Office Hours: Five Easy Pieces
Hendrik Van Doorn, Kristof Blom, and Debra Levine
Hendrik Van Doorn is a performer in Five Easy Pieces.
Kristof Blom is the Artistic Director of CAMPO.
Debra Levine is the Director of Undergraduate Studies & Lecturer on Theater, Dance & Media at Harvard University. She has also recently served as Assistant Professor of Theater at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Hendrik Van Doorn: Hello I’m Hendrik. I’m the adult performer in Five Easy Pieces and yeah! I’m here with CAMPO Theatre and seven lovely children will be performing tonight and still tomorrow, I think.
Kristof Blom: Hi, I’m Kristof Blom. I’m the artistic director of Campo, which is an Arts Center in Ghent, Belgium. We produced the performance Five Easy Pieces. It was an invitation of us to Milo Rau to come and work with children for an adult audience. That’s me.
Debra Levine: I’m Debra Levine. I’m the Director of Graduate Studies and Lecturer in Theatre, Dance, and Media at Harvard. Also a graduate of New York University. And I’m here to talk with both of you about the performance.
HV and KB: Cool.
DL: Can I start? Hendrik, can you just describe the process of collaboration between Milo Rao and Campo because this isn’t exactly what you would think of when you think of “working with children”. Someone comes and says, “I’d like to make a piece about Marc Dutroux- who is a serial murderer of children!” So the subject matter is pretty incendiary and usually people are very careful not to take that kind of material and say, “I think I’ll work with children about that!”
KB: Yes, I need to talk a little bit about the context to understand where this is coming from. As Campo, we’ve had a bit of a tradition- one of the lines of works that we produce throughout the years has been a series of performances for which we generally stage for an adult audience. So there’s a history- we’ve invited Gob Squad, Tim Etchells, Philippe Quesne, and all artists that like- it’s sort of their version of the “child play for adult audience” before. We don’t do it on a regular basis. I think it’s scouting for an artist or inviting an artist. It always has to do with like… the urgency is important for me to put out this invitation. But I got to know the work of Milo I think a couple of years before we also started inviting and bringing his earlier work to Ghent. It led to sort of interesting conversation and with all the works for the children in the past, they each had their own specific approach. But this whole sort of political documentary way of working that Milo’s- that’s specific to Milo’s work was never- I was feeling very curious about what this would lead to in the series with the children. So I started off with inviting Milo and asking if he would be up for it. That’s one part. The second line that comes together with that is that Milo already like was quite familiar with Belgium of another work that he made called The Civil Wars that opened at Kunstenfestivaldesarts at- I think 2014 or 15? I don’t remember the exact year, but that was work in which he already started working with Belgian performers, Flemish performers. Also asking them about dealing with that- the history of the country as well. So in that research for that production, one of the topics he came across was like, “What were the moments in Belgian history that had an impact on them?” And this Marc Dutroux case kept on like coming to the surface over and over again! So that started the fascination with Milo Rau, I think for this particular case…
HV: Yes, it was also because he asked like, “When did you have a particular feeling of being really Belgian?” And the people who he worked with answered at that point that they felt quite connected when they were experiencing The White March that connected people in the aftermath of the Dutroux affair.
DL: So can you explain what the White March is? Because I had to research it a bit- maybe you can explain to the camera?
HV: Well, when I said like- it was more connected to the aftermath of the Dutroux affair and the whole investigation that had been done came into some kind of political- how should I say… The people were questioning the working of corrective justice of also the police. Like this whole system was being questioned in a very critical way-
DL: So can I explain a little bit for a moment which is that Dutroux was actually arrested and jailed and then released… And then committed crimes after the first time that he was released. And then finally they found the last two young girls that he abducted and rescued them, but several of them had been murdered before that investigation took a long time. And then the trial- just to bring him to trial took a long time too! And what I understood is that there was a kind of correct justice system or an inept justice system that didn’t that didn’t actually follow through properly on this and people were enraged. And then you had the White March right? That was actually people on the streets protesting it and they just felt like this was symbolic of all the ways in which the government wasn’t working properly.
HV: Yeah, exactly. It was also in a time when you had like the police and their Rijkswacht- I don’t know how you should translate it. It’s also some kind of police force that’s connected to- yeah. But those two were not working together-
DL: To the federal government, right?
HV: Federal government, yeah.
DL: So there’s the local police and then the federal police.
HV: Yeah those- they don’t exist. The second one doesn’t exist anymore. It was really in the aftermath of the Dutroux affair that it got abolished because it was working so badly- collaboration between these two systems. Also because Marc Dutroux committed his crimes in the Wallonian part of Belgium and there was no connection whatsoever on the justice level. The Flemish side this whole investigation went very badly. Also other people involved like Marc Dutroux’s wife or some other- how should I say…
DL: There was a collaborator.
HV: Yeah that was all very very complex. Many people really got upset/angry and at the end of their patience.
DL: So this was a catalyst for a real expression of anger against the government for a lot of different things that the case kind of held, which is a reason to theatricalize it.
HV: It’s symptomical- A symptom.
