Theater De Spiegel

Karel Van Ransbeeck


Karel Van Ransbeeck trained at the National Marionette Theatre in Budapest (Hungary) and at the Theatre, Film and Television Institute??  in Brussels. He also studied in Neerpelt, Tilburg, Amsterdam and Dordrecht (Netherlands) under Yang Feng, Frank Soehnle and others. He did a summer course in Charleville-Mézières under Petr Matasek in 1989 and another in 1995 under Gérard Lépinois.

Karel Van Ransbeeck has worked as a puppeteer, director or production designer for several Belgian puppet theatre companies, including Taptoe, De Maan, Welle, Vlinders & Co and Froe Froe. He taught for seven years at the School voor Poppenspel in Mechelen (now Het Firmament) and he has given puppet show workshops in Flanders and the Netherlands. As a puppet manipulator, he has worked for Belgium’s national television and school television channels and for Les Guignols (Canal+).

Since 1994 Karel Van Ransbeeck has been the artistic director of Theater De Spiegel, founded as a puppet theatre by his father in 1965. Karel grew up inside this puppet theatre and eventually took over from his father as its manager, shifting the emphasis from puppet theatre to a unique combination of puppets and objects with music. 

Since 2001 Theater De Spiegel has received subsidies from the Flemish Ministry of Culture as a music theatre company. On his artistic quest to develop a theatre language with wide public appeal, Karel Van Ransbeeck always looks for a symbiosis between figures, objects, music, sound and text. 

In 2004 he created ‘De Rode Draak’ (The Red Dragon), his first theatre production for a specific target group: children aged under three. Work for infants has since been an intrinsic part of Theater De Spiegel.

Karel Van Ransbeeck came up with the concept for several of Theater De Spiegel’s shows, and also directed or designed the set for them.  


  • Koning Midas (1983)
  • Huizewuizewouterje (1986)
  • Vicky De Viking (1992)
  • Sneeuwwitje (1995)
  • Duimpje (1995)
  • Dikke Vrienden (1996)
  • Karel en de Elegast (2000)
  • Petrushka (2000)
  • Straatje Zonder Eind (2000)
  • Grote Pien, Kleine Pien (2002)
  • Renardieën (2003)
  • Lust (2003)
  • En attendant (2003)
  • De Rode Draak (2004)
  • Noah (2004)
  • P. en ik (2006)
  • R (2007)
  • Bramborry (2008)
  • Twee Oude Vrouwtjes (2008)
  • Carmina Bremana (2009)
  • Songs on the Mahabharata (2009)
  • Caban (2012)
  • Lelegüm (2012)
  • Gombolo (2012)
  • Nest (2013)
  • BZZZ’T (2013)
  • Meneer Papier en Don Karton (2014)
  • Mouw (2014)
  • Beat the drum!(2014)
  • Oma's handtas (2015)
  • A book is a book (2016)
  • Nocturama (2018)


He is standing waiting for me on the underground platform, leaning nonchalantly against a column, wearing that familiar cordial, if slightly grumpy expression. We take the escalator and emerge in the heart of the “railway cathedral”, as the people of Antwerp proudly call the station. And, indeed, this veritable cathedral of stone, glass and metal, which narrowly escaped demolition in 1975, does take your breath away. According to the magazine Newsweek, it is one of the four most beautiful stations in the world. In the gigantic hall Karel Van Ransbeeck tells me that the space is sometimes used for concerts, operas and art performances. The scene is already set.


As we walk along De Keyserlei to the Meir and the historic city centre, the observant ‘image hunter’ and design enthusiast points out stately old façades alongside modern architecture. Here the history of art lives on and is the very soul of the city.


We stop off for lunch at the ‘Bien Soigné’ restaurant, a friendly nod to me.


Though Karel appears quite reserved in company, when he talks about his great passion, music theatre for very young children, he becomes so animated, so fired up by ideas, images and references that my delicious ‘local bouillabaisse’ is tepid before I get to finish it! I should immediately add that theatre, puppets and objects are inscribed in the family culture and that is what led to his becoming artistic director of Theater De Spiegel in 1994. 


The family cocoon. After a performance of Faust, which impressed him hugely, Karel’s father decided to become an actor. However, his small stature held him back and he became a designer instead. He set up a family puppet theatre, primarily as a pastime to occupy the family (five brothers and sisters).  At weekends all the children helped create the productions and the set and manipulated the puppets. Karel displayed an early flair for puppeteering when the family staged shows at a holiday centre in Switzerland. He began by operating the curtains, then he learned to manipulate rod puppets. That period left him with excellent organizational skills (the family travelled with everything but the kitchen sink), with memories of the power of object, image and set, and a love of spectacle and of communicating with the public. Mindful of the words of his father the designer, who marvelled as he watched Spanish glassblowers – “material artists” – executing his glass designs, Karel has always striven to take artisanal work to a higher level.


