Arne Sierens was born on August 15, 1959. He grew up in the Brugse Poort neighborhood of Ghent, a blue collar district on the city's west side. His ties to the neighborhood have left an unmistakable impression on his work. This island of working class people and subsidized housing is for Sierens what Aalst is for Flemish author Louis Paul Boon, Rimini for Federico Fellini, or Little Italy for Martin Scorcese – "A place where the human condition is made visible. No gods live there, only wretches; you see no tragedies, only melodrama." His love of literature and film came from his father, the novelist and film critic Frans Sierens, who died early. It was through him that, even as a child, Arne Sierens came in contact with the tension between Art with a capital letter and the culture of the people, a tension that would play a major role in his work.
After middle school, he enrolled in the directing program at RITCS in Brussels, from which he graduated in 1981. He began his career as an assistant director at Ghent playhouses such as the NTG, Arena, and Arca. For a time, he was a member of Erik Devolder's Parisiana performance collective. During his college years, he was active in the music world as an organizer and a singer in the post-punk group Perfectone (1980-1981), the band he co-founded with Johan De Smet and his brother Sven. The punk scene and the entire (rebellious) subculture became an important source of inspiration for Sierens's later texts and stage performances. De Smet later composed the music for the three operas they created together: "Het rattenkasteel" (The Rat Castle, 1984), a key production based on the cartoon strip by Marc Sleen, "De liefde voor de drie manen" (The Love of the Three Moons, 1988) and "Je pleure des bananes" (1989).
In 1977, Arne Sierens saw "Dead Class" by Tadeusz Kantor, the Polish theater director he regards as his biggest mentor and whose style and method of working profoundly influenced him.
In 1982 he co-founded with director/actor Jan Leroy and a number of actors (including Geertrui Daem, who would later become a writer) a theater group with the programmatic name of De Sluipende Armoede, which roughly translates as Creeping Poverty. This took place in the margins of officially subsidized theater, which offered very few opportunities for the new generation of playwrights and directors. It was within this group that most of Sierens's first theatrical productions and operas were created.
After directing and adapting the classic pieces "Riders to the Sea" (J.M.Synge), Goethe's "Stella," and "Rode Oogst" (Red Harvest, based on the 17th-century revenge tragedy Arden of Feversham), he made his writing debut with "Het Vermoeden" (The Suspicion, 1982), which he directed with the amateur theater group De Melomanen in collaboration with Jan Leroy. He continued the collaboration with Leroy during "De Soldaat-Facteur en Rachel" (The Soldier-Mailman and Rachel, 1986), a First World War piece in which he acted as well as wrote and co-directed, and "Los Muertesitos / Onze Lieve Doden" (Los Muertesitos / Our Dear Departed 1988), productions in which he explores the byways of epic theater.
A significant moment came with the creation of "Mouchette" (1990) for Oud Huis Stekelbees, directed by Johan Dehollander. The text received numerous awards both at home and abroad and enabled Sierens to break through to a larger circuit. He went on to write "Constant Pardon / Falstaff in Congo" (1990) for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, though the piece was never staged.
He continued his collaboration with director Johan Dehollander from 1992 to 1994 as in-house writer for the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie, Luc Perceval's former theater company. It was in this context that "Boste" and the diptych of "De Drumleraar" (The Drum Instructor) and "Juffrouw Tania" (Miss Tania) came into being. The frame narrative "Dozen" (Boxes) emerged out of improvisation with the actors. During this time, he translated Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" (as "Het begeren onder de olmen," 1992) and Jean Genet's "Splendid's" (1994) for Ivo Van Hove's Het Zuidelijk Toneel.
It was also during this period that Sierens came to the conclusion that writing in itself did not interest him. He radically decided to return to his original ideal of "auteur theater," in which – as in auteur cinema – writing and directing are part of one ongoing creative process. This decision led to his departure from the Blauwe Maandag Compagnie.
