Interviewed by Randy Gener
Jan Lauwers, 53, paints. He takes photographs. He draws. He creates installations and sculptural objects. He makes films. He directs opera and Shakespeare. With an international ensemble of Brussels-based actors and dancers, he devises original theatre pieces that continually shift the borders of genres and the boundaries of self. Founder of the Flemish theatre collective Needcompany, Lauwers emerged in the early 1980s from the New Wave of theatre and dance in Flanders, a formally adventurous movement inspired in part by exposure to experimental theatre from the U.S. (the Wooster Group, in particular).
For years, Lauwers has seen himself as a visual artist who makes theatre. Art strategies root his aesthetics elsewhere. He toys with spectators’ expectations, disrupting the desire to know, to gain clarity through linear stories; so his Flemish troupe’s post-dramatic creations are always moving off the center, the words dissociating from the images. In our most recent conversation, Lauwers conferred that he feels compelled to grapple with words.
Talking about The Deer House, a glissando of war-scarred fact and fairy-tale fiction that was inspired by a real event, Lauwers says that his most recent work tears open an unexpected wrinkle. Narrative is newly important to Lauwers, who confesses, “More and more I realize that since we are living in an age of globalization, people need stories again.”
Born in Antwrep in 1957, Lauwers studied painting at the Academy of Art in Ghent. At the end of 1979, he gathered together a group of artists to form Epigonenensemble, which became the Epigonentheater zlv collective whose aim was to present highly visual theater using music and language. In 1986, he co-founded a new collective, Needcompany, with Grace Ellen Barkey. Its first productions, Need to Know (1987) and ça va (1989) were still highly visual, but in subsequent productions the storyline and theme gained importance, even as the fragmentary composition remained.
In terms of performance, Needcompany stresses the importance of a transparent, thinking acting and of the paradox between acting and non-acting. This specific approach can be found in the classical plays Lauwers has staged: Julius Caesar (1990), Antonius und Kleopatra (1992), Needcompany´s Macbeth (1996),Needcompany´s King Lear (2000) and Ein Sturm (2001). After directing Invictos (1996), the monologueSCHADE/Schade (1992) and the opera Orfeo (1993), in 1994 Lauwers started work on a large and unusual project called The Snakesong Trilogy. The themes of the three parts of this controversial trilogy were power, sex and death, and the parts were entitled Snakesong/Le Voyeur (1994), Snakesong/Le Pouvoir(1995) and Snakesong/Le Désir (1996).
In September 1997 Lauwers was a guest in the theatre section of Documenta X, the five-yearly, most trendsetting event in the visual arts, for which he created Caligula, after Camus, the first part of a diptych called No beauty for me there, where human life is rare. In 1998 he staged the reworked version of the whole Snakesong Trilogy, with the music, which plays a decisive role, performed live on stage. With Morning Song (1999), the second part of the diptych No beauty…, Lauwers and Needcompany won an Obie Award in New York City.
In addition to embarking on the trilogy Sad Face | Happy Face — a trilogy on human nature which consists of Isabella’s Room (2004), The Lobster Shop (2006) and The Deer House (2008) — Lauwers recently debuted as new play The Art of Entertainment: Needcompany plays the Death of Michael König. This black comedy, which premiered in March 2011 at Vienna’s Akademietheater, was the fruition of an intense cooperation with the actors of the Burgtheater of Vienna. The play concernes a famous actor who decides to end his life because he feels that he’s slowly loosing his memories and by that the place of his soul. He receives an invitation to commit public suicide in the reality show “The Art of Entertainment,” which enjoys great ratings all over the world. In this show, a cooking-program, a French celebrity chef cooks the final meal for the suicide candidate of the evening. At this dinner a conversation about the decadence of western culture enfolds.
1. In your country/city, is there any major issue (e.g. a contemporary social problem) that artists fail or neglect to address on stage? Why? Is this due to censorship, or to a blind spot in the community’s shared perception of the world? — or to a community’s consciously or un-consciously avoiding it?
