‘As artistic director you have to give away a lot of this power quite soon’
After the recent events in Greece with the #metoo movement, the resignation of the artistic director of the National Theatre and the appointment policies that the Ministry of Culture announced would change, we decided to speak with the artistic director of the NTGent, Milo Rau, about application processes, the burden of power and the importance of having a team around you.
Prodromos Tsinikoris: Thank you, Milo, for taking time on your break to speak with us. We have only a little bit of time, so I will go straight to the core of the conversation. I don’t know if you already know, but the artistic director of the Greek National Theatre had to resign last month and is in custody on rape and child abuse allegations.
Milo Rau: Yeah, I saw it, I saw the article1https://taz.de/MeToo-in-der-griechischen-Theaterszene/!5752443.
Prodromos: So, the Greek Ministry of Culture is preparing to announce, for the first time in history, an open call for the artistic direction of one of the biggest theatre institutions in the country.
Prodromos: And I think that it is an important ‘date’ for our generation -the generation of younger artists- so that we, too, may get involved with this kind of processes, in order to step up and take responsibility by saying: ‘I deserve and I want to be part of this too’. Because up until now, things were done in a different way, to which I’ll come back later in our discussion. So let’s start with a basic, yet fundamental question: What is for you the role of a national theatre? What is the role it should play in today’s society?
Milo: That’s super difficult to say. As you know, we have here the system of northern Europe, of State, National and City Theatres. So, I think one role is of course to produce; not only to present, but to produce. Of course, for me, it was from the beginning a question of what we called ‘Create your own classics’. That we would take the theatre as a place of creation, of adaptation, of already existing national history -and of its revisiting. We are in a very different situation here in Flanders than you are in Greece, because we have no classics. Flemish theatre can arguably be read in one afternoon. And that’s why we had the so-called Flemish Wave in the 1980s and in the early 1990s with Luk Perceval, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Alain Platel – all these people that are living in Ghent or producing in Ghent and the NTGent. So, you have the older generation that is still for me very important. I like to work with Alain Platel, even if we disagree on many things. Luk Perceval just made a play last week here. And then you have the newer generation.
Normally you have the neoliberal argument that only the classics ‘work’, but that’s not true at all. You could, for example, do avant-gardist documentary, political work on the big stage. It doesn’t mean that you have to play Molière and Chekhov all the time.
I think there has to be a kind of a balance – also for the public. I mean, you have to make it accessible and diverse not only in terms of identities, but also in terms of classes, of ages, of the time you play in. So, for me it’s interesting to remodel one’s ‘region of work’. See, normally you have the neoliberal argument that only the classics ‘work’, but that’s not true at all. You could, for example, do avant-gardist documentary, political work on the big stage. If you are connected to the community, it works. And I think it is a stage of experimentation. It doesn’t mean that you have to play Molière and Chekhov all the time. It does mean that you have to see what is holding this community together and what is problematic about it. What are the traumas and what is this kind of collective story we would tell each other. I think that every region is quite interesting. But, at the end of the day, it only means that you get national money.
Prodromos: Until now…
Milo: (Speaking to other people.) Also for me… A rice tart… (Back on the discussion.) The actors were just in front of me and they are going to a bakery. They wanted to have a rice tart, because they have wonderful rice tarts here in Ghent.
Prodromos: I will cook something after our interview; I became a much better cook since I trapped myself at home. I cannot work, and if I want to go outside I have to send a message to the government…
Milo: Really? Wow! I don’t know, here in Belgium sometimes we have no government and it’s really positive. (Laughs.) I think you are a very authoritarian society in Greece, but here it’s been a constant crisis for the past five years. We were the country in Europe which for the longest time didn’t have a government.
Prodromos: I remember this, yes… À propos government, until today the appointment of people in cultural and theatre institutions was a political choice by the Ministry of Culture. So there’s always the perception that an artistic director cannot curate a programme that would be going against or defying governmental policies.
Milo: I see.
I think you are a very authoritarian society in Greece, but here it’s been a constant crisis for the past five years. We were the country in Europe which for the longest time didn’t have a government.
Prodromos: Have you had any experiences of interference like this? I mean, in your work as the artistic director of the NTGent.
Milo: I mean, of course, it’s the financial side. I just have the money I have. And if I want to have more money or produce more, then I have to raise co-production money. Or I have to tour. Or I have to make films and sell them. Or I have to find co-producers in other media. But I think it hasn’t happened so far, although there were some scandals. For example, when I invited this jihadist on stage for the Ghent Altarpiece2 https://www.ntgent.be/en/productions/lam-gods. Or when we have our ‘School of Resistance’3https://www.ntgent.be/en/academy/school-of-resistance and sometimes we invite extremists or so-called extremists, there is always a discussion.
