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Ontroerend Goed’s Participatory Metaphors

Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make leave a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles and reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.

Dear artists, I can barely keep it together. Today I get to share with you a call with Alexander Devriendt, artistic director at Ontroerend Goed. You may notice a level of familiarity between Alexander and myself. Over the pandemic I directed a production of theirs that required a significant level of audience participation via technology. Lo and behold, Zoom delivered on that front quite significantly. In preparation for that production I interviewed Alexander for a local audience here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in order to get them on board with our process and the project. It was lovely to meet him and learn about his family.

Here we are two years later, chatting again as they began their North American tour at the Under the Radar Festival in January 2023. I actually got to see their production of Are we not drawn onward to new erA. And you’ll hear a call with the folks involved on that festival next season.

This was a great treat because I had heard of Ontroerend Goed in 2016, but this was my first time seeing them. I do hope you’ll get a chance to see them yourselves, or pick up their book All Work and No Plays: Blueprints for Nine Theatre Performances, which is where I learned about them. Pick it up, check it out. We do reference this in the call as well. Their work is very poetic and metaphorical, which is so satisfying to me artistically. So like I said, I’m excited to share this with you.

This interview gets back to the process questions a bit more and leans into: How do you prepare a piece that asks so much audience interaction? A few things you might need to know. One, Alexander is speaking in a lower voice and while I’ve attempted to raise the volume after the recording, it’s still quite low. He’s got a sleeping three-year-old so he’s trying to keep it quiet. And two, you’ll hear him talk about applying Vicks VapoRub, and he gestures to his eyes in the Zoom call. Just know that he’s talking about how actors apply the Vicks to under their eyes in order to induce crying.

Okay, I think that’s it. I hope you enjoy this episode. I truly loved creating it and recording it with Alexander. I’m such a fanboy. And now, all the way from Ghent, Belgium, our first international artist, Alexander Devriendt from Ontroerend Goed. We chatted on September 29, 2022.

It has to matter for your personal journey or I shouldn’t bother you with any participation.

Jeffrey: Here we are.

Alexander Devriendt: Hey.

Jeffrey: How are you, how have you been? It’s been a couple of years now.

Alexander: Yeah. You look like somebody I know from another life.

Jeffrey: Shall we begin? I just want to know, I remember the last time we spoke you talked a little bit about how Ontroerend Goed started and how you were a group of students, and you were basically doing poetry but then all of a sudden you realized you were making theatre in some regard throughout it. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you started and how that sort of developed from poetry to theatre?

Alexander: I think you just, in a way, when you’re sixteen you’re just looking, like everybody, for like-minded people. That feels… Sharing something. And whether it’s in a band or writing poems or, I don’t know, whatever. Playing football, you look for that. And I felt I found this group of people, and they all were busy with poetry. That was the thing. But what was fascinating is: So we had these evenings that we met and read poetry and felt really important, and felt really arty and smoked a lot of weed and drank a lot of good— bad wine but it felt good. It was this pretending we were doing.

But I also remember there was a lot of energy there. Like we organized festivals, we organized... Somebody just told me this, and she was always looking from the sidelines. This woman that talked to me, she was like, “You were always doing all these things.” And for us it just felt normal.

And one of those was the poetry performances, and it was always more about the performance than the poetry. We were almost more interested in putting those poems on stage than writing them. And more and more that became the thing. And the funny thing about poetry readings, it’s pretty easy to be innovative. It’s pretty easy because it’s such a conservative thing, reading poetry. So we messed it up and we had this thing called Porror, which was a mixture of porn, horror, and poetry. And the idea was that we invited two men from America to read our poems, and they had this kind of Bret Easton Ellis, horror kind of images where they read the poems then. And that was me and my friend Yuri.

And I remember a couple of people were like, “Whoa, nobody’s doing this. Nobody’s doing these kind of performances in theatre.” And we didn’t realize really what we were doing. We’re just following our, I don’t know, our drive and our hormones and our feeling of feeling that you’re onto something. And I think a lot of people sort of saw the show about masculinity, questioning masculinity, I will say, because it was also pretty homoerotic in a way. But also very much... It was strange. It was a strange thing and it felt really nice.

And then we were invited to a theatre festival and we were like, “What are we doing here?” We’re surrounded by people who studied theatre and we were just there. And then we suddenly won that festival. It was a pretty important moment for us, that other people decided: “What you do is interesting.” And we were like, “Okay.” And I always come back to that moment because sometimes when we made things in the beginning I wanted to conform and wanted to adapt, but I always went back to that feeling.

But that’s not why things worked out. It always worked out when you looked at something differently or when you didn’t realize that you were breaking rules. You were just having fun and investigating and enjoying a journey, twenty... twenty-three years ago, yeah. Because between the writing poems and the first thing, there were five years. So I think when we were in 2001, no 2003, you could say that Ontroerend Goed was born. Because that’s when the first time somebody came to us, and like I said to them, “Thanks for coming to the show.” And they were like, “No, no, no, thanks for the show.” I remember it was not that— You remember? People come to you because they support you and they’re friends, and at a certain point they were like, “No, no, no, no. Now you did something that I got something out of it. And I remember that was a turning point like, “Hey, we can make things that people get something out of.”

Jeffrey: Yeah. How did that sort of operate for you in regards to financing your next steps of your theatremaking?