In my country, for sure art has become very political. I have the feeling that the parties in Belgium are looking for a new dialectic link with society: art for art’s sake is gone. On the other hand, that’s very dangerous: doing social work through art. Art is not there to bring solutions. I think art is there to ask questions. Also, our ministry of culture is headed by a leftwing socialist; he wants to put art more in the center of society by only talking about social issues (for example, multiculturalism). I think art has something to do with social issues, but that’s not the main thing; art is something other than political, and art embraces a more dialectical concept. Prosperity means that a lot of people have the opportunity to reflect. And that is one of the most important functions of art.
The general outsider’s view of politics in Belgium is that the country is almost splitting in two parts. It’s a pity if Belgium disappears; four years ago the country was unable to perform a national government after the national elections. Needcompany is an international company. That means our performers consist of 8 or 9 different nationalities; we work in 4 or 5 different languages in our shows. And yet Belgium, with its two languages, is not able to survive; political situation makes a problem out of that. Needcompany is becoming more and more important, because we were from the beginning international, and I think to give the wrong emphasis on nationalism would be very dangerous. The works Needcompany does on stage are a good example of how to destroy this strong feeling of nationalism in our own age. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, our actors perform the play in English, and yet the show is partly subtitled, and the audiences also hear the performance in French and Flemish. This forces me to learn other languages which is only a good step in establishing communication with other cultures.
The theme of war in Europe is another issue Needcompany deals with. The Deer House, your new piece, is inspired by the death of the brother of one of the company’s dancers. What happened exactly?
One of our dancers, Tijen Lawton, is half-Turkish and half-English. Her brother, Kerem, was in fact the only war journalist who was shot dead in Kosovo. When you are an ensemble like Needcompany you travel around 360 days a year, and you become a small society, so when something like that happens the event becomes very significant for the simple reason that we’re all part of a generation that has not been involved in war. For our generation, there was no war for the last 50 years. The war in Kosovo was just a train ride from Belgium, but you might not be involved, and we were a group of touring theatre-makers. Then all of a sudden we faced the harsh reality of the world; we were in a dressing room and Tijen received a phone call from Kosovo that told her that her brother was killed. (This happened just before 2000). It was a very radical emotional moment for everybody. We knew Tijen very well. We stopped the tour, and she went to Kosovo to see what happened. The moment she came back we had a conversation. I was very curious. She talked about Kosovo.
It took me a few years to start writing about it. I asked her if she would allow me to use her story for a new play. In the beginning she hesitated, and then she agreed. Then she became very happy that we have given that kind of attention to her brother. But you know Needcompany works on a personal level. (Isabella’s Room was also about my father and my family.) The Deer House became too personal for her, and that’s why she decided not to perform that show. Finally she decided to stop performing for Needcompany. I had to replace her in the show.
And yet the tragic story of Tijen’s brother is only a starting point in The Deer House.
Everything is politics, but art is not everything. Art always gets caught between the pages of history. Art is futile and has no influence on any events at all, which is where the mysterious necessity for it lies. InThe Deer House, I didn’t want to re-tell Tijen’s story. I used her story to talk about war and the loss of friends; I tried to make her story universal. Part of the show concerns how a group of theatre-makers increasingly deal with the reality of the war. The piece reaches a point where Tijen speaks finally to her dead brother. The grief she feels is very welcome and, in performance, very real. That’s why it became difficult for her to perform the role. It became difficult for her to play grief every time. Right now, at the end of each performance you can see the girl who has replaced Tijen; she really has to go deep into her soul to really cry. The scene is a very personal dialogue. Tijen always went directly to her personal pain in every show, and it became too much for her.
In what way then does The Deer House depart from its original source?
