Features Q&A and Interviews Published 24 July 2018

Ontroerend Goed: “If art isn’t challenging, why bother?”

Ontroerend Goed artistic director Alexander Devriendt talks interactive theatre, gaming, and the death of capitalism.
William Drew
£¥€$ (LIES) at Summerhall, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017.

£¥€$ (LIES) at Summerhall, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Photo: Michiel Devijver

Have you ever been blindfolded? Sat in a wheelchair, pushed around by a performer? Been on a blind date where a performer tries to seduce you? How about hearing an audio track of the assumptions that a stranger you’ve never met has about you? Ever been in the audience when a fellow audience member (female, alone) got picked on, a video camera trained on her, the (male) performer saying that he would stop bullying her only when she opens her legs?

If these experiences sound familiar, you’ve probably seen the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed before or, maybe even likelier, you’ve had these experienced described to you by someone else, or read about them. Their work is frequently intense, controversial, engendering a profound sense of discomfort in the audience. In other words, it always gets people talking. They are, in many ways, the perfect Edinburgh Festival company. Whatever they are doing will end up being the subject of late night drunken conversations between those who have seen it, those who want to and those who refuse to. “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”, goes the line from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ – at the Edinburgh fringe, failure is not being talked about and Ontroerend Goed seem to always be the topic of conversation.

The man behind all of this is Alexander Devriendt. From Ontroerend Goed’s unlikely beginnings as a poetry collective to their current, conversation-starting iteration, he has directed every one of these shows. When I talk to about what the feeling I associate most with his company, discomfort, he goes into the space that feeling can open up:

“I want my work to question my own worldview. If art isn’t challenging, why bother? The problem is that if you start challenging worldviews, for some people, they will just shut down. I never want to shock people for the sake of shocking them: if you shock them too much you will stop getting through to them.”

Devriendt’s work relies on a careful balance between making the audience uneasy and alienating them completely. He explains that “It’s a difficult line some people will come to a show expecting it to be shocking and then maybe they will say that they weren’t shocked enough.”

There’s a fairly well-established idea that the shock of the new is frequently formal, even though it is not recognised as such at the time. So, for example, it wasn’t the contents of Sarah Kane’s Blasted (male rape, eating a baby, etc.) that was the real source of shock. It was her radical use of form dragging a Leeds hotel room into a Bosnian war zone. When people talk about Ontroerend Goed’s shows, it is frequently about their own personal experiences from moment to moment, of the unexpected, even intrusive levels of immersivity they offer. So I ask Devriendt what his experience has been in moving from making immersive performances like The Game of You, The Smile on Your Face and Internal (some of the shows I referred to above) to interactive work like last year’s Edinburgh hit Lies. As a maker of interactive performance myself, I’m particularly interested in what he considers to be the difference between these forms.

“There’s no difference between interactive and immersive,” he begins. Okay, I think, skeptically. He goes on: “Anything that’s good should be immersive, whether a book, whatever, but the live experience – theatre – it’s the only medium that has this immediacy. I don’t like interactive theatre per se. It’s about what you do with it.”

Having ignored the question, he goes straight into the state of theatre today (he’s not a fan): “I do think that theatre is slow to change. When you had painting and photography was invented, painting had to redefine itself completely. And all these changes around us, in our culture but most theatre just stays the same. I don’t understand why theatre clings on to its own routes like this because it has the possibility to be a very very modern medium but it tends to be used very conservatively. If you have an idea and it could be a good movie, please please please make the movie because you’ll reach a lot more people.”

Note to self: make movie (I actually have a great idea for a film about this immersive theatre experience with zombies and then it turns out that they are actually zombies and…and…). Devriendt continues: “theatre reaches very few people. You need to care about how you reach them and what it is about the live experience that requires theatre.”

Back in the room now. Well, I’m talking to him on the phone but I’ve definitely stopped thinking about zombies. The thing is my shit movie idea is based on this hugely formative experience of working on a large-scale zombie game called 2.8 Hours Later, which was made by a company called Slingshot. The scripted theatrical elements of that weren’t where it shone but as an experience where you were placing a fictional layer onto an existing urban landscape, it was thrilling. I learned a huge amount playing it and helping to run it in London for a couple of years. I wonder if Devriendt has had similar influences. Those makers who opened up his eyes to new possibilities of his form:

“Not really to be honest. I’m much more influenced by visual art, by music, more so than theatre itself. With theatre, the stuff I see I always think this has already been done.”