Alexander: Well I think that’s why the prize was so important. The prize came with a support for your new thing. So the prize was basically sort of subsidy, scholarship kind of. Subsidy, not scholarship—support from a house, like, “We give you this amount of money to make your next thing.” So that was like, “All right, great.” And I do have to say, I don’t want to compare it to America too much, but the support for young artists is great here in Flanders. A lot of houses are looking for a thing, they’re looking for something interesting. And I didn’t realize at that point, but the houses, the theatre houses were look— They don’t always found it in the schools. There they were doing the things that were known. Would you say that? I think when we were starting, the theatre was pretty classical in the schools, and I felt that these houses were looking for something.

And then what I do have to say is we quickly tried to get support from the state, and even with a very short resume and just this prize we got the means to make things. And in a way that was a bit tricky even, because at that point, like I said, I started to conform. I started like, “Okay, we’re making theatre so I’m going to make theatre.” And I think the first show was really great because that was a show that was called Ex-Simplicity, and the second one was Collusion. I think those two were great because we were just investigating what theatre was and messing around with it. But I think at a certain point the worst show I ever made was after that, it was called Soap. We got funding from the state so I felt a huge responsibility. And the idea was to make five hours of theatre and you could see your Soap every week.

And it was too much. It’s like, who the hell makes interesting theatre in five months for five hours? And I did the worst things that were not interesting. I did typical theatre stuff that I thought I had to do. And they also had a couple of actors who suddenly asked me directorial questions, and I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know your read line”— Or I don’t know how you call that, when an actor says, “I don’t know what my goal is.” I was like, “I don’t care, find it out.” But at that point I still felt that I had to answer that. And I think then we realized, “Okay, this is not our strength. Our strength is finding a drive where things are new and you can look at it from a different perspective.” And that’s when I started working with teenagers also. And that resulted in a show that changed a lot for us, and it was called Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen.

And that was a show with teenagers who basically said, “We don’t care,” on stage. Basically just— But cared also a lot, which is of course the paradox of adolescence. It looks like you don’t care but you care so much about what people think of you. And I think through their energy I captured what I since then always try to—I still hold onto—look at the things for the first time. Even when something is like, “That’s how you do things,” you don’t. There is no rule or anything, it’s just... Even question the way that you make always theatre. There is none. And don’t be afraid to be an amateur. We made a show about money, I don’t know anything about money. Who cares? Who cares?

But don’t share the results of your investigation. Share the journey of your investigation so you can take your visitors with you. When we put people in a wheelchair, blindfolded, alone, take your people on that journey. Share that journey. And even now when I’m making the last show, it’s a premiere in the next week, Funeral. It’s what it is, it’s a show about, I would say, ritual, about affinity of things, and also one that I made because my father died too early. Look at a funeral for the first time. What would you want to get out of it? Respect what’s there, but dare to look at it from a perspective that doesn’t say, “This is how you do things.”

Jeffrey: You know, so much of your work requires audience participation and requires a certain level of vulnerability from the audience. And I wonder how you came upon the creative process for creating content that allows the audience to feel like they can be vulnerable in those moments and give themselves over to the experience that you’re creating for them?

Alexander: Is it okay if I correct you?

Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely.

Alexander: Because you say require, and I always want to see it as an invitation.

Jeffrey: Thank you, yeah.

Alexander: For me it’s like, you don’t have to. Even now, the show I’m making now, I think the first... In the previous tryout version I needed you to participate. And then I took all the things away, where the invitation was more important than the requirement. Because that’s, for me, important. It’s the only medium that has that strength, that you are there living and I’m there living, as an actor or a performer, and we can both influence each other. Let’s put that at the center of it. Nobody laughed as much as they did in a stand-up comedian show or whatever. The emotions in the live interaction, even there... How do you say that?

For me the strength of theatre is that vicinity and that influence that you can have as a visitor. And when you look at a work of art or you read a book or you look at the movie, you don’t have any influence. And you know it. When you look at Netflix and a movie and you pause it, the whole experience changes but nothing changes in how they act and how they will be. And I love it at the theatre that you have that responsibility. And that can be dangerous sometimes. Like, going back to a stand-up comedian, if you don’t laugh, we all have been there, it’s gruesome for everybody. But if you enjoy, if you cry, if you like...

So for me the audience interaction is always, in every show, there. But I only do it— Because sometimes you could look at theatres, you have a stage and you have the proscenium. For me the theatre is a black box, and you have to have a good reason to take away the proscenium because it’s the way we know. But if you have a good reason to take it away, for me the black box is always that place where the audience is sitting together with the performers. So like I said, for me that’s the strength of the medium and that’s why it’s such a niche medium. So few people go to theatre, but it’s the only medium that has that strength.

And even now in post-COVID times we’ve all missed that, that life. And some people find it in a bar or during bowling, or in a football match sitting together. But theatre has, for somebody who appreciates art, that life vicinity of other people breathing next to you, whether performers or audience, and feeling that your breaths, your noise, your choices are influencing... Oh, thank God.

Jeffrey: How do you develop work that asks the audience in so well? I guess the way to phrase my question is: When you want to create a moment of invitation how do you know that it’ll work in your creative process?