DL: Yes, but for me what’s super interesting about this is then when Milo Rau started working with the performers, he constructed a story that actually took into account the relationship that Belgium had with the Congo too, which is the way in which Belgium had been a colonial power, and the kind of violence that was inherent in society for a much longer time period than the sort of sensationalism of this happening around Dutroux, right?
KB: Yeah, but I think that was a very important point that Milo wanted to make with this piece. I think it’s also like the impact that historical facts or things that have happened, half on the formation of your personality. So that’s why the scene is in there- of how with the whole colonization story about like Marc Dutroux’s father, and how this had an impact on him, and the formation of Dutroux. It’s like something he wanted to touch- which is the same thing that he’s now putting those children on stage saying like, “Okay, this was something that happened and it will have an impact on the character building and the personality building of those children.”
DL: So I this is where I’m so fascinated with the dramaturgical structure of the show because I hope that this isn’t a spoiler alert for some people, but in the beginning, what you do is you learn who the children are and how they have a relationship to the nation too. And it’s very delicate actually. Like those pieces where your character starts to interview the children and kind of reperforms the audition piece, you get to see who each child is. And there are questions about how they have a relationship both to their family and to the state, and who their family is in terms of the state as well. So the seeds are planted where the kids aren’t just personalities on their own, but they’re really shaped by both events their parents…
HV: I think also Milo wanted to look for some kind of a… if you’re telling these big stories of Marc Dutroux, of the colonial history, you need another “pendant” as to say? Or an equivalent. Like the stories of the children which are much more closer to them, smaller stories as well as counterweights, because you cannot just put these big topics on the table without having had more personal stories of the ones who are actually on stage at that point.
DL: He really does it quite beautifully, right?
KB: Yeah! And also popping that question, like, “What’s the influence on how you become as a person?” Like sentences like for instance- the shooting. Like is it me who’s shooting up to the audience? Or is it my character? It has a lot to do with that as well.
DL: So, can both of you maybe describe how- even the children’s abilities- because the beginning, you just see the children, it’s a reenactment of the interview, and your character, who in some ways is a substitute for the director- and becomes the director and stage manager- asks about their skill sets, their theatrical skill sets. And then those skill sets are actually brought into the like dramatic form of the play when they do the play that really thinks about Dutroux, right? So, can you describe actually what happens that sort of- I’m talking a lot I’m sorry- that very deaf transition between what the kids can do and then how they play certain characters?
HV: Yeah it’s on a couple of levels. I think first of all, there’s that Milo really wanted to play with the relationship between a director and actor, which can be explained somehow as a- should I say, a relationship that can be a bit manipulative.
DL: Very manipulative right?
HV: Exactly. Even when you don’t have like a dictatorial kind of director who says, “Do this or do that!” But still he’s in power and you’re working with actors and they’re vulnerable on stage, so they’re showing the way there put on stage is in quite a vulnerable position. Then on top of that, if you have like- it’s an adult director with a child, which is even another level of this power relationship that comes on top of it. It’s not only adults, but you have this children versus director. That’s another thing. And then after that, you go back to the title Five Easy Pieces. It used to be a simple handbook that Stravinsky made to teach his children in a very simple way the basics of piano playing by very simple exercises and these exercises were based on mimesis- you call it like reproduction. And this reproducing is like the essence of the basic method he’s using to get these children so far that they can perform these theatrical exercises because that’s what they are basically. These monologues- all the stories they are telling, it’s like an exercise which is based on this reproducing kind of quality it’s-
DL: So then can I loop back to- so Milo Rao met more children than the ones that we saw in the original production, right? And picked a group to work with and I had asked him a question I think about a year ago when we were talking just for a few minutes. He basically said he taught the children to act, correct? And then the show shows how well the children learned how to act too- but were those children performers before you brought them on the stage? So basically they learned how to do what they do on stage and then they and the dramaturgy of it is how they learn what/how they do on stage, correct?
KB: Yeah that’s correct! The whole concept of the Five Easy Pieces really started off with five reenactments that were like illustrative of what Milo chose to talk about for this case. But while rehearsing them, and while trying to teach children how to act them, but also trying to explain to the children what this was all about, and to contextualize that- he found the discussions that Peter, the assistant that was working with Milo on the play- We need to work with an assistant also because of a language barrier. The children are Dutch speaking, Milo doesn’t speak Dutch. But like Milo who was watching Peter have those conversations with the children, that was like a moment that he thought like, “Oh my God! This is actually as interesting as the reenactments and maybe even more interesting than the reenactments!” That he basically shifted the whole thing on stage. So Peter became a part, and so that’s the role that Hendrik is now playing, yeah.
DL: But the children- it strikes me. There’s one moment in the play where your character- if I’m right, I remember the kids sort of start to talk all together and they kind of like, there is a little bit of a cacophony, right? And then it’s the first time your character is kind of really tough on them, but then asks, I might be talking about two different moments, but then he asks, “Who would like to play what character?” And then the kids are happy again because what they get to do, like there’s real pleasure in-
HV: It’s a game for them!
DL: -performing for the director too! Like the director isn’t punitive, like you get more disciplinary when you can promise them pleasure and the kids, like all they want to do is- it seems like not only did you get them to act, now all they want to do is act! And they really want to please you by acting too.
