Focus Guy Cassiers (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Mar 2004English

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‘Rather than assuming a sphere of common experience, language itself is our only truly common sphere of experience. ... Without language, we literally cannot say what reality looks like.’

(Patricia de Martelaere, Een verlangen naar ontroostbaarheid)



Guy Cassiers (b. 1960) – artistic director of ro theater in Rotterdam since 1998 – studied art at the Academy in Antwerp, but was involved with theatre from the start of his artistic career. And although he makes intensive use of images and new media in his pieces, his primary and greatest interest appears to be in language and literature: most of his productions are based on or are adaptations of novels. He is not even shy of looking for a theatrical approach to such literary monuments as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, when necessary in a series of separate plays. Cassiers sees language – however inadequate and limited it may be – as the most essential instrument in understanding something of the world, probing the social system and detecting its weak spots. The first play he did off his own bat was Kaspar (1981), Peter Handke’s play about Kaspar Hauser, who grew up outside human society and only learnt to speak when sixteen. In the story of Hauser, socialisation – or its impossibility – and the acquisition of language coincide: this meant that Cassiers saw Handke’s play almost inevitably as the ‘primal story’.


‘... putting the human being at the heart again – the suffering, tormented, struggling human...’

(Oliver Sacks, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat)



Because, in addition to this attention to language, this very first performance also contained the start of another topic that was to run like a thread through Guy Cassiers’ work: his pronounced interest in marginal characters who are not adjusted to the life of society: such ‘madmen’ as Jan Arends’ Keefman in Het liegen in ontbinding (1993), Robert Walser’s Jakob van Gunten in Grondbeginselen (1990), Iain Banks’ Tom in The Wasp Factory (2000), Ian McEwan’s incestuous children in The Cement Garden (1984), Bernlef’s demented old man, Maarten, in Hersenschimmen (1997), Gerardjan Rijnders’ delinquent Pim Parel in Rotjoch (1998), Roddy Doyle’s alcoholic Paula Spencer in The Woman Who Walked into Doors (2001) and so on.
This need to give a voice to those to whom no one in society ever listens is in Cassiers’ theatre work expressed not only in his choice of subjects, but also in actual working methods: long before social-artistic or multicultural work was on society’s agenda, Guy Cassiers had made plays with children from ethnic minorities (La Cifra, 1991, and Kahaani, 1997), with the disabled (Daedalus, 1987, and Tête vue de dos, 1989), with the elderly (La Grande Suite, 2001) and amateur actors (Ja, ja maar nee nee, 2001), and so on.
It is perhaps because, as a plastic artist, he feels like an ‘amateur’ in the theatre, that he naturally felt drawn to the ‘naive’ and ‘unashamed incompetence’ of all these actors, unhampered as they are by any professionalism. His interest in these people is in the first place artistic; by making plays with these amateurs, Cassiers is not aiming for any deliberate social or therapeutic effect; they are simply an organic part of his artistic practice.


‘What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. ... In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’

(Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation)



A third fundamental element of Cassiers’ work is based on his fascination for the operation of the senses, the memory and the brain, and their deficiencies. Such plays as Het theater van het geheugen (1993) and Time’s Arrow (1994) are searches for the mechanisms of human memory. But even this fascination and that regarding the senses – which Cassiers often fed by his reading of such ‘romantic’ scientists as Alexander Romanovic Lurija and Oliver Sacks – are once again linked to language and learning to speak.
As Cassiers himself says, ‘Something Oliver Sacks wrote in his book about the deaf really stuck in my mind, which is that if you reflect you are actually speaking internally and are therefore thinking on the basis of sounds. If you cannot hear you have to think visually, whereas for us thinking is primarily the storage of information by means of language. According to me, social contact and communication is therefore much more difficult for a deaf than for a blind person.’ This focus on, on the one hand, the senses as entities operating independently of each other, and on the other their mutual synaesthesia, became the driving force behind Cassiers’ search for languages not expressed in words, but in sounds, images, colours, etc. There are many projects in which music plays a part, including The Sands of Time (1998), The Woman who Walked into Doors and the Proust cycle (started in 2003).