Alexander: I think one of it is respecting the invitation. I’ll give an example and that’s always the clearest, is for instance in this new show, Funeral, there’s a moment where the actors cry, they just cry. They put on Vicks. I don’t know if it’s the same with Vicks VapoRub? They put it and they start crying. And it had many forms in the show and never found its good place because the audience was always part of— We always wanted to invite the audience to, I don’t know, I always felt like, how can I make sure that this thing works where you’re not looking at actors showing off and all that? And in the end I found a form five days ago. It’s still there. The actors do it but they do it with their back towards you and you’re sitting behind a curtain in a circle in the dark. And you barely see them, you barely see the actors doing it. And you hear maybe, or you guess that they’re crying.

And at that point there’s an actor who passes along with this little bottle of Vicks, and if you want to join you have to hold him and he will put those things. And finally it found this good form, finally. But it was so important on so many levels. It almost had the feeling that you were witness of a real emotion that you don’t know if it was real or not.

When you feel that your requirement, your presence, your answer, your participation is not necessary for the quality of the artwork... Yes it can be part of it, yes it can decide the journey, but if it feels that your participation is what makes the show, then I think it feels like, “Yeah but wait, I still bought a ticket for a show.” And sometimes audience interaction or participation can be like a workshop. Like, “I need you to do this in order for this to work.”

And that’s where a stand-up comedian who needs you to laugh can sometimes be tricky. I’m referring a lot to stand-up comedians, but for me it’s an easy interaction to use as a metaphor sometimes. But if you feel that you’re invited to laugh and he doesn’t need it, it feels much freer. And for me that’s the same with every participation. It’s there, it’s inherent to theatre, especially theatre, it’s always been there but more and more… But like I said, it doesn’t have to be necessary. It’s a possibility.

Even in Fight Night, the show we talked about last time, where you’re invited to vote actors off stage as a sort of merit or democracy, I respect the people who don’t vote. If you don’t want to press that button. But I will talk about it, because in the metaphor, when you don’t vote it has an influence.

So you don’t have to vote to make the show work, but I will make sure that your participation and not is part of the artistic process but is not dependent on it. And maybe I’m always the man in the back who’s, like, not wanting to participate and I always want to respect myself. Maybe that helps because sometimes I use the one-liner, “I don’t like participatory theatre.” Because it’s true. I don’t like the cliché of participatory theatre. And I think a lot of people find this gimmick of like, “Whoa, let’s do Hamlet and make it participatory.” No, there is no reason at all. That show doesn’t need that on any level. It’s a great work of art, but nothing will make interaction make that stronger.

Jeffrey: I think you’re absolutely spot on with the connection of a stand-up comedian though, it completely erases the fourth wall. And it changes the relationship, right? The relationship is right there, it’s immediate. I mean, to say things for a reaction. It’s also why I think I love improv so much, and just that nature of you don’t have to be funny to do improv, but just the fact that it’s... Something about improv is that it’s rooted in truth. It’s sort of the reaction to truth, whether it happens or not in the scene. And I think that plays out really in an interesting way, and that invitation is so helpful.

Alexander: And the only thing I would have with improv, because I don’t like improv, it’s funny because I need a lot of interaction. But the problems with improv is that for me it’s very hard to do an improvisation that gives a layered meaning. It’s hard. It’s hard, nobody’s ready for that. An actor, an audience member, not even. So it has to be luck. And indeed you can talk that as truth. But I do have to say even now, a lot of our work on the show is developing and all that is, “Okay, if an audience does that, what would you do? All right, let’s go back to that. An audience did that. All right, let’s go back.” So testing, testing, testing. So the actor has a toolbox, the performer. So he’s prepared, he knows, “If that happens I can do this.” And that’s what I want to give.

So it feels genuine, but I also like it that you feel that the performer is in control. I like to be guided. If it’s an invitation and somebody who holds my hand and he knows the direction I’m going, if that person is like, “Do you want to go there or there?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” So for me, improv, yeah, there is something interesting about it. But like I said, I still believe in the end I’m just making a work of art that has to be layered. So in that way the audience will never have to be responsible for that layered experience, but if they’re not there, nothing happens. So that’s a thin line. I think I made one show where the audience interaction really was necessary to make the show happen, which made it a bad show in the end.

Jeffrey: The illusion of choice, right? The story will still happen. I will let you feel as though you’ve had a choice in this moment, but the end is still the end. And that was true with Fight Night, right? Fight Night, it still had an ending, but how you chose to interject yourself into the ending of it as well... But it was still a choice.

Alexander: That’s the thing. Because remember those books where you had choose A and then choose B, and then you have to read the different ending. I always felt cheated because I was like, “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter, I can just read A and B.” And the possibility of theatre having your journey and make it personal for you is like, “Yes, we talked about all the directions you could take, but because I invite you to keep on living during a show and not zone yourself out...”

And that’s where it doesn’t matter. There’s maybe an illusion of choice but there’s not an illusion of a personal journey. There was a true personal journey. And indeed, and for instance in £¥€$, a show about money, the trajectory is there, it will crash at a certain point, but I don’t know where you will be there. But you’re a bank so you will survive, because that’s what you play in the show. But the choices you made, the mergers you did, the investments you did, they’re all yours. I don’t— But in the end, the narrative, you will be part of that journey and that will feel personal and be personal. I think that’s a thin line that you have to respect, because if you feel that you don’t have a choice you will also feel cheated. You will also feel like it didn’t matter. It has to matter for your personal journey or I shouldn’t bother you with any participation.

