In their most extreme moments, the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed have had people throwing shoes at them and they’ve had people falling in love with them and even stalking them around the streets of Edinburgh. Their first piece shown at the Fringe – the 20-minute one-on-one performance The Smile Off Your Face in 2007 – was immediately crowned with the Festival’s most coveted awards as well as much critical acclaim. Joyce McMillan called it an ‘essay in intimacy’, while Lyn Gardner qualified it simply as ‘therapy.’
This was the first part of what became The Personal Trilogy – a series of short one-on-one pieces, containing the controversial take on modern dating – Internal.
Equally important for the company’s oeuvre and their overall image was their innovative and extraordinarily sincere work with teenagers. In an interview I did with the company in 2010, the artistic director Alexander Devriendt explained their first teenage show Once and for All We Are Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen came from wanting to explore the ‘paradox of adolescence’ where ‘it seems you are very free as a child, but at the same time you are very self-conscious’.
Incidentally the key company members themselves – Devriendt, dramaturg/perfomer Joeri Smet and producer David Bauwens – had all met each other as teenagers too, when they started performance poetry evenings together in the mid-1990s. This youthfulness of spirit as well as accompanying arrogance and raw passion, never seem to have left the company’s work. Each one of their pieces is – like Once and for All – always rooted in a kind of complex question they are trying to answer. Over the years, their work has acquired a global significance and they regularly perform in Australia and the US as well as Europe.
This summer, Oberon Books has published a collection of nine of their scripts under the title All Work and No Plays, a uniquely exciting volume (reviewed here) featuring production shots as well as texts that sometimes look like they could be secret code.
Alexander and I meet on Skype one Sunday afternoon to talk about this and other projects. As ever he is congenial and unusually generous with his time for someone with such a busy international schedule.
“The reason why we did the book was that once in a while we get an enquiry about scripts. And the scripts we had were unreadable, because they just don’t work the same way. Once and For All, the script, just didn’t make sense – you couldn’t envision it. Sometimes we sent in recordings. But with The Smile Off Your Face you can’t even send a recording. And when I saw some restagings of Once and For All – they were exactly the same. I was like: ‘Oh, no, that’s not the point!”
The company also receives a lot of queries about their process – especially concerning their one-on-one work – so the book was intended as a way of providing this sort of insight. And in addition, there was a desire to record the work for posterity in some way: “I saw that my generation of theatre-makers doesn’t put things on paper, because it’s all so impossible sometimes. So videos are the only means to record it. It seems that in, say, 50 years time there will be this gap of work that’s not accessible anymore except on video where you don’t get the same feeling. So what we try to do for each of the several plays is to ask – ‘how can you transpose this on paper?”
This kind of conceptual engagement with the performance script and its potential purpose is certainly a feature that, one could argue, makes Ontroerend Goed a true 21st century company. Their position in this respect is helped by the fact that as continental Europeans they possibly escaped the kind of text vs. devised performance heritage characteristic of the English-speaking world. The Personal Trilogy, for example, began life as work for galleries rather than theatre spaces, and yet, they consistently refer to all their work as ‘plays’ (a term more often heard in the context of literature).
Interestingly, Devriendt has often invoked Forced Entertainment as one of the key formative influences: “I remember when I was 19, I saw Forced Entertainment’s First Night and I wanted something tangible from that. So I got the book Certain Fragments – which I loved having, but I remember I was also missing something: ‘Yeah, I know more, but maybe it’s not that that I want’. I liked this solution of Forced Entertainment – just fragments, just inspirational material – but I also regretted the fact that it doesn’t feel like a play in my theatre class or something like that. For them there was also this thing of ‘Let’s not even try it, let’s take a different approach’ – which I respect, but I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that sometimes you just want to read a play.”
Alexander quickly follows this up by saying that he in fact doesn’t enjoy reading plays in the way they are usually available to us. In this respect, it was important to the company that the transposition of their work on paper should not create in the reader the feeling that they were missing out on something by not seeing it live. Like a lot of their performance work therefore, this project too had a paradox at its core which became pretext for creative investigation. Their attitude to the old text vs. performance problem could in this way be seen as more playful than partisan, and this is reflected in their choice of the title for the book: “We wanted to find a balance between the fact that it is not exactly plays you will be reading (at least not in the exact definition) – and on that level broaden the definition of course – and on the other hand, the fact that it is also a collection of work.”
