The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
European arts scene leader Frie Leysen talks about the role and activities of arts festivals
European arts scene leader Frie Leysen talks about the role and activities of arts festivals
As for Theater der Welt, can you give us a specific idea what kind of work you want to have in the Festival?
It is called Theater der Welt, but I am not interested in strictly a “theater” festival. I want to make an arts festival, because when you talk about contemporary theater, what is the borderline between theater, music, dance and visual arts? I believe that what’s important is to present interesting personalities, more than presenting the forms in which they work.
 So, first of all, the festival should be not only theater. And secondly, I want to focus on very, very contemporary work, not mainstream or traditional work.
 Maybe I should say something more now about the need to be very international and to link with non-Western culture. In 2010, Essen will become a “European Cultural Capital,” and as a result, the region is concentrating a lot on itself. Because this “‚PCultural Capital” program has become a marketing thing in which cities promote themselves and their region. I think that’s okay. But, Theater der Welt is something else. And, in this context, it becomes even more important that we come in with a program that is radically international, and one that makes an artistic statement.

Do you have any particular companies, works or artists that you have already decided to invite to Theater der Welt in 2010?
Yes, some have been decided. And there are some that I am developing now. For instance, I would like to set up an opera with a Mexican director. After Japan, I will go to Mexico for discussions with him. It is an opera by a German Baroque composer named Graun, who wrote an opera on the Aztec Emperor Montezuma. This Mexican director is a musician himself and he loves baroque music.
 I will also invite some artists from abroad to reflect on the region. Essen and the whole Ruhr area had been very industrialized with coalmines and the heavy metal industry. The industries died and the population deceased, but the industrial architecture is still there and it is amazingly beautiful. Many buildings have been restored and given a cultural designation. But the structures are also so immense that you have to be a strong artist to cope with them.

As with most festivals, will you be inviting existing productions and also commissioning new works?
I invite both existing and new works, but I never have works created for a festival on a commission basis. Real artists know very well what they want to do. I invite artists to do what they have to do, and then when necessary we provide support to realize it. It may be new creations or existing works. I never commission people to make something just for one festival. Nowadays, everybody wants new works, premieres, exclusivity. But an artistic work should have a life. It should be played and performed and develop by performing and confronting different audiences. But now all the curators want new stuff. It has become a terror of novelty, and that kills artists.

Your long career in European festivals has certainly given you a lot of insights. What do you think of the state of festivals in Europe today? How do you feel about the trends or currents that the festivals seem to be moving toward?
Well, everything becomes festival now. Even theaters organize festivals all the time. And again, it is this kind of need to label, and to make a package that sells well. There is an over-saturation of festivals.

With regard to festivals, you seem to have an alternative vision. Normally, the idea of holding a theater festival involves a large marketing aspect. But, a festival should also be substantial like you said. However, that takes a long time, a lot of thinking and a lot of energy.
No, it takes a radical position and the will to resist. And it takes the desire to defend the artist and his/her work. To fight for their position in our societies, to refuse to allow art to be part of an entertainment industry. If the only ambition were to attract as many people as possible, we could just leave it all to the bookkeepers of this world.
 The art world is not courageous enough to resist pressures from all sides—economical, political, or marketing or whatever; even aesthetics. If the situation has become what it is today, we are not victims. We are co-responsible.

What are the implications of the financial crisis in Europe. There should be two sides of it. One is that because of the crisis social problems are more visible, and artists are forced into dealing more with social issues. Another aspect is that the financial crisis makes artists afraid that arts subsidies will decrease, and thus they will become willingly to succumb to government aims.
Art is per definition political. Always. Crisis or not. Even in its denial. For some the crisis will be an eye opener. And regarding the decreasing subsidies: there is always prostitution in the arts, like there is prostitution all over. You will feel where the real artists are.
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