You know, we have a board of directors on top of the NTGent, and there you have all parties united. You have the very right-wing, the NVA, the Vlaams Belang, the extreme right-wing, you have the socialists and so on, you have the Minister of Culture. And I meet them once a month and my relationship to them is quite good, they were never really interested in content. They just push me sometimes, because we are quite international as a city. We have a lot of minorities that don’t speak Flemish anymore, so we started to print publications only in English and then, for example, I was pushed to also use Flemish. And that’s OK, I mean Dutch is still the national language in the region.
I think that’s one reason why I am here, because you have really weak state power; they are not interested in you – and you can go quite far.
I really feel completely independent. It was different from when I was doing independent projects with the Goethe Institut, or the Zentrale für Politische Bildung, for example. I was in the Academy of the Arts4in Berlin doing this exhibition5https://www.adk.de/en/programme/?we_objectID=62007 at the beginning of March and there I had to double-check every name with the Bundeszentrale, because they wanted to be sure that nobody is in the BDS6https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boycott,_Divestment_and_Sanctions, you know this movement that supports Palestine and is against Israel occupying politics. So, it’s much stronger in Germany than here in Belgium. And I think that’s one reason why I am here, because you have really weak state power; they are not interested in you – and you can go quite far. Also, institutions themselves are weak. For example, if you compare my theatre, the NTGent, which is the biggest here in the Flemish region, to, say, Schauspielhaus Zürich or another big city theatre in Germany, they have several times the budget that I have. So, you have weak institutions but let’s say quite tolerant, absent government.
Prodromos: I remember that you were considered for the Schauspielhaus Zürich, and then you got the call from NTGent, but I don’t remember any specific details. So, I wanted to ask you if you would like to share your experiences from these open calls. Since this is going to happen for the first time here in Greece, it would be interesting to know more about the process, how many phases there were and so on. I think it would also be helpful to the Greek MInistry of Culture, since they are still preparing and working on it.
With my team we wrote an exposé of fifteen – twenty pages, describing what we want to do, with whom, what the phases are, what will be on the big stage, what on the smaller ones, how the season will look like, what our partners in the city are, our international partners.
Milo: I was considered for Zurich and Ghent, but the process in Zurich would last 4 months longer and then I said ‘OK, NTGent!’ Υou know, I am from Zurich and it was too close to my parents somehow. (Laughs.) About the competition: you hear that they are looking for someone, there’s an open call and then, normally, what you do is you form a team of people that you think could be interesting. Then I started talking with some people that knew the house better than me, knew the region better than me. With my team we wrote an exposé of perhaps 15-20 pages, describing what we want to do, with whom, what the phases are, what will be on the big stage, what on the smaller ones, how the season will look like, what our partners in the city are, our international partners etc. And then you go to the first jury, which is an independent jury of curators, artistic leaders, all kinds of people that are involved in the scene from the city, from the region and also from abroad, who would read it and then ask you questions. I think I met them twice. And in the end, I think they had three teams and we all had to do what they call ‘assessment centre’ – I don’t know if you know what that is…
Prodromos: No, I don’t.
Milo: I didn’t know either. It’s two days of tests I had to do: I had to write a financial plan for the season, I had to take logic and ΙQ tests, I had to be half a day in the office mailing -but only in an artificial way- and with an independent party specialized in this. And I had talks in role plays. For example, you have a #metoo problem. Or you have a problem with a technician that doesn’t want to do what the technical director wants them to do. So, you have to act out these situations by becoming the director who has to solve them.
Prodromos: Sounds like a flight simulator for pilots.
Milo: Absolutely. And then, when you are through all this, you meet the board of directors, but this is more of an official moment before the Minister of Culture appoints you. Only in exceptional moments would someone go against the decision of the ‘assessment center’, against your exposé and the artistic board, normally no one would.
For example, you have a #metoo problem. Or you have a problem with a technician that doesn’t want to do what the technical director wants them to do. So, you have to act out these situations by becoming the director who has to solve them.
Prodromos: You said earlier that from the first moment you put together a team. How important is this involvement of other people, of dramaturgs and so on, during your time as artistic director? Do you still have around you the people you applied with?
Milo: Yes, more or less. But you also have new people coming, people you didn’t know before, because they are from the city, because they made something in the first season and then they became dramaturgs. I would say that we are around 50-50 now. I didn’t know Luanda Casella, for example, a Brazilian director who is here. I didn’t know Lara Staal so well, she was a friend, but now she is one of my closest dramaturgs. So, things change. Eline Banken who does the ‘School of Resistance’ came in as a trainee and now she is a dramaturg, or Carmen Hornbostel, who was my assistant and is now one of the heads of dramaturgy. So, you grow quite fast. What I understood being an artistic director, I had to start giving away a lot of this power quite soon. Because you couldn’t say it made me depressed, but it took all my time. It really was like this, it would start at eight in the morning, I would have meetings and I would get involved in sort of everything. OK, you learn to manage this; it was my first position. And there are a lot of things I just don’t know. For example, I will never know the local scene as well as Steven Heene or Lara Staal. I will never have such a big international network of activists like Eline and Kasia Wojcik and so on. Everybody is somehow specialized. In the beginning, you have to do everything yourself, because you are new and you have to model it a bit, but then it goes fast in a more horizontal way and I think it’s also about getting the sense of it. I had to work a lot to bring the newcomers close to the people who were already there. To have a new house that at one moment could just go on by itself without one having to remodel it again and again. Even if I like a permanent revolution, sometimes it becomes too much.
