Theater In Conversation
Scenes From a Life
IVO VAN HOVE with Kristin Meyer
Belgian theater director Ivo Van Hove has been a prominent name in international theater for over three decades. He leads the Toneelgroep Amsterdam company and has built an ongoing residency of sorts at the New York Theatre Workshop. Critically praised for getting to the emotional core of masterworks, he has equally been dubbed a bad-boy provocateur. As the New York critics make their best of end-of-year lists, the fall of 2014 undoubtedly goes down as the fall of Ivo Van Hove. Van Hove had two productions up at the same time—an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, originally a Swedish TV miniseries, at New York Theatre Workshop and the Tonnelgroep’s epic five-hour staging of both parts of Angels in America, performed in Dutch, at BAM. Both runs sold out and were extremely well received. In his review of the mere three-performance run of Angels at BAM, Ben Brantley said, “Those of us lucky enough to see this production seem fated to feel its afterglow for a long time.”
Van Hove’s work has been described as extreme, bare, stripped, deconstructed, and exhaustive. Now in his mid-50s he has a kneejerk reaction to these low-hanging adjectives. True, the recent staging of Angels was set on an almost empty stage. And yes, his production of Streetcar Named Desire took place mostly in a bathtub. But these aren’t the predilections of a minimalist; his aesthetic is the result of a careful and studied process of building masterworks from the ground up, not stripping them down. His goal is pure: to get to the heart of great texts (both repurposed cinema and well known plays) and in the process attempt to put the universality of human experience on stage.
The concurrent runs of Scenes From a Marriage and Angels in America were a good reflection of the types of work Van Hove chooses to stage. Known for his theatrical interpretations of cinema titans—Bergman, Pasolini, Visconti—he also relishes in figuring out how Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Tony Kushner are vitally relevant. On the naked stage of the BAM Harvey Theater, characters from Angels enter a scene by simply sitting on the stage floor. Through the strength of their acting and Van Hove’s directing a full world emerges, and the audience experiences the anguish of sickness, isolation, and searching at the center of the play.Actors shift characters with an adjusted gait or a simple costume addition. And for a moment, we don’t even need to scan up to the supertitles with the English translation. In Scenes Van Hove uses six actors to depict three different pairings of Johan and Mariannes, the fictional couple that Bergman famously put under an unforgiving microscope. The simultaneous depiction of their young, middle and older selves creates an echo effect—while young Johan and Marianne have a dinner party, older Johan and Marianne are screaming at each other through flimsy walls. We experience ourselves and our relationships through the cacophony of memory.
Van Hove’s work reflects his life, and he takes his life seriously. He’s been known to say he is not interested in museum pieces. There is urgency to his productions, a need to speak directly to today’s audience. Implied is a wish that we’ll recognize ourselves on stage and honor our small personal struggles as part of the grand universal drama.
Kristin Meyer (Rail): Here at the Brooklyn Rail we think a lot about how art is made in community. Much of your theater is made with longstanding collaborators. Your Toneelgroep Amsterdam just performed Angels in America, which has been in your reparatory since 2009, at BAM. When setting up this conversation you were already staging Othello in Taipei. Keeping up such a schedule with so many works in rotation must require deep shorthand with your actors. How do collaborations, both with actors and your design partner Jan Versweyveld, inform your work?
Ivo Van Hove: Collaborations are the basics of my work, like the basement in a house. If that’s not solid you cannot build. Longtime collaborations are always fruitful and rewarding, never boring. We don’t have to get to know each other and instead can immediately go for the project itself and focus on what it should be about. With both Jan and the actors, it’s much easier to be very critical yet remain positive and not personal. Collaborating over a long period of time always creates better art.
Rail: How has it been to build that shorthand in your New York theater community, which is mostly based at the New York Theater Workshop?
Van Hove: New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) is my second home. I have my first home, of course, in Amsterdam, where I have an ensemble of around 22 actors, ranging from aged 22 to 80. With that range, it’s a real ensemble in the European tradition. In America there is a freelance system, and everyone auditions all the time. But I always try to continue to work with the people I’ve worked well with two or three times before. So, it feels like I have created a small ensemble for myself in New York at NYTW. Elizabeth Marvel is very important, but also Joan Mackintosh is the best. Tom Ryan worked with me twice as did Chris Welch, who is now dead. I always try to work together again, but due to the American system sometimes it works out, sometimes not. Tina Benko is in Scenes, and she was in my The Little Foxes [NYTW, 2010]. Hopefully I have two to three people I’ve worked with before in a production.
Rail: Had this happened before for you? To have two shows staged in New York at the same time?
Van Hove: No, (laughing) it was the first time. In one week we had two different shows that were sold out! The hottest tickets in town! It was great! New York is very generous to my work. Well, the audience is anyway, they are very open, and I feel respected there. I am always around; New York is a second home now.
Rail: Without lumping the shows together, but for the sake of discussing your big New York moment, what spoke to you about these pieces? You’ve adapted film for stage before, but then with Kushner, I’ve heard you refer to Angels as a masterwork.
Van Hove: Contemporary Masterwork, for sure. Well, there is a connection between both plays. These texts are two of the four or five most important plays of the 20th century. Scenes From A Marriage is a play that’s only about two people, the smallest community you can have: two people. Bergman is capable of making out of this very personal, two person drama a universal drama. We played Scenes in London, Paris, Moscow, New York, and everywhere it has the same effect. Scenes goes to the core of what human beings are. Sometimes they are cruel, and sometimes they are cold. They are longing, yearning for the past, longing for a future and for a better life, hating the life that they are in. This whole mix of human emotions is in one text. Scenes is great for actors because it fits every actor like a glove. There’s a lot of freedom in Bergman’s lines, and that’s rewarding.
I consider Angels in America to be one of the big American plays of the 20th century, together with Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Although different than Bergman, Kushner also takes normal human beings and puts them on the scale of world drama. He draws out small and big things at the same time. Angels is about private life and public life, it’s about the history of America in the ’80s—the right wing Regan era and the age of AIDS. Now you could consider that out-of-date, but to me the setting is almost symbolic. After all these years it’s a metaphorical background. That’s the mark of a very important play.
Most plays are best produced if there’s not too much production around them. I decided in both cases to really focus on actors. I think the humanity in both plays is most important, not the huge sets. Of course in Angels I obviously made some bold choices, namely not having the Angel crash through the ceiling. But I have an Angel, and he crashes in to the life of Prior in a different way. So in that regard my vision for it was similar to Scenes. Both are simple, direct, and very bare. It’s about the actors and their acting.
Rail: This bareness—is that the stripped down aesthetic you’re sometimes known for? Do you commonly find getting to the heart of a play necessitates a stripping away of more conventional production techniques?
Van Hove: Well, no, it’s not to strip away or to deconstruct, as they want to suggest in New York. I read the text and analyze it traditionally—looking at every line, every character, every scene, and every act. I build the house brick by brick. Sometimes there is a set of preconceptions about a play, about how you should do it. Like with Streetcar Named Desire you see the set that you think you need to see. What I do is try not to think about these preconceptions and instead ask: How does this play want to be produced today in the 21st century? What is the important theme for today? For instance, AIDS—I had to explain to some of my actors that AIDS was a deadly disease. They didn’t really know the deep fear of the ’80s because now, well, of course it is still deadly in Africa, but there are a lot of people living around me that have AIDS, and it’s just like a bacteria they’ll manage. It’s not killing them anymore. So of course it is important to understand the horror of 1980s AIDS. When Louis leaves Prior in the hospital and goes for a walk in the park to have anonymous sex, that should be a shocking moment in the production, and both actors and audience have to understand why. So, I try to understand what’s in the text and bring that to the stage in a way that speaks to the audience of today.
Rail: How do you think about the audience experience? In Scenes you break the audience into thirds for the first half and then bring everyone together for the second. In Angels, because you staged both Part One: Millenium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika in one night, there’s this large stretch of intermission. The audience wound up banding together—literally sitting crossed legged in the lobby of the BAM Harvey eating boxed dinners. When you ask an audience to participate in a long piece, or a piece that moves them around, are you creating an intentional experience?
Van Hove: I think of the audience in those pieces totally differently. In Scenes the guiding principle was intimacy between the actors, not a big theatrical production, which I also enjoy mounting. But this was supposed to be very intimate, as if everyone were at home. So, I brought the audience very near to the actors. The audience is in the bathroom, or in their bedroom, smelling their sweat and tears. That’s totally different in Angels where the audience-actor relationship is more conventional. The actors play on stage, and there’s no real interaction. Sometimes I like the interaction, but sometimes it’s not necessary to make it more gripping or moving. In Scenes it was important to have the audience close, but in general I can’t think too much about the audience. I hope they will be there, of course—I want full houses. I want everyone to love my productions. I mean, we played in Taipei last week for 1,400 Taiwanese people for four nights. Every night was a sold-out house. I don’t know them. I really don’t know what they think or how they feel. We had five or six curtain calls, and normally we do only one. So I figure they must have loved it. The talk back had 500 people—that’s enormous! Never in my life have I had that kind of reception, but I don’t presume to know them. We’ve made something, we present it, and we hope that people will love it and remember it for the rest of their lives. I hope my work means something for them. That’s my goal.
Rail: How do you use music in your productions? Both shows had turntables onstage, and in many instances the actors were responsible for some of the musical cues. What guides your thinking about using music, and, selfishly, I’d love to know why you deemed Bowie the soundtrack for Angels.
Van Hove: Well, Bowie was a simple decision, because I never situate a production in a particular time, however, sometimes I use music to create a kind of time environment. So when you think about the end of the ’70s, beginning of the ’80s, where Kusnher set the play, for me that’s David Bowie. But more importantly, Bowie’s music is all about transformation. And that’s what Angels is really all about—the inability, but in the end the ability, to transform, to get into a new life, to get into new relationships, cut off the bruised, broken, and sad relationships and go on with your life. On a gut level Bowie fits that bill. I set Scenes similarly, in its era, with Dylan and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Generally, I use music in three ways. Sometimes I work with a composer, and we have live music onstage as in Roman Tragedies. Sometimes I use taped music as in Scenes and Angels, and sometimes I use constant music so the play is almost a musical play. These recent shows used music to punctuate moments. Music brings emotion and cuts through the prescribed text to create meaning. Music brings an extra emotional layer to each of my plays.
Rail: Perhaps a digression, before we wind down: I wanted to thank you. I recently took care of my father, who passed away from cancer. I have seen other productions of Angels before, but thought of it as a political play set in a particular time in New York. After seeing your production, well, thank you. I’ve never seen death portrayed on stage like that before. What you did with just an IV bag was so effective. After spending a lot of time in hospitals, that is what death looks like.
Van Hove: Well that’s a huge compliment for me, because it was one of my big challenges. Bringing death on stage is very hard to do without easily going for sentimentality or something just not quite real. Staging that play was during a time for me when a lot of people in my life were in hospital. I had seen these bags hanging, and I thought: it’s the most simple thing to become dependent on, a stupid little bag to live. It was a simple yet effective image. In the beginning we had a huge set, a hospital set, and then Jan, my designer, and I decided we didn’t need it at all. We just need this need this one little thing with the bags on it. The whole idea of the hospital and of dying is in that one image.
Rail: You have a meeting you have to get back to, and you’re neck deep in the business of making theater. You’re both creatively and fiscally responsible for Toneelgroep Amsterdam. But I’ve also heard you say you don’t think of your productions as going from job to job but instead ascribe to the idea of a “life’s work.” You say you’re building an oeuvre. Do you have a determined idea of where this oeuvre will go next?
Van Hove: My productions represent my life. I express myself, who I am, what I think, what I feel through my productions. When you look at all of my productions, you know who I am. But I don’t know who I will be tomorrow, that will develop. When I was in my 20s I was on a national TV show in Belgium, and I said that I hated the American authors like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Well, 10 years later, I became famous for doing Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill because my life had changed. My view on these playwrights had changed. So it’s an oeuvre in the way that it develops. But I don’t know where it will develop because then I would know where my life would be in 10 years, and I don’t know.