Can you describe what you do?
We make theatre – which we like to think is particularly strong – in collaboration with professional artists and people who feel they don’t really have a voice in society. We are Compagnie Tartaren, and my role specifically entails offering both artistic and general guidance. Directing, production, policy issues, supporting professional theatre-makers and our Tartars, and collaborations with other arts and welfare organisations are all aspects of my work. Alongside two colleagues and many volunteers, we annually facilitate various dynamic artistic group productions, often amounting to collaborations with more than fifty individuals. Our breeding ground is based in the Het Lampeke building in Ridderbuurt, a district with a strong working-class historical background.
Us Tartars are creators with an urge to create a sort of “bottom-up” theatre – whether it be made for well-known cultural houses, or for public space enactments. We seek to amaze our ever-expanding audience with qualitative and artistically bold performances. Our work is unique thanks to the beauty of imperfection, and socially critical themes which are developed through careful and concise co-creation processes. Our productions crawl under your skin and encourage you to engage in critical reflection. Furthermore, such an open theatre allows for co-creation between people from varying neighbourhoods of Leuven, and even outside the city-limits.
Leuven is a very resilient city in full development and to maintain the continuous dynamic which sparkles around the city.
How do you perceive Leuven?
Many tend to think of Leuven as a well-mediated city of residents with strong entrepreneurship and many potential capacities. And of course, Leuven is a very resilient city in full development. Its large populations of fellows, students, and residents maintain the continuous dynamic which sparkles around the city. Its University, medicine research, beer conglomerate, bank, and urban development projects all rank in fame and international recognition. Researchers, entrepreneurs and artists from all over the world come to work in Leuven. This all makes for a cultural land-scape with renowned art education organisations; whose creations of theatre, classical music, contemporary music, and dance are appreciated both at home and abroad. And all thanks to a quirky innovative and collaborative approach from OPEK, Het Depot, M-Museum, Cinema ZED and STUK.
In addition to the “authentic” Leuvenaars, there are also many who make Leuven their home for a phase in their life: to study, conduct research, and work. And from all over the world – roughly 150 different nationalities –, primarily linked to the University, so Leuven is the collecting source of a brain drain. But Leuven is more simply a society with a high diversity of people of all capabilities and backgrounds. People who might’ve had a hard time. People inherently born with certain opportunities. People graced with above-average skills. And of course, a growing number of people who’ve landed here, fleeing from inhuman prospects, and seeking a better future.
And yes, over 15% Leuven’s population lives in poverty. Yes, there is a higher density of people who seek to re-integrate into everyday society after a stint in one of the three Leuven’s leading psychiatric hospitals. Fortunately, Leuven also has plenty of stable neighbourhoods, welfare support and top-quality social and artistic efforts to ensure that the gap between the affluent and the under-privileged doesn’t become so wide that it reaches unethical levels.
What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
A solid arts landscape, with new ground-breaking creations and a strong program of innovating expressions. People here are always actively supportive and welcoming of projects and initiatives which seek to make social inclusion and participation more accessible for all. But it has to be noted that the ever-increasing number of students staying behind, and the city’s attractiveness for companies and their employees put a real strain on the real-estate market, driving out less-favoured citizens and young couples from the housing market. Unfair housing prices is a hinderance in achieving a truly diversified pallet of residents.
How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Initially, I worked as a drama teacher and theatre-maker, and discovered that my creative appeal lies in pertinent and poignant productions “from below”. Following on from that, I embarked on a journey as a professional actor at WiSPER – a Leuven-based organisation centred on arts education for adults. Here, I was able to explore and cement my skills in making art accessible for everyone, especially in specialised methods catered to less self-evident audiences, or international research projects.
We must seek to free up more mental and physical spaces, in order to create the best opportunities for this new input of cross-fertilisation.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
So many possibilities are left unexplored, because we’re still unable to embrace and perceive people of all cultural backgrounds as an important and added value to our cultural landscape. We must seek to free up more mental and physical spaces, in order to create the best opportunities for this new input of cross-fertilisation. Leuven is still lacking a suitable site for artistic expressions of socially vulnerable creators, allowing them to grow and explore in a socially committed society.
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
Come to Leuven by train – the city is perfectly explorable by foot. Stroll through the city-centre, following the same route that Erasmus, Vesalius, Dirk Boutsen themselves took once upon a time. Visit the M-Museum; look for the Japanese pagoda tree Boom van het groot verdriet, or “Tree of Great Sorrow”; stop by Sint-Maartensdal and learn all about the architect Braem; admire the images of Fiere Margriet and Pape Tone. Eat in one of the many neighbourhoods and talk to the people of the city. Visit the university halls, the old beguinage, the Town Hall, the Grote and Oude Markt squares. Converse and debate with students over a pint. Book a theatre performance at OPEK or 30CC – preferably from Compagnie Tartaren, of course.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
De boom van het groot verdriet, or the Tree of Great Sorrow is found in Arras College’s front garden, on Naamsestraat. This College was converted in 1508 from a bishops’ house into student chambers for less affluent boys, who did not have the means to study at the University. In 1921, when women were finally admitted into the University, the College was re-converted into a residence for girls. Since then, many tears have flowed by the tree in the front yard, due to endless heartaches and tragic love stories: under strict surveillance, the girls would fight to stay out longer than their 7 P.M. curfew, while boys would lament for hours over being separated from their sweethearts.tartaren.be