Really? Out of all the theatre made in the world in his lifetime. None of it is original? None of it is doing anything new? Is he just not seeing stuff? I start to think about all the other work that’s influenced me. Even recently, as part of LIFT, I saw Dries Verhoeven’s Phobiarama, a “political ghost ride” which was unlike anything else I have experienced. I think back to the punch of Tanya El Khoury’s Maybe If You Choreograph Me You Will Feel Better… and Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s Operation Black Antler, both of which showed me how powerfully interactivity and liveness could be combined to explore political identities and positions. Devriendt is talking about books though:

“I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction. I really loved a British writer Ali Smith’s books Autumn and Winter. She’s broadening out the idea of what a novel can be. I’ve been reading Carlo Rovelli, the string theorist. Lots of stuff. I’m looking at my bookshelf now. I could go on.”

I don’t have time for him to go on. Time’s running out and we need to get to the reason I’m talking to him in the first place: Ontroerend Goeds’ £¥€$ (LIES) is opening for a limited run at the Almeida at the start of August. It’s almost unheard for shows to transfer from Edinburgh to a venue like the Almeida, and it’s still rarer for those shows to be ambitious, interactive explorations of capitalism, so this prospect is something to get excited about.

Ontroerend Goed are fresh from doing a version of the show in Russia: “We were working with 20 actors, translators, interpreters. We worked out a way of working where we could come over and make the show, spending three weeks with the actors. This is much better than giving them a script because it’s more controllable by us. This is the fourth time we’ve been over there and it was the best.”

Because the World Cup was on? “No because we were doing Lies, a show about capitalism, in a country that is pretty new to capitalism. The division between poor and rich more physical there.” Okay, fine. We can get back to the World Cup later.

I’m interested in how he established the format for this show. While immersive theatre has, for the most part, established its own set of conventions, the challenge with interactive theatre is that there is a tendency to feel like you need to create a brand new form each time as well as the actual content of the piece. That’s impossible, of course, without an insanely long development process so usually you find that you compromise in some way. Devriendt explains that he deals with the spiralling-out challenges of interactive theatre by imposing restrictions on himself:

“My process is always that I start from an idea and I look at the theatre space as a black box. I don’t make theatre outside of the black box. I like that it’s a mirror of reality. Not actual reality. From there, you have to have a very good reason to change the normal end-on performance setting because that works. We know it does. If you change it without a good reason, people will feel it’s a gimmick. So I only go for interactivity because that’s what is needed.”

So what was it about the idea of Lies that required interactivity? “In this case, if you want to explore manipulation, it would be ridiculous not to use the audience that are actually there in front of you. I want you to understand the financial industry but not as onlookers, as participants.”

Okay, yes, this is what I like about interactivity. It puts you inside a system and the way you play within that can reveal a lot more than if you just sat and listened. You are creating your own story. Games don’t tell stories. They allow players to tell their own. But Devriendt’s purpose uses the idea of audience autonomy in the service of making a valuable point: “Around the time of the last banking crisis, I saw a lot of people posting articles and I was thinking I don’t think this article is right. People were shocked that banks making money out of nothing but banks have been doing that since the Renaissance. Maybe you will understand it better if you are put in control yourself. If you’re going to criticise the system, you have to understand how it works though: the visceral side of it. The advantage of interactive theatre is that it makes a direct emotional response possible. You aren’t having an emotional response through a process of identification with a character. You’re just you. You can identify with yourself.”

What a game can show you is the temptation, the impulse to do something you might find abhorrent: while placing you into a system that allows you to do that thing, even rewards you for doing it. Games are a great way to explore capitalism because games are systems and so is capitalism. As Devriendt seems pretty closely invested in peoples’ understanding of capitalism, I ask if he believes this system come to an end. “I hope so but I don’t think I will live to see it”, he says. “Thomas Piketty, [in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century], says that there will have to be seven or eight crises of this kind before we revolt. In the past, we didn’t have the information. We didn’t know. Now we have the information. I do believe that a revolution could come. As artists though, we have to make sure we don’t distance ourselves from money. We have to understand it better.”

Here, here. So did he see any World Cup matches in Russia? “Okay yeah I did. I saw Germany vs Mexico and Belgium vs Panama. They were good matches.”

“Belgium are doing well, aren’t they?” – I remark “You must be excited about that. That’s something to look forward to. That and the end of capitalism.”

“Yes, we will see.”

£¥€$ (LIES) runs from 1 to 18 August at the Almeida Theatre. Tickets are £35 (£20 concessions). Book here.

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William Drew

William Drew is a writer, dramaturg and games designer based in Brighton. He makes work at the intersection between live performance and gaming as Venice as a Dolphin and an associate of Coney. He is Associate Dramaturg of New Perspectives in Nottingham. He spent several years working in the Royal Court Theatre’s International and Literary Departments and has been a script reader for the National Theatre, Hampstead and Traverse Theatres. You can find out more about his work here: http://www.veniceasadolphin.com

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