Focus Josse De Pauw (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Mar 2005English

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"... that moment, as if the hunter’s thoughts were in tune with the bird’s... The whole thing had looked like a dance. It was after all an age-old, sacred dance."

(From Het Kind van de Smid)


Life and Work

Josse De Pauw is one of the artists with whom the Kaaitheater already shares a very long history. Young theatregoers have probably never heard of Radeis, the group with whom it all started for Josse De Pauw. Together with Dirk Pauwels (now at Victoria) and Pat Van Hemelrijck (now at Alibi), he travelled the world with Radeis International from 1976 to 1984. Language did not play any part in their visual, comically absurd performances (such as I didn’t know the continent was so beautiful and Echafaudages); but the set and the objects in this set occupied a pivotal position. Radeis was the first Flemish group that was able to build up an international career and thereby succeeded in surviving for eight years without subsidies. In 1984 – at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles – after careful consideration the Radeis trio brought this success story to a close so as not to wear out either themselves or the ‘format’ or to lapse into routine.

Radeis operated as part of the Schaamte artistic production house founded by Hugo De Greef, which later merged with the Kaaitheater. Radeis was not a hierarchical company nor was it a collective, but rather a small collection of creative individuals who wanted to go their own way: in this sense Radeis already perfectly reflected the choices of organisational structure and working methods to which Josse De Pauw was to stick throughout his career.
In the course he took after Radeis, De Pauw certainly found things he had not previously explored. In 1985 he created the performance Usurpation: the actor who had been silent for years started to speak, write scripts and sing; a woman appeared on stage and musicians (including Peter Vermeersch) also started to take part in the theatrical creation. For De Pauw, at that point creation became what it had in fact always been and would always remain: an all embracing, versatile artistic occupation where the boundary between life and work was hardly discernable.

The lines set out in Radeis and Usurpation afterwards underwent further development. As a writer, De Pauw blossomed more and more in such plays as Ward Comblez, He do the life in different voices (1989) and Het Kind van de Smid (1990). As an actor De Pauw came into his own both in these personal projects and in stage productions with Jan Decorte, Peter van Kraaij, Jürgen Gosch and Jan Ritsema. As a film actor, De Pauw performed in work by Dominique Deruddere, Marc Didden, Digna Sinke, Jos Stelling and others. One is struck above all by his collaboration in tanden with particular individuals: with Peter van Kraaij he wrote, among other things, Het Kind van de Smid and the film Vinaya (1991), which they also shot together. He became Dominique Deruddere’s indispensable actor in most of this director’s film projects. The composer and musician Peter Vermeersch, with whom he had already shared the stage in Usurpation, joined him again for De oplosbare vis (1994) and with his fellow actor and writer Tom Jansen he created such plays as De meid slaan (1993) and Trots Vlees (1995).

Weg, the music-theatre project De Pauw set up in 1997, signalled both the end of a period in De Pauw’s work and the start of a new one. Even though Weg was the result of working in a triumvirate (De Pauw, Vermeersch and Pierre Vervloesem), De Pauw was from that time on increasingly to take up the position of someone who bore the main responsibility for his own stage projects. But where and how can you carry out these projects if, firstly, you do not want to be part of an existing company, secondly if you do not want to set up your own company, and thirdly if you do not want to go through life like any ‘ordinary freelancer’ who accepts what is offered, but, fourthly, want to do your own projects and choose who you do them with, or want to invest in projects by other people with whom you feel a great artistic affinity? The artistic web De Pauw wanted to weave, the freedom to enter into relationships with a series of recurring kindred spirits – project by project – was at that time no longer achievable within the Kaaitheater. An attempt to obtain subsidies for the Laagland organisation he had set up with Tom Jansen failed. From then on De Pauw entered into a ‘ wandering’ existence as a performer which was to take him successively to Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp.

In 1998, at the invitation of his former Radeis colleague Dirk Pauwels, De Pauw became artist in residence at Victoria in Ghent. While there, one of the things he created was the music-theatre production Larf (2000) together with Peter Vermeersch’s big band, Flat Earth Society. Music started to play an ever greater part in his projects and also permeated into his way of acting. ‘To be able to stand on stage like a jazz musician’: this is the ideal that De Pauw the actor has in mind. At Victoria he also made üBUNG (2001), a production that started De Pauw’s work off on a new international career. In this piece six young teenagers appeared on stage, speaking the lines for a silent film projected behind them, in which we watch several adult friends at a dinner that gets out of hand. The play toured every corner of the world until late 2004.
In 2000, De Pauw started his ‘Bruges period’: as the artistic head of Het Net, a small theatre in that city, he was able to continue developing his own creative work in such pieces as SS, Herenleed, Die Siel van die Mier and Kreutzersonates and also to offer a platform to kindred performers in such formats as the Sproken evenings: a sort of modern variety show in which a whole range of performers, academics and journalists each takes the stage with a short act in front of an audience that does not know in advance what it will be seeing. In the meantime, De Pauw’s writing had also developed apace: his literary palette expanded, probably set in motion by his contributions to 1001 notities in De Standaard der Letteren. He also wrote plays ‘on commission’, which in other words were staged not by De Pauw himself but by others, and these include Zetelkat (luxemburg), Des Varkens Mijmerij (Zuidelijk Toneel Hollandia), Wortel van Glas (Het Paleis), De teedrinkster (Needcompany) and most recently Dédé le taxi (Theater Antigone) and Sulla en de mus (Victoria).
His writings have been collected in two books: Werk in 2000 and Nog in 2004. In addition, De Pauw’s film-work has also continued, with leading parts in Marc-Henri Wajnberg’s Just Friends, Orlow Seunke’s Kaas and Dominique Deruddere’s Hombres Complicados and Iedereen beroemd. In the 2005-2006 season, De Pauw will for one year – between the departure of Luk Perceval and the arrival of Guy Cassiers – be the artistic head of Het Toneelhuis, Antwerp’s large civic theatre. As a ‘foretaste’ of this he has this season very successfully played the main character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Luk Perceval. When the new subsidy period starts in 2006, De Pauw hopes finally to return to Brussels and there set up his own organisation ‘zang en dans’ in close association with the Kaaitheater.