Because it is fiction. I came to use a diary. In that fiction the character finds a journal in the last hotel in Kosovo; she starts reading it. What’s inside the diary is not what happened to her brother. I re-made the story so that the war journalist, her brother, is much more personally involved in the war and is much more consumed by the pain of war. I wanted to talk about the pain that becomes provokes in people who don’t want to be involved in the war and also with people who are often are at center of war. The Deer House has become a more universal story about what happens when you lose somebody you really love. The story is not only about her brother; it is also a big story about a little child who was killed in the war. The Deer House is about a lot of dead people, and the dead people talk to the living people about their grief, which is what links The Deer House with the other two parts of Sad Face | Happy Face, a trilogy on human nature. In the first part of Isabella’s Room, the dead people are also strangely talking with living people. Isabella’s Room is also about fear, grief and loss, specifically what happens when a mother loses a child, which is the most important grief of all. In The Lobster Shop and The Deer House, we talk about this loss, too. That’s why we decided to make a trilogy out of it. When I wrote Isabella’s Room in 2004 my intention was not to make a trilogy. Even when I wrote The Lobster Shop in 2006 I didn’t want to have a trilogy. But I could not escape recognizing the links. So I said, okay, I will write one more play, The Deer House (2008), exploring that kind of grief.
I’m at a disadvantage here, because I haven’t seen The Lobster Shop, which has not yet traveled to New York. I see clearly why Isabella’s Room belongs to this trilogy. Isabella’s quest for her father refracts your relationship with your own father who was an anthropologist, and in the show you bring out all the anthropological and ethnological objects your own father found in Africa. You were inspired to write it after the death of your own father. You’ve spoken about the thematic links among Isabella’s Room, The Lobster Shop and The Deer House, but is there a progression to this trilogy?
The first part, Isabella’s Room, is a reflection on the past. The Lobster Shop is about the future. The Deer House is the present: the reality of the world around us, and the reality of the actors at the moment it occurs. That’s how I see it now.
The Lobster Shop takes the structure of a dream or a nightmare. It tells the story of a professor of genetics who invents the first human clone. He sits at home, and when he invents the first cloned human, he loses his own self. His son has died on the beach as a result of a silly accident, but the father is now able to clone his son. There is emotional friction between the father and the mother, who is consumed by grief. The father decides to clone his son at the hospital where his son has been placed. He doesn’t find the body there anymore, and so he cannot do it. At the end of the piece, the father commits suicide. He decides to drown himself in the sea. For his last supper he chooses to eat lobster. The waiter who serves the lobster in the restaurant clumsily spills the lobster dish on his white suit. At that split second when he watches the sauce land on his white suit, he starts to hallucinate. The Lobster Shop is the darkest show of the trilogy: what does the future mean when you can clone your own children? Is there a necessity for love? The piece happens in the near future. Maybe they are already cloning humans, I don’t know.
Thank you for taking me through that. Do why do you call the third piece The Deer House?
The deer is a sign of hope. When you walk into a forest and you see a deer, it gives you a good feeling. I’m always happy when I see a deer running in forest. I took it’s as some kind of symbol of Needcompany. And then when I was writing The Deer House I saw a documentary about people in Mongolia who every year gather all the wild living deer into a corral and they cut and collect the antlers. After cutting the antlers off, they let the deer free again. Imagine hundreds of deer without antlers running into the forest; their pride is gone. (The antlers grow back every year.) These reindeer herders are a very nice and very hard people. The Deer House presents us a similar household in the forest during the war. It’s not a sentimental house; the family raises the deer for the antlers. One of the main characters is the retarded daughter of the woman of the house who really has good connection with the deer. The daughter can talk with the deer. So The Deer House follows the logic of a fairy tale, which allows me to have a different approach. When you use a fairy-tale structure, you can go very far into the theme of pain (the search for happiness), and you accept it because fairy tales are always full of pain. In the first part of The Deer House, the dancer gets the news of her brother’s death, and she comes back from Kosovo to talk about the war. At the same time, the actors are performing a show, and they don’t like it when the dancer gets too emotional. The second part of the show tells the story of the herders in the deer house.
Going back to the very first question I raised, I wanted to follow it up by asking, “In what way does your current theatre work tackle those issues, which are failed to address?” I suppose one of those answers is the internationalism you spoke of, right?
Yes, I think that’s very important. It’s more and more difficult to survive as an international company. I don’t think nationalism is so bad. I think nationalism without a sense of internationalism is very dangerous.
Allow me to ask a related question then: Since you are often identified as one of the major figures of the Flemish New Wave, in what ways has the Flemishness of your work changed?
