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Published in expatica.com
The Big One-Four-O
From the outside it looks like a community hall, uninspiring and 60s bleak. But I can well remember - as a new producer in town - the first time I walked into the empty auditorium, thick with voices and ideas from the past, challenging me to add another layer to its history. Rows of black vinyl seats, hastily repaired with gaffer tape; a red ciggie-burned carpet, testimony to pre no-smoking days; the voluminous stage, deep and dark. It was perfect. But I hadn’t reckoned on Jo Dekmine, the theatre's shock-haired, shock-effect founder.
Now in his 73rd year, Jo works with his long-term business partner Renée Paduwat to help run the show. Here is a man who knows exactly what he wants, no compromise. His way of choosing his art is deeply instinctive, often controversial. Here is a man in love with the theatre, his theatre.
He still glows with pride when he tells you Pink Floyd appeared here in 1968, but that's only the start of the roll-call: Queen, Frank Zappa, Johnny Rotten, Peter Brook, Dario Fo, Pina Bausch, Blondie and, more recently, Jaques Higelin and Jane Birkin have all passed backstage.
But you may still be wondering why this birthday is so worthy of mention. It's difficult to think of any other theatre that has a similar character, both in its kitsch, sometimes down-at-heel appeal and in its startling programme of work. You see, the 140 is a true Brussels phenomenon, with few rules where there are volumes of rules. In one 1968 production, actors were arrested for prancing around with giant phalluses and Jo was subsequently found guilty of offending public decency.
None of this puts off the loyal audience, and it's fair to say that almost everyone connected to the arts in Brussels will have a 140 memory. Many of them will be at the birthday celebrations on 20 March when there's a DJ and dancing on the stage and Jo will be in his element. After all, this is a man who makes after-performance lobster bisque for actors and keeps them on-side with free champagne. His annual home-made lunches for press, then for teachers - where he launches the year's programme - are legendary. Forget modern marketing techniques and PR when a piss-up does the trick.
And whilst we're on the booze, the post-performance back bar deserves birthday recognition too. Hidden away through a door to the side of the auditorium, it's tiny red sign only lit during the applause, most of the audience miss it. Which means it's a bar for those in the know. It's theatrical, moody and one of the best drinking holes in Brussels where audience and artist can mingle and Jo reigns supreme, especially on first night.
The 140 gets under the skin. It's a place where performance art meets the people and where nothing is quite what it seems. And in all my years of being involved with theatre, I've never seen anything quite like it. Perhaps that's a good enough answer to why I can't miss celebrating its big Four-O.