How did they work on the text as an ensemble? “Most of all it was Joeri, he did the main editing, then me and Mieke [Versyp] who is sometimes our dramaturg. The recipes of Once and For All was just me remembering the rehearsal process and trying to put that down. Joeri was already playing The Personal Trilogy longer than me, so he was doing that translation. The History of Everything Joeri did too. But it was always a collaboration between us three and the designer. That was a really, really close relationship. Because we always felt that the design was essential for the reading process. That was Bas [Rogiers], our regular website designer.”
The project was originally envisaged as an ebook intended primarily to meet the pragmatic needs of an interested readership. Even in the early stages of the collaboration with Oberon, the ebook option was still considered. However, the company soon realized that they would have more creative freedom in design if they opted for a printed version. The page layout is not fixed on digital platforms, for example, so they decided it was important to ‘keep control of the page’. The page is, in a way, laid out as a stage in this book, or at least as a visual image. Words chase each other across the page, sometimes – especially in the teenage pieces – they are angrily crossed out, or capitalized into graphic shouting.
The design decisions, however, always emerge out of the theme, intention and aesthetic of the works themselves. For example, All That is Wrong – a piece where a young performer wrote all her grievances with the world on black board with chalk is printed in white on black pages. This was one idea that came from Bas Rogiers.
“Most typical plays have stage directions in italics and the text is straight. Bas’s main approach was – let’s scrap that. OK, text is important, but the stage directions are the most important. He changed that whole thing of – that’s what’s typical of a playscript. So it feels really light, because with most theatre plays – it can be a lot of text, and I think you can read this book in a couple of hours, it’s really easy. Even though we are not book-sellers and we don’t really know how to make books – this book is what an OG book should feel like.”
The process of working on the scripts lasted for a year and a half overall, allowing time for the company to ‘digest the plays, to try different approaches, to test things out’. There was a lot of proofreading involved, carried out by the performers themselves as well as other associates who had and those who had not seen the shows. The script for Audience presented a real problem because the contribution of each live audience was central to the performance, so a suitably analogous way of framing this for a potential book-reader had to be found: “There was a moment where Joeri said: I found my writing drive for the show, and that was the [overarching narrative voice] of Manipulator. Joeri found the drive to write it and I enjoyed so much reading it. I was like: ‘I hate this guy, but it’s perfect for the show!”
Was the main aim to encourage people to create new performances or was it simply to provide a record of the work?
“For me it’s always been threefold. If you have an interest in the working process, it’s a sort of insight – that’s why there is always a Creation section [at the beginning of each script]. If you want to restage it – that’s possible. Or if you simply just want to revisit the experience [you had as a viewer], it’s there too. We wanted to have these three possibilities because we already have a small audience, if people want to read about a theatre so small, let’s keep it open enough – but ‘open’ without being ‘undefined’. For people who haven’t seen it we did provide additional information, but not too much so it doesn’t feel in the end ‘that’s the play’. It was about finding the balance between these three groups of people.”
Suspicion against ‘devised’ scripts in the English-speaking context has often been fuelled by the question of what happens with the royalties in such a case – who is ultimate ‘author’ here? But for Ontroerend Goed this question does not seem to arise in the same way.
“The royalties always go to the company. It’s really weird, authorship of the plays is for me never divided. Maybe one day I will have to deal with it, I don’t know, but we haven’t come into trouble with it yet. The work is protected but in the name of the company. The idea is if you don’t make money out of it – if you want to do it in a school – it’s there; but if you make money out of it, could you ask permission. But I have this feeling of – use it, whatever, do with it what you want! If you wanna do something with people in the wheelchair, it’s not our idea, do something with it and get the inspiration out of it.”
The extent to which the book has been an important but nevertheless a secondary pursuit for the company is evident in the fact that Ontroerend Goed seems busier than ever. They have six productions on the road at present. One is a French version of A Game of You, which opened in Avignon this year – the company’s first appearance at this festival. The French team are supervised by Joeri Smet – ‘because his French is the best’ – and are currently touring France. The core artistic team of Ontroerend Goed has grown in numbers too with some younger blood coming in – including Charlotte de Bruyne who had initially appeared in some of the teenage works, Angelo Tijssens who was in Fight Night and Karolien De Bleser who has worked with the company sporadically in the past. Alexander is particularly fond of the fact that OG has this year curated the Theatre at the Sea Festival – the event which in fact launched their career through an award they won there in 2003. Then there was Sirens – a kind of ode to feminism – in Edinburgh. “Which I was approaching with caution. With Edinburgh you never know. But it was the first time that a play of ours was so warmly received. Almost by everybody. Some people could say almost cynically, ‘Ooh, they are mainstream now’, but the play wasn’t. The play was for me tricky because it was really, really personal – although I didn’t write any text, I only listened to the girls, like I approached All That is Wrong.”