As far as the development of a visual language is concerned, in the context of the time it was quite natural that Cassiers – usually together with such ‘image-makers’ as Walter Verdin and Peter Misotten – should explore the use of new media such as video and every possible form of digital image creation. Probably inspired by The Wooster Group, the creation of images has in recent years expanded into one of the most important aspects of Cassiers’ work: from such pieces as Time’s Arrow, through Faust I (1998), HMA or Hiroshima mon amour (1996) to De Sleutel (1998) and Lava Lounge (2002).
Sometime in the mid-eighties, Peter Sellars said, ‘The Wooster Group has taken this language of film and television and brought it back to theatre and through this cross-pollination has created a totally new theatrical vocabulary. It’s going to be the lingua franca of the new generation of theatre, and so no matter how odd it may seem now, it’s the language we’re all speaking in fifteen years.’
In Flemish and Dutch theatre this has come about largely as a result of the work of Guy Cassiers. In such recent projects as Rotjoch (1998), The Woman who Walked into Doors and the Proust cycle, he has gone one step further in the conversion of words and sentences into a visual language: the actors on the stage enter into dialogue with ‘virtual’ characters who appear on the screen in the form of projected words; the form, layout, movement and magnification or diminution of these words indicate the identity of these characters, while additional images suggest the context of the scenes concerned.


‘The thing I find so interesting about theatre at present is its isolation as a result of the qualities of rapid communication other media have. It means the place of theatre can be reconsidered and more freedoms can arise there.’

(Guy Cassiers, Etcetera 82)



When, despite his art education, Guy Cassiers took his very first steps in the theatre, he said that this medium attracted him mainly for its living communication between people. There are two sides to this communication. On the one hand there is the human intercourse in the working process, the structure one chooses within which this human intercourse can take place. In this respect, Cassiers has in the course of his career deliberately tried out the various forms of full-time and occasional work and their pros and cons. As a young stage director he moved from one project to the next – Kaspar, Tristan (1983), De Ontmoeting (1983), etc.; in 1984 he appeared on stage together with his father Jef Cassiers in Natuurgetrouw.
From 1987 to 1992 he was the artistic head of Oud Huis Stekelbees (OHS), where he worked with a small but tightly-knit team and was able to give new artistic substance to children’s theatre. The reason he gave for leaving OHS was to make room for others and not to get stuck in a routine. Between 1993 and 1998 he operated as a freelance director, working for the Kaaitheater (Het liegen in ontbinding, Momentum (1994), Time’s Arrow and Hersenschimmen) and others. In 1994 he directed Angels in America as a guest of ro theater in Rotterdam, one of the Netherlands’ ‘major theatre organisations’, whose artistic director he became in 1998. In 2006 – after a transitional year occupied by Josse De Pauw – he will take over the reins of Het Toneelhuis in Antwerp from Luk Perceval.
One of his motives for choosing ro theater was the deliberate option of opening up his own work to a broader audience and to help find ways whereby theatre in general can be drawn out of its isolation; a decision that arose naturally out of his artistic work, long before the so-called ‘participation debate’ broke out. These choices meant Cassiers touched on the other side of ‘theatre as a means of communication’, this being the intercourse between what happens on stage and the audience. His experience of the ro theater and the task this sort of large theatre infrastructure has to fulfil in a community led to Cassiers becoming fascinated by the city of Rotterdam, which, like Antwerp, is a place where the problems of multiculturalism, populism, racism and ghettoes are more acute than elsewhere. By making the show Lava Lounge free for all inhabitants of Rotterdam, and following it every evening by a discussion, he drew a great many Rotterdammers to the theatre for the very first time. The fact that he did this with a production whose form might be described as ‘difficult’ or at least not straightforward, shows that Guy Cassiers takes his audience seriously and that this reaching out for a broader audience need not imply the loss of any artistic integrity. All it requires is: a lot of work and a lot of attention, alertness, just as it requires attention, work and alertness to keep things lively inside such major organisations as the ro theater, and soon Het Toneelhuis. On the basis of his principles, that theatre is communication, that language is our most important means of communication and that language and socialisation go together, Guy Cassiers’ work always keeps these two streams of communication open and in motion: that between theatre makers themselves and that between them and the audience.


(Translation: Gregory Ball)