The reason I’m here is that in ‘de Snijtafel’ you propose a certain vision on art, on culture. In the framework of Contextual Practices, I was curious to hear your ideas about the role of theater. You started out as theater practitioners…
Kasper C. Jansen: I wouldn’t call myself that anymore.
But you both graduated from the theater school, so you are linked with theater…
Michiel Lieuwma: Honestly, I’m also planning my escape…
M: Is the question why we don’t call ourselves theater practitioners?
No, the question is why are you planning your escape as you just said? Actually, I was wondering if you, as ‘De snijtafel’, think theater is relevant nowadays, or not.
M: I would like to answer that straight away.
I think the relevancy of theatre is overrated, but I do think that theatre is a beautiful form to work in. The reason why I’m a bit disappointed in the theatre field has to do with the subsidy system. Without subsidy, it is very difficult to make anything. To get subsidies, you will have to accept the conditions the ministry dictates, and everybody will be using their elbows to get hold of the money. You will need to exaggerate your characteristics, your features, distinguish yourself from the rest. You write these things in the subsidy request, before any concrete work has been done. All those plans are read, some are acknowledged, some are rejected. Then people start really believing all these things they wrote down: “I am like this! I am like that!” So once we see the theatre performances, we see a distortion of what it could have been. In a nutshell, this is what I reproach the theatre field. Since Halbe Zijlstra cut 40% of the funding in this field, this game has aggravated dramatically. But now I will answer your question.
In essence theater is a very beautiful art form, because it is one of the few art forms that uses the here and now. When you’re witnessing theatre, and something really good is taking place, it can become magical because of this, like a good pop concert. But if you say ‘relevant’, this word annoys me, “we are relevant!” they tell the ministry just to get that fucking subsidy. It’s not relevant. It can be beautiful, if well done, and that’s that.
K: My position is a bit different. I studied at the theater school because there, I could learn to become a writer, even though it meant writing for performance. So my connection with theatre is not as strong as Michiel’s. I always considered theatre an art form among others. It has never really worried me that theatre might be in a tight spot, maybe because I thought it had already served its purpose. I do agree however with Michiel’s criticism on the subsidy system. I can see that the requirements theatre practitioners have to fulfill for the subsidies are hindering them in making really good performances. They have to meet standards based on the idea that theatre should be socially relevant, or that certain political expectations are catered to. In this way you get, without daring to say it out loud, State Theatre that reflects a State Ideology. Of course officially it is not named as such, but indirectly it is this, so there is no real freedom. If you don’t want subsidy, you have to work commercially. Then you get musicals and stuff like that. But of course these shows are unimportant as well, but in a different way.
M: That’s right. In the musicals you see well rehearsed professional dances, every time more of the same, and in the subsidized theatre you see so-called variations, every time something different, but actually, ideologically speaking I see more similarity between these two, than differences.
C: There is a strong common ground, and that is that they both are expected to represent the predominant moral. Commercial theatre represents this so they can sell tickets, and subsidized theatre represents this because the predominant moral is also the moral of the government. However, this might not be exactly the same moral, I think commercial theatre can permit itself to be slightly more ‘politically incorrect’.
M: But both endorse the status quo. You can make nice theatre within this, but this can only be consensus affirmative theatre, that maintains the system. Like a king has a court jester, and can say: “you see? I have self-irony! Now I will govern my country! I will do nothing to counter the epidemics, I will do nothing against repression, I will do nothing to prevent women from being sold as whores, and children from being sold as slaves! Let’s eat!” Then someone seated at the table might say, “But Your Majesty! Aren’t you a bit harsh on the women and children and stuff?” And the king says: “Pfffff! All right, all right! Bring in the court jester!” And the joker comes in and says: “ lalalalala!”And the king says, “ you see? I have self irony!” Now that’s the situation. The king can say he has self-irony, but as an outsider, I would say that’s petty compared to the things he leaves unchallenged. That’s how I see all these people crying, “This is relevant! This is important!”
Do you think it has ever been different? You define yourself as from the Halbe Zijlstra generation. Do you think that before your generation, theatre that mattered was made? Relevant work? That is was easier then?
C: Maybe not.
M: I think that that might be one of the reasons that I’m carefully exploring the possibility of leaving theatre all together. If I find out that it never has been any different, that theatre is inherently irrelevant, it loses its interest for me. Then I have always believed in an illusion, because I see it is possible in other art forms. The more autonomous the art form, the more relevant and likely to disturb the status quo.