I consider Flemishness a coincidence. At the moment, artists from the Low Countries are considered the world leaders in the performing arts because we have independent artists who know that one’s place of birth is incidental, not a place to die for, only to live for. If we can be proud of our Dutch language it’s because we don’t have any trouble learning three other languages. Because we know that what can be read between the lines is more important than the lines themselves. This is why they have no problem understanding us all over the world and have a lot of respect for us. By coincidence, you are born somewhere. It’s nothing to be proud about. Being Flemish, whatever I try to do will always be Flemish somehow. But that’s okay.
2. What, if anything, is difficult in communicating with the designers? Why?
What’s most difficult to communicate is the fact that I use so many different centers on stage. I try to find balance between the differences in those centers. In every show, there are always four or five centers at the same time. That approach is achieved very radically in the first part of The Deer House: The center is the story of Tijen, but there are three or four other different centers happing at the same time, because all the other actors are doing different things and so there are many different elements to focus on. As an audience member, you have to decide which center you want to follow — or if you can follow all the different centers at the same time, which is another approach. As a director, it is difficult to convince the actors they are the center — that everybody is simultaneously the center. So when the “real” center becomes too important, it can be frustrating. My job is to find the right balance; I have to find a huge confidence that will allows those lines to be followed.
How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production to make communication easier?
Talking is very important. You need to convince the artist not to follow their own psychological motor — that in performance they must always question their own motor. I want the actors to think all the time; I want them to produce every time and not to reproduce, because there a lot of dynamics happening at once. What I try to do is to convince everybody to be an actor and a dancer at the same time, to focus on the public at the same time, and to look around.
How early or how often do you exchange views about the production?
It depends. It’s not fixed. Isabella’s Room is a classical play because its center is Isabella. Those other center are much less present. But in The Lobster Shop there is no focus in front, and nobody is every fixed (no one is stuck on stage, for example), which forces them to always walk around, which gives along a theatrical energy, which is also, for the public, more difficult to follow. That lack of center allows the public to go into the subject — to go in between the lines.
Can you speak about the language you use in writing plays and how you arrive at this language?
I need to know ordinary things; I need to know I am writing for certain people, for example. When I start to write the characters, I know who will perform it for the first time, so I have a connection with that person and when I give the text, it’s really written only on the skin. But I consider the skin of my actors as the skin of the world. Maybe somebody else can play the characters, too, but for me the source of the experience is not only the text I am working on and the world I am trying to evoke. I’m also interested from the very beginning with the connect to the performance. I write alone. When the text is ready, the most important moment is when I give the text to the actors around a table for the first time. At the first reading I know if it will work or not.
What do you expect from the actor who performs those words?
I never say from the beginning that the actors have to dance. If there is a possibility to dance, we do it. If it is necessary for sing, we do it. The actors are very creative from the very first moment. I take over the decisions when I’m writing alone. But then I stop being a writer and I become a director. It’s a collective process. At the end, I’m allowed to say, “Okay, leave that there, so we can use that or not.” If the show is more or less ready I ask the actors to destroy my authority and see how the ball will roll.
3. In your creative process, which part do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
Opening night maybe. I try to avoid opening nights. A week after I give the text to the actors, we go over into the theater for the first time, and we work on the play in front of a public. We call that experimental setting “Needlapbs.” [Writer‘s Note: The spelling mashes up the words “laptop” and “laboratory.” On the Neecompany website, Needlapbs are described as “the place where the working process is fluid and dynamic and has not yet acquired a definite form,” as opposed to performances where “the dramaturgical research that takes place during rehearsals” has congealed “into a form that is as transparent as possible and ready for communication to the audience.”] We do maybe 5 Needlapbs for one play. We find people during the rehearsal week. On Friday we go into the theatre, and we read it for the first time. We then we do other things. There’s always a connection with different audiences. Every Needlapbs develop. The opening night is another Needlapb in the evolution. That’s why I always ask the actors to produce and not to reproduce.
4. During your career, have you ever received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When, and what did it say? What made it especially important for you?