I think it’s always interesting to cross boundaries, whether it’s geographically, culturally.

Jeffrey: Right, right. That’s great. We talked a little bit before we started our conversation about how you have sixteen, twenty people perhaps involved on a show. My development brain goes, “Holy cow, that’s a lot of actors to pay throughout that process.” I’m wondering what your rehearsal process is for that, and do you pay all the actors throughout the entire time?

Alexander: Everybody who works for us is paid. We are obliged by the state to do that. And they’re also paid through, how do you say that? If you have a certain anciënniteit— I don’t know the words. But if you work in theatre for so many years you build up something. So if you work for five years there is a salary we have to pay you, and that’s all over Flanders. Or you have the choice to make your own money, but mostly that’s good for all actors. So that’s what we do. We have funding, we have funding to support the creative parts. That is an amount of three hundred thousand a year that we had. And if I would have to pay you for one month with taxes and all that, that would cost two to five thousand for one month. So if you have one actor over a whole year, that’s twelve thousand.

So three hundred thousand can pay, I don’t know, do the math. But there’s a limit to what I can do. But there is possibilities to have. But of course I have to make scenography, have a normal working, I have to pay people. And I think that three hundred thousand takes care of the creation process. The touring has always been a zero operation. The money we get from the theatre just is always enough to give people money to be there and perform the show. So for instance, the America tour that we have now in January, February is a zero operation for Ontroerend Goed. All the actors are paid and I’m paid— and I don’t know if I’m paid. But I mean, if I’m joining I’m being paid. It’s always zero. And that’s the only thing, we can’t do a tour if it costs us money. The only exception to that is Edinburgh, because we want to do Edinburgh because it’s such a good connection space. So that’s the only one where we lose money on touring, because we pay all our actors to be there then.

So twelve people, it’s true, it’s a lot. So we have lots of ways to deal with that. I think the rehearsal process itself in time is two months, you could say. But for instance, I already worked two months in a school where I developed the idea with students as a sort of, I don’t know, playground. So the school pays and the students I work with are happy to develop something with me. And sometimes those students I take along with me because they were so important for their...

So part of the creative process already happens there. For instance for the show Funeral, I developed it and one actor joined along. And then the rehearsal process, I think we start with seven people or eight people and we talk around the table. And I really have to pay attention, when do I get people in? Because I don’t have enough money to have all the actors there from the beginning. But I also want them to feel part of it, that they just don’t come and they’re like, “All right, this is what you have to do.” So it’s a very thin balance.

And thanks to subsidies, I’ll be honest, it’s possible. And three hundred thousand, I don’t know if that sounds a lot, I don’t know what that means in America, but for here that’s a small company. And we did a bit too much for that amount of money. The way we toured so much was tricky, and it demanded a lot of people. Like yes, everybody was paid fairly, but sometimes I had to work with young people because they’re cheaper, but they had less experience so it was a bit harder.

So we had to find solutions that were not always... always felt good, cause sometimes you just want somebody with experience to, I don’t know, to organize a whole technical tour or to make something. But now the states, with the arts council there was a new process. So for the next five years we got double the amount of funds. So now we get seven hundred thousand here. And when we asked, when we applied, we didn’t apply to do more. We just asked, “Can we do the same but be even more fair and sustainable?” And I think it’s beautiful that the state just gave us the money. And of course they’re really proud, you feel that they’re proud of our international touring and the work we make because we’ve been consistent. But I’m still glad that I didn’t have to make up, I don’t know, more shows or do more to get more money. We just said, “No, we just want to do it without, maybe, yeah, I don’t know, demanding too much of people.”

Jeffrey: That gives me two questions. The first, so then if you do have someone who’s touring they’re not leaving a day job in order to go on a tour with you? That is their job, to go on tour with you?

Alexander: Sometimes, yeah. Most of the time, because we do work with professional people. But that’s why, for instance, I also work with... A lot of my shows—Fight Night is an example and the new one Funeral as well—but many shows I have a bigger pool of actors to be able to perform the show, because I also respect, I don’t know, if you will be in the show and you have a two-month rehearsal process and have a week of touring, I don’t want you to choose… So you can just say, “No, no, I’m good now, I can do these two months.” And I’m not dependent on you: Oh shit, you can’t be there so I can’t perform.

So a lot of ideas allow different people— Like the role that you would play in Fight Night, it would be flexible. So for instance, for £¥€$ I had a pool of actors of, I think forty?, who were able to— And I only needed twelve. Like for instance the show now, Funeral, I have a pool of twelve and I only need five, because I respect the fact that yeah, sometimes...

I have one day, for instance, next week I have two days in Amsterdam. Not everybody can make that and I don’t want to be— So I want to be flexible there to the life of an actor, and a freelance actor the most. And to the core company, a lot of them are involved with movies or films or have their own company, another company. And I try to make the whole schedule work that we don’t have to make choices there. For instance my wife, that she can do the movie and still be in the show.

