Can you describe what you do?
I’m a theatre-maker, writing and directing new theatre plays with my company Het Nieuwstedelijk. Leuven and its inhabitants are always a major focus in our plays: we try to offer new perspectives on present-day challenges or social topics to our (local) public. We’re currently based in OPEK, the arts centre in the new and radiant Vaartkom area. It’s a vibrant neighbourhood with plenty of young people coming to work here.
How do you perceive Leuven? What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city?
Leuven underwent a real metamorphosis – a true make-over – these last twenty years, transforming into a more open, fast-growing city. Additionally, the University grew a lot, as did the art scene. Today more than 50,000 students live in Leuven, which means that there’s a constant influx of new and young, intelligent and critical individuals. Moreover, many stay on even after having finished their studies; to work in the tech, health or creativity sectors. As such, it’s a historical city which has been taken over by the young – something you can feel on every corner or dead-end street. There’s life everywhere. Furthermore, Leuven boasts a highly-educated population, which helps stimulate urban social life and sharpen the art scene. The city is small enough to be overlooked, but big enough to offer diversity and variety.
How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
I grew up in Leuven, and later studied literature at the University. Afterwards, I went to Avignon and Brussels to study theatre. I returned to Leuven though, because I had the distinct feeling that there were more things to be done here, and that the city would give me the opportunity to build something. Eventually, we managed to start a professional theatre company, which is now one of the main Belgian companies; and opened a grass-roots arts centre that would become both a hotspot as well as a role model for other arts centres throughout the country.
Young people with social skills and entrepreneurship are taking over the old city – not for their own profit, but for the benefit of all.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
The City’s already working on it – but we still need to decrease the number of cars in the city, while increasing green and open spaces. But perhaps even more pressing is its poverty and exclusion: despite a largely well-educated population, there are still some mechanisms set in place which inadvertently excludes people of colour and of lower social classes. We should be made more conscious about this reality.
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
I’d definitely take them to OPEK and the Vaartkom neighbourhood more generally – because it’s an area that’s changing at lightspeed. But I would also show them the Town Hall, M-Museum, the University’s Central Library, Oude Markt, the Botanical Garden and the Groot Begijnhof beguinage. Once night falls, I’d take them to a dance performance at STUK. If they’re bringing kids along, we’d go to the provincial park in Kessel-Lo on a Sunday – a real gem.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
The central hall of the railway technical department used to be located just outside of my house – now, the 19th Century building has been taken over by a group of locals who turned it into a covert market, which includes a circus school, community supported agriculture, a martial arts club, and a coffee bar amongst other things. It’s organised as a co-operative, and the people living in the neighbourhood contributed and funded the project themselves. It’s a warm example of how young people with social skills and entrepreneurship are taking over the old city – not for their own profit, but for the benefit of all.nieuwstedelijk.be stijndeville.be