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Lotte van den Berg | rehearsalmatters.org

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Lotte van den Berg

Director

Interview: Deborah Vlaeymans
Dordrecht , January 2009

How did you start working with theatre?

I am born into the world of the theatre. My dad was an actor and puppeteer, although he didn't want to be called one. He came out from behind the puppet box with the puppets on his hands and did shows on his own. We travelled around during summertime. You could say that I was a kind of gipsy daughter. At least we pretended to be like that, living in a wagon. When I was around 4 or 5 years old he began performing more in big theatres and buildings. At first in the Netherlands and Belgium and later throughout the whole world.

That happened when I was a child and I was closely involved in these activities for a long time. At home he had a theatre and work place in his garden shed. A lot of people came to visit us. During my life I never had any moment where I thought, “Oh, I want to do theatre too".

Actually, what I tried to do was not to do it. At the age of 15 or 16, I thought about what I wanted to do after school and at first I decided not to do theatre. I expected that I would never be as good as my father anyway. That would frustrate me a lot and I really didn't want to copy him or compare myself to him all the time. So I started doing other studies. But - the blood in your veins will always find its way around – soon I changed to theatre studies. When I was 21 I applied for a theatre director education programme, because I knew that I didn’t want to be an actress. I like to take the lead. For me that is one of the best things about making theatre. It is a social process. You do it together. You are always busy inspiring each other and motivating each other. I like to start things, to make the first move and bring people together.

I have done some acting, but I consider myself rather an annoying opponent since I'm continuously occupied with the whole thing. Not really in it. I am somebody who is also a spectator at the same time. I take a step back and I observe and watch. I name.

Let’s talk about how you start to create. How do you get an idea and make it happen?

For me it starts exactly with questions like that: How does an idea arise, what am I inspired by, what do I start working with, and how do I start working? They all concern artistic choices. You don't make those choices when you are inside the rehearsal room or studio. You make them before. Who will you work for, with whom, where will you present the piece? These questions may sound very organisational, but to me they address artistic issues. I start by asking the question you just asked me.

And how do you start your work? Do you have a particular method or are there any recurrent phases in your work process?

That is a lot of questions. First of all, I don't have a method yet or I try always to push myself to find new ways of working and developing my work. It depends on my own energy in relation to the people I’m working with. 4 weeks ago I just started a new ensemble here in Dordrecht. It can still become anything. At this moment I'm developing my own methodology. I want to name it while I’m working on it. I don't feel that I need to know my method beforehand, and afterwards put it into practice.

Up till now I have made many performances that were developed from an idea, a fascination, or a question. I've also created performances that were the result of books I had read. For example the performance Braakland which is based on a book written by Coetzee. All the actors and the other people I worked with read the 3 books. Then we asked ourselves, what happens in the moment when a human being chooses a vulnerable position when confronted with violence. What happens in the moment when you decide not to defend yourself against violence or death? When you accept your own mortality and the mortality of the others? These questions result in a desperate world view where life doesn't seem important, or where it is not necessary to defend yourself. I was also inspired by certain scenes that Coetzee wrote, although I don't feel that I am presenting his book or his story in every detail. I let myself be inspired by the story. It has never happened that I did a project where I knew beforehand the images that I wanted to see. Instead I create starting points, almost like research questions.

I created the performance Gerucht two summers ago for Toneelhuis [Belgium]. I wanted it to deal with the hectic life of a city. With the multiplicity of impressions that a city creates. People often talk about this issue: that there is too much information, too many stressful impulses to deal with. I wondered if that is because of the surroundings or because of the way in which you deal with it. I decided to make a sound proof space 10 x 10 meters, 4 meters high, with a small tribune in it for 70 people, and a wall of glass. Through the wall you could look outside but you couldn't hear anything. We placed the box in the centre of different cities. For example at the bus station or in a busy square. There were 4 actors outside with microphones attached. I created this because I wanted to do something where people were placed in a busy environment, faced with a lot of impressions, and other people in motion. How do you cope with it? Can you become conscious of the way you are reacting to it? I disconnected the sound from the image. While the performance was going on, as a spectator you would notice that you are continuously manipulating and interpreting. That there is not one image of the outside world, that it depends on your wish to see certain things. What you wish for you will see. It depends on the information you get, the sounds you hear, how you look at the images.

This example shows that my work process doesn’t start with a fixed idea or with a particular image I have beforehand. It is rather based on a dynamic, urgent, and personal question.

As for my current work, there are various directions in which it may go...

