The city theatre in Ghent, Belgium has a new rulebook, aiming to open it up to the independent scene and international touring. Milo Rau introduces his 'Ghent Manifesto'.

Photo of three people acting with cameraman
A rehearsal of Lam Gods
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Michiel Devijver

Earlier this year I became artistic director of NTGent, the city theatre in Ghent, Belgium. In May, we published the Ghent Manifesto, which consists of ten rules that the artists whose work is produced by the theatre will have to follow – or at least relate to – from now on.

At least two of the actors on stage must not be professional actors. Animals don't count, but they are welcome

One of my aims in devising the manifesto was to open the city theatre to the independent scene and international touring. I also want the theatre to work with non-professional actors, and not only with the 20 Flemish and Dutch actors everybody knows. Another reason to create this manifesto is related to institutional politics. Everywhere you work as an artist, there are rules, but most of them are only implicit. As a political thinker, I felt the need to make them explicit. It’s not my aim to be dogmatic, but to open the discussion.

The Ghent Manifesto

  1. It's not just about portraying the world any more. It's about changing it. The aim is not to depict the real, but to make the representation itself real.
  2. Theatre is not a product, it is a production process. Research, castings, rehearsals and related debates must be publicly accessible.
  3. The authorship is entirely up to those involved in the rehearsals and the performance, whatever their function may be – and to no one else.
  4. The literal adaptation of classics on stage is forbidden. If a source text – whether book, film or play – is used at the outset of the project, it may only represent up to 20 per cent of the final performance time.
  5. At least a quarter of the rehearsal time must take place outside a theatre. A theatre space is any space in which a play has been rehearsed or performed.
  6. At least two different languages must be spoken on stage in each production.
  7. At least two of the actors on stage must not be professional actors. Animals don't count, but they are welcome.
  8. The total volume of the stage set must not exceed 20 cubic metres, i.e. it must be able to be contained in a van that can be driven with a normal driving licence.
  9. At least one production per season must be rehearsed or performed in a conflict or war zone, without any cultural infrastructure.
  10. Each production must be shown in at least ten locations in at least three countries. No production can be removed from the NTGent repertoire before this number has been reached.

Structural change

It’s all about structural change. The manifesto is more about changing the institution than changing the arts. Rule 10 is especially difficult for my team: “Each production must be shown in at least ten locations in at least three countries. No production can be removed from the NTGent repertoire before this number has been reached.”

This means we have to try and find places for our productions, even if they turn out not to be so popular. The rules pose difficulties for everyone involved as not every performance was considered tour-worthy. Moreover, some shows were very Flemish, and the team didn’t see them touring internationally.

We opened ‘La Reprise’ in May, and it follows all the rules of my manifesto, especially Rule 4: “The literal adaptation of classics on stage is forbidden. If a source text – whether book, film or play – is used at the outset of the project, it may only represent up to 20 per cent of the final performance time.”

It may be that we will lose some of the people who expect classical text theatre from NTGent, but in addition to some of our normal audience, we have seen a number of other, younger people appear in our venues.

A show in different languages (Rule 6) is quite new for NTGent, as is the surtitling. A part of our audience could disengage, while another, possibly more diverse, audience could replace it. Rule 7 (at least two non-professionals on stage) could also have a diversity effect.

Working internationally

Rule 9: “At least one production per season must be rehearsed or performed in a conflict or war zone, without any cultural infrastructure.” Here, the second part of the rule is important: without any cultural infrastructure. I have found it valuable to work on projects in Congo, Russia, Rwanda and North Iraq. The production process for your own team has a pedagogical side. You have to build structures from zero, structures that are just normal to us. And you discover what you don’t need.

When we presented the ‘Congo Tribunal’ in Bukavu, there was no cameraman around. It was too expensive to fly in people from Europe, so we trained local photographers. They became cameramen and women, and in the end, they made a Swahili version themselves and set up a small TV station. You create an infrastructure that can continue to produce art. It might inspire other theatre-makers in a movement towards a global reality.

The whole manifesto is also about another way of thinking about internationalisation: more democratic, with a focus on the peripheries. The international festival system often produces the total opposite of a real inclusive and diverse perspective. You have the same debates and performances in Tokyo, London, Brussels, Moscow and Cape Town: a global elite, performing their silly identity problems.

But when you go and work in Mosul or in Central Africa – or in the former mining districts of Charleroi or Liège or some neighborhoods in Ghent – you might create something that will become a real structure in three or five years’ time.

    Milo Rau is Artistic Director of NTGent.
    www.ntgent.be/en/

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    Photo of Milo Rau