The problem is that in Belgium, critics are not respected. We are a very small country. Our newspapers do compare with the New York Times. You feel that there is less relevant space for culture in our newspapers; that means the quality is going way more and more, and the good writers (the writers with authority) are not writing more and more for those papers. There are almost no professional full time critics in Belgium. They are all amateurs, because they have other jobs. Meanwhile, art in Belgium is going very well. There are very good artists, but the respect for art in the press or media goes to the wrong direction. I have known very well how a review in the New York Times can make or break a show. This power is not possible in Belgium. Artists do not depend on our art critics like you do in the U.S., because we receive support from our government. There is also no system of sponsorship in the U.S., which we don’t know in Europe and which is almost a different language.
What about the critics from the academic world?
In the academic world there is no problem. For sure we have a close connection with academic critics. Sometimes we disagree. Sometimes we agree. For example, the critics have presented the post-dramatic point of view to explain my use of different centers in Needcompany shows. I have also been called a postmodernist. Of course I was totally not thinking about these ideas. I was not involved in these concepts until I started to read those critics and said to myself, “Oh, am I like that?”
If you were given the opportunity to speak back to your critics, what would you say to them?
Different things. First of all, a question: Is this post-dramatic theatre more interesting than dramatic theatre? That’s my big question nowadays. Secondly, critics often do not draw a difference between artist’s theatre and repertory theatre. In the movies, there are often film festival where there is a special department for classics and another one for artists’ cinema. In the theatre, my work is frequently criticized using the same values as the work of Chekhov or Shakespeare. I think that’s wrong. Repertory is something else. Sometimes artist’s theatre is not taken too seriously. Artist’s theatre is the future of theatre. What I do is not unique or normal, but I have the feeling that critics still confuse the difference between a writer of characters and a writer with character. I think that’s something missing from the discussion. I start from a wide canvas. When I direct Shakespeare‘s plays, Shakespeare is the artist, and I am the servant of Shakespeare. You are an artist from a different position, working with different tools. It’s not a question of different values, but it is different.
In what way has Needcompany’s aesthetic changed over the past five or seven years? Perhaps so you can talk about how its ideas or ways of working have evolved?
It’s become larger. We make films, we do visual arts in museums, we do our theatre work and dance pieces. I have this feeling that over the years the group has become more fixed; we have a real ensemble now. In the beginning this was impossible. Now we have 20 people with full salaries. This forces us to perform a lot. We know each other now. I write for the same people, which means you can go very far. It’s an evolutionary ensemble. You can go further in your aesthetics because the actors have survived the routine, and the collaboration is different. You can go into different directions. What I try to avoid is for Needcompany to become official state theatre. We are always working in the fringe. We are always working around the center to feel the freedom. The key word we have is freedom. There is a special and very strong mentality that we’ve developed over the years. We are very proud of that. Because Isabella’s Room is the most linear show we have played, it ran 7 years; it gives us good money but it also allows us to commit to doing experimental things. We want to be able to go into extreme thinking in art.
If I can venture critically in this conversation, I would like to state that your voice has evolved to become more steeped in narrative.
Yes, I consider myself more and more as a writer. In the beginning I thought of myself as a visual artist who makes theatre. But now I think the role of the writer is very important to me. Yes, that’s the biggest difference.
What are you finding in narrative that you are not finding in the visual approach?
I came from the visual arts, and in the visual arts the question is not narrativity. But more and more I realize that with the increasing influences of globalization, people need stories again. I’ve come to realize that when I was young, I was listening to, for example, David Bowie and punks musicians, but somehow it was important to me that there is a full story there somehow. John Cassavetes was a very important influence to me. He was a director and filmmaker but he was also a storyteller. Twenty years ago when I started directing, I used to hate that word, “storytelling” and I would say that it was not interesting anymore. Now I discovered that in every experiment I make for Needcompany, I find a solution through storytelling. Somehow I ended up being a storyteller.
 Randy Gener is a New York editor, writer, critic, playwright and visual artist His installation, in the garden of One World, recently debuted at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria. Author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other plays, he is the 2009 receipient of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the U.S.A., for his essays in American Theatre magazine. He won a 2010 Deadline Club Award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “shedding light into censorship and repression of the arts.” He was named Journalist of the Year 2010 by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.
Copyright © 2011 Randy Gener
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