At Bronks theatre in Brussels, schools take the spotlight


For 25 years, Bronks youth theatre has worked with Brussels schools to bring the world of performing arts closer to children from difficult socio-economic backgrounds

No classroom drama

It’s not always easy to find a cultural institution dedicated solely to kids and teenagers. But since 1991, Bronks theatre, located in an eye-catching, glass-and-concrete architectural gem in the heart of Brussels, is one of Belgium’s most successful. Its mostly Dutch-speaking programme is tailored entirely to youngsters aged four to 18.

On top of the wide-ranging canon of plays, which are open to everyone, one of Bronks’ main pillars has always been its multifaceted co-operation with local schools, offering everything from post-performance discussions to long-term collaborative projects.

For some children, these activities mark their very first steps into creativity. “We have many kids from poorer backgrounds who would otherwise never get to see the inside of a theatre,” says Kimberley Verriest, a teacher at 4 Saisons primary school in the Sint-Gillis municipality. “The initiative opens up another world to them.”

The children, she adds, love the programme. “They are still talking about a workshop we did weeks ago.”

The collaboration with schools is primarily intended for children from difficult socio-economic backgrounds. “Better-off families are easier to reach, and parents often visit theatre with their kids anyway,” says Bronks’ communication co-ordinator, Soetkin Van Rossem. The projects, she adds, bring different social classes together, fostering tolerance and mutual understanding.

A challenging audience

It’s not all sunshine and roses, of course: The mix of cultural and social backgrounds is also a potential source of conflict, but the theatre tries to handle it with pedagogical sensitivity.

When a play featuring full nudity caused uproar among students, for instance, Bronks immediately scheduled post-performance talks with the concerned classes. “It was too important to just let it go,” Van Rossem says.

Children can be a very difficult audience because they haven’t learned to laugh at the right time or keep their feelings to themselves

- Actor at Bronks

For the actors, performing in front of children is an added challenge. “They can be a very difficult audience, because they haven’t learned to laugh at the right time or keep their feelings to themselves,” says one actor. “The younger ones usually scream when there’s kissing on stage; they just find it hilarious.”

But making theatre for children is not about dumbing things down, or making it more infantile and childish. Many performances tackle problematic and serious subjects, such as the 2004 school siege in the Russian town of Beslan, where more than 150 children lost their lives.

Difficult topics

“Putting on a play for nine-year-olds that deals with terrorism was a controversial decision, but after the premiere, people were pleasantly surprised,” says Van Rossem. “Now everybody wants to see it, and we were even invited to international festivals.”

Bronks’ philosophy is based on taking children seriously. The current show Wa Wilder Man playfully explores the question of otherness and the reactions people have to someone who is different – a clever way of addressing today’s refugee crisis.

“We believe that kids can handle a lot and are much smarter than many people give them credit for,” says Van Rossem. “Children need to know that life can be hard and isn’t always a fairy-tale. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to make them sad – only make them stronger.”

Accordingly, no class goes to see a play without preparation: Either the students participate in a workshop at the theatre, or an artist visits them in the classroom before the show. “It become a more enriching experience with a longer-lasting impact, and the kids understand the subject better,” explains Martine De Gieter from Sint-Josefschool in the Ukkel municipality.

Since its founding 25 years ago, the partnership with schools has been key to Bronks’ philosophy. The theatre was founded by Oda Van Neygen, who previously co-ordinated youth productions at Brussels’ Beursschouwburg arts centre but sought to create a place dedicated entirely to youngsters.

A sense of worth

Van Neygen stepped down at the end of 2014, but the new directors, Veerle Kerckhoven and Marij de Nys, both former teachers, have promised to continue her legacy.

Their first season is marked by Bronks’ collaboration with Brussels opera house De Munt and sound art studio Q-O2, which sees French- and Dutch-language classes team up to create a performance based on the Frankenstein story. The play will be presented during the European Opera Days next month.

Kids from vocational schools often think that theatre isn’t for them. We prove otherwise

- Soetkin Van Rossem

While all types of schools are encouraged to get in touch with Bronks, Van Rossem says the focus remains on students from vocational schools. “These kids often think that theatre isn’t for them,” she says. “We prove otherwise.”

Bronks’ music video workshops have proven to be a particular hit with reluctant teens. Under professional guidance, students invent stories and draw up a script, in addition to creating the soundtrack and the dance moves.

This not only helps dispel the myth of a dull and antiquated theatre, Van Rossem says, but also gives the students a chance to rediscover themselves. “Lots of them feel lost and don’t know what to do with their lives. They experience negative stuff at school and are torn between different worlds. At Bronks, they are suddenly involved in something that unmasks their hidden talents and makes them feel valued. It’s about being respected.”

Photo © Géraldine Bricard