HV: Yeah this playful quality is very important to them and that’s also, I mean when you see these kids an hour before we’re performing, all they do is like shouting, running around each other, and then there’s a play. And they have this fantastic ability that most of the children have to be really in the moment. A quality where a lot of acting people have to struggle for to keep that quality. But when the play is finished, it’s like nothing happens and they continue their business. And this is something that’s lots of adult audiences question sometimes-
DL: Yeah they really struggle with it, sure.
HV: -Oh, this is some heavy topic that you’re coming up with, and aren’t they suffering psychologically from these kinds of stories? It definitely impacts the personal life or something, but to them it’s not like that at all. Also in Campo, there was good psychological guidance as well. From the beginning, parents were connected to the working process quite closely, correct?
KB: Yeah it’s true.
HV: So, and basically it’s like yeah, it’s a very simple thing if you ask a child to do something, he says, “I don’t feel like it!” “Okay, then you don’t do it!” So we respect the boundaries and the barriers they install themselves.
DL: But the play implies and talks so much about coercion, right? The dramaturgy of it is you get the child to cross the boundaries by offering more and more performance opportunities yeah? No? you disagree with me?
KB: I don’t completely-
DL: Well, if there’s that moment where your character on stage plays Dutroux, and I get the youngest one to do things where we all feel uncomfortable, but you can see how the promise and the pleasure of coercing a performance feels a little bit transgressive? No?
HV: Yeah well, if I understand correctly, what you’re saying, that’s exactly like the scene where most of people having these questions to it. But as I said it’s this uncomfortable feeling or questions that people have while watching the scene are saying something about their own fears as an adult, their own relating to maybe their own children they might have, so it’s all almost an instinctive kind of reflection that comes up. But as I said for the child itself, it’s really a play. For them, this Dutroux character is like a gruesome fairy tale. Like some kind of… For them, it’s in this same kind of imagination that this person belongs to. Also as Milo was working with the children, he came to the conclusion when they were having like theatrical improvisation or they were working with Scenes from a Marriage from (Ingmar) Bergman and he came to the conclusion-
DL: That’s amazing, sorry.
HV: And he said that although children were very capable of understanding what was being said, that adults say to each other, that definitely belongs to the adult world. They could not connect emotionally to what actually was being said, so it doesn’t have the same psychological depth, if you wish, as it has with an adult. So people who are watching this and feel uncomfortable are basically confronted with their own fears.
DL: I agree.
KB: And an important aspect as well is that, when the Dutroux case happened, those children weren’t born yet.
DL: Yeah, so everything comes through- like the stories they heard through their parents.
KB: Yeah exactly! And that was always like one- I mean there were many sessions with psychologists, but what always came back was that it’s like our tendency as parents or an adult would be like to hide our children forever to protect them from this harsh reality. But the psychologists say like, “No it’s not the way of doing it because they will also watch the news and hear about it or maybe pick it up somewhere in a newspaper or wherever you- there’s no point in hiding this.”
DL: Can you talk a little bit more about the sessions with the psychologists and how that happened in relationship to the rehearsals?
KB: I can’t talk- the sessions were private, so then neither Milo neither Peter nor me, no one from Campo was there. They were really like private sessions between children individually and the psychologist, so I don’t know what was being said. Of course, we got reports afterwards and I mean, we also needed them for different purposes, but what actually had been said during the conversation between psychologists and children, I don’t know.
DL: Did that ever affect the rehearsal process or what happened on stage?
KB: No actually, no.
DL: Were you surprised?
KB: Well I have to say, the reason why we knew it was important because a lot of people and the audience- because of the topic, we’re gonna ask questions, so we need to be that like-
HV: Some backup.
KB: We needed to have a backup like, “Yeah that we didn’t do anything wrong- or that it was all under control. Everything went without any consequences for your children.” But if- and this was the role of the psychologist, of course, if there would have been a problem, of course we would have adjusted the play, of course. Or I mean this was really important to not cross a line there.
DL: I’m from the US and I’m a parent. I wonder whether you could do the same thing in the atmosphere here. It seems like the parents who were supportive of their kids working on this- were either pretty extraordinary or it’s a different kind of political atmosphere.
KB: Well the parents are extraordinary with their support because you have to know like- I was just talking about this tradition of performances- we have with children- actually the one before Milo was made by Philip Quesne, and that was just like a very playful piece. And the children were only like… on stage, it’s just like one big playground. So it was only about fun fun fun! And because of this tradition, when we put out a call that we were scouting children, or you know, we’re looking for children and we get like the huge amount of responses every time. So, we’re not really doing a lot. So, Milo started doing the auditions and the auditions we worked with play amongst other things, but then it wasn’t really directly about this big Dutroux talk. Like after he made the selection we already knew at that moment that the play was gonna be about Marc Dutroux. The first thing we needed to do was talk to the parents and say, “Hey good news your kid is selected! We wanna work with him or her, but you have to know that this is the-” and surprising we thought we were perhaps gonna lose children, but all parents were super understanding, and they were on board because you cannot make this work without having the parents on board.