He later found an artistic partner in choreographer Alain Platel. Together they created the trilogy "Moeder & Kind" (Mother & Child, 1994), "Bernadetje" (1996) and "Allemaal Indiaan" (All Indian, 1999). These productions, staged by the Victoria Theater in Ghent, struck upon an original connection between dance, theater, music, action and storytelling, and had a liberating effect on Arne Sierens. These works resonated to an exceptional degree with both national and international audiences. The French newspaper Le Monde equated "Bernadetje" with the work of Peter Brook and Pina Bausch. The three productions toured extensively all over the world and were highly acclaimed.
In tandem with his collaboration with Alain Platel, beginning in 1995 he entered into an artistic alliance with Johan Dehollander and business director Stef Ampe at the Nieuwpoort Theater in Ghent. Together, the three of them transformed this theater from a presentation platform to an arts center. Sierens created the storytelling production "Napels" (Naples, 1997) in collaboration with Dehollander. In 1998 he wrote "De broers Geboers" (The Brothers Geboers), a production which proved very controversial due to its portrayal of emerging right-wing extremism.
In 1997 the Nieuwpoort Theater curated the Time Festival and Sierens launched the "Kuiperskaai Research Project" in which researchers interview residents and other participants about their relationship with the infamous Kuiperskaai night life district in Ghent.
It was largely during this period that he developed his own unique method of working: pieces created through collective collaboration with the actors, based on their extensive improvisation on stage, in connection with interview and research sessions. In doing so, he entirely erased the boundary separating the writing desk and the stage. He continued to apply this method in almost all subsequent productions.
He cast his later compatriot Johan Heldenbergh for the first time in "Mijn Blackie" (My Blackie, 1998), a coproduction with HETPALEIS. Visual artist Guido Vrolix became his regular set designer. This was followed by the contentious "Niet alle Marokkanen zijn dieven" (Not All Moroccans Are Thieves, 2001) and "Martino" (2003), both in coproduction with HETPALEIS.
In 2004 a new artistic alliance between Johan Heldenbergh, Marijke Pinoy, and Arne Sierens led to the founding of Compagnie Cecilia. Their first production, "Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand" (Mary of Everlasting Aid), was selected for the Avignon festival. The newspaper Le Figaro commented: "Arne Sierens, l'un des hommes du théâtre européen qui sait le mieux entendre et traduire la détresse du monde, sans leçon, sans discours politique, mais par une écriture scénique."
Compagnie Cecilia followed this up with "Trouwfeesten en processen enzovoorts" (Weddings and Court Cases and So On, 2006), "Broeders van Liefde" (Brothers of Love, 2008) in cooperation with Union Suspecte, "Apenverdriet" (Monkey Puzzle Tree, 2009) and "Schöne Blumen" (Beautiful Flowers, 2010), all in coproduction with HETPALEIS. A regular thespian group formed, with actors such as Titus De Voogdt, Robrecht Vanden Thoren, and Mieke Dobbels.
Though the subsidy was increased in 2009, it proved inadequate to realize all artistic ambitions and Marijke Pinoy left the group. From that time on, Sierens and Heldenbergh constituted the artistic core of Compagnie Cecilia.
During the very radical "Altijd Prijs" (Loser in Luck, 2008), Sierens worked with the French composer/guitarist Jean-Yves Evrard for the first time. From that time on, Evrard became his regular musical partner for most of his subsequent productions.
"De Pijnders" (The Bearers, 2011), a coproduction with Theater Antigone and De Werf Brugge, was another large-scale production with six actors and three musicians.
Sierens hit the writer's desk again to create the monologue "Lacrima" (2012), which he then directed.
A big fan of the circus, Sierens continually incorporates circus elements into his productions. He worked with circus artists for the first time in "Gloria (in den hoge)" (Gloria (in excelsis), 2013) and Ensor, the latter being a collaboration with Circus Ronaldo.
As a playwright and director, Arne Sierens has a very personal and unique style, a far cry from traditional theater, deeply rooted in the everyday, in the culture of the people, and in the epic. He calls himself the "seismograph of these times" and strives for an autonomous theater freed from literary constraints and engaged instead with the physical and the terpsichorean. He has an obsession with the anecdotal, which he collects through long-running interview and research projects.