It’s sometimes a thin line, but the reality that we can’t pay everybody full-time and an environment where freelancing is, especially after COVID, a tricky thing. Yeah, it’s always been something I really want to take care of. But of course if you’re a young person and you can always play, I still want us to do it democratically. If I have a pool of twenty actors I don’t want to... How do you say that? “Okay, you can play always so you will play always.” I want to be democratic. So there’s also a negative side to that. “You can only play a month of shows.” So it’s a bit tricky. But I think it’s also good because we tour really a lot. Maybe it’s also because I have a daughter now, that some of the actors also have a family, and you also don’t want to ask them to be away so long. So it’s finding that flexibility that I think is really important.

Jeffrey: The other question that sort of springs to mind is, so you say that touring is sort of a zero-sum game. That’s kind of shocking to me because I feel like so many companies in America, they tour so that they can make money. Because if they were to stay in one place they wouldn’t gain the national recognition and then bring it back to their hometown. They also might not connect creativity in those locations. And it also is just a large means of financial earnings to go on tour. So why is it that it’s a zero-sum... Why is it that you don’t make any money off of a tour? I’m curious.

Alexander: Well it starts with the fact that I don’t have to do that. So for instance, I’m making this show £¥€$. And at a certain point I talked to my friend and his financial manager of the company and I’m like, “I can only do seventy people in the show, and I need... One actor can take up seven people, I can’t do more.” And he’s like, “This is just absurd. You can’t do that. You’re making a show about money and it’s the worst audience and actor, it’s too much. You need too many people for too few audience members.” And I’m like, the beauty of it, we can take that risk because we’re not dependent. If it’s a flop, nobody will buy it, nothing lost. The show was created, everybody was paid? Good. But because we are able to do that, you make something that not a lot of people can make. And we don’t have to ask all the money to make money for the creation, just ask to be there.

So having that first sum of the government says, “Here, this is an amount of money and that’s where you can make it” gives a lot of freedom because I don’t have to worry. For instance, Edinburgh is full of monologues. Why? Because it’s the most cheap possibility. But there’s a limit to what you can do, make interesting theatre, with one person on a stage. It’s tricky. It’s the easiest way to make money, but it’s not always the easiest way to make a good show. And for me it’s also what the thing is, the whole... I don’t know enough about America, so sorry if I generalize here, and I know you’re also sometimes state-funded through all that. But I do have to say what I felt, that a lot of mecenas—I don’t know, private funding—I’m so glad I don’t have to go there.

There’s nobody ever telling me, “You have to do this,” or, “You have to do that.” Or even having the feeling I have to do that. We made something that was between porn, horror, and poetry and we had a lot of fun. And then the government said, “Make some more of that.” It gives you a freedom that I think is needed to make the work we dare to make. Because if I have to make something that I need to tour, because otherwise we’re broke, or I have to [make] something that people want to like or they won’t support it anymore, it’s too many questions. I just have to make something, I don’t know, from an inner core that I want to share with people. And if there’s a responsibility or money involved, it’s a tricky thing.

I’m not saying I don’t realize it now. For instance, now when I made Funeral, we had a tryout. I wasn’t happy with the show and I took the two months of holiday to really rethink the whole thing because part of me, of course I want to tell the best story possible and the purest form of talking about it, and it also felt very personal. But I also realized if this show is not going to make it, the future of Ontroerend Goed and all the actors in it is... We’re in trouble.

So yes, it’s part of it, but in the end I feel the freedom of like, Don’t worry about it. Make the work you want to make and we’ll see. And £¥€$, which was an absurd amount of money to make. Like I said, I think you have one person with seven actors, and most of the time you play with twelve, fourteen actors for eighty-four people. So twelve actors for eighty-four, that is absurd. But it’s a show that already played I think nine hundred times. So there’s a sort of paradox there that I found really interesting and that I really cherish.

Sometimes you worry that you need the fire to prove yourself in order to do good work. And I’m like, I’m glad the fire is still burning, but it’s not inflaming or engulfing us.

Jeffrey: So then why tour in general?

Alexander: By touring you cross boundaries, and of course physical boundaries. I know, not physical, I mean, states are in our minds. But cultural boundaries you’d say. And I think it’s always interesting to cross boundaries, whether it’s geographically, culturally, I don’t know. White male boundary. It’s always interesting. I think we had the luxury, from the moment we started, there was a strange invitation from a Moroccan producer who saw— And our first tour outside of Belgium was in Morocco, which was absurd because France and England, everything is so close. And I remember that the show worked there. We had somebody with us and we wanted to change the whole thing and we’re ready to adapt it to the culture there. And in the end the show happily made a connection without us having to change anything. But I learned so much from that experience and I kept it always with me.

Some shows we made, for instance the show I made—the feminist show I made—in Belgium was a disaster in Belgium. Didn’t work at all. People thought... I don’t know, they didn’t like it at all. And then we played it in the UK and suddenly it was five-star in the Times and it was on BBC. And it’s so important, that lesson for us. Not like, “Told you I was right.” No, no. To realize that difference. And remaking something, which we do more and more. So instead of just touring we go somewhere and we teach a group of people and a local producer to re-stage the show. Because a lot of our shows need face-to-face language. There’s no translation. So in Hong Kong I was like, “Yeah, you have to play Cantonese.” Or in Russia you have to play Russian. So we work with actors there and then the show performs like that.

