At a press conference on Wednesday 18 May 2022, the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg unveiled their programme for the 2022/23 season, which will launch on Monday 27 September 2022.
Following this press conference, Chronicle.lu had the opportunity to speak with Tom Leick-Burns, Artistic Director and General Manager of Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, about the current and new seasons, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector and his vision for the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg seven years after he took the helm.
New date for 2021/22
As announced on Wednesday, a new date has been added to the current 2021/22 season: Ukraine’s Dakh Daughters will perform their brand-new show “Danse Macabre” at Théâtre des Capucins on Tuesday 1 July 2022.
Speaking to Chronicle.lu, Tom Leick-Burns explained that the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg had been thinking for a while about how they could support the people of Ukraine in the context of the war. “One often feels so powerless in front of something like that”, he lamented. Ultimately, they decided to show their solidarity by supporting Ukrainian artists. Having heard about this new production from Lucie Berelowitsch and Sébastien Juilliard at the Préau Centre Dramatique National de Normandie - Vire in France, where the Dakh Daughters and their families have taken refuge following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg felt that it was “the right project to support”. In fact, the Dakh Daughters had originally arrived in France for a different production, but it soon became clear that a new show was needed in response to the urgency of the situation in Ukraine. “Danse Macabre” combines the band’s own songs with the testimonials of women in Ukraine. With the support of the City of Luxembourg (Ville de Luxembourg – VdL), plans quickly went ahead to include this new show in the 2021/22 season programme.
“We cannot do much but it’s important that we show solidarity [by] giving them that platform”, Mr Leick-Burns noted. “We don’t know how it’s all going to carry on. Obviously, we want it all to end, but I’m sure it’s not the last thing that we do, but it’s certainly now really important to do this on 5 July”.
Planning a season
With the current season not yet over and work already in full swing for the 2022/23 season, it is clear that an immense amount of time and effort goes into creating a season at the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg. As Tom Leick-Burns explained, it takes eighteen months “to really build a season”. He added: “We are now going to look in more detail at the 2023/24 season. And for opera, we are in 2025/26. Opera productions take the longest to plan because availability of singers is absolutely a nightmare. If you’re not three or four years in advance, you don’t get the singers, they’re booked somewhere else. It’s a real puzzle”.
Mr Leick-Burns also stressed the importance of strong relationships with local and international partners in creating a season, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic with so many travel restrictions in place. “So, obviously to have that trust and because supporting the creation in itself is such a key element in our programme”, he elaborated, adding that: “The percentage of co-productions far outweighs the ones which we’re just simply receiving. So, that’s really the key for us”.
Multilingualism & theatre for all
When asked about the importance of English-language theatre in Luxembourg, as well as the use of less widely represented languages, in reaching a more international audience and marginalised communities, Tom Leick-Burns noted: “In all our efforts to increase the diversity of our audience, we are certainly looking at that. And we’re also looking at using more surtitling, which is a brilliant tool”. Indeed, the upcoming Dark Daughters show will be performed in Ukrainian with English and French surtitles.
He continued: “As we all realised over the last ten years, English has become one of the main languages in Luxembourg. […] Of course, with my background, because I trained in the UK [drama school], I was very early on nudging my predecessor to […] produce in English. […] And so that has very early on already become a trademark of our venue that we continue to develop”.
Referring to the multicultural nature of Luxembourg City, Mr Leick-Burns added: “We are such an international city. So many communities live here: over 160 nationalities, and we need to increase their representation in our audience and the way we’re going to do that: language is one thing, and maybe using more surtitles; being more inclusive is another way to show that we also offer opportunities for those that are maybe less fortunate. But mainly it’s about which stories are we telling. I think that’s the key ingredient”.
Next season’s “vivre ensemble” (living together) cycle – or as Mr Leick-Burns likes to call it in English, “It takes all sorts to make a world” – is one way of “telling the stories of the marginalised communities, in the community centres, the people that are less fortunate”. He recognised that such individuals may not necessarily see the appeal of going to the theatre, whether they find the shows too “bourgeois” and unrelatable or simply cannot afford to see a show. “So that’s where we really want to make a difference next season”. Hence the inclusion of pieces such as British dramatist Alexander Zeldin’s “Faith, Hope and Charity” (in English), which tells the story of marginalised people in a run-down community hall who decide to start a choir.
However, challenges persist in terms of how to effectively reach these under-represented communities. In this context, Tom Leick-Burns highlighted “Treemonisha”, an adaptation of Scott Joplin’s opera by Cape Town-based theatre company Isango Ensemble. “These artists are striving against all odds to make their art and they’re creating a piece like Scott Joplin’s ‘Treemonisha’, the first opera ever written for a non-white cast, about the basic right to education of girls, of women, about civil rights”, he said. “We have to work hard to make sure that that audience is not just all whites looking at all blacks”.