As an adolescent, Karel left the sheltered family environment to follow a practical course at the school for puppeteering in Hungary. While there, he took the opportunity to see as many shows as possible (theatre, opera, dance, etc.) and it was during that ‘culture bath’ that he discovered the role of music in puppet theatre. The young Karel attended a series of ballet productions with puppets (Stravinsky, Liszt, Bartók, etc.). He saw how the object (the puppet) could be enriched with musical language that supports the movement, thus providing a much more emotional and sensory experience. In that period he came to believe that a show is global in nature, the object, the music, the movement, the actor and the set being at the service of an emotional aesthetic. Convinced that very young children, children aged 0 to 3, are the most suitable audience for this sort of approach, more than ten years ago Karel waved goodbye to the classic puppet theatre to concentrate on the musical theatre of figure and object. 


Creation process in the ‘uncomfortable zone’. Karel is extremely interested in the work of Alison Gopnik, professor of development psychology at the University of Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby, finding in her the confirmation of his intuition. “Children aren’t just defective adults, primitive grownups gradually attaining our perfection and complexity. Children and adults are different forms of Homo sapiens. Their brains, minds and consciousness are different, but equally complex and highly developed and designed to cope with different evolutional functions. Human development resembles a metamorphosis, rather like caterpillars becoming butterflies. Or is it that children are vibrant, wandering butterflies who transform into dull caterpillars inching their way along the grown-up path?”


Armed with those statements, Karel went on to build an artistic play environment, a theatre of the senses almost, in which the young child is invited to open the ‘sensory door’ and create his own imaginary journey. What that child gets to see addresses the language of the senses so that the images come to life at the sound of the music. “Because the show is created in the spectator’s head, we want the stage to be alive with words, music and moving objects, we want all the senses to be awakened, we want reality and imagination to converge”, Karel explains.


To achieve this, Karel chooses an atypical cocktail of artists, bringing together at will different ages, artistic practices and disciplines on a ‘colourful’ stage where the universal, multicultural codes act as the bond.


“I put them in a zone where they feel uncomfortable and begin to question things in a bid to help them forget their image as an artist specialized in a particular area and to encourage them to put down their ‘rucksack’ and follow their intuition. I stimulate them by asking them to abandon all their routines and artistic certainties so as to rediscover a real sincerity in what they do on stage. I encourage them to question the relationship between object, music, actor and movement and to find the right balance. It is this authenticity that enables them to start communicating with very young children. It is an experimental, highly intuitive approach to which I bring the ideas and the materials, and then the adventure begins: anything is possible”, Karel continues.


It is not for the fainthearted!


Once the broad outlines are in place, the team presents it in a day nursery it works with to see what the reactions are and to make any adjustments. Tin, Karel’s life partner, plays an important role as critic and advisor. Tin works in a nursery school where she leads workshops in developmental movement inspired by the ideas of Veronica Sherborne. The purpose of the workshops is to give the children the chance to come into contact with the others through the body in movement and to learn to recognize and manage their emotions. It is all about questioning the body and the senses. “What did you mean by that?”, asks Tin. As well as having a razor-sharp, critical eye, she has the advantage of being able to distance herself. That ‘objective eye’ helps rediscover a purified artistic language appropriate to a child’s observations.     


 “This is work that applies to every public”, Karel emphasizes. “The accompanying adult (parent or professional) is the safe and confidential mediator. He has to be willing to rediscover in himself this part of childhood and its language, to make time and space for the encounter, to be open and receptive so that the journey can begin.”


In that subtle alchemy the adult, stripped of his usual representations, accompanies the young child in the intimacy of this encounter between child and artist on a journey into the world of the infant. That world is under construction; it is fragile and should not be disrupted! 


DE Studio: a nest, a germinating seed-bed. In 2012 the Theater De Spiegel company moved into the former theatre school in Antwerp, renamed DE Studio. It had been made available to the company by the City of Antwerp and it was managed by Villanella, an art house that produces and presents shows for young people aged O to 26. There you meet dancers, graphic designers, musicians, actors, visual artists and young film-makers and it is this artistic vibrancy that delights Karel, who juggles disciplines, cultures and age groups. In the busy space which serves as a kitchen at midday, artistic projects, creation processes, shows, car-sharing, house-sharing and the like are discussed with gusto!    


Teaching from the viewpoint of the senses: early childhood and training in Flanders. Karel is well aware that to be able to make one’s way in such a subtle world, it is vital to train the professionals. 


There is so much work to be done in that field in Belgium because the training of staff in positions of care (crèche and nursery school supervisors) is at one of the lowest levels in Europe. 


