A curated overview of visual artists in Flanders.
Jessa Wildemeersch (1978) studied acting at Studio Herman Teirlinck in Antwerp and The Actors Studio Drama School in New York. She has appeared in both theatre productions and films in Belgium and abroad. Her sojourn in New York played a decisive role in shaping her artistic career and in her existential attitude towards life. She was in Manhattan on 9/11 when two planes slammed into the Twin Towers. The traumatic effects of this violent attack on ordinary people and on everyday life set in train and accelerated a process of political and social awakening in her. “Suddenly my personal life and public life collided, and they have seemed inseparable ever since”, she writes in her play Dagen zonder data [Days without Dates] (2015). From that moment onwards, she no longer merely wanted to go on stage as an actress to perform parts and interpret characters. She also wanted to position herself as a theatre-maker who tells stories about the here and now. She began to focus on writing. The sobering awareness of the individual’s vulnerability and loneliness when confronted with overwhelming and far-reaching historical events also made her appreciate the richness of human encounters and the need for artistic collaboration. A proportion of her plays and performances comes about in collaboration with other actors and theatre-makers. Only a multiplicity of perspectives can lay any claim on the truth. Jessa Wildemeersch increasingly positions herself in dialogue with others. The process of writing her plays is often preceded by many hours of interviews, which she records. These interviews act as the raw material for the play. In this way, she stays close to the lived experience and its articulation in simple, colloquial language, although not without musicality or poetry.
The plays that Jessa Wildemeersch writes are closely connected to her practice as a theatre-maker. She stages and performs them herself. Her first plays, such as Me, Mike and Mustafa (2003), De misfit in me (2005) and Long Days. Short stories (2010) are set in North America and thematise the loneliness of the individual in a world suffocated by materialism. Me, Mike and Mustafa is based on an encounter in New York between the writer and her housekeeper Mike, who lived in the basement of the apartment and collected all manner of things there, from microwave ovens to unworn sports shoes. Just as Mike collects all sorts of often seemingly unimportant objects, Jessa Wildemeersch also wants to collect all sorts of intrinsically human stories that play out in the shadow of major historical events. Multivocality and multilingualism become core aspects of her theatre work. In these many voices she also goes on a soul-searching journey herself.
In the performance W.M.D. (just the low points) (2009) which she made with the New York-based theatre company Sponsored By Nobody, this multivocality is utilised in a different way. The performance is a collage of text fragments, structured around the events of one specific day – 8 January 2004 – the day when a report by a respected think tank called into question the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the performance, the American perspective was contrasted with an Iraqi perspective. The coloured nature and bias of the reporting is illustrated in a manner that is both painful and absurdly humorous. The Iraqi-Belgian theatre-maker Mokhallad Rasem also took part in the last of the three versions of this performance. Jessa Wildemeersch went on to develop an intense collaboration with him as an actress: “Ironically enough, the attack on the West brought me closer to the Middle East as a human being, a maker and an actor.”
Mokhallad Rasem, a political refugee from Iraq, is also one of the people that Jessa Wildemeersch interviewed when writing Dagen zonder data (2015). As well as undertaking a great deal of documentary research, she held discussions with people who had been marked by a war trauma and asked them what this meant for them in their everyday lives. For example, she sought out a postman who had fought in Vietnam, a businessman who fought in Afghanistan, the daughter of a soldier from the Second World War, a refugee from Bosnia, and so on. Their recorded voices are included in the piece, but it is Jessa herself who is the narrator and who plays all the parts. She has interwoven her own experience of the 9/11 attacks with the others’ stories. The various stories are recounted one after another in separate scenes, interrupted by visual and sound excerpts. The different stories are never directly about the horrors of war, but about the knock-on mental and emotional effect of that horror on these people’s everyday lives.
I do not hear the explosion,
I do not hear the alarm,
I do not hear the chaos,
I do not see the fire,
they are all of them remote.
There is, however, this feeling of fear.
The cars in the street filled me with panic.
I thought something’s bound to happen.
If lots of cars are parked one after the other,
I said to myself, something’s bound to happen.
As well as plays that document and articulate people’s everyday reality, Jessa Wildemeersch has also written several that enter into dialogue with the classic theatre repertoire. The plays in question (Shakespeare, Chekhov) are not performed themselves, but are the subject of discussion. Here too Jessa Wildemeersch seeks out the shadows in order to be able to write. The question ‘how can we stage these classics today?’ does not interest her, but rather ‘what effects do these plays and their words and images have on us?’ For example, she set up a study into the female characters in Shakespeare’s work and subsequently wrote L’étude (Nu slaat de chaos toe) [L’etude (Now chaos strikes)](2017)along with Sofie Palmers and Sien Eggers. She has also created the performance itself in collaboration with these two actresses. The three actresses in the text – Sofie, Sien and Jessa – hold a discussion about the women in the classical canon. How big are the female roles? How are the women depicted? Which archetypes reappear time and time again? Why are the male roles always bigger and more important? Shakespeare has a great apologist in Jessa, who describes him as a ‘revolutionary’ who created a modern image of women. The three actresses talk about his female characters: Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Cleopatra, Desdemona, Ophelia, Miranda, etc. But they also discuss Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, two twentieth-century female writers who committed suicide. They talk about women who are not heard, but also about Shakespeare’s verse and how best to speak it aloud. They playfully try out new female identities. They quote sections of text in Dutch and English and combine them with anecdotes and experiences from their own lives. Sien is the eldest of the three actresses and has played a large number of roles in her life, including some from Shakespeare. In the course of the discussions she constantly stumbles upon new memories. Fragments are shown of a 1978 French-language staging of The Tempest in which Sien plays the role of Miranda. This is the stimulus for a reflection on growing older and losing friends and colleagues. The discussions become further and further removed from Shakespeare’s plays and are more and more about the three actresses’ desires, dreams and doubts. Ultimately, Jessa also asks herself why she has been occupied with it for so long, because she finds so little support for her project amongst her colleagues. After a long tirade, she is calmed down by her friends: “They have a good time. Drink wine.”, says the final stage direction.