HV: I think you shouldn’t even start it if you don’t have the parents 100% because it’s a big engagement and they have to understand, like if there’s a rehearsal or if there’s a performance, you gotta be there. That’s how it is. And of course, they go to school,they need to relate to that as well. The results should be okay as long as they are performing for there’s a lot-
KB: Also we knew that like, okay well everything was explained in the rehearsal process, and there was a lot of talking talking talking talking with the children to get like everything right. We knew that they were going to go home and still have questions probably. Maybe questions that they didn’t dare to ask us and that they would ask their parents. And basically they were really really supportive. The parents also were completely on board with the script. Every time the kids brought a piece of the script back home they were reading it. So like, we knew we had to be prepared, so that’s why we work with a psychologist. But at a certain moment, word came out like when the premiere was announced, Milo Rau who already built up quite a bit of a reputation at that moment in Europe-
DL: To be a provocateur.
KB: -and then he was gonna do a Marc Dutroux piece with children on stage. Then all of a sudden, it caused a lot of fuss in the press before the show was made and not always like the quality press with actually a lot of attack words- We’re looking for sensation, of course.
DL: And this show is so delicate and beautiful actually-
KB: So, we also have to have the parents on board on that level, to say “Please if you get contacted by-” because their names were published in the catalog of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts where it was brilliant. And journalists starting to reach out for them to get in contact with the parents or with children themselves where you really have to say, “Stop and don’t answer those phones! Don’t do anything! So it was a whole process…
DL: But I do think, you know, the notoriety helps get people to see the show too, and then all of a sudden, when you see the show, the questions are so complex and again like the post-colonial history, and the retelling of the narrative is also so complex and rich that you know, it gets people to notice the work, which is amazing. I really I think I first got obsessed with it when it got an R-rating in Singapore too- and they didn’t allow anyone under 18 to go and see the piece which- I saw the piece in Aalst and I was with an entire audience full of teenagers in Aalst! In Belgium?
KB: In Aalst? Oh my God!
DL: I flew from Abu Dhabi to Aalst just to see it. But I sat in an audience with all teenagers and it felt like that was the most vital kind of performance. I had seen all of those teenagers that were high school students that were wrapped and then talking to each other afterwards like they were so engaged with what was going on and no one seemed traumatized by it by being under 18 and watching it.
KB: But this is what the thing like people thought or were assuming that Milo was looking for sensation, or that he wanted to show, but that was never the idea – he really made a very sincere piece of art!
DL: He did.
KB: And like I will never forget tension on opening night because there was all the press like, “What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” Like waiting for like some big bomb that could probably explode and like the whole thing… like after opening night, everything went like silent. It only got like really good reviews that were analyzed in the proper way saying like, “Oh my God it’s a really sincere work!”
DL: It’s a really sincere work- this is a new cast performing the story that was constructed with Milo Rau in the first cast- so how did you actually-
KB: You know, it was never actually- how we work as Campo it’s never our idea. When we make work and it’s out there, and it’s kind of showing- that’s the most important thing for us. But we never want to work on a repertoire. So normally what these performances- it’s not a usual thing to go for for a second cast. But like after the premiere, we noticed this was a really unique piece of work that received so many invitations that also came from Milo at a really important moment in his career. I think this still is a sort of key work in the oeuvre of Milo. I think there was a line of reenactments that he did before, like for instance, the Breivik’s statement. And then there was the line of working with personal stories of performers like say The Civil Wars and this- in Five Easy Pieces. I think there’s two lines for the first time, cross thinking together. There’s two dramaturgical lines. Because of that, I think it was really important work for him as well that all of a sudden like the whole world was interested in this work, while before Milo was mainly like writing for Western Europe, showing his work, so we felt like we needed to be able to get that work out there. And also for a longer period. And you have limitations of course, working with children now you come, we perform, they need to combine with school, which means that we perform say like an average of two cities a month.
HV: Every country has their own laws concerning working with children which makes it quite complex.
DL: Really? I didn’t-
HV: Yeah I thought it was the same everywhere, but apparently it’s not at all like this. And pressure became- you cannot let them perform more than-
KB: Yeah sometimes they were really ridiculous. Really depending from country to country that you- Of course, we are in agreement. Or you say everything has been okay according to Belgian law, which of course we need to deal with, but once you start bringing the work outside of Belgium, it also needs to be appropriate for the local laws. And that depends on country to country.
HV: And also to relieve the pressure of one cast, it was really necessary at a point to bring in a second one. So I mean performing for instance, with the first cast and second cast as well, we’re on tour alternating, so they could have a little cooldown as well because when I started working with cast one, they already did like, I don’t know, eighteen perform- or nineteen performances? It’s already a lot.
KB: But we make this decision to go ahead- I had a long talk with Milo about it- like I mean it’s his call iIf we would do this or not because he could completely actually say like, “Okay this performance was really made with that first cast, so you could- it would be totally fine to wrap it up, I mean. But it was like it came at an important moment for Milo and he really wanted to have the work exposed as much as possible. So then we made the decision for the second cast, which is of course like yeah, adding another level again.
DL: There’s so many levels because when I saw it the first time in Aalst and then I think I saw it the second time in the Amsterdam, probably six months later?
HV: In Frascati?
