AFTER earning Fringe notoriety with Internal and Audience, Ontroerend Goed are back to perform the final part of their trilogy about teenage life.
THE TEAM in the Ontroerend Goed rehearsal room are on the horns of an ethical dilemma – all because of a chicken sandwich. Zach Hatch, one of the two performers in the company’s new show, All That Is Wrong, is eating a roll from a well-known fast-food chain. “But they’re the worst,” says Koba Ryckewaert, the other performer, seriously. “It’s not even good food.”
“That smell is synthetic, you know,” puts in dramaturg Joeri Smet, looking up briefly from his laptop. “They spray it in every shop.” But director Alexander Devriendt is torn, and so am I. It’s past lunchtime, and the smell of the warm bread is making us feel famished.
But, in this rehearsal room, that sandwich matters. Things do when you’re 18. Not just the big things – for my generation, it was nuclear disarmament, ending apartheid – but the small things too. I remember searching my hometown for make-up that wasn’t tested on animals, and once, memorably, trying to make a fruit salad without buying any South African fruit (at the time this was quite hard). There was so much wrong with the world, so much we needed to put right.
This feeling is at the heart of All That Is Wrong, Ontroerend Goed’s third show made with teenagers. The first, Once And For All We’re Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen, was the most talked about show of the Fringe in 2008. Made with a cast of 13 teenagers (Ryckewaert was one of the youngest), it was a raucous, in-your-face celebration of adolescence in all its exuberance and vulnerability. The Belgian company followed it two years later with Teenage Riot, made with eight of the same young people. In between, they have cemented their place as one of the most innovative and controversial companies on the Fringe with shows such as The Smile Off Your Face, Internal and last year’s Audience.
All That Is Wrong is very different from its predecessors. Focusing on Ryckewaert as writer/performer, assisted by Hatch, it explores the view from the threshold of the adult world.
“I thought that the story wasn’t finished yet,” says Ryckewaert, a serious, willowy 18-year-old. In Teenage Riot she challenged adults, now she is becoming one. “Now I’m 18, I have to take my responsibilities. I have to figure that out, how far I want to go with that.”
“You haven’t decided what you want to care about,” adds Devriendt. “The performance is about making that decision.
“On the first rehearsal I gave a piece of chalk to Koba and said two things: you start with ‘I’ in the middle and you write down everything that is wrong in the world. And she did that, it took over four hours, until she felt she had the broad terms there. The performance is a result of the process that Koba went through.”
It is both a kind of monologue written by Ryckewaert herself, and a piece of performance art, in which she produces a unique work during each performance by writing on a chalkboard on the black stage. Connections are made and links are followed, mirroring the process of surfing the internet, reminding us that today’s 18-year-olds barely need to look for the wrongs of the world – they have them streamed directly to their iPhones.
“In my time, for six months, racism was a problem, so we went and protested against racism,” says Devriendt. “Then global warming happened, but it was clear, the media decided: this is the big problem now. But Koba knows (about) everything.”
She agrees: “Now it’s in your face all the time, I don’t even have to look it up, it’s there.”
“I want to try to remember what happened when we were 18,” continues Devriendt. “I was caring about everything, and now I don’t have time, I want to be happy, and that’s OK, but how did I get there? That, for me, is the interesting thing in the performance. Watching Koba, I started questioning my decisions.”
He says he does not see his work with teenagers as a separate strand of the work of Ontroerend Goed: “As a theatre-maker I want to share a point of view, or question a point of view. A teenager is in the ideal state of criticising something because he is not yet part of it, he has to make those decisions. It’s just about what is the best way to tell a story, sometimes it’s better to use a certain form, sometimes it’s just better to use a teenager.”
Ontroerend Goed – formed by Devriendt, Smet and producer David Bauwens – began as a radical poetry group which gradually morphed into a theatre company. Their work has catered to a growing desire for “truth” in theatre: in The Smile Off Your Face audience members took part in a one-to-one sensory encounter, in Audience the increasingly confrontational actions of the performers challenged the audience as a group to rebel and intervene. Once and For All… and Teenage Riot were not “about” teenagers so much as they were direct presentations of the teenage life. Both Devriendt and Ryckwaert are clearly infuriated by the idea – voiced by some – that the teenagers were speaking from scripts, not voicing their real feelings.
It all began back in 2007 when Devriendt approached Kopergietery, an organisation which provides after-school workshops in Belgium, about making a piece of work with teenagers. It would be different from youth theatre as we know it: the kids would be in charge. “Kopergietery are very open, but even for them Once And For All… was weird,” he remembers, smiling. “It was like: ‘What are you doing? Chaos?’”
In the event, no-one could have predicted the response to the show, which went on to tour all over the world, the first international tour, perhaps, to be scheduled only in Belgian school holidays. “It was heavy even for me,” recalls Devriendt. “I started to see it through their eyes. They had groupies in New York, they saw the landscape of Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. I felt I had made their minds crazy, so I believe I had a responsibility to all of them.”
Ryckewaert describes the experience of going on tour at 14 as “mind-blowing”. “Just to be there and do that, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever done. It opens up so much, and you start to dream about that. But it really opened something up (for me), not even just in theatre, but I want to make things, my whole idea about life changed. Sometimes I try to imagine how I would be if I hadn’t done that play, I can’t even imagine it.” After the summer,she will go to university to study literature and hopes to become a writer.
The company has kept in contact with all the cast of Once and For All. One is now a production manager with Ontroerend Goed, two more have made their first independent show, XXXO, which the company is supporting at the Fringe this year. Another is a photographer, and took the production shots for All That Is Wrong.
“Some people were like, OK I had this, and now I want to study politics, or sociology, and I was like, ‘OK, cool’,” says Devriendt. “But some had the feeling ‘I don’t want to lose this’, so I also want to take care of these people. Koba felt her story wasn’t finished yet, so this we had whole idea of creating this together. I had Koba’s story, but it’s my job to find, together with Joeri, how do I communicate that to an audience.”