And I felt when I made those interactions I really learned even more to realize where my boundaries are. And I think it’s always good to realize your perspective. And I’m not only saying you have to change it, but if you realize that your truth, your point of view, is a perspective and it has truth and it has relevance, but not if you think it’s the one. Or some people say you only have to listen to yourself, I’m like, “No, don’t.” Because you’re being influenced in so many fucking ways that you don’t realize your self doesn’t exist. So realize your own perspective as opposed to others.

And I do have to say, for instance in Russia or in Kazakhstan, I remember that once in a while you’re like, “I have this Western arrogance, like, ‘Yeah, but we do it this way.’” Yeah, there is some arrogance there that, I’ll be honest, in Kazakhstan I was like, “Come on, please, why are you doing the things like this?” And then okay, part of your brain goes like, “Yeah but if everybody would work and behave like us we would need three Earths. But, okay.”

But I do have to say when I was in Shanghai, for instance, remaking a show there and working with people, I realized that I couldn’t even have this perspective of an arrogance. I was just being confronted with something I seemed to understand, but I didn’t understand at all. And I think that’s what I’m looking for when I’m creating anything, or when I try to be sharing something. “Universal” is a big word, but every step towards trying to be outside of your boundaries is important. I think that’s what being an artist is all about.

Jeffrey: I agree. I agree. Before we started talking, we talked a little bit of how COVID also affected touring and whatnot. And can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve been affected there? And I mean, clearly everyone was pulling way, way back in terms of national or international restrictions. What are some of the repercussions or what are some of the challenges you’re facing because of it, now that we’re coming... I mean we’re still in COVID, it still is a constant challenge.

Alexander: You just said it, yeah.

Jeffrey: Right, there’s no real end of this in sight, unfortunately. But I wonder how you’re dealing with it, how you’re coping with it.

Alexander: I remember when the COVID happened, we were in the middle of making a show. I think it was two weeks before premiere because we had to go in lockdown. I remember in the beginning I was like, “Okay, this is not our time. It’s Netflix, it’s not ours. This is the moment where Deliveroo and Netflix will take over.” And I’ve really felt like, “Okay, let’s take some time to think and see.” But more and more I saw these— And especially as Ontroerend Goed, I always had the feeling we need the participatory, we need the live interaction. Other theatres can maybe do streaming, but for most of our shows it’s just absurd. The idea of streaming would be like... It didn’t make sense. But the more and more I saw these streams I was like, “Why is nobody...” Some people did, but I mean, I was being confronted with too many people who just played the show and then put a camera on it.

And I was like, “You’re going against the whole spirit of what makes theatre, theatre.” And in the end I was like, “Maybe I don’t need the physical life interaction, but maybe I can make something that still needs the live interaction.” Whether if you’re sitting here, like for instance we are having this talk, I think I’m embracing Zoom. I know there’s a joke of too many Zooms, but Zoom was my connection to the outside world and to other international communities. Okay, mostly still in your bubble, but still. And I remember that I was like, “Okay, let’s make a show that really has a feeling of making a community, but it needs the audience member at the other side behind the screen to be there to make the show happen.”

So we ended up making a show called TM. But the funny thing was I was working with these developers, these digital developers because I needed a website, they needed to build something. And I remember at a certain point they were like, during the rehearsal process—because I think they really found it fascinating there, they worked on big projects and I felt that they found something interesting about what we’re doing—but at certain point they said, “How are you going to make money with this?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” “Yeah, but you need one actor for one visitor, how do you...”

And I felt that this whole thinking was like, “That’s not how we do things in the digital landscape. We make sure that we just sell an experience that’s mostly digital.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. For me it needs to be live.” So again, making something that is—how do you say?—they’re financially not really... But for me that’s always been the core of Ontroerend Goed and of what theatre should be. Maybe I have one day an idea that doesn’t need that live interaction, but for me it needs to be there at the core. The actor needs to be there and you as an audience need to have a feeling that you’re there. From the moment you feel that you’re necessary there’s an illusion of an interaction.

So that’s what we made in TM, and I felt it helped our company to feel a purpose because sometimes I think a lot of people stopped in the industry because they were— found another perspective, another journey. And I felt the company was really glad we’re making things happen. And it was also a collaboration between many countries, so all over the world, because yeah, the possibility was there. So I remember we’re sitting in the rehearsal room, people from Brazil, people from Russia, people from Australia in one rehearsal room. Where yes, it’s a Zoom space, but I was like... It was also glad to keep those connections still going. And that was interesting.

And now that things are coming back again, I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out. I think most of us are still figuring it out. Touring starts again, slowly. But for instance, in this new show Funeral, the first scene... I’m going to spoil the first scene. You know when you go to a funeral and you meet and you go and you greet the families of the deceased? That’s the idea. So you greet the actors, but then you’re put in line. So the next person has to greet you, and he’s standing next to you. So the audience, as an audience member, you end up giving a handshake to everybody else. And for me that was a beautiful idea of like, “Let’s meet again.” The first time you would ever give a handshake to everybody in the audience. You’ve seen every one of them there.

But of course in COVID times maybe that’s not a great idea. So I postponed this idea for two years already and now I’m like, “Let’s do it, let’s do it. Let’s make it safe.” People get something to wash their hands and all that. But let’s put that physical back at the core of what we’re doing.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I always said that once we get back from this we’re going to have to have classes on how to have physical interaction again. So I think you’re spot on in terms of your planning there.

