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“The arts point to where it hurts”

Sep 28 debuts the rather impressive rework of Spielzeit' europa – the more internationally flavoured Foreign Affairs. The brains behind this heady endeavor? Belgian-born arts fest queen Frie Leysen.

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Ilja Hoepping

Sweeping into Berlin for a whirlwind year, Belgian arts fest queen Frie Leysen shakes up the status quo at the Wilmersdorf Haus der Berliner Festspiele with the new festival concept Foreign Affairs before jetting south to direct Vienna’s Festwochen.

Why did the Haus der Berliner Festspiele decide to do away with Spielzeit’europa, an established name among theatre festivals, and replace it with Foreign Affairs? Is it reflecting a major shift in concept?

It was quite a radical change. I didn’t want a Spielzeit – there are enough of those in Berlin. I really wanted a festival where visions clash, where you feel them clash. And secondly, I don’t want to talk about Europe anymore as an isolated entity. It’s about the world and Europe in this world. So this is why the title had to go. And I really want an audience that is coming from different parts of Berlin, not just Wilmersdorf. Younger people, people from Mitte or from the eastern part of town… And the third thing we did was bring back reasonable prices because that also determines what kind of audience you will have, of course.

And you inaugurated these Hausbesuche, where you go to visit people in their homes to promote the festival. How are those going?

I’ve done two already. I like it. It’s the same principle as a Tupperware party. You invite 15-20 of your friends, you offer a nice cup of coffee or a nice bottle of wine and I come and talk about the festival. And then hopefully one of your friends will say “I want to do that too!” and then will invite all her friends.

Is it important for you to bring a wider audience?

I see my role always as a hyphen between on the one hand interesting personalities who have this critical view on society and find an artistic language to translate it – artists have to have this urgency to speak out, because if you don’t have this need to communicate it doesn’t work. And on the other hand, an audience that for some mysterious reason always comes to the theatre and I wonder, why don’t you stay home with a nice glass of wine and watch TV or read a book?

So you’re surprised people still come to the theatre?

We ask a lot from audiences: they have to make financial efforts, then they have to get organised, make sure that there is Coke and chips for the babysitter and that the babysitter is fetched. You finally come here to the theatre and then there is an arrogant artist who says “look at me” or “listen to me” for two hours.

So why go?

I am more and more convinced that we as audience are running from morning to evening doing our jobs and we delegate the critical view and analysis of our times and our world to the artists. And that’s why we come to the theatre: to see their reflections on our world and on our times.

How did you go about selecting your artists for this year’s festival?

I’m always looking for people who have a strong independent and critical way of looking at the world. People who testify about what’s happening in their community, and by extrapolation what’s happening in the world. For example, Kyohei Sakaguchi was the first Japanese artist who reacted after Fukushima. The other Japanese artist, Daisuke Miura, paints a very pessimistic view of a society at the extreme end of consumerism – a world filled with nothing but emptiness. On the other hand, Federico Leon from Buenos Aries is giving us a utopian society … And that’s what I like about this edition – these clashing views.

You were criticised in the German press for your emphasis on colonialism in the Theater der Welt festival in 2010. Similar themes come up this year, especially in Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B and MedEia

It’s strange that Germany is so late in coming to term with its colonial past! There are some obvious reasons, what happened in history after that was very heavy, but that’s why I thought it was important to have these two works. But it’s not about Germany. It’s about the whole of Europe and today. How we deal with our imperialistic colonial attitude toward other parts of the world.

What do you mean by “imperialistic colonial attitude”?

It’s that the West still pretends to have the monopoly of cultural, moral and democratic values, which is quite arrogant. It’s the impossibility of dealing with immigration, those people that we first invited here and then we don’t need anymore. Of course it’s not typically German. But since we are now doing this festival here in Berlin I think it’s also important to make it clear that it’s not a problem far away from your bed.

Can art impact politics?

I don’t think that the arts will change the world, but I do believe that the arts change minds of individuals, and by that influence collectives. The arts point to where it hurts and I think that’s very important. They show us things we’d rather not know or rather not see. Of course you have interesting artists and not interesting artists: sometimes the line between entertainment and art is very thin. There is prostitution everywhere in the world, why not in the arts?

Considering your past involvement with Arab artists, why no artists from the Middle East?

First of all, many artists I know in the Arab world are busy with other things at the moment. I’m also a bit disgusted to see that the West loves misery and war: I think it’s a bit sick. It was Sarajevo in the past. Now it’s the Arab world. Nobody gave a damn about them some years ago but now there’s a war going on and an uprising, so everybody wants it in the program. I feel like maybe taking a distance and waiting until it’s over…

Are you an idealist?

You know we’ve had years of such big cynicism and pessimism, but more and more you see people who dare to think in utopias again, who are not afraid of seeming naïve. Take Fabian Hinrichs. It’s amazing the courage he has to put the real basic question of life on the table. There’s also a clash between this kind of positivity and the angry boys like Rodrigo Garcia. And I also like them because we need them .