I think that there are places were theatre can be relevant, but I believe it is less visible. Maybe you have a different view.
M : One of the biggest problems with theatre is that we don’t have a complete overview of what theatre can be. IMBD* has a pretty good listing of most movies, for example. Through this and other canals it is possible to get a pretty good idea how big the film world is. For theatre this isn’t possible. You can tell me that in 1989 in Heerhugowaard* there was a beautiful performance that blew the establishment away, but I will just have to take your word for it.
K: You’re talking about movies, motion pictures. I think that the role theatre, the important social role theatre maybe has played (well, I wasn’t there, but it could be, I’ve heard rumors) maybe has been replaced by movies. And maybe movies are relaying it on to Internet and interactive software.
Michiel named a few things he appreciated in theatre
M: the Here and Now
The Here and Now, the fact that you are in the presence of others; this is not like film, or Internet.
That something happens Here and Now, and that it isn’t a virtual magical moment but a real one, however it may be created or manipulated.
M: I don’t completely agree with you there, Internet has it as well. Internet encompasses gaming and gaming is interactive, and is a Here and Now in the presence of others. I see more similarities than differences with theatre. Kasper just said something very true. You said that theatre is more superfluous since film and film is more superfluous since Internet. Monique’s answer to this was: “ you’re forgetting the Here and Now” And my answer is, no. Here and Now is in gaming and so it is in the thought of redundancy of theatre. And within that thought, I believe theatre has been made redundant by technological progress. This is something we see throughout history. In the visual arts for example, everyone was painting realistic paintings for centuries. When the photography came, it became possible to make realistic photos. A lot of people still made realistic paintings, without paying heed to the technological development, but a small group of people did pay heed. One day, they painted vague dots on a canvas, and proclaimed that this, you can’t catch in a photograph, this is something new. They saw the beauty of a landscape through a new technique, impressionism was born. The new technique of the photography was necessary for the painters to develop this. It wouldn’t have had a meaning without the development of photography. In this sense a proclamation of redundancy of theatre is not such a strange thing.
Well, maybe for traditional theatre form. But I’m thinking about forms that today could still be relevant (sorry for this word). In the theatre there are developments where the treatment of the audience is being explored. People are working much more from the viewpoint of the audience, and how the audience receives the performance, using this as part of the content of the performance, instead of delivering a finished, completely defined piece to a passive audience. The audience has to fill in the gaps, is an active spectator.
K: you mean making the performance interactive?
The performances are a lot more interactive, yes. This is a new development that I’m interested in.
K: I would like to reflect some more on the word relevant. If something means to have a social impact, then it is important that it can easily be spread, that it is easily accessible for a lot of people, and in this sense theatre is at a disadvantage compared to almost all the media we have discussed.
Diffusion is difficult.
C: But, alas, if something is to be socially relevant, it needs to be diffused.
Well, I see this differently. I see theatre as a place where you can develop ideas. If you want to go out into the world on a massive scale, you can’t do that with theatre. But it can be a laboratory.
M: You excused yourself for using the world relevant just now, but I think this word is an essential starting point of this conversation, because you thereby immediately expose the problem of theatre. You expose theatre’s inflated sense of self-importance. This is not necessarily a criticism on the product, the performances themselves, because again and again I find myself in a performance, which I like or that touches me. But it just doesn’t seem to have the slightest repercussion on our society. The director will say: “but this is really a relevant play” and I might agree that it’s better than a number of movies I’ve seen recently, but then they go on tour, and play 20 times for 50 people each time. You can safely say hardly anybody saw it, I mean you have to have the prime minister in the audience to have the slightest influence on a very light level. Theatre just can’t top a lot of other media.
K: That is if you define relevant as: influencing society.
I guess it depends how you define relevant.
M: I guess I do define relevant as such. If theatre directors would just say: “ we want to make beautiful, nice plays or performances” I wouldn’t have a problem with it, because indeed very often this is the case. With ‘de Snijtafel’ we try to define the difference between pretence and performance in the sense of achievement. Reinstate the equilibrium between these things. The theatre field is misbalanced because it claims a relevancy it doesn’t have.
I agree with you, that’s why I am asking the question. I sort of left the fashionable theatre, I only work incidentally in the theatre now; I live in Ermelo, and work in the field.
K: What field is this?
In my case it means making theatre in the Veluwe
K: oh, you mean that kind of field, a real field!
