Frie Leysen 1950 – 2020

Picture of Frie Leyson

On Tuesday – at our homes in Sheffield, London and Berlin – we learned about the death, in Brussels, of our friend and colleague, the extraordinary Frie Leysen, whose visionary curatorial work in the field of international performing arts was a source of constant provocation and inspiration for us. Forced Entertainment did several key performances in contexts that Frie curated or created, in festivals from Brussels to Gwangju, and over the years we met her often at festivals and performances in other cities, from Vienna to Beirut, Tokyo and Berlin, where we were presenting work and where she was watching, meeting artists and other colleagues.

We will miss Frie for her keen critical eye and engaged conversation, for her deep connection to our work and that of others, and for the knowledgeable, demanding relation she always had to the broad scene of international theatre, dance and performance. We will miss her as a friend for a million other reasons too but perhaps mostly we will miss her because she stood unashamedly for particular ways of curating and doing – believing in risk and in artists, in the remarkable insights and visions they can offer, and in the right of audiences to see challenging, idiosyncratic, non-formulaic work from diverse perspectives.

Over the years, at Forced Entertainment we have been lucky to work with many great curators and programmers, but Frie’s spirited love for the high political and ethical seriousness of art, and her concomitant sensitivity to its human, visceral and mischievous capacities, always marked her as a unique case. She was a force to be reckoned with and a beautiful ally to stand with. She was someone who set the bar high and who was always seemingly unafraid to go on the offensive for art and its importance – her combative letter to the city administration, on departing Wiener Festwochen remains a classic of the genre. Frie was serious, sharp and funny, qualities that went together in her, energising us all.

I’m thinking about the time I spent talking to Frie in Beirut at Festival Ayloul, more than 20 years ago, already some years since we’d first met. I’m also thinking about the last time I spoke to her – this February, when Forced Entertainment were in Brussels to present Out of Order at Kaaitheater, perhaps only 800m from where Frie lived. The circumstances of those conversations were very different. A coffee place on Hamra where we talking vividly in the sunshine about performances we had watched in the festival, planning ideas for future presentations of Forced Entertainment’s work in KunstenFestivalDesArts, to our last conversation, in Brussels, Frie already very sick. That last time I had mailed inviting her to come see Out of Order, and when she could not attend I offered to go round and see her, just to catch up. She felt too ill for visitors, so we agreed to speak on the phone. It was hard at first – the absurdity of the phone call when we were so close by – not sure we’d ever really spoken on the phone before that afternoon. Before long though we were talking about plans and unpicking this or that performance, the political situation, the nightmares of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the right. Thinking back now I am grateful for that conversation –  she was as passionate and curious as ever, and I was so happy to connect to her.

There won’t be any more like Frie, that’s for sure. But her spirit lives on in the sense that we all carry with us those whose positions and actions make their mark. There’s no doubt that Frie’s legacy goes forward, moves through and continues to change those of us that she has emboldened, inspired and challenged over the years – artists and programmers, curators, other colleagues and audiences alike.

One of the first Forced Entertainment performances Frie ever programmed was Quizoola! She’d seen it in Beirut, in the basement of a building that was still under construction, the neighbourhood around it a chaotic mix of redevelopment and buildings damaged in the Civil War. For the presentation in Brussels we sited the piece in an underground car park, the audience in the half-light scattered around on chairs between the pillars. Frie laughed a lot during the performance of that piece. She loved that this simple durational game of questions and answers could become so unexpectedly weighty. In Beirut the performance included the question “can you sleep through gun-fire?” In many contexts where we have presented Quizoola! this question gets quickly passed over, finding no special purchase in the room, but in Beirut that night it lingered for a while in the basement, funny and then not funny at all. Later in the same performance a set of linked questions came around several times – What is art? What is art for? Are you following the path of your dreams in your life? and What is a life?

Not easy questions, but Frie knew the answers I think.

We send love to Frie’s surviving family, and an embrace to colleagues all over the world who are mourning her loss.

Love. Strength. Politics. Art.

Tim Etchells, for Forced Entertainment, 24 September 2020.