“For us, the key is on how we do that. We need to form alliances. We need to work with associations, [...] to go towards those people and tell them what we’re doing. Not waiting here until they come, because they won’t come. Why would they?”, he continued. “Of course, that is not something we’re going to solve in three months, but we need to start”. He added that one way to achieve this was by “engaging with those communities, finding also the champions for each community as multipliers to spread the word, doing workshops with them, inviting them in, letting them be part, being respect[ed] and listening”.
“So really that’s for me the challenge of next season”, he noted.
For Mr Leick-Burns, another English-language highlight for 2022/23 is Simon McBurney and his theatre company Complicité’s adaptation of Nobel-winning Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s thriller novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.
He also recalled that there are many dance performances, for which there is no language barrier, scheduled for next season: “Apart from the challenge, or the particular circumstances, of the multilingual aspect which is so prevalent here in Luxembourg, and maybe the different genres and the different stories that we’re telling, there’s also dance. And the dance season is a great way to bring people together, because there is no language. We’ve realised through the pandemic and even now coming out of it that the dance productions are the ones that keep selling still the best”. He continued: “Everyone can come and just see those amazing dances. You’ve got all the different styles, whether it's flamenco, whether it’s hip hop, whether it’s classical music. A very full dance season next year. For our international audiences, [this is] absolutely an option”.
Vision as director
Speaking about how his vision for the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg has evolved since taking over as Artistic Director and General Manager seven years ago, Tom Leick-Burns stated: “It’s like a puzzle or one of those games that you have as children [where] you’re building blocks. When I took over here in 2015, I’d worked already in the theatre for ten years, I was well acquainted with the kind of work. We were a large international venue. We do opera, theatre in a multitude of languages and dance. It took me a time to find my mark and to realise ‘Okay, what are my priorities?’ One of those was really supporting the artists and supporting the creative process, and that’s when we launched the TalentLab as soon as in 2016, because I really wanted to send that message out there. [You can see] prestigious productions, but we are the largest venue in this country and our mission needs to be to support the artists from here”.
He recalled that the professionalisation of the performing arts is a “very recent event” in Luxembourg, unlike in other countries like the UK or France or Germany.
“Little by little, I just realised that we need[ed] to develop the quality of our productions”, he added. “We need[ed] to then promote this work and our artists abroad; find partners so that we can have more performances. Because the territory is so limited. Already, increasingly, we are doing more and more performances. But it’s clear that we are not London, we’re not Paris, we’re not Berlin. The pool of audience is obviously smaller even though we’re going to launch all these initiatives to get new audiences. So, it’s only by performing abroad and then building this repertoire of productions and reviving them regularly and really involving the artists in what we do and building this relationship: artists, audience, theatre”.
He continued: “That’s really come together only in the last couple of years but we thought […] that’s the key: involve the artist in the life of the theatre, working together with them to get closer to the audience and involve them as well to close that loop. It’s really a process. I would never have imagined seven years ago that it would take that long but I can say now that this associate artist problem, all our initiatives like the “Cercle des spectateurs”, the monthly appointments where you can look at a different aspect of the programme, all these meeting points, all these encounters, all these opportunities for the audience to get closer to the creative process, closer to the artists, and then doing that with the artists together by supporting them and also giving them that support – being associated to the Théâtres de la Ville means something on their CV”. As well as offering the artists visibility, such initiatives “help with the identity of who we are: that we are a venue that is not just a big venue that presents prestigious productions. No, the creative process and the artists are at the heart of what we do”.
He added that the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and their partners were also trying to “break down barriers all the time”, working together towards the same goal: “Come together, learn something, exchange, dialogue. Digesting the complexities of today’s world. Commissioning the stories that are not yet being heard. Supporting those communities that at the moment are struggling”.
“So, this journey that we’re on now, involving the artists in our activities, getting closer to the audience, developing that audience for the future with the right stories to tell, that sums up a bit what we’re about now”, he summarised.
Reflecting back on the COVID-19 pandemic, during which shows often had to be postponed or cancelled at the very last minute, and the challenges that still face the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and the sector as a whole, Tom Leick-Burns noted: “We can’t underestimate what the pandemic has done to the mental health of people. And now being able already to coax them back again, [tell them] it's safe. And then to just experience live theatre, that’s for us the main challenge. That’s why our tagline is a bit close to the emotions, close to the artists, because you don’t get that on Netflix. You don’t get it in the cinema. It’s magic. And it’s important. And it nourishes us. It’s a great privilege to work in the performing arts. I feel so lucky to have this job”. He also emphasised the importance of having “a good team”, adding that whilst the “pandemic was tough on everybody”, his team are now “in a real good place”.
He added that the team had proved their resilience and flexibility throughout the pandemic. “We learned from it as well – not to stick to much maybe to the best well-made plans and all of that. You can stay flexible and you need to. And we need to be able to respond to current events. But I really hope that we are through the worst”, he concluded.