‘The state of’ a playwright, Lot Vekemans
From hope to faith to knowing to being
‘The state of’ a playwright
I am not standing here wholeheartedly.
As a person with an ego that prefers to avoid pain and suffering, I would rather not have stood here. Because my ego is worried about what I am going to say.
And my ego is already preparing itself for the regret and self-reproach it knows how to spoon-feed me afterwards.
But here I’m stood.
Overcoming fear, worry, regret and
In this moment.
This is my state.
And that of no one else.
The state I am in
The state of Lot Vekemans.
Who is also a playwright.
I have experienced the past two years from a particular perspective.
Belonging to a group that for almost a year has been put under pressure, was maligned, mocked, and dehumanized by politics and the media. Who have been deprived of their rights.
First to protect their fellow men, later to protect themselves.
I have witnessed how quickly a common narrative of what is right condemns what is different. How ranks close under the guise of solidarity.
How solidarity and conformism were confused with one and other.
How the gaze was narrowed to disguise complexity.
How political leaders can shamelessly say that they have no respect for you and openly want to thwart you, how compulsion and coercion were barely distinguishable from each other. I have experienced what this truckload of disdain and reproach does to you. How my emotions were intensified, from bewilderment, to anger, to sadness, to fear, to indignation, to disbelief,
back to anger. I experienced how easily you can end up in a radical corner. How exclusion, not being heard, not being taken seriously, heats up your own spirits and cries out for allies.
How difficult it was to stay calm, not to fight, not to condemn, not to panic or get depressed.
In a way, this was all a privilege. A great opportunity to turn inwards and discover what is really going on.
I have done an incredible amount of thinking and searching over the past two years.
I have written. Not publicly, but for myself. To detangle, to unravel. So often, I have asked myself: what is really being said here? Is this true? Is this true?
Is this a truth that I can embrace and integrate into my daily life? On so many levels, the scales have fallen from my eyes. Not only with regard to the pandemic, but with regard to all the major issues in the current debate. Because if your world view starts tilting on one side, you can’t save the other side either.
I have been very disappointed. Also in the world of the arts, in ‘my’ theatre world. A world that I thought was socially critical, autonomous, courageous. But that I rediscovered as a frightened, well-behaved serf. Who first publicly proclaimed that art was not nearly as important as our health. And then, as the most obedient child of the class, uncritically followed the rules in order to be able to show its own trick.
I know this sounds reproachful.
But that is how disappointment initially works. You blame the other for your feelings.
They should have been better. Only on closer inspection could I see that the theatre world actually had no choice but to follow. For more than a decade, it has been dependent on a government that does not place art high on its list of priorities.
For more than ten years, it has been forced into a straitjacket. With more and more rules and less autonomy.
For years, it has had to comply to survive. Ticking more and more boxes, guaranteeing success and proclaiming its value in advance.
Neo-liberal thinking has now penetrated so deeply into the whole system that we hardly notice it anymore. So when the pandemic came, the theatre world had no choice but to obediently follow the rules. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.
What did I expect? And so I was able to rid myself of my disappointment.
Because it is easier to be kind to people who have no choice. Or who think they have no choice.
This is what I have been doing for almost thirty years as a playwright.
Having compassion and empathy for people I don't understand. To explore and be curious about where we touch, find and merge with each other. I write a path towards what is misunderstood and hope that my audience will follow me on that path.
That is what being a playwright means to me.
My incomprehension and disappointment with the theatre world taught me that it was time to adjust my image to reality. To be mild.
The Canadian writer David Sedaris once said that he could not imagine how ordinary people dealt with pain and setbacks. As a writer, he could still think "Thank God, I can write about it" in the face of adversity. I have often thought of that statement in the past year.
Because whatever happens, I can deal with it in the end. Every insight, every experience serves my craft.
I have always found playwriting a special branch of the writing profession. Precisely because it always requires you to put yourself in another person’s place. You almost always write in multiple voices and from multiple perspectives. You can't get anywhere with just your own opinion and conviction. I think the world would be a better place if we were all playwrights. Or as an actress friend of mine recently exclaimed: we need more playwrights in politics!
A playwright is not afraid of confrontation. In fact, playwriting thrives on conflict. Without collision, without abrasion, without confrontation, there is no drama. No incentive to act. Without confrontation, no breakthrough, no creation, no evolution.
The beauty of conflict is that it is not a rejection. It is not a moral judgement. It shines light on viewpoints, I would rather say standpoints. A collision is also not a fight. There are no winners or losers. After all, after a collision, all the parts that collided change direction.
Sometimes they move further apart, sometimes they come to a standstill together after which they can choose another direction. A playwright plays with these forces. Investigates them, uses them. In countless ways and in countless forms. A playwright is not looking to call it even. And that makes them invaluable in this day and age.
Because the time of agreeing with each other is gone forever.
