Photography ©Zhang Huan
 22 February 2012

Skype interview-chat with theatre-maker and scenographer Dries Verhoeven, director of Life Streaming performance (2011, LIFT Festival). 

CHRISTINA PAPAGIANNOULI. How did you come up with the idea of using the Internet in Life Streaming performance?

DRIES VERHOEVEN. Internet is such a big part of my daily life. It influences my daily life, so it does influence my ideas about other people, friends and unknown people on the other side of the world. I think the means I use in my work should reflect our world as it takes place here and now. Therefor, I used before, for example, mobile phones. A “theatrical form” is not always the most evident form to choose when I want to discuss our everyday life. Since this project had to reflect on our relation to a country 8000 km away from us, the use of the internet was quite obvious. I didn’t want to bring the performers to Europe and I didn’t want to make a project just for them. First of all, this was about their relation to us and vice versa. A conversation over Skype as a model for discomfort and (the suggestion of) the real contact you might feel when you meet strangers from third world countries on holiday, when you see a disaster on TV or meet someone in chat roulette. I try to enable real contact in my work, but I try to limit it in the same hand, by separating people through a soundproof wall, by just letting them hear a voice or just letting them see written texts on a screen. I believe that by creating a desire to be in contact with each other makes a work stronger.

Was the use of the Internet part of the directing methodology or part of the scenography?

It was both. I don’t separate my thoughts. I cannot say where my work as a scenographer stops and the work of the director starts. I want to give an artistic answer to an urgent topic, then I start to think about means, words, images, and so on. The separation in disciplines is quite old fashioned, I think, and doesn’t make much sense. It might stop creativity.

So, would you consider the Internet as a space (cyberspace)? What is your opinion about it as a scenographer, as a performance space specialist?

I didn’t think of that. You might want to ask my dramaturge. For me it’s first of all very simple a tool that links performer and spectator, and by this enables a link between people in the West and possible victims in a third world country. But well, let me think a bit deeper on this: As a scenographer I wanted to start with an empty stage many times. I liked the idea that images appear on the moment a thought pops up in your head. In Life Streaming the screen was the stage, this started totally white. Just after a while you started to see images of Google maps, video inserts and so on. (I was never interested at scenography as a way to indicate or suggest a location.)

In relation to your other work, what was the difference in terms of directing methodologies in Life Streaming? Directing an online performance means automatically a different directing methodology?

Not really. As I said before, in every piece I separate performers and spectators. There is not much difference in directing a piece where spectators just hear the voice of a performer through a mobile phone, follows him walking on the streets or sees him writing on a screen. It’s all about teasing the spectator, weighting the amount of information, questions, moments you give him to let him think or feel in a certain direction. When we forget about the difference in cultural background, language and technical problems that appeared in such a project, I wouldn’t say that the use of the internet was asking for another methodology. But . . . there was a difference in terms of performer-spectator contact when you relate it to other pieces. In other pieces the relation was always as honest as possible. In Life Streaming there was a “hidden agenda” that became for me the heart of the piece. (I wanted to let the spectator think about the manipulation he/she might have gone through in the piece, and is going through in his/her daily life when he/she sees disaster aid marketing.) 

Indeed, when the performer asked me, in Life Streaming performance, if I lost something important lately, I thought immediately SOMEONE important. My mind went to death and it was a nice shock for me to realize that life continues after disasters.

Yes, that’s a valuable thought. I wonder if your perception influenced you in interpreting this question. Would your mind have gone in the same direction when I would have asked you this question?

Going back to the use of the internet, I would like to ask you if the rehearsals were also online and some comments about the disadvantages of working with the internet (the technical problems that you mentioned).

The rehearsals were online yes, which means we split the performers everyday in two groups. One group was performing on computers in one room; the other group was on the receiving end. So physically they were only 5 meters away from each other, but working together online. The only person in Holland was my dramaturgue, who now and then saw the piece online, but due to a lot of technical problems this didn’t really work.

In that area, in Sri Lanka, there is no fast internet, we had to install that with antennas and so on. Every day four men were busy working on that. One day there was a tornado, the antenna fell of the roof, because of that we had to postpone the premiere. Many times there was no electricity in the village. This all caused a lot of trouble, and content for the piece. A spectator might not feel this enormous effort to make a contact possible, but I liked it that the rehearsal period reflected the content of the piece in many ways.

As a Life Streaming spectator I had no idea about this effort behind the connectivity. If you had the chance to produce Life Streaming again, would you like the audience to feel these technical problems? In my piece for example, Cyberian Chalk Circle, we send every one second snapshots to the audience, instead of using live streaming, in order to give the impression that the performer was placed in Egypt and thus, she does not have a good internet connection.

I see. I believe that might work yes. In my work I try not to “lie”, it’s a bit dogmatic I guess, but I like to be influenced by reality. By not thinking what kind of impression I want to give to people, but first of all trying to find out what theatrical potential is hidden in reality. I’m not sure I would like to mention technical problems, as you might remember we mentioned possible problems in the beginning of the show (outside). People were asked to raise their hand at any moment the connection would freeze.

Yes, indeed. However, I could not imagine what technical effort was hidden behind this good connection! Closing this conversation I would like to ask you why you didn’t want the audience to know the exact position of the performers. Please feel free to discuss anything you would like in relation to Life Streaming performance and the use of the internet.

We decided to say that the performers were 8000 km away from here. For the rest I wanted to let the conversation do the work, and that needed to be as personal and fluent as possible. I wanted to start with an “empty stage”, some letters typed to you on a screen. A simple question, from there I wanted to let your mind do the work. To meet a person, to see his words and videos without having the perception you do have when you add a country to this images. When you ask a person what was a country where, for example, suicide bombing was invented, no one would come up with Sri Lanka. For many people the name is related to something exotic. It’s hard to say, but because of this exotic part (and because many countries in South East Asia were colonies before and popular holiday destinations, and the tsunami took place on boxing day) the 2004 tsunami raised the biggest amount of aid ever. So what it boils down is the question how our ideas about “the other” appear, by what texts, images, music and so on.

 Interviewed by Christina Papagiannouli on 22 February 2012