What do you think is so good about each other?
Günther: Now that they’re sitting right here, I'm going to exaggerate, aren't I? (Laughs.) If I'm not mistaken, I’ve seen all of Olympique’s productions. What I like so much about their shows is that they exude such tremendous energy. Their pleasure in performing, their quirky imagination and the way they deal with text material appeals to me very much. When you watch a performance by Olympique, you can see that it's one big camaraderie and that’s reflected in what they do on stage. That's something I myself really like. Nothing’s better than creating a piece with friends, something you all stand behind. Sometimes you have to plug away and fight to get your meaning and likings across, but once you're on stage, you know you’re pulling in the same direction.
Geert: I recognize the things that Günther is saying, and I think the same about Lazarus. I especially appreciate their huge daring in tackling and using material.
Can you learn something from each other?
Geert: No! (Everybody bursts out laughing.)
Günther: Of course! Although we agree on a lot, we’ll discover where we differ as we go along. That's the exciting thing about this collaboration. I'm convinced we can pick up a thing or two from those differences.
What’s the most important phase in the preparatory process?
Stijn: There are two different periods in a process like this. Making and performing. In the first period, you bring your lives and your worldviews together and you come up with a lot of material. Rehearsing is fantastic, but it’s work. Whereas performing generally turns out to be a great gift. You go on the road for another two months with the same people and the same material and by then it has usually turned into a big playground. (Laughs.) Maybe that’s a little childish, but often it is really playtime.
Geert: I especially like the first weeks in a rehearsal process. Everything is still open and you can come up with the wildest ideas, because you don't have to get to the essence yet. You’re constantly stimulated. With Olympique, we know what's in each other's bookcases. After a few years of working together, you know the material that people are going to come up with. Well, I don't know what Günther, Joris and Ryszard have yet, so those will be new impulses.
Joris: We call those first weeks ‘permanent education’. Satisfying your curiosity by reading plays and seeing films together is a very fine part of the process. Constantly learning new things and finding new sources.
Günther: Right. Looking for a story you want to tell together is an element not to be underestimated. You are bitten by a theme or an event, and together you make a play around it. That play is the sum total of all the imaginations sitting around the table. We all want to tell something.
Ryszard: The story’s indeed important. When I was young, for a long time I didn't read anything unless it was required literature for school. At that age, I was disappointed in two things: rock 'n roll and literature. Both pretended that being in love is the greatest adventure you can have as a person. I don't believe that. I've known people who lived for the stock market or collectors who would rather save postage stamps than go to the cinema with a girl. Someone who has a passion should not have a passion for another person.
Stijn: I think I understand Ryszard. I had a similar disillusionment when I read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. I was 18 and was really upset by that book. The grand adventure, the passionate, unrequited love. It seemed so narrow to me, such a romanticized, insipid decoction. The young Werther claims that life is meaningless without the love of his Lotte and he hangs himself from a tree because his irrepressible love remains unanswered. That sort of romantic twaddle is actually an insult to living a full life. And by extension to all postage stamp collectors and passionate butterfly catchers.
Do you seek external advice when the production is more or less ready?
Geert: Absolutely. When you've been in a such process for a long time, it's good to invite a closely involved friend or somebody we trust who has a fresh eye in order to hear their opinion. The feedback can be positive or negative, and we take it into account when going further. You need that.
HUMOR AS LENS
You are known for your good timing. Can you explain why your humour seems so organic?
Günther: As far as humour is concerned, we intuitively speak the same language. We have the same sort of fantasy. Humour is very broad, you know. What other people laugh at, we might not laugh at, and vice versa. It's difficult to describe our kind of humour, although its on the dark side, in any case.
Joris: Our attitude to life is reflected in the pieces we make. We often have a tragicomic view of things and recognize that in each other. It comes out in an unconscious, organic manner, the way you read texts and how you stage them. We just accept that without thinking about it.
Günther: This spring, Olympique played Van de Velde. That also had humour and lightness, but that didn't negate the tragedy. I think that's something we all watch out for. Depending upon the show or theme we choose, we decide how much humour to put into it. You can't compare Van de Velde with the Ionesco they made a few years ago. That’s a totally different kind of production. I also like the tragicomic aspect very much. Thanks to Joris, I've come to know this terrific series, Breaking Bad. The pitch line is very sad; it's about a man who is going to die. But the consequences of his decisions throw him into a predicament that is super funny.
Stijn: For my part, that series doesn't particularly make me laugh. The humour is simply what allows me to be touched by it. It’s more that I'm fascinated by what I see than having to laugh about it. On the other hand, I can screech like a little kid at the video bloopers in which people fall or trip. That's almost embarrassing, in fact! I also feel very caught out when I look at such things and have to laugh so uncontrollably.
