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Olympique Dramatique keeps the focus on the actor

“Acting is a political activity in itself”

With seventeen years under their belts and at least five more years lying ahead, the two Olympique Dramatique stalwarts undeniably are established names within Toneelhuis. Although Stijn Van Opstal’s beard is considerably greyer than in 2006, Van Opstal and his comrade Tom Dewispelaere are still what they have always been: actors through and through.

The liaison between Olympique Dramatique and Toneelhuis is still going strong. What’s the secret of your relationship?

Tom Dewispelaere: “I think we simply make a good match (laughs). By the way, I was here before 2006; director Luk Perceval asked me to join the ensemble a few years earlier. So my heart was already here, but when Guy Cassiers took over in 2006, he asked the whole collective [which also included Ben Segers and Geert Van Rampelberg at the time] to join Toneelhuis. Which made sense, seeing as Olympique Dramatique likes to tell big stories with the largest possible group of actors, and for as many people as possible. The fact that Toneelhuis is a municipal theatre and consequently reaches out to the entire city is entirely in line with what we have in mind.”

For many of your colleagues, the size of the Bourla Theatre also plays a role: the presence of a set workshop, the possibility of having large sets. But does an actors’ collective need anything more than its actors?

Van Opstal: “No, although in retrospect I do notice that we have grown towards this ‘big’ place in terms of scenography and in our way of thinking. When we were invited here, it wasn’t because our work was necessarily tailored to the large stage. But by starting to work here, our thinking in terms of the space automatically got bigger. In an inspiring TED talk, composer David Byrne explains very clearly how, throughout history, music always takes on the form of the spaces in which it is composed. The same goes for theatre.”

When Olympique Dramatique started, the actor was the central focus. Has anything about that basic principle changed?

Dewispelaere: “No. I still believe that the performance of the actor is the most powerful and moving gesture that can be made with theatre.”

Van Opstal: “The subjects we work with have changed, of course, because we have changed as people. But our love of the actor has only increased.”

There seems to be a red thread that keeps running through the kind of stories you tell. How would you define that undercurrent?

Van Opstal: “With Olympique, it’s often about the seeking, fumbling human being and the grey zones that lie within each of us. About the margins of error and the blind spots. Those kinds of stories often come up. About the discrepancy between who we would like to be and who we actually are.”

How do you choose the plays or texts that you perform?

Dewispelaere: “There are different possibilities. Sometimes it’s simply a personal longing, as in the case of Onvoltooid verleden – I was itching to adapt that novel by Hugo Claus with Jan Decleir at some point. With Angels in America, there were personal motives as well. Apart from that, for a very long time we had been wanting to do Wachten op Godot (Waiting for Godot) – to climb that mountain once in our lives, take on that battle with the text. Over the years, this play had been on the table three or four times, and we had set it aside each time – until two years ago, when it suddenly was right.”

Van Opstal: “The fact that it suddenly felt right to do Godot also says something about the urgency of the play’s subject matter. Times change, you change, and suddenly everything falls into place – suddenly Wachten op Godot is urgent, necessary, on the agenda. The right play at the right moment in time and also in your own life.”

Dewispelaere: “Godot is about waiting, about time that is passing by and how you spend that time in a world which seems to be coming to an end. What’s more, it’s about the search for friendship and solidarity in such a crisis. For me, that’s very much the story of today.”

In your work, there need not be any contradiction between ‘the here and now’ – standing with both feet in society – and the choice of classical repertoire.

Dewispelaere: “Absolutely not. ‘The here and now’ is in the actor himself, in his body, not in his subject matter. That’s why it is so refreshing for us to be working with young actors at the moment, as we will be doing in our next production, Ibsen’s Vijand van het Volk (Enemy of the People). I am currently working on the script with Joeri Happel and Lucie Plasschaert, young actors in whom I definitely recognise many of the Olympique qualities – the love of acting, the focus on the actor – but who also automatically are pioneers of a new era. We can learn an incredible amount from them – which is not to say that we can’t learn from an older generation of actors, of course.”

Van Opstal: “In fact, acting in itself is always in ‘the here and now’ – a political activity, if you will. Someone steps onto a stage, appropriates that stage, takes the liberty of telling something that moves him. In recent years, the importance of that activity may have seemed to be somewhat overshadowed by the kind of theatre in which form or scenography are more important – and that’s all well and good, but now I see that acting is really coming back.”

How are you working with Ibsen’s Enemy of the People? The environmental issues in the play usually demand quite a lot of attention.

Van Opstal: “Certainly. Those hundred-year-old environmental issues are painfully recognizable. But that’s mainly just the framework. In essence, it is about a loner or dissenter who finds himself alone with his or her truth and about the price he or she is willing to pay for that truth. Determination, courage, hubris, the power of the masses, those kinds of themes. But indeed, one of those soil contamination scandals presents itself. Apparently people haven’t taken a very big step forward in that respect either.”

Dewispelaere: “It’s also just insanely good acting material, with brilliant dialogues and extraordinary characters.”

Van Opstal: “Enemy of the People has been performed at crucial points in history several times. There was Nora Amin’s adaptation, for example, which clandestinely kept on playing during the Arab Spring in Egypt. The play can be read differently in different political contexts. And that’s quite unusual for a comedy. Or for a play that we find extremely funny.”

Dewispelaere: “We discovered that Ibsen can be delightfully witty. And I think our show will be humorous too. To a certain extent, of course.” (laughs)

interview by Evelyne Coussens

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