The same structure, a discussion between three actresses about a piece from the dramatic canon that turns out to be every bit as much, if not more, about the actresses themselves, is used by Jessa Wildemeersch in Den beer heeft mij gezien [The Bear Has Seen Me] (2019). Once again, the play and the performance were both created in collaboration with Sofie Palmers and Sien Eggers. The play is based on the three actresses’ travel experiences in Russia. The seven sections of the play always start with film footage of the journey. With a view to better understanding Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century and still frequently performed, the friends go to St Petersburg and Moscow. In search of today’s equivalents of Olga, Masja and Irina – as Chekhov’s three sisters are called. Jessa in particular, with her great enthusiasm for fresh encounters, longs to penetrate to the soul of Russia. They view Russian stagings of The Three Sisters, visit a professor and talk to normal Russians on the street. But it soon becomes clear that the three actresses are not equally enthusiastic about the project. Irritations, differences of opinion and minor squabbles gradually gain the upper hand.
JESSA I like the theatre. I wonder how they stage Three Sisters in Moscow.
SIEN I don’t see how I could benefit from going to see Three Sisters. Nor you, for that matter. It’s not like we’re doing that play, is it? Yet you seem set on doing excerpts of that play. I’m not, not in the least.
JESSA Same here.
SOFIE Nor me.
JESSA All I’m saying is that I have no desire to tell that particular story. The wretchedness; it brings out the rebel in me. I do want to go to Moscow though. It’s a childhood dream of mine. All my life I’ve wanted to go to Moscow. And now the opportunity presents itself.
SIEN So you get to go to Moscow and the first thing you do is rush to the theatre. Is that your motivation for going to Moscow?
Instead of getting to know Russia and its inhabitants better, they get to know each other and each other’s desires and doubts better. By the end of the piece, the actresses no longer use their own names, but the names of Chekhov’s characters. They quote passages from the piece and slowly become the three sisters. But unlike Olga, Masja and Irina, who sink into melancholy and indecision, and dream of Moscow but never get there, the final film footage that we see is Sien, Jessa and Sofie’s joyful arrival in Moscow. As an explicit echo of L’étude (Nu slaat de chaos toe) the final stage direction is: “They have a good time there. They drink vodka.”
In Paradise Blues (2019) Jessa Wildemeersch does not start out from a traumatic past, but from a projected future. She drew inspiration from the book Forty Tales from the Afterlifes (2009) by the American neurologist David Eagleman and from a series of interviews with people from a variety of backgrounds about their idea of the afterlife. Paradise Blues is a monologue, a narration (although in the performance the actress shares the stage with a musician). The actress describes how she travels to an island in Italy to work on her performance. She quotes Virginia Woolf: “A woman must have … a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” But there is little chance of her enjoying such seclusion because she meets Fabio, an archaeologist. He causes her research to derail and makes her think more deeply and in a more personal way about life, love and death, far more than about the afterlife. With an abundance of atmosphere and quietly murmuring poetry, she describes her spiritual quest around the island.
And then I see -
a mountain like a giant man,
lying on his back.
A woman next to him,
a giantess with a snub nose,
a huge bosom,
a bulging belly,
she’s with child.
They’re lying there with their heads to each other.
Two giants resting in the mountains.
The lake between them.
2409 metres high.
This must be it, I think.
A man and a woman,
find each other, have sex, make a baby.
That’s how the giants became humans.
In a sometimes serious, sometimes moving, sometimes funny or hilarious way, Jessa Wildemeersch’s plays are at once a meeting point with others and a place for self-analysis. She deals with big contemporary themes (war traumas, the representation of women, the afterlife) but always on a human scale and in immediately accessible language. She describes the use of her work as follows: “As a theatre-maker, you are a standard-bearer for transience. Theatre only exists because one day it will no longer exist. Telling stories here and now: that is my legacy.”
Written by: Erwin Jans
Translated by: Nadine Malfait
Erwin Jans is currently working as a dramaturg at Toneelhuis in Antwerpen. He teaches theater and drama at Artesis Hogeschool Antwerpen where he also does research on the history of the dramatic text. He writes extensively on literature, theater and culture. He published Interculturele intoxicaties. Over kunst, cultuur en verschil (Intercultural intoxications. On art, culture and diversity) (2006). He was co-editor of an anthology of Flemish postwar poetry Hotel New Flandres (2008). Together with the philosopher Eric Clemens he wrote an essay on democracy that was also translated in French (2010). Last year he published an anthology of the dramatic work of the Flemish playwright and director Tone Brulin (2017).
Available in Dutch, unless stated otherwise
Paradise Blues* (2019)
Den beer heeft mij gezien* (2019) - in collaboration with Sofie Palmers en Sien Eggers
L'étude (nu slaat de chaos toe)* (2017) - in collaboration with Sofie Palmers en Sien Eggers
Dagen zonder data (2015)* - translated to English (Days Without Data) by Sara Vertongen andJessa Wildemeersch, to French by Mike Sems and Kim Andringa
Long Days. Short Stories (2010)
De Misfit in Me (2006)
Me, Mike en Mustafa (2003)
* Published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek