07 Sep 2021
Sat 05 Sep 2020
The inclusion of Theater Artemis’ Het dier, het dier, en het beestje ensures het TheaterFestival is not just for grown-ups. Director Jetse Batelaan discusses the joy of making work for children and his ever-evolving artistic process.
The lights fade to black. The actors bow. The audience claps politely. At least, normally they do. However, playing to an audience of children is a completely different situation. Sometimes they’re so excited they can’t sit, sometimes they boo, but they always provide the ultimate antidote to artistic egomania and Jetse Batelaan absolutely loves it: ‘They’re not polite about it. It’s not that they think it’s already special because it’s in the newspaper or because it’s “art”. It’s great that it’s always different, they’re a very expressive audience. An audience of four-year-olds is different to an audience of twelve-year-olds so I must come up with new characters and ideas, it gives me lots of inspiration. It’s great to play for schools because you’re playing for all of society, not just the part of society that pays for a theatre ticket.’
His respect for this unforgiving audience is what drives him. ‘I am always thinking about the audience. What are they longing for? What are they scared for? So at some points I am like a chess player thinking: What would be my first move? How do I manipulate their expectations? What will they feel?’ Undoubtedly it’s a challenge but it’s led to weird and wonderful work that captures the imaginations of young and old alike. To an outsider, Dutch/Flemish theatre’s talent for formal experimentation with the non-negotiable necessity that the show must not be boring results in the ideal combination, which has led to Batelaan’s work touring around the world. Has he noticed a difference in audience reactions internationally? ‘Actually there’s not a big difference. I like performing in the UK, there is some good connection with my way of humour. There is this universal language or existence where it doesn’t matter what kind of background they come from.’
What’s in a name
His surreal sense of humour is most evident in his show titles. It begs the question: which comes first, the title or the show? ‘Actually a lot of the time the title comes first, a lot of the dramaturgy is included in the title. So for example: The Show In Which Hopefully Nothing Happens (one of his earlier works), that gives us a strong message and structure in the rehearsal space. Especially at the beginning of my career my shows had no language so most of the language was in the title. But for Het dier, het dier, en het beestje it was the opposite, I knew I wanted to create this fable where the animals are characters. I had the form of a well-made play in mind but in rehearsals we had to discover the story. I knew I wanted to tell a story but I didn’t know the story. It’s not a typical play for me. There’s not so much deconstructing theatre which happens in my other work. It’s a lot of text. Of course I don’t work with writers, a lot of time the text starts in rehearsals but now I have to really sit at my desk with my laptop.’
As if that wasn’t enough, Batelaan also had the new challenge of writing lyrics along with the company of actors and composer, Keimpe de Jong, to create this musical fable. Batelaan laughs ‘We didn’t write any music before we started. I also didn’t write a word. So everything came out of rehearsals. The actors play instruments and sing in the show, but they’re not all trained musicians so the first phase was to give some guitar lessons. Then Keimpe needed some lyrics to write the music so we had to make new scenes before all the music was written. But there are some parts that are improvised. So it’s a combination.’
It seems there’s a constant tension of chaos and control in his rehearsal room that translates to a tension of the real and the surreal in his work. ‘In a lot of my plays the main conflict is between the audience and their expectations and what is happening onstage.’ So despite the menagerie of talking animals, puppets, and musical numbers ‘Het dier, het dier, en het beestje is a very realistic story about average family life, this is the show with the most direct relation to my life but the form and style is not at all realistic.’ The result is a captivating show that encourages being different and daring to be different, in life and theatre alike.
It’s refreshing to see work that doesn’t take itself seriously be taken seriously by het TheaterFestival. Does it ever feel as though there’s children’s theatre and “real” theatre? ‘It’s great to be selected. It’s very brave because the Flemish Theaterfestival has done this for years. It doesn’t matter if it’s for kids or grownups, they measure it all with the same tools. It’s great when actors, directors, juries see both theatre for kids and grownups. In Holland it’s a bit more divided, normally the jury doesn’t see work for children.’
Well that’s their loss, honestly it seems very childish to dismiss children’s theatre.