Well, it is pioneering often, but I do believe the work has as social relevancy, even if I work with a small group.
For the people I work with the work is meaningful, very meaningful. And, maybe because I’m older, but I have also seen that the effect of the work is much bigger in time, than I initially realized.
The theatre world is in crisis without a doubt. Asking subsidy is terrible, you have to sell your work before you had a chance to work. The space you need to develop your ideas, you have to go through great pains to protect. But I still believe theatre has an own strength that other forms have differently. A strength, specific to the theatre. And I’m thinking about this.
K: I’m wondering why I’m seeing things in the way I see them. I guess it’s because of my theatre education, and the wish to be relevant, also with ‘de Snijtafel’. I always wanted to write, not to make videos. Before I started to make ‘de Snijtafel’ with Michiel, I was writing columns on Internet, which by the way is a modern way of writing, which I hoped to be socially relevant. I was criticizing things in the same way as with ‘de Snijtafel’, but then written down.
K: these columns were on my website, but were hardly read, as for our video’s, a lot of people watch them. I immediately chose that medium. Apparently, I prefer to express myself with videos. I guess I think it’s only a form; it doesn’t have to be black letters on a white background. I had already given up that it had to be on paper, or in the form of a book.
But isn’t it so that the blog, even if only 10 people might read it let’s say, gives you ammunition for ‘de Snijtafel’?
K: Well, I actually haven’t been writing it for quite some time now. I stopped years ago, do it doesn’t feed ‘de Snijtafel’. I really chose another form for the same criticism, because for me it is essential that people see it, and of course that it is well formulated. I don’t need to write it down. I can just say it. You might reply that written word is different than spoken word, because you don’t see the person who is saying things, you only deal with the text and the ideas; I do believe as well that it has it’s own power and beauty. That’s why I sometimes long for it again. But given a choice, I would still prefer videos because I can reach more people with the same ideas and social criticism.
You reached me as well otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I think the videos are strong and clear.
K: you haven’t read many of the texts, have you?
I did read some.
K: oh really?
Yes. (That’s why) I’m curious to know if within the format of ‘de Snijtafel’ you can also create. By this I mean develop an idea. In ‘de Snijtafel’ you discuss other people’s work. Can you also create in this form?
M: The videos are also created; it is a creative process.
K: yes, but triggered by something. You could say that we’re not artists in the complete sense of the word, in ‘de Snijtafel’. For ‘de Correspondent’* we invoice as journalists.
M: Of course I see the difference, I just wrote a novel that is going to be published, I wrote plays, and I work in ‘de Orde van De Dag’*. In this project we make a theatre performance in one day. These are different ways of working than with ‘de Snijtafel’. But there is a similarity. It’s what you just said, that a form is but a form. What I write as prose is comparable to what I want with a play or what I want with a video of ‘de Snijtafel’, and that is to reach an audience. Break it open, make sure that the object of my criticism begins to crack.
But is the message in ‘de Snijtafel’ the same message as in your novel?
M: well, I don’t believe in one message in that sense, though I think there are a lot of similarities. I am dissatisfied with a lot of aspects of our way of life, and this dissatisfaction manifests itself in a lot of different ways. Like different branches, all coming from the same origin, the same tree. I don’t like the way the ‘Zwarte Piet’ controversy* is being handled, that’s one branch; my criticism of ‘DWDD’* and how that program uses its influence, is another branch; I dislike the way popular culture manifests itself in our society, another branch. I am wary of how we try to live together ecologically, dynamically, biologically, while we’re completely destroying our planet and we’re still remaining consumers. Yet another branch. A theme like that is better suited for a work of fiction like a novel or a play. But with my views on ‘DWDD’ I tried to make a fiction first, but it didn’t work. And video was much better suited to treat this.
And those one-day performances, what kind of material is that?
M: That is based on current events, today’s news.
So it is a bit comparable with ‘de Snijtafel’?
M: No, because in ‘de Snijtafel’ we can treat whatever we wish. With ‘de Orde van de Dag’, we treat what has happened in the past month. I think it is really limiting actually, and not necessarily interesting. What touches me is not easily encompassed by a vague concept like current events. I mean for the last three years we could have made an item each month about Syria. We didn’t for 25 times, and when we did the 26th time, and it really felt hypocritical. Why hadn’t we done it the 25 times before? That’s when you see how ridiculous it is to want to be topical. But it still is a good vehicle to create something.