Central to his method of working are improvisations performed by the actors on stage as well as intense character studies, from which he "samples" movements and texts which he then mixes with his own texts and physical performances through a long fermentation process (generally five months of work), weaving these into a "score" that forms the basis for the ultimate spectacle in which all the elements converge to create a ritual and theater that "is as alive and tangible as life itself" and is reborn, so to speak, with each performance.
He is constantly searching for the alchemy between text, narrative, dance, and music, as well as a permanent crossover with popular culture such as melodrama and the circus. His obsession with movement and music has led him to work with choreographers such as Alain Platel, Koen Augustijnen, and Ted Stoffer, and composers such as Jean-Yves Evrard and Daan Vandewalle.
Arne Sierens says that he is strongly influenced by Eastern theater, by the Polish theater directors Tadeusz Kantor and Grotowski, the writers Louis Paul Boon and Céline, and filmmakers such as Pier Paulo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Robert Bresson, Martin Scorcese, Wong Kar-Wai, John Cassavetes, Aki Kaurismaki, Jacques Audiard, and Nicolas Windig Refn. He also derives a lot of inspiration from comic strips, the visual arts, photography, and attending court trials.
"The dialogues are not constructed on a psychologizing discourse or carried by heavily modeled characters à la Strindberg, to name just one sculptor of the soul. The characters are often responsible for their own troubles, but there is no great Victim or great Culprit to be discerned in that tangle of misery and despair. Rather, it is much more about the general powerlessness of the human condition, concretized in small, flailing folk figures, with language to match."
"Assertive declarations have been replaced by flashing linguistic reflexes, explosive dialogues that broadcast signals of what is bubbling and swirling within. And in between: narrative segments that expose those roots. The language is powerful, primal, sometimes trivial, and very suggestive. Short sentences and an erratic syntax that rarely brings a train of thought to its full conclusion. The indisputable folk idiom with its great plasticity harbors not only poetry and humor but also a dose of commonsense philosophy, mixed with absurd logic. The characters speak the dialect of their souls. And it is literally through language that they draw us into their inner essence. Never directly, and without entirely revealing themselves, because they are unable to."
"They are vulnerable figures, they speak coarsely, love self-deprecation, and get into crazy situations. In conversations, they jump from one subject to the next, because the ability to stick to one topic for long is not in their nature, since when they're moved by a topic they have to get it out, or simply change the subject. That flightiness has a physical dimension as well, involving a sort of unease and uncertainty. They lack grounding and a secure hold in their existence, constantly appearing to be searching for a safe habitat. Their relationships (between men and women, parents and children, friends) are out of whack. Communication is not their greatest forte. But they continue searching for survival strategies: in a revamped self-image, new acquaintances, fixed rituals, their imagination, their dreams ... They become mired in illusions, yet also relinquish them of their own volition when reality becomes pressing. There is simultaneously the need and the inability to lean on each other or take care of each other." (Fred Six)
Sierens's pieces are no tranches de vie, but are always about life as a whole. They are long metaphors about impossible life, which he says are exercises and strategies in survival, in which the curative effect on the spectator is very important. It is a "théâtre cru et drôle, criant de vérité."
The set designs by Guido Vrolix are always striking: the ice rink in "Maria Eeuwigdurende Bijstand," the blue circus ring in "Trouwfeesten en processen enzovoorts," the nine tons of glass shards in "Broeders van Liefde," the shocking piece of tarmac in "Altijd Prijs," the rotating bright red apartment in "Apenverdriet," the bamboo scaffolding in "Schöne Blumen," the gigantic seesaw in "De pijnders" and the sixteen-ton concrete blocks in "Lacrima."
Though Arne Sierens is mainly known as a theater director, he has written a remarkable body of texts as well. All his pieces have been published separately or in collections. His texts have been translated into various languages and have been performed and published in Portugal, France, Germany, England, America, and elsewhere.
Arne Sierens is among the most frequently performed authors on the Flemish amateur circuit.
In addition to his theater work, Sierens does film work as well, including co-writing the screenplays for Felix Van Groeningen's films "Dagen zonder lief" (With Friends Like These) (2007) and "Belgica" (2015).