Alexander: Definitely.

Jeffrey: So I guess ultimately I just want to know, what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now then? So part of it is touring, but I mean it’s also still continuing to make theatre in the way that you make it and—

Alexander: I think with the show Funeral that’s happening next week, so I’m premiering next week but I’m relaxed. I’ll be honest, I lost my father a bit too soon, he was sixty-three. And I remember people looked at me in the family like, “You’re going to organize the funeral.” And I was like, “Of course, but let’s do it together.” And we did it with family and it was a beautiful funeral. I won’t go into the details of it, but I remember at a certain point during the funeral I was like, “This is a good show.” People come here for consolement and for finding, I don’t know, dealing with grief. And maybe I can make a show that does that a bit bigger, that you don’t have to be a friend of me or my father to experience that. So that feels like a big challenge happening now, but it also doesn’t feel like a challenge because it feels really good.

But yeah, like I said, I spent the last two months—because the tryout was really not good enough in June, not the show I envisioned—so I just spent two months, not really on the holiday, just thinking about what to change. And I’m glad I made those choices and changes. But like I said, maybe that’s a challenge every year.

I like it, Ontroerend Goed as a company. There’s a danger of believing in what you can do because it could mean that you just start too self-confident and you don’t question yourself anymore. But I also like Ontroerend Goed as like... It’s like a speaker. Sometimes you worry as a speaker, “Do I speak well? Do I use words?” And at a certain point you’re like, “Yeah, I’m a good speaker, but what am I going to tell?” And I think I’ve felt that step for a couple of years now, like “Don’t worry about ‘are you doing well’ and tell something.”

And that gives a freedom that I feel is not making us... There’s a word for that in English that I don’t know about—relaxing and... there’s a good word for that in English—but some companies maybe go like, or some artists have like, “Oh, I made it now, let’s chill. And it—

Jeffrey: Oh, “complacency”?

Alexander: Complacency, yeah. And I think because sometimes you worry that you need the fire to prove yourself in order to do good work. And I’m like, I’m glad the fire is still burning, but it’s not inflaming or engulfing us. It’s still heating us up and giving me fuel every year and every time making a show. So the biggest challenge are not there.

And of course I have a daughter, she’s three years now. For every parent that’s... Yeah, the word “challenge” and “children,” it’s just a beautiful combination of words and of the feeling there. But as a company I’m confident, I’m happy where we are. And it’s just joyful that people want to see the work you make. It’s such a privilege. You want to do something and people feel that they get something out of it. And then yeah, that’s a privilege that I want to respect and always cherish. And I get...

Jeffrey: That’s great. So you’ll be touring here soon, you’ll be touring the United States soon. And so will you be teaching while you’re here as well? I kind of scoped out at some of the different locations you’ll be in New York and in Ann Arbor and in Minneapolis and Ontario and... Will you be teaching here as well or will you be bringing particular... How did you phrase it earlier? Will you be recreating the work here to create the show, or will you be bringing a tour-tour with the actors already contained in it?

Alexander: Yeah, it’s a tour with the actors already contained in it, because that’s what I don’t... We still do tour if it feels like a good— it’s worth it. Like, you go somewhere and the plane tickets, yes, but you’re there for a good amount of time. And I felt that the American tour, it felt nice to be there. And the show wouldn’t gain from recreating it, it would take too much time. And I feel the connection that we have, cultural and all that, it will feel like a mirror, the show. Whereas for instance, if I would do this show in Hong Kong where suddenly Cantonese people are looking at six Western people mirroring the world? That’s also for me, like, is the mirror true? Which is also make it necessary to recreate or not.

But no, I’m also not joining a lot. I’m also only joining BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] in New York because of my child of course, but also I want to be in New York. Yeah, it’s still a childhood’s dream that I’m glad that we have for the second time now. But no, it’s the tour of the original cast.

Jeffrey: That’s great. That’s very cool. Great. One thing we didn’t actually touch on necessarily was the idea of sending a show in a box.

Alexander: Yeah, I know. No, that was indeed, when I had to talk about post-COVID time, I should have mentioned that one as well. But it’s really... I only did it now with the students, did the dummy version of it. But it feels exciting. It feels exciting. The dummy version worked because yeah, I wasn’t even there. So I gave the box to the theatre. Everything that theatre needs is in the box to make a show happening. They just have to invite thirty people to be there. And I’m a bit of a board gamer, I’ll be honest. I really love... I’m not a gamer, like gaming, online gaming, is just a bad ersatz for the real thing, the physical board games. So it has some resonance to that. But still for me it’s important. The board game is always there to entertain you, but there’s something about theatre that confronts you.

And for me, the idea that we can tour by not being there and sending this box all over the world is something that we’re going to do now. It’s called Handle With Care Project. And it’s... Yeah, I’m very excited. I’m excited. When I started, I was always jealous of those first visual artists, like Duchamp and all that, that they could reinvent art. And I’m like, “Oh shit, that already happened. We can’t do it anymore.” And then at the same time I was always like, “It’s one sentence of once and for all. Everything’s been done before, but not by me, not now.”

