Your Majesties, Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen,
Theatre, audience, society. With these three keywords, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation sums up the theme at the heart of the Erasmus Prize this year. The links between these three words trace the lines along which questions are posed, tension is felt, and discussion has been conducted so intensively in recent years. Within the world of theatre itself, in the media, at conferences, and in the political arena.
Public debate about art and culture is a positive sign, because it proves that culture matters to people. It is important that people feel involved in the debate surrounding the meaning of theatre, and that they reflect and offer their views on how we shape it. In terms of its artistic substance, but also talent development, internationalisation, entrepreneurship, and the role of government.
The international dimension is an important consideration for this prize. After all, when it comes to musical and theatrical tradition, no country is an island. Culture is the best way to sustain dialogue, and it is important to emphasize that, especially at the time when culture is under so much pressure. Theatre says a lot about the maker’s personal environment, but it also crosses borders. Learning about other theatre traditions and forms encourages us to reflect on our own practice. Familiarisation with Asian or South American or other non-European theatre traditions often gives us a refreshingly different perspective on our own society.
Performing arts exist by the grace of artists and audiences. The live encounter between the two is what distinguishes performing arts from other forms of art. This is especially true of theatre and drama. It might sound like a cliché, but theatre is more than mere entertainment. Theatre holds up a mirror to society, provoking reflection and self-examination, offering us an opportunity to view life from another standpoint and to learn from it. That isn’t always easy, and can sometimes even be confrontational. It can be a necessary consciousness-raising effort for those who see themselves as critical contributors to what you could call the participatory society.
Sometimes the encounter between performing artists and audiences occurs spontaneously, but usually it requires other people who facilitate this contact. Such ‘facilitators’ belong to various categories, from technicians and dressers to programmers and managers. But for this prize, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation looked in particular at individuals whose objective is to develop the art by venturing down new paths on the strength of artistic passion. We looked at individuals who have succeeded in bringing together artists and, in doing so, sometimes helped to lay the foundations for new forms of art that would otherwise not have emerged.
Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the Erasmus Prize this year is a festival maker who embodies our theme in outstanding fashion. Frie Leysen established her name as the founder and director of deSingel in Antwerp and Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. As a curator, artistic leader and organiser, she has been involved in various festivals, big and small, established and once-only, in Europe and beyond. In the field of performing arts, Frie Leysen is a world authority, as Jerry Aerts put it.
During her career, Frie Leysen has always stayed faithful to her vision, even if that meant swimming against the current. The investigative artist has always been at the very centre of her efforts to establish relations between art, society and audiences. For Leysen, language barriers or cultural differences form no obstacle. She made a festival in Brussels in which she eliminated political differences by ignoring them. She also took that attitude to other countries where she worked.
Throughout her career, Frie Leysen has consistently endeavoured to scout young, talented artists and give them a stage. In addition, she embraces large, well-known festivals such as Theater der Welt in Germany and the recent Wiener Festwochen into the scope of her work. It is precisely there that she searches, with an understanding of tradition, for new and topical meaning. She brings together old and new, known and unknown, and allows something new to emerge. She is assertive in a pleasant manner and sets things in motion.
These experiments are often successful, sometimes they are not, but her reluctance to settle for the safety of certainty speaks volumes for her conviction and determination, and her willingness to make radical choices and take risks. What matters most to her is the substance and the artist, and after that the money. And if necessary – and she sometimes deems it necessary – she can voice sharp criticism of festivals and venues that, in her view, no longer put the development of art and the artist first. She is then radical for herself and departs. According to Frie Leysen, a festival means more than making a programme. A festival means making a statement, adopting a position, reflecting on the world and the times we live in. That, in her view, is not ‘simply a series of twenty fine shows.’
Active and charismatic, she is capable of connecting widely separated countries, worlds and languages. In the Netherlands too, where in recent years she has compiled the ‘Get Lost’ series. As Frie Leysen said, ‘non-western art confronts you and the audience with the limits of what you can understand with your own baggage. Understanding the limits of your own capability is a lesson in modesty. From there you can become curious about the Other and the Others.’ (Quote by Frie Leysen from an interview with Thomas Bellinck in Etcetera, September 2014).
Ms Leysen, our Foundation awards you the Erasmus Prize because you are a passionate advocate of the performing arts. Throughout your career, you have supported little-known theatre makers on the strength of your artistic curiosity and your desire to enable the audience to experience something remarkable. You are forever searching for new generations of artists and new forms of theatre, and you are committed to providing non-Western theatre productions with a stage in Europe. With this international orientation, this fundamental curiosity and critical attitude, you express in exemplary fashion the values of Erasmus that this Foundation cherishes so dearly.
On behalf of our Foundation, I would like to congratulate you with your prize. May I invite you to come to the rostrum so that the King can invest you with the adornments that accompany the Erasmus Prize.