The Flemish government grants subsidies to companies, but lacks the political will to encourage shows and the necessary support framework for a public of very young children. So in 2007 Theater De Spiegel started forming partnerships with Walloon companies, which are more advanced in this field, and set up a network with the cultural centres which stage shows for very young children. The professionals involved with children have an ambassadorial role to play in that strategy. So Theater De Spiegel increasingly targets crèches, nursery schools and local authorities, urging them to organize training courses so that professionals can rediscover their individual creativity, appropriate the artistic language and the pleasure of creating something with children in a lively atmosphere using everyday aids: music, objects, materials, space, etc.


Stimulated by the company, the partnerships acquire structure, but nothing is institutionalized. Despite the project mounted with the city of Sint-Niklaas, not far from Antwerp, the activities initiated with twenty crèches during the Zomer van Antwerpen festival and the contacts made with the Antwerp aldermen for childcare and culture, there has been little discernible change in mindset.   


“It is not in the local mentality to pool resources and policies. We Flemings are not literary people, we don’t have great theatre scripts as is the case in other countries. Our culture is a visual culture (painting, retables, etc.); we have inherited a visual culture”. Karel explains.


Theater De Spiegel is not giving up, however, because what the company does acts as a goad in Flanders. Training courses have been organized for crèche staff in the last four years. But that is not enough; what is needed is an instrument to promote musical theatre for very young children: a festival.


Travel to the Far East (one of Karel’s expressions): Babelut, a festival to savour. We leave Antwerp early in the morning, casting a last look back at the magnificent station hall. After a journey of an hour and a quarter entailing a couple of tricky changes between railway carriages, we arrive at Domein Dommelhof. Set up by the Province of Limburg, Dommelhof is a magnificent institution, which combines a cultural hub and a sports hub, all located in a beautiful wooded park where the Musica organization has set out an innovative sound trail for adults and children. The institution has all the technical, logistic and material resources a festival requires. It was precisely the opportunity Karel was looking for: to have musical theatre for very young children discovered and recognized via a festival and at the same time to provide professionals working with infants, but also artists, with the opportunity to see shows from all over Europe.      


At his instigation, in 2008 Theater De Spiegel and the two partners, Musica (impulse centre for active musical development) and Domein Dommelhof (centre for the diffusion of theatre, but also for the production of open-air and circus theatre) joined forces and created the Babelut festival, to the great pleasure of children, their parents and professionals from the sector.

The programme for June 2015 features ten shows as well as numerous workshops designed for children and their parents. The general objective of the festival is to achieve ever greater interaction between artists and spectators through artistic initiatives.


During the 2015 festival there will also be a training day for artists, those involved in the education of very young children and other professionals. It will be centred around sounds and vocal games, movement and music. This attractive project still requires many more hours’ work, but in the meanwhile another meeting awaits us, this time in Brussels.


Opposition, provocation and confrontation in the muffled corridors of contemporary music theatre. After several changes of carriage, we arrive at North Station in Brussels. A brisk, twenty-minute walk brings us - twenty minutes late – to the meeting of Flanders’ fifteen contemporary music theatre companies, where the subject of the Opera XXI biennial in Antwerp is on the agenda. For years Flanders Opera and the music and dance conservatory deSingel along with two other companies have been organizing Opera XXI which stages acclaimed international productions. The Theatre and Music committee which links these fifteen companies, including five youth theatre companies, also wants to see the biennial offer something for young people. But Opera XXI refuses to go down that road. Two hours of eloquent and fiery debate in Flemish follow; my curiosity as to what is said is not satisfied, but I content myself with following the discussion by means of facial expressions. Suddenly everyone stands up... decisions have been made and strategies drawn up. Karel quietly explains to me that the Operadagen Rotterdam festival does want to put the companies on the programme and to produce a publication about youth music theatre. The committee also suggested organizing an alternative festival, in the years the biennial does not take place. A confrontation with Opera XXI was thus avoided, but rooms are needed for the alternative festival. Will the Opera and deSingel make their rooms and technical teams available? Karel and his colleagues suggest a date for a new meeting. There is still a lot to do to structure and link the different projects, pool facilities and work out a coherent policy to promote quality shows for young and very young audiences. 


But time is getting on and I have to be at South Station. Karel accompanies me. We chat as we hurry towards the station. “I do have a lot of doubts when I’m making something,” he confides in me, “but I am not a fad, I am an artist of my time and I am determined to provide high-standard cultural productions for the very young.”


Departure, media, the world turned upside down. Wednesday January 7th, 20.30 hrs, South Station Brussels. We say goodbye. In the Thalys which is to take me back to Paris, I learn the dramatic news. Dazed passengers sit glued to their mobile devices. Karel, tireless protagonist of the arts, who wanders from the known to the unknown, from the practical to the abstract, from the artisanal to modernity, who experiments, doubts, questions, provokes and creates.... because creating is taking a stand! We are all Charlie. Theater De Spiegel and Karel included. 



GeĢrard Taillefert, teacher, supporter and friend of Nova Villa.