There’s a freedom in that, but there’s also a truth in that that’s really true. You can do things that feel like they haven’t been done before. And I really like that feeling. So sending theatre in a box, maybe it’s happened, I don’t know, somebody probably had already the idea, but it feels like it hasn’t been done by me, not now. And it feels exciting. It’s a joy.

Jeffrey: That’s awesome. I’m in love with that idea, and it so goes to your books as blueprints, right? So for our listeners, this is the first time I’ve talked about this on this conversation right now, is that... So you have a couple of different books right now out that are... The first one, All Work and No Plays is how I found you. And it’s called Blueprints for Nine Theatre Performances. And I’ll let anyone who wants to just take a look and to read it and to read the information on the back, tells you exactly what it is.

Anyway, I’m blathering now, but it’s so great to hear that, not just a blueprint but now here are the game pieces to play the game in a box. And it shows up on your doorstep and you get to do this. Is it that you would rehearse it together and then perform it? Or is it that you would do it in the moment? The performance is, you open the box and you do it, and that is itself the performance?

Alexander: Yeah. And like I said, how can I manage that, that your audience participation is not necessary? It’s still an invitation. How can I keep being truthful to that? And also, if you have to be there you’re not ready to give a layered performance. So it’s trying to find that, it’s still an invitation. Like so many board games I play depend on my enthusiasm, my geekiness, to make it work. How can I make something that doesn’t need that and still gives you theatre, even though we’re not there. Yeah. It’s a fascinating question and I’m glad we’re diving into it. I think it’s going to be awesome. But we’re going to have fun, we’ll see. We’ll see.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Yeah. I’m certainly excited by it. I always love this type of experience, and being creative through tasks I think is really fascinating and that’s really exciting to me. So I’m really excited to hopefully check it out. I’ll get thirty of my friends together and we’ll do it.

Alexander: Perfect.

Jeffrey: I’ll let you know.

Alexander: Perfect. Good, good, good. Let’s have a drink in real life.

Jeffrey: Hey folks, that’s it. Really quick, before I digest some things with you, please give us some likes or loves or follows or retweets. You can find me at @ensemble_ethnographer or at @ftgu_pod. Or email me at [email protected] to let me know who I should be interviewing. Reach out, chat me up, y’all. Also, let me just say thank you to our Zoom sponsor, Quasimondo Physical Theatre. Thank you all.

If you like this conversation around how the audience is invited to participate, I highly recommend you take in my call with the folks from dog & pony dc—Rachel Grossman and Colin K. Bills—in season one, episode ten. I really do feel like those ideas of participatory work are connected. I also just appreciate the perspective that Alexander provides here, about keeping the fire lit as a performer. Some real metaphors about what it means to be making work in concert with an audience.

Y’all, I did not do a lightning round with Alexander as we got caught up talking about raising our kids. So instead I give you a little peek into that world. Since we do want to talk about social sustainability, part of this is about learning how to be social in our families as well. So I, self-indulgently perhaps, think that this is an important part of the work that we do. How do we continue to sustain ourselves and the love for our families while still making the art? Thanks artists, see you next time on From the Ground Up.

It’s the only medium that has that strength, that you are there living and I’m there living.

Alexander: Right. And indeed, I feel the most a father, as an idea of like, I’m a father when I read their books, yeah. But also when we go somewhere and we both have to be there or we both want to be there. And it can be a grocery store but it can also be a bookshop or the library. Or the garden or the park. But that’s what I felt that helped me also. But I like it that she doesn’t have to be there. She just tags along and I don’t have to be there anyway. Because at a certain point we say, “We have to go to the park.” And then I realize, no, we don’t. We can be here at the streets. And that’s indeed that you don’t only get to do two things in the to-do list, but that it just evaporates. And the whole idea of to-do becomes different.

That’s what I enjoy. And I’m like, I didn’t know I had to do this, or I didn’t know this was going to be the thing I do. Cause I think it happened, one of the first moments that I realized... Shit, we have to go to the interview, sorry.

Jeffrey: No, this is great.

Alexander: Last thing. At a certain point we were having food in the kitchen and doing that. And at certain point she said, “No, no, let’s eat here on the street at the door front.” We never done that, ever. And I was like, “Oh yes.” Most of the time when she said, “I want this, I want this,” I say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give it to you.” And she said, “I wanted this.” And I was like, “It’s a much better idea. You’re going to bring these things in my life that you have a good idea that I didn’t think of.” And those are good moments to realize, because you don’t always have time.

Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast at @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser, at @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.

Think you or someone you know ought to be on the show? Send us an email at [email protected]. We also accept fan mail and requests. Access to all of our past episodes can be found on my website, jeffreymosser.com as well as howlround.com. The audio bed was created by Kiran Vedula. You can find him on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and flutesatdawn.org.

This podcast is produced as a contribution to the HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can find a transcript for the episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

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Thoughts from the curator

From the Ground Up is here to ask questions about ensemble-based creation. Who’s doing it? How is it practiced? Are they paid? Are they able to thrive? We’re also examining that word: Ensemble. What does it mean? There is no roadmap, format, prescription, description, or rubber stamp to the way ensemble-based work is made from place to place and process to process. This podcast interviews companies from around the country on how they make and pay for the art. If you have questions about where to begin or what to do next with your own company, stay tuned.

From the Ground Up Podcast


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