By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
No doubt about it: the star avant-garde Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed has an exquisite sense of timing. This week they bring to the Citadel’s new alternative Highwire series a show that throws this question at you, a paid-up member of a democracy: Why do you vote the way you do?
Fight Night, opening Thursday, hands you a clicker that gives you the power to eliminate one candidate after another as they appeal for your attention, your support, your love. How do you wield the power that democracy gives you? How do you make the choices you do? Fight Night is intrigued by that; the audience decides how it will end.
The last time Ontroerend Goed’s much-travelled interactive hit came to Canada — the Cultch in Vancouver and Mirvish Productions in Toronto — was in October of 2016. Yes, just before the fateful U.S. election that would defy the pollsters and reinforce the obsessive media-fuelled attraction to celebrity, no matter how grotesque.
The provocative company, two decades (and a lot of mispronunciations) old by now, gravitates to unsettling experiments in what theatre means to an audience and/or what an audience means to theatre. The Ontroerend Goed archive includes a controversial trio of one-on-one shows, including one in which one audience member at a time is blindfolded and carried around in a wheelchair (The Smile Off Your Face ) or seduced into a revealing a secret that is broadcast to the group later on (Internal). The third, A Game Of You, continues to tour.
“We chosen the worst name for an international touring company, I think,” laughs Alexander Devriendt, the amiable co-founder and the artistic director of Ontroerend Goed, on the phone from home base in Ghent. “It’s unpronounceable in any other language than Dutch. Even the Germans and the French can’t do it. And now it’s too late to change!” It won’t help you to toss off the name in conversation, but as Devriendt explains, Ontroerend Goed is a pun on “real estate” that gives it the nuance of “emotionally moving.” Just so you know the “t” in Ontroerend is the decisive factor.
“It doesn’t always feel like experimenting to me,” says Devriendt of a history of shows that have galvanized strong reactions on four continents. “It just feels like using what the black box of theatre makes possible.”
In the hands of Devriendt and his collaborators, Fight Night, like other shows in the company repertoire, seems to take on the colours of the zeitgeist, the Now, wherever it goes. Even though “I never change anything in the show, and avoid talking about specific social issues.…”
“Devriendt traces Fight Night, a 2014 collaboration with the Adelaide Festival, back to the time when “Belgium was without a government for 329 days” due to “the weird outcome of an election, and the difficulty of finding a new coalition….”
“I realized I was not very interested in democracy — left, right, they’re all the same I thought — and I suddenly thought how painful that is, considering it’s something so hugely important, something so many people fought for. So I wanted to make a show that questions why do I vote? what do I believe in?”
“For me, I’m more of a green socialist liberal on the political spectrum, I guess ” he says. “I lean toward that … no matter what (the candidates) really said…. But what if there was no specific politics?” He pauses to come up with a Canadian example. “What if Trudeau wasn’t left or right, would you still vote for him, for instance?”
“The polarizing nature of politics,” especially in America, means that a voter’s identity as Republican or Democrat seldom changes, even if conditions change. “A lot of people realize by now they don’t want to defend Trump, but they keep saying they’re Republican.”
“Fight Night is like that. If I take that (label) away, what do I believe in?”
“The Greens won in my city. But only rich people voted for them,” he says of Ghent. “That’s completely wrong, I think. I don’t want Green to be a privilege.…” He laughs and sighs, thinking of his own voting habits. “I always voted for this guy. Until Fight Night I never looked into what his program really was. Do I really believe what he was defending? I mean, he was completely opposite of me; he was even a bit Catholic and I was, like, an atheist. Wow, my vote was just a feeling, detached from reality.”
From the start Ontroerend Goed seemed to have a natural aptitude for rattling their audiences. Devriendt and his cohorts weren’t so-called ‘theatre people’; “I never wanted to be an actor,” he says. And the only directing schools around were “really text-based and classical. And I always found that wasn’t my trade.… We were at university studying Dutch and English literature. And we started a poetry performance group…. We experimented with that and kinda of rolled into theatre.”
Their first show — “well, the first one where people came to us afterward and said ‘whoa, that was interesting!” — was Porror, an amalgam of “poetry, porn, and horror” that played night clubs and jazz bars. “Outrageous!” declares Devriendt. “A really weird onstage performance….” They didn’t realize they were theatre “until they got invited to a theatre festival and won a prize.”
“It gives you freedom to ride,” says Devriendt of his younger self and this oblique entry point into theatre. “We never had to position ourselves to an older generation. We just did what we wanted without looking forward or backward, just looking at Now. And it helped us redefine theatre a little bit…”
“When photography (came along) painting had to redefine itself. When film and TV came, theatre should have done that. But, of course, there will always be nostalgia from the people who like portraits and painting.”
“The question for me,” says Devriendt, is “what does theatre have that no other medium can do better?” His view, a left hook to acting school truisms, is that belief in the real-ness of characters onstage “isn’t theatre’s strength.” Why? “You always realize there’s an actor there.”
“If you watch Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet, he will pretend to be a prince from Denmark with suicidal tendencies. And the best compliment will always be ‘look how good he did that!’.” Devriendt finds that reaction unsatisfying, “a part of theatre I don’t want to go for….”
While Fight Night is getting Citadel audiences to ask themselves questions about democracy and voting, Devriendt will be in Adelaide with an Ontroerend Goed show called Lies, spelled £¥€$. “We invite you to sit around a table and play the 1 per cent,” says DeVriendt, who was motivated by the realization that “I didn’t understand anything about the financial world; I didn’t have a clue!” The idea is to create, on the spot, a financial system: seven people around a ‘croupier’ who’s an actor. Though the latter is following a rigorously structured script, “people don’t realize this person is acting.”
The company’s current repertoire is five shows strong. “We stop touring a show when it doesn’t feel relevant any more, or when another show is stronger in that ballpark,” says Devriendt. They were at this past summer’s Edinburgh Fringe with a show about climate change, its title a long palindrome: Are We Not Drawn Onward To A New Era?. The company is working on a new show in which “we try to defend the right.” He laughs, “we try to dive into the enemy mind,” as he puts it, “of Trump and Brexit people.”
With Fight Night, which has been touring internationally for four years, “we will never know which candidate will make it to the end; we don’t control that.” But the overall structure, which leads to a referendum, is constant.
Devriendt was struck at first by “the differences between countries,” then for the last couple of years “by the things that feel the same, bigger than the differences.”
At one point, the audience will be asked “are you a little bit racist? a little bit sexist? a little bit violent? Or are you none of the above?” Overwhelmingly world-wide, “none of the above” prevails. “I tend to not believe this,” says Devriendt drily. The exception is Australia. “A little bit racist” is invariably the answer of choice.
Fight Night has an uncanny knack for adapting perfectly to local conditions. The show uses a snippet of text from an old Ronald Reagan ad about a bear in the woods. “If there’s a bear wouldn’t it be smart to be as strong as the bear?” Says Devriendt, “the funny thing is that everywhere we play the bear means something different…. In Hong Kong, it’s China. In Russia, Putin. In France, terrorism….”
Devriendt often gets asked ‘how did you do it, being so in tune?” He says “I didn’t really do anything. I just keep it open.”
Citadel Highwire Series
Theatre: Ontroerend Goed
Written by: Ontroerend Goed
Directed by: Alexander Devriendt
Where: Citadel Maclab Theatre
Running: Thursday through Oct. 27
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com