What I understood being an artistic director, I had to start giving away a lot of this power quite soon. Because you couldn’t say it made me depressed, but it took all my time.
Prodromos: I can understand what you mean. With Anestis Azas we were responsible for the programme of the Experimental Stage -1 at the National Theatre of Greece for four years until 2019, and I can remember very well that it was very difficult to find a balance between the bureaucratic work that you had to do and the artist output that you wanted to have. And the years went by, for example, without me directing even one new show, because you kind of feel responsible for the artists you invited. We had our focus on the younger generation, young directors coming to our stage, and you want them to feel creative and secure, be in an environment where they don’t have to worry about the issues they would face in the ‘off’ scene and just work on their vision. And if you don’t have a bigger team around you, two or three other persons are not enough, if you don’t feel the confidence that the entire theatre is supporting you and you are constantly occupied with managing problems inside the institution, then you don’t have the time, mind or -especially- desire to produce your own show. And this brings me to the question of collectives; what is also discussed here is that the rules of each theatre or cultural institution, their charter should change and that more people, groups and collectives should be allowed to participate in a process like this. Are you in favour of this kind of shared collective artistic directions or do you think it gets messier the more the people who are doing it?
Milo: No, I am in favour. I mean, I only knew processes of application and then leading a house. The next step is that two or three or four or five people are involved. Now, in what we call here the direction team, we are seven people from really different backgrounds and it would be impossible for me alone. I think it’s too complex, because, as you said, you have the more international scene, you have the avant-gardist scene, what you call the Flemish masters, like the older generation, the intellectual scene, the activists. Then you have management stuff, then you have the technical chaos, then you have the touring, then you have the planning, then you have the …
In the beginning, you have to do everything yourself, because you are new and you have to model it a bit, but then it goes fast in a more horizontal way and I think it’s also about getting the sense of it.
Prodromos: (Laughing.) Oh God, I remember everything now, I remember…
Milo: (Laughs.) And you know, for me, I try to be there, like, once a month, if possible, but I just let it go or let it be decided. We just try to be informed, everybody on what the others do, but, I think, for this you need a basis of some years of working together. The restructuring of an institution can only work like this. We have productions I am a big fan of, because we do them, but I wouldn’t do them like that, but then who cares? And that’s how it is. And you can only do it when you declare it like this from the beginning. Because I think the problem is to change a declaration7https://www.ntgent.be/assets/files/general/Manifest/manifest-in-NL-en-ENG.pdf, the problem lies in turning a non-democratic organization into a democratic one; or, if you have a democracy, in turning it into a dictatorship, that’s also very difficult. (Laughs).
Prodromos: One last question. I know that you have Covid restrictions right now, but what is the artistic output of NTGent at this moment? Have you found alternative ways to reach your audience or even more audiences outside the one that already existed, although stages are closed?
Milo: Yeah, we produced ten films, some for cinema and some theatre-films for the stage, like last week’s one by Luk Perceval8https://www.ntgent.be/en/productions/yellow-the-sorrows-of-belgium-ii-rex-online. Then we have the ‘School of resistance’. Of course we did live streams of older projects, older films and discussion formats. We produced books, for example the ‘Why Theatre?’ book9https://www.ntgent.be/en/productions/golden-book-v-why-theatre, so we did a lot of things we wouldn’t have done before. And we also used the time to really restructure the whole organization, as we said, to make it much more horizontal than it was before, to just avoid the stress we experienced in the first one and a half year, which was very stressful – and I think for many people it was too much. So, we did this and we reached many more people with these formats than we did in the seasons before. But that’s a bit logical, because you go digital. Of course, it was much more accessible, for example, the show by Luk Perceval, a Flemish story about collaboration. We had visitors from 20 countries, we did it in 4 languages and of course you can always spread much more… Um, I am told that our next guest has arrived, we have castings and unfortunately I have to go.
Now, in what we call here the direction team, we are seven people from really different backgrounds and it would be impossible for me alone.
Prodromos: Could you quickly share with us what the new project is about?
Milo: It’s very simple, it’s called ‘Grief and Beauty’ and it’s about the beauty of loss and the terror of loss. It’s about what is happening with the sixth mass extinction, with ourselves dying. So, I work with old people, I work with biologists, with opera singers. It’s kind of a big mix of mortality and beauty.
Prodromos: It sounds beautiful! Milo, from the South of Europe we wish you all the best.
Milo: And I hope I see you soon back in Ghent.
Prodromos: Thank you so much!
Milo: All the best, take care, ciao ciao!