One desire I have is to create a movement that comes less from my own "internal" being. To leave the very personal questions I have inside me and look outside instead, to see what approaches me. I want to create situations for myself where things can approach me and where I can react on them. I've done this before, but now I want to be more extreme. You bring yourself in situations that are confusing and raise questions. This will demand that you deal with it, let yourself be inspired by it. In a way it is about getting back to earth and being in direct contact with things, the substance and the people. And not relying on abstractions, other’s opinions and images.

With my new house and working space here in Dordrecht I also decided I would like to invite people to come and work here. I've already asked a couple of young actors, theatre makers, artists, and film makers to come and work here and to do their own projects. I want to give other people possibilities and a space to work in, and let all this influence my work. I’m interested in people's different reactions to the same thing. When you are looking at the same situation with 5 other people, everybody does something different with it. To see all these different stories alongside each other is very interesting to me. That movement feels somehow less cramped because we are not sayning, "THIS is the performance we will make”. I used to work a lot with improvisation exercises with the actors in the studio during the 6 to 8 rehearsal weeks. Now I feel that I'm doing an improvisation exercise with the whole company and with many more people. The different projects are presented alongside each other. Together they mean something.

Could you tell us a bit more about how you developed your work in your former work process?

I worked a lot outside - not in a studio. At school I did some site-specific projects that were documentary in style: a neighbour telling a story that I wrote down and then we played that story. Now, I let myself be inspired by a surrounding and less by a story. For example, I worked in a prison. I made a performance in the prison of Antwerp with 7 prisoners. I worked for 2 months, 3 hours a day in the prison. The 7 prisoners were not always all present, because then one had to go see the judge, another one had a punishment, or another one is outside taking a walk... Working there meant being sharp all the time because they had no idea what theatre was all about and didn’t see the importance of it. I liked that. It was not self-evident at all to create theatre in there.

When I started working with them I told them from the start that I didn't know what it would turn out to be. I had no idea what it would be about or what the story would be. I told them that we would do a kind of research for the first 3 weeks. They talked a lot and we did exercises with playing games. They wrote texts and made drawings on paper. In all kinds of ways we collected material. It was also important for me to experience the surroundings. Every day entering through this door with beeps and handing over my passport. All that rumble. And the cards... Experiencing for myself the hierarchy and the isolation that they are living in.

I'm fond of this open attitude with which I entered the project. I'm still inspired by it right now. Working in this immensely large building with all sorts of possibilities, located in the middle of a provincial town, "Dordrecht". I still say to everybody, “I don't know yet what it will be about”. That is for me the important thing. That you take your time to start and see where you are. Who is standing around you? What sort of city is it? What is it that you want to say about it?

What is your deadline? Are you expected to produce something for example by spring?

Yes, around summer time I should have a result. But above all it is written in my plans that I have ultimate freedom. To be able to create a real meeting or contact with somebody, you need absolute openness and you need time. From the moment you run ahead and start knowing what you need to know from somebody you don't know yet, what happens then? Is it possible to work without this deadline and all those images that are supposed to be there?

Is this comparable with your earlier creations? Or is this something completely new?

No, it is comparable with my earlier work but now it is on a larger scale. At the moment I am also expected to take part in the whole organization, in the technique, the production and all that. To be as open and flexible as possible in relation to what will happen. That way you can make theatre less heavy and more changeable.

For example, I am not the sort of person that prepares for rehearsals. I don't do that. I don't know... I don't feel the need for that. Things happen and then I react to what I see. I trust the energy that is in me. The concentration with which one can watch. If I already start by watching for what I would like to see - then I'm not watching. It is the most important thing in directing theatre that you watch and that you don't see what you want to see.

What do you say or do on the very first day when you meet the group or the performers? 

Well, I never ask people, "Do you want to be in my performance"? I have asked people if they could do their own projects, here in this city. I've said that there is a possibility that we will make something together or that I will do a big performance where he or she can be involved. But it is not certain. So actually, I've also asked all the performers involved in the house to accept this extremely open process. Some people get nervous and feel challenged by that. I've asked the people where I felt that it was right. People who said that they would like to do that.

Besides accepting the openness of the process, what is in your view essential for this sort of creation process to succeed? Or, what is essential in a creation process?

To be honest, I don't know that yet. What is important for me right now is that things start to move and keep on moving. That you experience something and that you react to it, just as it is the case in a rehearsal process. You put something on the table, a sketch or a story, and people react to it. Through the movements they make or the dramatic scenes they create. That is important from the start. That energy is generated.  It is a motion that is kind of like a drop of oil. It spreads.

That one action generates the next action. That you experience something and you start looking for ways in which you can tell this to others, to an audience. It doesn't necessarily have to be theatre. Not that I don't like theatre or don't value its importance. But I think there are also other ways. Because not every feeling or every experience demands the same shape. The motion that we initiate here in Dordrecht should be something that leads to further projects. I'm really trying hard not to think from one project to the next project. I hope that the things we do now will make the next movements necessary. And also make them possible. So that you let your next projects arise out of what is happening now.