The ‘philosophy’ on which Josse De Pauw’s work is founded is concrete and accessible, but also rich and complex. The high quality of his work lies in the varied and original way he gives shape to this ‘philosophy’.
The world as it was presented on stage by the Radeis group consisted of found or assembled rubbish, a colourful mishmash: without structure, anarchistic, random and with its petty and individualistic sides. The hierarchy that Radeis rejected in its working relationships was also rejected on stage: all the ingredients and every discipline were used in a way that was ‘by chance best suited’. The belief in the benefits of chaos is a thread that runs through De Pauw’s work and in one of his latest pieces, Die Siel van die Mier, expands into its main metaphor. De Pauw considers not only society but also man and his identity to be a ragbag of things, bits and pieces, assembled by chance and sewn together with no clear plan. And therefore full of faults and kinks. This also explains his conviction that in theatre you have to do something with your faults, and that you have to give your shortcomings a place on stage. Above all, ‘no pretending’ that you have everything under control, or that you can do everything perfectly well.
There is a rhythm that corresponds to this philosophy of the intuitive and chance, and it is by definition slow. And always has been. No snappy scenes or quick-fire gags in Radeis. This is slowness as something organic, the confidence that things will just turn up, letting things be, almost a fatalism, based on the conviction that looking around, sauntering, dreaming and aimlessly wandering are not a waste of time but a necessity: this has continued to be a part of De Pauw’s entire body of work.

In De Pauw’s view of life, time is needed to let things seep in, to let them go their own way, time to practice, as in üBUNG, where he literally let the children on stage rehearse their possible later behaviour as adults. In De Pauw’s view, the family has after all a function as ‘a flight simulator: a place where you can mess things up without being punished too heavily’. It is there that you can learn to understand that people – every person – is full of faults and that in order to survive it is necessary not to make heavy weather of certain things. No one gets through without pain and scars. To become a butterfly the larva has to break its way through its skin.
However, De Pauw is very much aware that a great many oppressive power games are to be found in human relationships: he has often made this a theme of his work. In his first production after Radeis a man and a woman appear on stage and it is not by chance that the title was Usurpation. There is certainly a great deal of self-mockery in the pieces De Pauw made with Tom Jansen, focused on the cocky behaviour of ‘the man’ who feels superior to ‘the woman’, and on the macho who above all wants to impress. Josse De Pauw’s world is one where men both experience pleasure and suffer from this macho behaviour. Very few, if any, women appear physically on stage in his work, but in fact they are always present, in the minds of the men, at the heart of their preoccupation. Few male artists have portrayed the behaviour of ‘their own species’ so mercilessly.
De Pauw also has this attitude of extreme relativisation, self-mockery and exposure when he deals with broader, social problems. One might summarise this attitude as ‘putting the image of the enemy in oneself’. This was most clearly expressed in the large-scale production SS, which De Pauw created together with Tom Jansen in 2002 and which was based on interviews of Dutch members of the SS by Armando and Hans Sleutelaar in 1967. Self-relativisation is also the basis of De Pauw’s way of acting. As Peter van Kraaij has said, ‘Josse De Pauw is an actor who also dares to draw the worst sides of a character from within himself.’ And De Pauw himself, ‘I consider this almost a condition for appearing on stage: that what you say also includes yourself.’
But Josse De Pauw is above all an exceptionally generous storyteller who speaks, sings, screams or whispers his lines but at the same time always leaves the spectator room for his own associations and imagination. A storyteller for whom seeking always comes before knowing. This seeking is after all the only possible way of occasionally experiencing those wildly fascinating moments of theatre – wildly fascinating both for the actors and the spectators – when everything seems to come together: the thinking with the doing, the music with the script, life with theatre, breathing with the heart beat. As Josse De Pauw once said, ‘Moments when you say: this is plainly better than life.’


(Translation: Gregory Ball)