Belgian theater director Luk Perceval: ′We should see multiculturalism in a positive light′ | Arts | DW | 29.03.2016
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Belgian theater director Luk Perceval: 'We should see multiculturalism in a positive light'

Terror will continue until we close the gap between rich and poor, says Hamburg-based Belgian theater director Luk Perceval. He explains why "multiculturalism" is not a bad word - and what theater has to do with it.

DW: Mr. Perceval, what was your first thought when you learned of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22?

Luk Perceval: I was listening to Belgian radio as I always do in the morning. When the first report came, I was shocked. It seemed like a horrible nightmare. My first thoughts were of my friends in Brussels. I sent my sons a message and asked my family how they were doing. It's very strange, the kind of emotions that triggers.

You recently announced that in 2018 you will be going to a theater in Brussels, where you will launch a multicultural project. How do you feel now about this plan?

Even before the attacks, I believed that we need to invest in Brussels. It's not a coincidence that it's Europe's capital city. So many people there come from all over the world, not just eurocrats, but people who are looking for a new home in Europe - many refugees and also many people without prospects.

In Brussels, there is a huge gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Then there is Belgium with its many languages, which is why the city is much more complex than many others in Europe, I think.

After the attacks, we talk about the "IS," but I think the "IS" is just a flag that represents a lot of personal frustration. And a lot of personal frustration lives in cities like Brussels or Paris. With all the talents we have - in my case, as an artist and theater person - we have to try to invest and do something so that these horrible things never happen again.

Children's drawings proclaim peace at Brussels' Maalbeek station, where an attack occurred on March 22, Copyright: DW/C. Martens

Children's drawings proclaim peace at Brussels' Maalbeek station, where an attack occurred on March 22

Brussels is considered a stronghold for jihadists in Europe. A lack of integration is said to be the cause of this. The suspected terrorists involved in the March 22 attacks, the El Bakraoui brothers, were born in Brussels and grew up there. What's gone wrong in Brussels?

I think that it's ultimately about the people who feel excluded and who act against a feeling that there's a certain sense of power above them. You have to ask yourself where this feel comes from. In my opinion, it has a lot to do with the school system, with the incredibly high unemployment rates, with the fact that these people believe they have no opportunities and only see their future in crime.

Has multicultural Brussels failed?

I think it's one of the major mistakes of our time that we speak about multiculturalism in negative terms - as if that alone were a basis for terrorism. We cannot forget: The guys who did this were criminals and, of all the people who live in this city, an absolute minority. We cannot forget that the refugees that are now coming are victims of this very terror. I think that we should help where we can and, above all, see multiculturalism in a positive light.

How could integration work better?

One of the reasons why I'm moving back to Brussels and starting this multicultural project is that I believe that we are making theater and art for a group of insiders. We do little to get people, who don't feel like they belong to this group of insiders, into theaters, museums or libraries. We have to include them, invite them and let them participate.

We have not given these people the feeling that they are also at home here. The feeling of being excluded leads to frustration and anger. If you ask me what should happen, I think we should see the positive side of things and not add fuel to the fear.

Your current play at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, "Grapes of Wrath," is based on the novel by John Steinbeck and deals with the issue of immigration. The protagonists, a farming family, are what we could now call "economic refugees."

I chose this text because it's what's on all of our minds, and because I'm missing a more positive approach to the refugee issue. We only talk about the danger, the fear, the threat. We cannot forget that the vast majority of these people are innocent victims. And economists have been telling us for a long time that we also need these people to stimulate our economy.

Luk Perceval receiving the German Theater Prize in 2013, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa

Luk Perceval received the German Theater Prize in 2013

In that sense, we're replaying the history of the United States. What would the US be without its Irish or African immigrants? America is an example of how a very rich and globally influential culture can arise out of a mix of various cultures.

All of the actors in the play have international backgrounds, with parents from Indonesia, Nigeria or Bosnia, for example. That's quite unusual for German theaters. How can this contribute to integration?

The great power of theater is that we don't only recognize ourselves on stage, in one of the characters, but that we also feel included. On stage, questions are asked that every person deals with: questions of love, death, war, everything that we don't know or are unsure of in life. The moment when we feel this sense of not knowing, this insecurity in the group, and we can laugh or cry together about it - that's when a feeling of community is created.

Art is suspending for a moment people's feeling of being alone. It is feeling that we are all part of humanity and we have the same problems and doubts.

To what extent should theater deal with current social issues?

I grew up in Belgium, a country that has seen so many wars in the past and has become a kind of thoroughfare for Europe. Here you're confronted with so many cultures and languages. That's why I personally feel the need to tell people to watch out and not erect fences. They won't help with anything.

Should theater always send that message? I don't know. Only if there is an honest commitment behind it. But after Paris and Brussels, it's necessary to talk about our shock. And I think it's important for theater to create space where people can discuss their feelings.

How optimistic are you about the future?

I'm afraid that this is just the beginning of something horrible. I hope that the peace talks in Syria can achieve constructive results. Diplomatic solutions must be found for this war. It's not just about the criminals in Brussels. Salah Abdeslam was able to hide in Brussels for four months. That shows how powerful the network behind him is. The fundamental question is, though, to what extent terror is also linked to tremendous injustice in the world - particularly in the Arab World.

I really am concerned that things will escalate as long as the gap between rich and poor - not just in Brussels, but worldwide - doesn't change. Until then, I'm afraid these murders won't end.

Renowned Belgian theater director Luk Perceval has been chief director at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg since 2009.

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