DL: In Frascati! I was a little obsessed with it, but it shocked me how much older the kids were already and I just don’t ever think about how normal it is that like someone on Broadway or Off-broadway can play a role for a year or two and you don’t really think of them growing. You don’t see that kind of aging in the role, but how much the piece is dependent on the kids being a certain age both dramatically and materially, and then when they age out how that dissonance feels uncomfortable or it it changes the dramaturgical arc a little bit too.
HV: It changes the content because at a certain point, you have like the halve that is still a child. Like Blanche she’s like for two years, still the same. But the other ones like Pepijn, all of a sudden I haven’t played with them for a month or two and I hardly recognize him! And then you see some degradation or this difference in term and then you understand why it’s so important that they still keep on performing while they still there’s still this childish quality.
DL: Oh yes. Well it’s like what is a childish quality? And when do they have to start acting it and when are they just being it, right? There’s that real difference! Like lots of the second time, to me, it just looks so grown-up! And even though she was pretty grown up, like the older one in the first time, in the second time she almost seemed like an adult.
KB: It also means a lot of new costumes. Because they keep growing out of the costumes in no time!
HV: You’ll even see that already a bit tonight with some of them.
KB: Yeah I saw the white trousers.
HV: Yeah also Pepjin like his sleeves…
KB: And you feel like now the second cast is getting older and I think we’re-
HV: As far as we are concerned, I don’t think there will be a third cast coming up…
KB: Although it would be totally possible. There’s still a huge amount of invitations coming in.. But yeah I mean…
DL: Can you talk about the media a little bit too because the kids in the dramaturgical structure, like the part where they play the adults and have to like cry on stage or play the parents of the missing daughter, they just seem to really- it seems real- rather than just acted because they seem to know how to act for the camera. Is that true? Was that taught? And also I guess my bigger question is well- what it’s like being the only adult on the stage with a bunch of kids?
HV: Yeah. But my role there is basically more of, I should describe it more as some kind of a nanny who’s keeping all these guys together, especially when they’re not talking because of course, they get diverted or they lose attention because yeah, it’s a play for an hour forty-five minutes almost, which is really a long time. If you have an adult play with only one child in it- it can be very charming. And he does his thing and everybody is okay with that, but when you have like seven children on stage who really have to support that piece going on, then there’s an extra- they need it. And that’s basically my role there, and of course I shift the roles from director to- you can call it the father of one of the kids. So it shifts all the time, but basically I’m just keeping them somehow together. And this working with them before the camera- there’s these two things. The reproduction of what’s being shown on the big screen, that’s one thing, and of course, when they’re doing their monologues face to face with me. Then I have all the liberty to say like, “Okay now you slow down a bit, you go faster!” Or even before performing we do the monologues all over again. And so we keep on working and they’re getting better at it. Do it’s also an exercise for them and you see already a big difference, I think, with our first performance when they were just taking over the work of the first cast. But now it’s already when I’m making remarks, like now we slow down or take a pulse. They’re so used to it today that it’s almost became part of the play. So it’s more the way of acting or they know what they got to do now. There’s no risk in that. So basically it’s an exercise in reproducing reproducing and trying to be really secure in what they do and try to guide them through that material… I don’t know if I’m really clear with this…
DL: No, I’m just super interested in the difference I guess for the kids. The acting on camera versus acting theatrically and then of course they’re acting for the camera. Are they aware of how they look and how it’s working on the media? Or are they really thinking about just like the cameras there and they’re working with you?
HV: No, I mean they have some kind of confidence and faith in me. I’m there for them to support them and they know this and I’m always keeping eye contact with them when they’re doing their monologues and it’s really face to face thing. They shouldn’t be concerned with other things and I don’t think they are- they’re really in the moment.
DL: They’re not concerned with their image and how it’s going to look on the screen-
HV: I am, of course, but I can guide it with a camera I’m holding at that point in my hands. I can sit a little bit straight or something, but they’re really telling their story to me.
DL: I guess I’m just interested in how much like watching television and watching the media they are aware about being mediatized?
KB: But also there’s a difference between the second cast and the first cast because the first cast never saw themselves perform. The second cast came to see the show-
DL: That’s crazy. I guess that’s what happens when like replacement cast comes on for a regular theatrical event, but this is so much about-
KB: They saw the show a couple of times…
DL: -the human being who introduces themselves and then becomes the character. So the second cast then watches the first cast and has to figure out the human being and the character and they’re kids! Kids can learn- they’re incredible! They can learn so much! So they’ve actually seen the screen and the theatrical part where the first cast never did.
KB: Yeah because the first cast made the piece. The second cast we were- also it was a very different way for-
DL: This is so meta!
KB: Yeah! It’s like the first cast, yeah basically it was a selection of Milo that came out of the workshop with 100 kids or something like that for the second cast.
DL: And the first cast- sorry to interrupt- but they rehearsed for like six months. Yes? How long?
