Text by Lisa De Roeck
Het Nieuwstedelijk (translated as The New Urbanicity) is an artist-run Belgian theatre company that tells powerful stories about life in and outside the city, using a unique language and style. They have made political theatre focusing on, for example, the role of technology in the future or the story of the gilets jaunes.
Their newest performance is titled ‘9,6 (een verweer)’ [translated as 9,6 (a defense)]. It’s a punch in the face combined with a gripping message. The audience is drawn into the lives of different characters: a rebellious climate scientist, the prime minister of Belgium, a famous climate activist (described as the girl with the braids), a sound technician, and an actress turned activist. The latter character is based on the experiences of the actual actress, which makes for quite a meta-reflection. The same actress, Sara Vertongen, performs all roles. Her razor-sharp monologue and the effective use of music, sound, and a giant led screen engage the audience with the events on stage. The characters all reflect on the need for protest and outrage regarding climate change and how they contribute to the needed change. The concluding message is not to be missed: climate change is happening, we are all to blame for it, and we must act now.
Recently, the theatre company has been performing an older play, Groupe Diane, in which conflict, protest, and outrage are also crucial elements. A Flemish journalist described the play as a spine-chilling thriller, focusing on the last three members of a far-left terrorist group, active since the 1980s and now trapped in their world and failing to break apart from each other and their disillusions. Their days of idealistic protest are over, but violence and outrage remain. The play shows the extreme consequences of protest and how far people can go when believing in the greater good while incorporating elements of the human experience, such as motherhood, sickness, and loneliness.
These two different performances show that protest and outrage, as well as their outcomes, can be imagined on stage in various ways, which can elicit different reactions. As an audience member, you sometimes almost feel the urge to join the protest on stage. At the same time, you also realize that the naive ideals that define the characters will only lead to despair and disappointment. However, these performances succeed each time in making you reflect on the need to revolt and the timing and consequences of protest, all the while leaving you with a sense of discomfort.
Het Nieuwstedelijk is an essential partner in the CONTRA project. Together with the University of Antwerp, they will develop and perform the Belgium Drama Labs in the city of Genk. Their long relationship with the city and previous experiences with performative acts make them an ideal partner for CONTRA. With the Drama Lab approach, we hope to create a space where conflict and protest might have a place while using artistic and theatrical methods to engage with different stakeholders on a specific issue. Read more about it here. The combination of music, rhythmic texts, and societal critique, not to mention the use of humor, together with disruptive performances, proves that the Nieuwstedelijk has a unique and exciting modus operandi. It also ensures that the Drama Labs, regardless of how they are envisioned, will leave an impression on those participating and potentially witnessing them. At the same time, the Drama Labs can hopefully contribute to broadening the different perspectives present within grand transformative processes, such as climate change, and make people reflect on the role of conflict within these processes. If you want to learn more about the Drama Labs in Belgium and other countries, be sure to keep an eye out for this website.