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Unaccustomedness was to be expected at this rare summer festival #TFBoulevard

For a year and a half, there was hardly any playing, festival tents remained in mothballs and artists were busy doing living room concerts or attic sessions on Zoom. Now everything is allowed out again and the discharge is just barely there. Unaccustomedness characterises the fresh start of Theatre Festival Boulevard, which has moved to a park south of downtown Bossche for the next few years, as its regular venue, the Parade under St John's, has turned into a treeless construction site with pop-up terraces.

Was it nice to be there again? More than, but it also still doesn't quite feel like it's allowed and possible. Those ladies 30 centimetres behind you in line, the seniors who come and take shelter under an umbrella right next to you for that one rain shower? At the same time, you would want to fly into the arms of old acquaintances, but so that has become all weird and different.

Unaccustomed

The same should apply to performers. Suddenly, you find yourself in a room with people who react to you precisely, or precisely not. On the first day of my festival immersion, I experienced the awkwardness of this with two artists with 'spoken word' in their announcement. Just to point out the breadth of that term right away: Eva van Pelt and Lisette Ma Neza are pretty much at the two extremes of the spectrum. What do they have in common? They have to pull out all the stops, and that proves to be quite a challenge.

In 'Now', Van Pelt seeks to connect with the audience, who can say something about fear, loneliness and anger, respectively, via separate speech sessions. This is then turned into a soundscape, after which three musicians support it live with Radiohead-like floating tones. Van Pelt then improvises on this with lyrics and vocals.

The floor is lava

It's doggedly difficult to improvise, especially if you don't have too many fallbacks, bits of material that can be deployed when inspiration runs out for a while, or nerves get the upper hand. The session I witnessed was somewhat characterised by a surplus of instrospection: everyone on stage was mostly preoccupied with themselves, and nerves were evident as Van Pelt moved as if the floor was made of lava. You yearned for a moment of peace and grounding. With two feet flat on the ground.

That grounding did sit well with Lisette Ma Neza, aka That Girl from Brussels. The Nederbelgische, born in Breda and living in Brussels, or vice versa, with Rwandan roots and a backing band from the Bijlmer, certainly came in well at the beginning. Soulful vocals, fine music and a story to tell. She reports that she suffered from depression as an adolescent because she could not and did not want to live up to the expectations of her mother, who fled from genocide. She wanted to return to Rwanda, but that, in turn, brought all sorts of problems.

Klaterlach

It's stories like these that are the hardest to tell, because they are personal, and you can't really do anything with them, as a performer, until you've actually been able to make it a real story for yourself. Lisette Ma Neza touches on it a few times, but the show gets too bogged down in mutual jokes, such as instructing the trumpeter to play all the lives that came before him, which again lacks composure.

That peace would allow and make vulnerability palpable. Actually, for quite a long time I watched someone who bore a tremendously heavy fate, but always laughed it off when it got too close. A lovely gurgle though, by the way.

Survival

Performers mature by playing a lot in front of very different audiences, and summer festivals in normal years offer a benevolent abundance of that kind of audience. Now Boulevard, alongside Noorderzon later this month, is one of the few remaining summer festivals, with all its limitations. It is wonderful that it is here again, but artists need more. More encounters, more successes, more setbacks, more audiences.

Otherwise, survival will be very difficult for all of us.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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