KB: I think we did the auditions in October 2015- September or October 2015, after summer and that was the moment that they immediately started working on it and we opened in May 2016. So, that’s quite a long period, of course, in combination with school, that was not like five or six or seven days a week. It was in weekends, during school holidays- it started off as a completely different thing. Really with this reenactment, and I think it was only like two or three months later like with having all those conversations with the children that this whole shift was made in dramaturgy and “Oh my God! This is going to become a completely different sort of play!” And then starting to work on that and then there was also the whole technical aspect maybe… it was a very intense rehearsal period, but stretched out over. I think it was a good thing, also that it was stretched out over such a long time because it provided time also for the children to learn how to act. This is also Milo saying like normally when he works with actors, or adult actors, he never is dealing with the aspect of how to act. He just lets them be free and be themselves onstage and it was really the first time he felt like he was a director. We had to direct something- more than just make the play, so that’s uh-
DL: That’s fascinating yeah.
HV: That’s true what you say because when we were making this, like I was involved in the movie that’s being projected several times and I found him quite easy to work with. So yeah, it’s okay that it more or less looked like what he had in mind. So he was not really like focused on “I want you to do it like this!” He was not difficult in that way, as you mention it, at all. It’s true. It was not his physical concern. He’d like to really, in a technical way, act against terribly or something.
KB: And that was like- to continue what I started explaining- for the second cast, that was a completely different audition. We didn’t need to- We were looking for almost like- it was typecasting! All of a sudden we were looking for a little kid that can play accordion which is a very different thing! The accordion became part of the show because Willem was an awesome accordion player and Pepijn was a piano player! So-
DL: That’s when it really gets formed into more normative theater. It’s a little bit crazy like the normative process of “We already have a piece! We have to find someone who looks and does the thing that the-”
KB: Yeah. Almost starting from lookalikes or like- Lisa. We really were looking for a girl that could sing and actually, there was a lot of the lessons that came on top of it to get better control of her voice than from with the second cast- or like…
HV: Or like Lucia being a colored girl… was very important… that we had it…
KB: And some cheating… because… maybe I shouldn’t tell…
DL: No! Please!
KB: Fons can’t play piano… so he’s just faking…
HV: You can cut it out…
KB: I shouldn’t have said that maybe…
HV: Nah it’s okay…
DL: No, but Pepijn could…
KB: Yeah yeah, Pepijn was a player, but we were looking for a piano player and Fons was so perfect because he really- in what he was doing that also for Milo, it was really important to have Fons there, but Fons couldn’t play piano-
DL: So, there’s more acting involved than there was in the first cast…
HV: Yeah, absolutely…
KB: That’s the whole meta level that came on top of the second cast because it’s not only like he’s pretending to play piano…
KB: But he’s also pretending to be the cousin of Pepijn who’s not really the cousin of Pepjin!
HV: All the personal stories or personal stories of cast one- there’s not one story that’s of that personally, so they had a completely different input of starting the play.
KB: That whole surgery question- that was really true at first. And yeah I mean a lot of people were asking like after like “Come on- did that really happen?” Of course now, with the second cast, it did…
DL: But it’s interesting to me. Like Jay Wegman said he was as touched by the second cast as he was by the first. And I keep thinking part of why I was so obsessed and touched with this too is the real connection between who the child is, how they act the piece itself, like all of those different elements. And even when it’s baked, it still has that same power to it too. So it kind of undoes like a theory that when the person is real and when the story is real there is more intimacy involved or more impact? It seems like faking it works as well.
KB: Yeah, although there are also like little details, real personal details of that second cast also became part of it. So it’s not only fake, there’s also like- real stuff in there.
HV: I also think like if a story is told in the right way, then you’re with the story, and if it’s real or not, is that one not so important? I think somebody can really take you in the story. That’s the essence of theatre. If you tell the story good enough, then people start wondering of course like is this true or is this not?
DL: Right, yeah right. I wanted to ask one question about- I don’t know who the new one is, but Polly’s monologue at the end about the puppets? But that monologue is so amazing to me because it’s the moment where you understand that all of the kids deeply considered what Dutroux did and the impact of what it would be to a child and then that monologue is all about the inability to just see the light, which is which is really beautiful. I mean it’s not about the torturer or anything like that, but it’s kind of an extraordinary monologue. Polly wrote that? Polly gave that story? Like how did that come about? And it really is like a key moment that allows you to understand the kids understand and they don’t exactly think the way that the adults do.
KB: I wasn’t in the rehearsal process all of the time, so I mean I guess I’m not the right person to answer but- I don’t know how much came from Polly in that monologue or not, but I think most of it came from Milo. So there was a lot of variety, but it’s not all of the material that came from the children. Big parts did, but also Milo’s writing.
HV: And talking about films- Like which movie do you like? Maybe the story of this, but I’m not too sure on how to answer this…
KB: I’m sorry- I wish- I don’t know how much…
DL: But it’s a really extraordinary monologue, yeah. And you also have to have it delivered by someone who skews younger in the cast too? Because the vulnerability attached to a child delivering it is also so extraordinary. I don’t know. I just yeah I love that monologue.
KB: Well it feels like you’ve seen the play so many times before!
DL: Well I wrote about it! So I watched the video too afterward – I guess reproduction in many different ways. Can you talk a little bit more about why Campo is so dedicated to having children work in adult pieces and working with these fearless celebrated directors? I mean it seems like a really brilliant-
KB: Yeah but something that has grown- I think they need to dig into- I don’t know, I need to explain the whole history of where we come from. Without going too much into detail because it would lead me too far. The Campo was like a sort of merger of two structures of one being Victoria and Newport Theatre. But Victoria was first- and now I’m already back in the seventies- a place called Theater Stekelebees- a children’s theatre! So basically the ultimate roots, historical roots of Campo are going back to the 70s, to the late seventies of Theater Stekelebees- a children’s theatre.
