble, you risk missing out something essential.”

Uniting generations

Unlike Goossens, who took a more thematic approach, De Cock’s starting point is an open ensemble of playwrights, performers, directors, choreographers and authors, developing personal work and participating in collaborative efforts. His two other picks illustrate this approach.

The acclaimed Para, a monologue about one of the darkest moments in recent Belgian history, was written by Flemish author David Van Reybrouck and performed by Bruno Vanden Broecke, one of the members of the KVS ensemble.

In Odysseus: Een zwerver komt thuis (A Wanderer Comes Home), Patrick Lateur’s Dutch-language adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, Vanden Broecke is just one of 24 actors, performing in a theatre marathon that lasted more than 24 hours. 

It’s a problem that people who might love theatre don’t have access to it, simply because they’re in a certain social class

- KVS director Michael De Cock

According to De Cock (pictured above), both plays, whether revitalising literary canon or reflecting recent history, brought together people of different backgrounds and generations – something they share with Malcolm X.

Apart from a clear vision of where to lead KVS, one of the reasons De Cock was appointed was his familiarity with themes relevant to modern urban life. As a journalist and a writer, for instance, he exhaustively researched migration, and as a director, he frequently worked with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

“When Junior Mthombeni and Ikram Aoulad appeared on a stage for the first time, some critics said they weren’t ready yet,” he says. His reaction back then was clear: “Would you say the same if they’d just graduated from theatre school?” 

Challenging the status quo

In the meantime, Mthombeni has written a number of highly praised productions and is currently preparing a follow-up for Malcolm X – Drarrie in de nacht (Drarrie in the Night) will be staged next year. And Aoulad, who featured in De Cock’s play Rosie & Moussa, has gone on to a successful television career.

Key roles in De Cock’s integrated approach are reserved for three local dramatists. Among them are Kristin Rogghe, who co-organising the Rise Up poetry project commemorating the terrorist attacks of 2016, and Argentinian Gerardo Salinas, the former artistic director of the Mestizo Arts Festival who specialises in collaborations with artists who were educated on the street.

Another is American Tunde Adefioye, who recently shook up the scene by criticising the Theater Aan Zee programme in Ostend for being too white. “Tunde is very unbiased and specialises in detecting prejudices,” De Cock says, backing his colleague’s critical attitude. “An emancipatory festival such as Theater Aan Zee can afford to show work in progress. There was no reason for not putting more colour on the stage.”

Democratise theatre

By experimenting with the idea of “pay what you want” for selected performances and introducing sliding show times, KVS is also trying to broaden its audience.

For De Cock, it’s not a problem that a large part of society might hate theatre, or think it’s for morons. “I think the same about football,” he says. “But it is a problem that there are people who might love theatre but don’t have access to it, simply because they’re in a social class that we’re not reaching. That’s a democratic deficit. It’s not good for the audience, nor for the art, which will ultimately find itself in a ghetto.”

According to De Cock, the audience is the theatre’s main stakeholder, and democratisation is essential. “But at the same time, the whole sector and society is evolving,” he says. “It’s not only a discussion about ethnicity and budget. We are in the heart of a multilingual and multicultural city. There are a lot of exciting opportunities, and it’s our duty to grab them.”

The need for young voices to fill our stages is urgent

- Michael De Cock

Obviously, this is reflected in the new season, which combines an international perspective with local ambitions. “The strength of Flemish theatre has always been its sovereignty,” De Cock says, adding that KVS is primarily investing in talented stage directors and writers in their 30s and early 40s, such as Sachli Gholamalizad, Valentijn Dhaenens and Mesut Arslan.

“The need for young voices to fill our stages is urgent, since a major generation of stage talent that rose to prominence in the 1980s will retire soon,” he says. “It’s our goal to launch a new generation on the national and international scene by making sure their work is seen.”

The workload and production values have definitely changed from De Cock’s time in Mechelen. “A production is 50% more expensive here, due to the bigger scale,” he says. 

Parts of a greater whole

As a result, he has to be better prepared and constantly weigh priorities. “Writing articles, books or movies, I never had the feeling I had a method. But I do know that telling stories is what I do, also here.”

To explain what he means, he quotes the late Marianne Van Kerkhoven, a highly influential figure in the field of performing arts. “She spoke about minor and major dramatic composition. Individual productions are minor dramaturgy, and it’s my role to provide every single person here with everything they need to create the best possible play. By doing this, again and again, I will try to tell the story of the house itself – the major dramaturgy, the bigger path we have to follow.”

The ultimate goal, he says, “is that everyone in this country – half of our visitors don’t live in Brussels – knows KVS and has been here at least once”.

In the meantime, he wants to maintain an open dialogue with the city’s population. “It’s my dream that people from the audience, even after seeing a play they didn’t like, would come to me to openly discuss their opinion”.

For De Cock it’s all part of the collective experience of theatre. “But we’ve only just begun. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Malcolm X, 7-14 September, KVS, Brussels; 23 September, CC De Factorij, Zaventem; 29 September, CC De Werf, Aalst

Photo: Danny Willems