And you reach an audience with that kind of performance
M: yes, about 200-300 a night. But if you compare that to the audience we reach with ‘de Snijtafel’, we will need to make theatre for 10 years to reach as many people.
Kasper, do you have other forms than ‘de Snijtafel’ and your blog?
K: I make animation movies. Those are my three forms: video, blog and cartoons. I’m still considering going back to the written word. There are more possibilities for me now than before, because of the videos… I’m trying to think which ideas would need a book instead of video to be expressed. Maybe thoughts that are not directed at a specific aspect of our culture, but rather express more general ideas and thoughts. If you want to describe something from a bird’s point of view, zooming out, written text is better than video.
M: I understand this. Most opinions you see on TV are not underpinned because of the speed of the medium television. The advantage of video is that we can substantiate our opinion using the very source we’re criticizing. Our videos are our opinions, but then substantiated. However sometimes it’s much better not to substantiate, but skim over everything and make overviews. Written text is better with this, because with language you can zoom in and zoom out, describe a day in 500 pages, or a minute in 500 pages, or even a universe in one sentence. This is not possible with video.
K: In our recent videos, Michiel and I are having a conversation. In a book that would be a very long monologue; that’s a difference as well. This is also a reason why I’m thinking about going back, but then I hesitate if a book is the right form, maybe a podcast would be better. So you see, even then I am not sure that the traditional form of a paper book is still a good form. I see the same thing happening with books as with theatre. We all feel it’s important that they’re still there, and you can still find them all over the place, but at the same time you’re not really sure the form is still the relevant. A lot of good books are written, but they’re obscure. The good books don’t reach big groups of people. As in theatre.
M: Well said, this is what frustrates me as well. I am going to exaggerate now, but I was drawn into theatre in a very specific way. As a child and teenager I was interested in comics and visual arts. Selling my self-made comic books to my friends made me popular. But when I was 16-17, I became attracted to theatre; you see, girls didn’t think drawing cartoons was very cool, but they did like theatre. I guess theatre was a way to pick up girls. At the time I wouldn’t have admitted it though, but when I began making cabaret shows with a friend, we became really popular, especially with the girls. I think this is an aspect of theatre people aren’t very honest about. People say that theatre is relevant, but then tell me how did you start making theatre? Most people take to the stage and stay there because they make people laugh, they get attention and can pick up girls! When I grew older, I began losing my interest for the stage, and got more interested in working behind the scenes. I directed some stuff, wrote some stuff, and now that I’ve been doing that for 7-8-9 years, I’m beginning to completely lose my interest. I think that this is because between your 16th and 30th year, a guy has to score a girl, and that’s part of what you’re about….
A place to show your feathers, like a rooster/cock
M: precisely. I associate the stage with the pea-cock. Peacock feathers. You have two voices, the “look at me!”, ”look at me!” voice and the “let me be!” “let me be!” voice. The “look at me” voice takes to the stage. Shows its peacock feathers. And the “let me be” voice is trying to do something greater, trying to find the essence of an idea, of a criticism, of a thought; whatever you think is worthwhile. I see theatre as a big peacockfight!
K: I would like to add something though. Because the aspect you describe, the part about girls is something that played a role for me as well, but honestly it still does, in everything I do. I’ve haven’t been on stage as much as you, and I guess the stage translates that feeling a little bit more. But I don’t think this is limited to stage. I believe everything I do is half related to the wish to make an impression on women.
M: Ha Ha, Interesting! I guess what I really want to say is that people aren’t honest about it, and that they’re shouting big words as “relevancy!” “Subsidy!”, “society!” to hide they’re trying to pick up girls and get laid. They’re not really trying to bring up nettle subjects, just trying to impress.
K: That doesn’t mean that because I’m trying to impress, I’m not saying important stuff, and trying to bring up relevant topics.
Or that you are insincere
K: or insincere. What I’m actually trying is to do, is take my most unpopular thoughts, the ones that bother me the most, where I feel alone even though they’re valuable to me, and formulate them in such a way that despite of their cynicism and unpopularity, they might become catchy and funny. I try to sell myself in this way I guess. I want to show that, even though I might seem dark, can’t you see that the way I look at things has it’s worth? That those popular guys you’re hanging around with are empty on the inside? So this motivation doesn’t necessarily mean what I make is inferior; maybe that’s how I make my best work….