Ryszard: I’ve lived long enough to study that tragicomic feeling. A good example is the story of Job. You see, I'm convinced that they added that last sentence [that Job gets back his possessions twice over – ed.] to the parable in order to make a happy ending out of it, but that the appendix is actually very sad and he keeps sitting on that pile of shit. The idea that the world is rotten and humour is your only defence is something I find very interesting. That's why I find Laurel and Hardy very funny, for instance. They are victims of bad luck.
Geert: Sometimes you discover humour in a written text that's already there and you immediately fall for it. But with a play like Titus Andronicus you suddenly have to show horror. If you show Titus in all of its horror, it won't work; but if you present it humorously, you still have the feeling of horror the whole time, and it simply works better. Everyone recognizes that; giggling at emotional moments in certain situations, like bursting out laughing at a funeral. We look for things like that.
Almost all of you are fathers. How does that influence your work?
Stijn: Most of all, the hours have changed. You used to come in sometime in the early afternoon and then it would go on till late at night. Now a good part of the day is already arranged by 8:30 in the morning. So in principle you can start rehearsing at 9, but depending upon the organization on the home front, you have to be back at the school gate at 3:30. Now that I have kids, I realize that the real work goes on at home. At home, the responsibilities are much greater. You used to go to work and that was the important thing. Relaxing was something you did outside of work. Now it's almost got to the point where you go to work to relax. There, you've got the time all to yourself. Only now relaxing is not just playing football or catching butterflies, but also making theatre.
Joris: ‘Relaxing’ is maybe not the right word. It's not literally sitting in an armchair and doing nothing, but being busy with something you really like to do. You've got the freedom to read things and carry on conversations. That kind of work doesn't feel like an obligation.
Stijn: Hmmmmm, I'm very ambitious in relaxing. With all of my senses and my whole mind.
Geert: A couple of weeks before the premiere, though, that relaxation is over! Then it's real work.
Both companies are intrigued by art. If you were sculptors or painters, what work would you make together?
Günther: It would be a work by Panamarenko.
Geert: Or ‘action painting’, like Jackson Pollock. Gosh, you'd get something very diverse. Even with my other three companions in Olympique, I already notice how different our sensibility about art is.
Ryszard: When the American artist Robert Rauschenberg was young, he went to the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning and asked him if he would make a drawing that Rauschenberg could then erase. The work is called Erased de Kooning and has had a lot of influence on how we look at art and at conceptual art, in which the idea is central. I think a concept like that is super. You make a destruction of the artwork and yet you can see the painting. That's the way I look at plays, too. I think it's a fine idea not to be in the service of authors; I want to adapt a novel in my own way. Not being humble is exciting.
Günther: Ryszard is also a fan of Marcel Duchamp, and I can see a parallel there. Duchamp takes an object, turns it around and makes something out of it in his own way. That recalcitrance and rebelliousness certainly appeals to us.
Ryszard: In the 1970s, people went to the woods, took a branch, smeared some lacquer on that branch and hung it on the wall or stuck it on the piano. That follows postmodern thinking, in which the artist takes what he thinks is beautiful and turns it into an artwork, and not the school he belongs to. Somebody today who goes into a shop looking for a beautiful lampshade does exactly the same thing. There’s a certain logic to it, but it’s not art. I don't believe the buyers of a lampshade. I do believe Duchamp. He dared to compete with God and made his own universe. If John Cage sits at the piano without playing, and that interval last seven minutes, I believe he could play because the potential is there. But if somebody who can't play sits there, you don't believe it.
Do you have certain rituals?
Ryszard: The last few weeks, drinking cognac. (Laughs.)
Stijn: Lazarus is doing the show Wat is drinken (What is Drinking). Seems to me that’s a dramaturgically responsible thing to do. A play that’s still on the table is The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman. It does have a very intriguing premise: For what purpose would you sacrifice your life? You undoubtedly have already thought about this. Out with it....
Ryszard: Life is sacred. It's a miracle of biology. And you have to try to pass that miracle on. You have to pass life on. If we didn't do that and it disappeared, it might never come about again. That's why primitive religions already said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ A more interesting question is: For how much money would you kill somebody? Those two questions are somehow related. In the one story there’s the ideals, and in the other, the sums of money.
Stijn: I'm afraid that there's nothing more than life itself for me, actually.
Günther: For my children, I think. … (long pause)… And for Olympique too! (Everybody laughs.)
Interview by Barbara Dzikanowice