HV: Yeah I performed there when I was 12!
DL: You did?
HV: Yeah, my first steps in theatre I did a couple of plays at Stekelbees and then for 20 years nothing anymore…
KB: Then I think the next important step was, when it became late eighties, early nineties- it changed because of a different artistic direction. It stopped working for children’s audience, but somehow the children were taking into that story of making work that was meant for adult audience. But somehow that kept that history was taking along in there. That was a moment that Victoria was producing like the first works of Alain Platel and one of the first works he made there was called Mother and Child and that was like I need to have a child onstage if we gonna do like Mother and Child! And the story was that like six children showed up for the audition and then Alain couldn’t choose because he liked them all, so all six of the children ended up on stage which led then to commissions to Jerome Bel… so it led to this sort of- it has grown organically. But I have to say like the very first work, because it often had to do with the combination of adults and children on stage, the very first work that really like put it was this *** of ***? It never got to New York, but it had a tour around the United States that was like like Oh my God… 2003? 2004? Something like that. From that moment on ,because for such a huge success, it felt almost like it created a sort of awareness. Like let’s be careful that this doesn’t just become like a sort of formula because it would be very easy now. Just happen to produce a play every two years based on that formula. And every time invite another director! But we’re very aware of that. Every time we invite someone to do this, it needs to add something. There’s a necessity it needs artistically to add something that we don’t have to feel too excited to repeat ourselves. Because there’s so much also like in Europe. But there’s a lot of work now with with children on stage as well, so it’s almost feels like a sort of sub genre or yeah- does that make sense? So yeah artistic necessity is I think the key word there. At this moment we don’t have any plans for a new one and this is because-
HV: It’s a huge work as well. I don’t know so many theaters in Belgium. There’s a lot of theaters producing theater for children, but with children it’s a completely different kind of discipline where actually a lot of adults are involved to make this happen. Even to get this piece on tour, to get it here has been a huge piece of work, I think.
KB: And this is true what you mentioned earlier on in the conversation, like I don’t know if it has to do with a political context or in a way, I don’t know. I don’t dare to talk about the United States-
DL: We hardly, none of us feel comfortable talking about the United States anymore.
KB: But I know like with the cultural differences with the UK, it’s very clear that this work could never have been made in the UK. We have had many talks and debates and panel discussions about this with many different people, but that’s also the reason why for instance that when we commissioned Tim Etchells, we had to make sure that he was very happy to come over to Belgium to make it because there’s so many rules and that makes it almost impossible that sometimes-
DL: Was the piece As Night Follows Day the-?
KB: Yeah, that’s the one.
DL: Oh, I saw that in Abu Dhabi at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair. But I do have a question. It seems like Ghent and Belgium, like with Milo Rau coming there too, it seems like you’re willing to take on both provocative ways of presenting material and provocative material and deal with the schisms politically in Belgium, which I know a lot more about now because they’re doing that research. What’s happening? Why is that coming to fruition there at this moment? Do you have any idea? And theatre feels fine over there too…
KB: I don’t know if you you should talk about Ghent in this case or Flanders- open it up I guess it’s more about Flanders, not only Ghent, but also Antwerp, and even broader region or something…
KB: But why? It’s a question that has been asked many many times and I think no one really has an answer like- we’re a young country and we don’t have any theater history. We don’t have any Moliere to deal with or we don’t have any Shakespeare to deal with. So we all started-
HV: We have Maeterlinck, but that’s one of the few.
KB: But that’s not part of our like yeah, that’s never being performed, so here was like nothing! So we have to construct our- sort of own signature, our own history, and that basically started in the eighties. We have artists like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Jan Lauwers from Needcompany, or Fabre that sort of school. Alain Platel came in the nineties… and that’s the history. I don’t know.
HV: There’s a lot of talented guys over there on a very small space. There’s a lot of talents and even when you see people like Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker or dance world, people come from all over the world to do audition to- but why?
KB: But the fact that there’s not a history- I guess you could say that perhaps it created a big freedom or a big artistic freedom not having to deal with legacy or something like that or I don’t know. That’s one of the traditional answers to that question that we often hear coming back- I don’t know if that’s true or not I don’t know…
HV: It’s difficult…
DL: You also don’t have a hard time getting audiences for the work?
KB: No, not at all. I think that’s really amazing. And Ghent is a very small city yeah? It’s three hundred thousand people and like now-
DL: Oh I didn’t know that! I thought it was a little larger no?
KB: No, three hundred thousand people. And you have like the work that we do at Campo, there’s Vooruit- a very big arts center presenting art works and all of that… there’s now Milo Rau on top of the City Theatre, but that’s also the city that has like Alain Platel and his company are still there. Ontroerend Goed which is a young theater collective, well not anymore, but they’re also touring the world. It’s like there’s really a lot happening on that small sort of city and how? I don’t know.