M: Ha, Ha! Ok, well, for me the keyword is autonomy, and in the theatre autonomy is very relative. I have never experienced that extent of autonomy loss as in the subsidized theatre field. What I need is autonomy to be able to stay close to myself, and keep as you describe it, a balance between the “ look at me” voice and the “let me be” voice, and allow them to connect. I began saying I was going to exaggerate, I did, and you brought in some nuance. But for me the key to the equilibrium is autonomy. When I write, I’m close to this autonomy, when I make the video, it’s already a bit further, because I’m dependant on Kasper who does the editing. That’s ok by me, he makes strong choices, and I’m really lucky to work with such a talented guy. But in the theatre I lose a lot of autonomy; in ‘de Orde van de Dag’, I have 10 minutes of autonomy in 2 days of work, but I accept this. It’s ridiculous, really, but somehow for me it’s still worthwhile.
When you make ‘de Snijtafel’ together, you say you lose some autonomy, does it feel like that? How is this collaboration?
K: we both lose some, but lose… I mean….
Do you work easily together?
M; I think so
K: It’s a very natural collaboration. It just happened. In each collaboration you have to make concessions, because you’re collaborating. But we wouldn’t be able to make these videos alone, so it doesn’t feel like a concession. I think you only lose something if you would be able to do something better by yourself than with someone else. This isn’t the case.
M: Each collaboration is the result of two. Two people working together getting a shared result. As long as the videos dig up something I wouldn’t have been able to unearth by myself, it’s worth it, and up until now every video was worthwhile.
Kasper, You edit the “aha” moments into the video on purpose, right? The moments where one of you gets new thoughts and ideas because of what the other one is saying.
K: Yes, very often those are the best moments, where Michiel’s way of thinking and my way of thinking meet, and something new is posed that we both had been unable to see before this moment. When we arrive at a shared conclusion about a subject that we both hadn’t seen before. The dialogue is a good form for this, at least, if you really listen to each other. I want to go back to the topic of theatre and old art forms; our conversations have been called Socratic conversations. I wouldn’t dare state that they have the same quality as Socratic conversations, but we do use some of the same principles. For example, what Michiel sometimes calls “clean-talking”. As in clean, hygienic, rid of superfluous dirt, to the essence.
M: Kees van Kooten* used this word. At a rehearsal he said we had to clean-talk what was being said so that we could catch the essence in 5 words.
M: Yes, this clean-talking is, in my opinion, the thought that, you take a subject, a very precise subject, with a beginning and an ending, I mean not a theme or something general, but a concrete subject, like such and such TV show, or a conversation that took place in such and such TV show; and then we start talking about it, until we’re done.
K: we go on until we’re completely done talking. The conversations are Socratic because they are question and answer conversations. Socrates asked a question, the other person would answer, and then, based on that answer the next question was asked. In this way the interlocutor had to constantly revise his thinking in order to answer the questions. I think this is a good way to get to the truth, if it exists, or at least to try to approach the purity or the essence of the thought. You could say that in our videos, we ask the questions and the object, for example ‘DWDD’, gives the answers. We find these answers in the object. But we ask each other questions as well. In that we try to approximate the truth, I mean maybe you don’t agree with us, but it is a truth.
Very short question, for me an essential part of the theatre is the realm of the imagination. Maybe you have something to say about this in the context of your work.
M: I think it is the common denominator of everything we have been putting on the table today. I mean, a novel is trying to evoke an imaginary world with letters sandwiched in-between a front cover and a back cover. It’s all in your head, and a good novel needs just a few words to evoke a whole world. That’s what poetry does as well. And we try to do that in our videos. I mean we try to think out a program like ‘DWDD’ to it’s utmost consequence, you need imagination to see the machinery behind something like that, what the effect the program has, what the effect the program has had, and what it might have in the future. This is an exercise of your imagination.
K: One more thing about Socrates, the Socratic conversations. It’s a very old form, I mean like thousands of years old, that we recycle in a video on internet. Old forms reincarnate, irrevocably.
M: In this sense the artist who says the arts are beginning to wane is silenced. If you say that, you are not creative. There are always new forms that can express what you have on your mind, and heart. Mostly if you say that arts are beginning to wane, you are looking for a short cut to success. It’s interesting that in one hour we still were able to clean-talk this subject, because in my view we’re back where we started out, “is theatre relevant?” And asking this question is actually the same as asking the question about form. Kasper tackled that well by saying a form is just a form. It’s all about finding the right form to express your thoughts and carry it to an audience.