Though this is my third time in Ghent in two years - sorry I omitted to write about those previous ones - I keep discovering new things about it. On the first night I go out with some MA students from Kent. One of them who is currently on an exchange in Ghent, takes us to a tiny little bar where she introduces us to a local drink jenever - it's a version of gin that comes in a variety of flavours, we drink it in apple and it does taste like juice, mostly. Having spent a few months in writing purdah, I let my hair down and have, wait for it - two of those!
I'm here for the conference on Play: Relational Aspects of Dramaturgy, where I speak about the work of Tim Crouch, Ontroerend Goed and Shadow Casters. My paper is a 3,000 word distilling of a 15,000 word book chapter I just drafted. My basic thesis is that this work is motivated by an impulse to return us to certain values we have lost as a result of the end of communism (namely, loss of community) and that, incidentally, the work often draws on some of Brechtian theatre-making methodologies in order to generate reflection rather than passive consumption. It therefore goes some way in recovering the baby that might have got thrown out with the bathwater in 1989. I am not sure that I managed to get this across as succinctly as this; my performance was largely tarnished by the fact that I was racing against the clock trying to finish before a minute of silence we were due to observe at a set time as part of national mourning for the deaths of 22 children and six adults who lost their lives in an accident returning from a skiing holiday.
This made me reflect on the whole business of conferencing and what it is for. It is actually very hard to communicate one's thoughts in 20 or even 30 minutes in such a coherent and interesting way that others are able to respond to them in an equally coherent and interesting way. Very often it is not even possible for the listeners to take in everything being said, which leads to misunderstandings in later discussions of the paper, or questions being asked about things that the presenter might think they have already explained in the course of their delivery. It probably takes a lifetime to become as engaging, entertaining and erudite as Zizek, for example. I particularly enjoyed the papers of Synne Behrndt and Christel Stalpaert for their ability to communicate with their audience. However, I was struck that it wasn't only coherence and interesting content that made these presentations effective, but the fact that both speakers had a very calm and warm demeanour, concerned with connection with their audience (rather suitably reflecting the conference title) - they were literally 'giving' their paper. It is so easy to know this in theory and to forget it in practice. Many other papers were interesting and memorable too, and the conference as a whole did make for a very enriching couple of days. However, meaningful discussion ended up happening in small, informal splinter groups which formed spontaneously among conference participants. A particularly interesting feature of this conference was that it had a large contingent of international dramaturgy students who travelled, with or without their tutors, from Antwerp, Stockholm and Kent.
I had a lovely, uplifting and stimulating time with my splinter group consisting of Synne, Cathy and Sodja, and we were lucky too that Sodja's string-pulling took us into a dance performance by Lisbeth Gruwez at Campo - It's going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. Gruwez is a former collaborator of Jan Fabre's, a dancer who could be described as remarkably precise. I was never sure whether her timing was indeed impeccable or whether she was somehow generating elements of pre-recorded speech through motion capture. Her etude on the effects of oratory - using fragments of a speech by televangelist Jimmy Swaggart - was inspired and inspiring. However, all the way through, for some reason, I kept thinking of Thomas Mann. The smell of this theatre, its composite atmosphere created by its audience, made it feel distinctly European. Or, at least, conformed with the idea of Europeanness I had formed in my head while reading Thomas Mann at the age of 17.
To end with, of course, we washed it down with jenever.