As far as I am concerned, that illusion has been shattered. Anyone who believes that we will ever arrive at a single truth that we can fact-check is mistaken. There is no more room for moral superiority. Nobody knows better for someone else. You can only know better for yourself. And it takes tremendous dedication and effort to find your own best knowledge. It demands listening and investigating, it demands doubting, breaking open your own frame of mind, daring to think and be autonomous. It demands a renewed awareness. And for radical transparency. Only in openness can we find each other.
The American spiritual teacher Michael Beckwith appoints four levels of consciousness in his lessons.
The first level is the level in which we believe that life happens to us. Life is happening to me. It is the level of perpetrators and victims, of blame outside oneself. Here we know exactly who or what is responsible for our misery. It is the world of finger-pointing. I also call it the world of hope. Because hope is for the powerless.
The second level is the level where we discover that life is happening because of us. Life is happening by me. We believe that we can influence it ourselves. You have power of manifestation and are no longer powerless. For me, this is the world of belief.
The third level of consciousness is the level where you believe that life happens through you. You are a channel of manifestation. You open up. Life is happening through me. You are primarily concerned with not being an obstacle to that which wants to express itself through you. I call this the world of intuitive knowing.
The fourth and final level is the level where you experience that everything that you are coincides with life itself. Life is happening as me. Everything is a part of you and you are a part of everything. For me this is the world of being.
I find this a valuable division that helps me not only for myself, but also to interpret these times. Because from this perspective we seem to be collectively stuck in the era of the first level of consciousness, that of victims and perpetrators. It is the time when the victims collectively stand up and stop putting up with it. It is the time when their stories are heard and acknowledged. The field of vision is widening. The spotlight is shifting. But as a society, we do not seek the answer in a higher level of consciousness. We use these insights not to evolve but to retaliate. We have started collectively pointing fingers. To perpetrators. Perpetrators have to do penance, admit guilt, feel shame. We have to 'cancel' offenders, write them off, exclude them from public life. We separate. And with that separation we draw a line and we ourselves stand on the right side of the line. Perpetrators are no longer people, but symbols that can be knocked down. A collection of characteristics. And just as the victims first suffered from being a collection of characteristics that said nothing about who they were as people, now the perpetrators have to. We are not solving anything. We are only turning things around.
These are the mechanisms that I would like to see explored on stage. I believe that theatre is not just a mirror, but can also show an exit. I am no longer interested in the eternal impotence of man on stage. I don't believe that man is initially incapable either, I believe that he has pain and I want to show and alleviate that pain. I wish in this day and age that playwrights could be healers. That theatre can be a healer. Because in essence, people just want to hear that they are okay, that they matter. I want to make this desire central to my work. Not by naming it, but by showing what we do to each other and ourselves when we say the opposite. That we are not okay and do not matter at all. The great thing about theatre is that you can show these processes without having to be in the middle of them yourself. You don't have to experience it yourself. You can look at it together. And talk about it together. On stage, in front of the stage, backstage. That may be a utopian thought, but that is what I hope to achieve as a playwright.
I do not exclude the possibility that I am quite alone in this wish. That is why I have called this the state of Lot Vekemans and not the state of the playwright. It is the state of a playwright. An older playwright. I don't know what is important to the playwright who is listening to this.
For the young playwright, mid-career playwright or the playwright from another country or another continent. A playwright who is nothing like me. And I don't need to know that either. Because if I believe anything, it is that we should all write our own 'where-i-am-now'. This is the time to take your stand. Nobody is expendable. This is the time to stand in your own place.
Not because it gives you more success or prestige, but because it is your place.
You are needed. You are important. You matter. Because everyone matters. Without exception. To me, making art based on who you are and what you have to do is the highest form of social involvement. And so much truer than trying to be 'woke'. Because ultimately, you can only add value based on who you are. If you make art in order to satisfy someone else's expectation, you soon find yourself empty-handed and dependent on the approval of the outside world. I find that quite pitiful. And poor art is the biggest waste of talent, time and money. So I say it here again: please don't try to conform. Don't let taste or criticism define or limit you. Don't hold back because of political correctness. Self-censorship is the most harmful censorship there is. It is measuring yourself against someone else's yardstick. I do not believe in imposed frames of mind. I believe in constant self-examination, looking further and having the courage to revise your views. It is my job to clear my head, to decondition. That starts with taking responsibility for my own thinking. And dare to express it.
For the past two years, I have felt extremely cut off, anxious too. Afraid of losing something.
Authority? Status? Importance? Assignments? Ego and appearances.
But the only thing that was taken away from me was my voice. And no one did that but me.
Today, I publicly take back my voice. Because only a multi-voiced society has a chance of succeeding. Because polyphony leads to nuance. Because every voice matters.
I am curious about the voice of anyone who is willing to explore it, develop it and let it be heard. I sincerely believe that the theatre is the right place to let that polyphony be heard. And that playwrights can play a crucial role in that. If they want to. I, at least, would like to. I would therefore like to end with the wish that, in the near future, we hear and then understand each other a lot more in all kinds of interconnections.
Thank you very much.