But of course in theatre business you need to plan ahead. I try to go against this. This goes for partnerships, the programming, and the performers or the people that I work with. First of all I want to agree on working with a "carte blanche" based on trust. It is a reaction towards our time where one has to deal with subsidies and their conditions. It is always about a specific format. People really have a need to name all things, and to name them according to the result. "What will it become, what is it about, what will it mean"? Maybe it is a sort of absolute fear of unclarity.

I think art should challenge people and let them be confused. Art should challenge them to get lost and not to know, or letting the "not to know" exist. I think you can demand this of your audience. If you work within a well defined format and you tell about the not knowing and getting lost from within a very clear frame it is rather hypocritical.

I appreciate the not knowing. Actually there is no other way. It will always happen during the creation process. I experience it all the time. I was going to make a performance about touch, the unconditional need for physical touch. Just before we started rehearsing my relationship with my partner ended. Just when I thought I really wanted to create something about this theme, I absolutely didn't want to create something about it. On the other hand, it really  pinpoints it. The theme you deal with catches up with you. I think it is very complicated, but also very healthy. It should make the project a success.

I gave my new project the name: “Getting lost mapped”. We will map the “getting lost”, even though it is not really possible. I really do hope that we get lost; that we bring ourselves in situations where we really don't know. I hope it will be an inspiration.

Can you imagine an ideal rehearsal process? What would that be like?

Well, I think it is happening right now - possibly because I'm starting up here in Dordrecht.

I'm sitting here in the kitchen, believing in this utopia. A year from now it will probably look different. But because of this, I let myself be pushed forward in a way. I don't think it is the ideal creation process for everybody. But to me, right at this moment, to have this house with all the space, all the possibilities, not only working alone but giving others the chance to work here too – is all very important to me.

On the other hand, I believe that an ideal creation process is far from ideal. That it is not very well shaped and not delivered within perfect surroundings. As I said before, nothing was ideal about working in the prison – and that made it precisely ideal to me. That you don't have the perfect conditions, but that you are continuously dealing with situations. That you need to react all the time to what is approaching; circumstances that confuse you and urge you to take a step further. Something you would never have come up with yourself and probably never would have wished for either. But it gives you new impulses. When you are reacting more than creating. I associate such a process with something more public, that these impulses comes from outside. I find it hard to imagine it happening in a black box. But of course it is possible. It could happen. Still I associate it with a process where creating means being influenced by the real world around you.

Which is also one of the reasons why I choose for my performances to take place outside. In one way they are very detailed and outlined, but still birds will fly over it anyway. Or there is a tree moving back and forth. That is very important to me. The performance should be enclosed by the world, an environment that gives a rhythm and a movement. No matter how small it is. People could pass by, the noise of the highway far off, something that is continuously present and doesn't stop for as long as the performance is happening.

Do you have an idea that you would like to try out if anything was possible, no limitations what so ever?

Yes, again it has to do with my activities right now. But there are all kinds of physical limitations here, also financial limitations. Even though we've received money, we always need more.

First of all, the days should be longer. Right now the restriction here is that it's already getting dark again. I should have my own time. Also, I think it is very important that I'm closely involved in the organization. Involved in questions like: Where will we put this table, and what to do with this desk? How will we divide the rooms? What to do with the floors? These are really important questions. At the same time you want to be involved in the projects, and the people creating material. You want to look at them and give them your full attention. You can't do this all at the same time.

What I want to do and what I will do is not only working here in Dordrecht, but going abroad. The first year we will work locally in this little city in the Netherlands. We do this very consciously. Next year we will go on a long journey, probably to Africa with a group of people, around 12 to 15 people for 6 months. We will work there according to the same principles and do presentations. Afterwards we will return to Dordrecht with these projects. I'm trying right now to get a sort of “carte blanche” from different organizations and theatres in the Netherlands.

It means for example that they will reserve the theatre for us for one week or 10 days without knowing what we will present. I hope to meet this openness from my actors, from the organizations I work for, programme managers, and from the audience.  That together we take this risk and carry this risk. Openness not only as the theme of the performance, but also  as a definition of my work process.

We look openly at things and don't immediately start by our own presumptions. To have faith and let things approach you.

The result could be 10 small performances or it could be one big performance. Maybe a dance performance using a book. The problem is that as soon as you start programming and you know beforehand that it must be a 1½ hour performance for a theatre with 400 seats, then you have limited yourself again. We haven’t figured that out yet and it is not certain where it will take us. We will experience it during the process. It will be a real experiment.