So where did the impetus for the piece come from?
“The feminism came completely from me from the start. Four years ago we wrote an application where I wanted to do something with six girls. And I do have to say, six years ago, it was more: ‘Yes, that sounds fun!’ But after making All That is Wrong, I said I don’t want to make a show that’s about an issue that’s not on that board. I had two starting points: the issue – I read some books like The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and The Feminine Mystique [by Betty Friedan]; and I had the idea ‘I want you to scream’ as an expression of joy, complaint, anger. And they said ‘Oh, that’s a cliché, let’s do it!’ And it’s a concert – that’s pretty important in the show – these girls have a different way of talking in that sense.”
“I also thought before the show – I don’t consider myself sexist, but nobody does. But if we all don’t, why is it still there? And it felt like – OK, let’s investigate this, because it’s probably not true. We probably are sexist. And it was a heavy process. It was good. It was really fucking personal. Also, I was the male ear. For instance, sometimes we talked about things and they said, ‘Yes, but we know’. And I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t’. And also at times there may be separate aspects of an issue, but if you put them all together, it’s harder to ignore. And that was the point of the show to some extent.”
Sirens is coming to Soho Theatre in December, and Fight Night – the show which invites the audience to consider their democratic agency – is coming to the Unicorn Theatre in April, just in time for the general election.
“And also for the first time we are gonna be in the Hong Kong festival. I like that Fight Night goes from Turkey to Hong Kong and seems to connect with different democratic processes all over.”
New projects are in development too. A production that Alexander has already been working on mentally for a year and a half has the palindromic title Are We Not Drawn Onward to New Era. And the show will be a palindrome too:
“You’re gonna be able to see it from the back and from the front. With an ‘O’, a zero-point in the middle. It’s an English show it’s gonna be only in English. And the question is also essential: Are we gonna make it as humanity or not, will we make it through progress or will we make it through doing less? Because it feels like one of the main questions we battle with now. Maybe every age does. I can imagine that during the Cold War people talked about it, or during the Black Death people talked about it, but it feels like it’s hard as an artist to find a metaphor for that. I don’t want to take a standpoint, I want to present both of these possibilities. Once in a while you have an idea where form and content go so closely together. I had it with A Game of You, I had it with Once and for All, it’s just like – I need to take care of this idea. It doesn’t always mean that they have to be the best shows but they have the greatest starting points. So I’m grateful I had the idea, and I just need to cherish it.”
The problem is: this will be a big show. It’s an international co-production with Adelaide festival, featuring a 12-member cast. It will not be possible to tour this to the Edinburgh Fringe (though the company are talking to the Edinburgh International Festival), and the situation is not helped by the fact that Belgium’s right wing government has also introduced arts cuts.
“The hardest thing is that since I made All That Is Wrong I don’t want to make anything that doesn’t clearly resonate with everything that is happening – whether it’s sexism or whether it’s young children dealing with everything, whether it’s democracy. And I do have to say, sometimes you wonder: is it because the funding is constantly questioned, you don’t feel the freedom to just make art. For instance, I can’t imagine now that we can make anything like The Smile anymore. Because The Smile doesn’t deal with an issue. It’s a journey.”
I’m struck by these growing concerns with politics so I wonder whether Alexander feels that Ontroerend Goed have matured as a company in some way?
“It could be. But there is always this danger with maturing that you lose something. And maybe that’s why I mentioned earlier that part of the artistic company are very young people now. I can only speak for myself. Before Teenage Riot and A Game of You there was this thing of me wanting to be a good theatre director and needing to prove it. But now it’s about how can we each time look at a different approach. So for instance, with Sirens, the question of feminism and sexism was really something I didn’t have an opinion about before. It was lingering and it was underneath. With Fight Night, I had this feeling about the democratic process that I as a voter was concerned but not informed well enough. So it’s always trying to get outside of your comfort zone. I don’t want to boast, but I always feel we need to reinvent ourselves with each performance. And now after a certain amount of time, you just always have to do it. Otherwise there’s no use, and there’s no risk, and there’s no joy.”
Sirens will be at Soho Theatre from 2nd December 2014 – 4th January 2015. For tickets visit the Soho Theatre website.
All Work and No Plays: Blueprints for Nine Theatre Performances by Ontroerend Goed is available from Oberon Books.
Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century, by Duška Radosavljević is available from Palgrave Macmillan.