HV: That’s why yeah.
KB: I don’t know.
HV: It’s just like this. Yeah, it brings a lot of talent together as well, I think.
KB: I mean, and this is also the context that Milo chose. It becomes an international context of course, because Milo is not- he’s a Swiss artist, but for him, while he had at that same time the opportunity- I mean he was producing his work through the International Institute of Political Murder, always going in partnerships with different producers and different houses. He was really looking for a place that he could have sort of his own place, but he chose Ghent, while he also had the opportunity to do that in Zurich in Switzerland where there was a lot more money and a lot bigger artistic budget. But still he chose to do it in Ghent because for him, the artistic context and what was possible was way more interesting for him and more inspiring than to go for the safe haven of Zurich.
DL: Can I ask you and you may or may not- I mean he put out that city manifesto too. Can you talk about that a little bit and what that means because it seems like it’s a shift in thinking, not just about the aesthetics of theater, but the deep political effects and it has real particular goals to it.
KB: Yeah and I don’t feel I’m the right person to talk about it. I know from me talking to Milo that for him it was very important to make this sort of statement exactly because for the reasons that you are saying. Theater needs to be more than just like political or have an impact… Or for that’s one of the the main goals, I think for him to make a sort of statement by it.
HV: Or making the message clear that something was really going to change, as well, that’s exactly what’s happening right now. You see what he’s now doing in City Theatre of Ghent with locals for instance, it’s like I think it’s still the same audience coming there, but there’s a lot of new audience coming in as well because he’s doing completely different things than there used to be.
DL: Well he’s also thinking about the location in the city, but the city very much as a transnational hub, because it’s even the way that Five Easy Pieces revises history to really think about these colonial relationships too. He’s really thinking about the impact of politics all over the globe and the way that it comes back to Ghent and then moves out as well, right? There’s a lot more circulation rather than just thinking about theatre in relationship to nationality like one particular kind of nationality.
HV: Yeah, absolutely. He’s quite good in that I think especially if you like look at Lam Gods, there he really managed to- There’s like children onstage as well, there’s a choir there singing songs of Walter de Buck, who’s really like a Ghent performer of folks- folk singer of Ghent who’s really connected with Ghent history. He’s really born and raised there and there’s a lot of elements that he brought from that really on a micro scale of that city to make a play that’s really big and can spread out its wings. But that’s some of his qualities that he’s bringing this very local things into a bigger context.
KB: A gigantic huge present for Ghent, was his opening piece when he did his first season and the Lam Gots, the Ghent Altarpiece, it’s a big well-known painting that you can find back in old history books, that all the people of Ghent are super proud of. And basically he started his opening with the reenactment or bringing the painting to life here and now and this was-
DL: I have to leave in just a moment, but I have one more question- How has the response of, you only played once here so far, but how was the response of an American audience different/the same than like when you’re in other places?
HV: Well, my opinion I can only judge by the moments that we were performing because I-
DL: You were onstage.
HV: But yes some time ago we went back to Amsterdam and we performed twice I think? For like five six hundred people it was really striking that people here were almost responding and I say, in an auditive way, almost responding as the same way as we were performing in the Netherlands- I’d the impression that they are a very trained audience with a lot of very used to quite some things because they got all the irony the little jokes, the- and sometimes they are responding differently as well, but I was quite amazed like it was very recognizable to me as far as during the play I was thinking like, “Yeah Is it going well? I have the impression it’s quite well!”
KB: Yeah, very attentive audience I mean it’s of course like we just only had one night and like a lot of people asking questions afterwards when really coming to congratulate us and it’s kind of good, but you only have like a little part of the audience, of course, so I don’t know yet, it’s hard to… let’s see what the New York Times will write…
HV: There were some laughs at very bizarre moments that we never encountered before and the children themselves were like “They never laugh here… why is that?” But sometimes it’s like comic relief you know? You have to laugh because you cannot keep up with the tension anymore and laugh comes out because of uneasiness, not necessarily because somebody finds it incredibly funny, so that helps to keep you going on as well…
DL: And I heard the kids are right now in Times Square shopping?
KB: Yeah, I think so, yes. For them it’s like New York is like- of course within the whole tour that they’re doing, New York was really of course like “Wow!” A top destination for them…
KB: Yeah absolutely! They were so much looking forward to coming here.
DL: They’re just still kids! Out of all of the places, I heard that they were going to Times Square and I just started laughing too. But I’m sure-
KB: For them it’s like “Oh my God!” Yeah!
DL: That’s what the US is. That’s what New York is.
KB: Yeah! It’s their first time here so yeah…
HV: Yeah this whole tour for them, I think, in their life, it will be an experience that they you know cherish forever probably.
KB: And some of them really toured the world as much as Five Easy Pieces and it’s kind of like amazing now if you meet- you run into those kids- actually they’re not kids anymore, actually, some of them are in their early 20s or mid-20s, but the time you hear them talk, how important this moment in their life was because it’s quite a big gap in their childhood years and if you think of it like starting from auditioning to rehearsing to doing the performing at 2:00 or 3:00 at the end of the day, you got like four or five years almost- that’s a child’s life! It’s a big impact.
DL: That’s a huge impact.