Negotiating and hesitating in space

Dramaturge Jeroen Peeters in conversation with the stage designer Jozef Wouters on the INFINI project Aug 2015English

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Several weeks before the presentation of INFINI 1-8 in the KVS_Bol, I visited Jozef Wouters in the temporary Scenery Workshop in Kolomstraat in Molenbeek. A group of set builders was busy working on eight stage sets depicting eight places suggested by eight ‘correspondents’ (Arkadi Zaides, Chris Keulemans, Michiel Soete, Michiel Vandevelde, Remah Jabr, Thomas Bellinck, Sis Matthé and Wim Cuyvers). Wouters explains the genealogy of the project.


Between four walls

The KVS requested a sequel to follow Zoological Institute of recently Extinct Species and All problems can never be solved, which were part of Toc Tok Knock (2013), when Jozef Wouters joined the theatre’s outing into the city. ‘I found that I was hesitant about doing something in public space again. It seemed to me a good idea to have another look at what was wrong with that much talked-of theatre,’ says Wouters. Not that the theatre does not attract him, on the contrary: ‘I have long been tremendously fascinated by the theatre building, and in fact by all places people assemble in. For thousands of years, theatres have been trying to be the biggest possible buildings, yet spanned by roofs that are not supported by pillars halfway across, so that all the people sitting there can see more or less the same. I would like to relate to that desire to be able to sit together, dry, dark and silent, to watch something – the construction of a shared view.’

In the course of a conversation with the artistic management of the KVS, the initial idea for the INFINI project was born (initially under the working title of BURG, after the ending of the name ‘Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg’), as Wouters indicates with an anecdote. ‘In the first conversation about my ideas and needs for the project, one of the dramaturges suddenly said: “Have you ever reflected on the fact that the building next door is not a fortress, but a covered square?” Someone else had previously said that they would like it if I “came and did something in their house”. Back at my workshop, I wrote the following: “What sort of place is it that is intended to be both a house and a square?” In this regard I inevitably had to think of the completely transparent Perspex model of the renovated KVS. Why do we need all these metaphors to designate a space which is in itself already a specific space with its own history? This phantasm of a transparent theatre suddenly became clear to me: a building that is intended to be a membrane that only lets in those things from the outside world that are wanted, these being light and sight. It tells us something about contemporary arts centres, which are trying for an almost direct dialogue with the towns and cities they are located in – it’s a desire I understand, but it often conflicts with the reality of the building.’

The KVS gave Wouters carte blanche to set to work in the main theatre, even to set up his workshop there for a few weeks to be able to experiment with the stage, without having to take account of the expectations that haunt large theatres these days and which on more than one occasion have kept young theatre-makers out. ‘I am lucky in that I can work in a very good theatre and in addition was given unprecedented freedom by the KVS,’ he says. We should not concern ourselves too much with the whole economic situation behind the theatre. And it was no problem at all to find people who wanted to do something with me in that hall.’


A question put by the building

Apart from the invitation from the KVS, the question that drives INFINI comes from the building itself, according to Wouters: ‘That has always been my strategy: to set up my workshop in a building and wait until the building starts talking to me and puts a particular question. A year and a half ago I had already taken over a small workroom next to the props store where I was able to put two tables and a pile of books on the history of stage design. Now I started to “read” the theatre itself more actively for a long period, to experience it, to decipher its specific architecture and history. Part of this process was to make a model. For example, I glued in all 49 fly-bars in the fly-tower one by one – after that you know what a fly-bar is and you have time to think about it.’

So what question did the building ask, the one called KVS_Bol? ‘What struck me was that during the renovation a number of choices had been made about the design of the auditorium. I started to realise that they often reaffirmed choices that had been made about five hundred years ago for a particular type of theatre building. The walls are still there, and what’s more they were reinforced by an extra cocoon inside, a concrete sphere which to architects symbolises creation – womb, egg. Another choice was the horseshoe shape and an arch that determine a specific direction of view from the auditorium to the stage. None of this is by chance. The building tells me that there is a reason why these walls are still there. If there is a place in the city where you can shut out the world and show something else, in silence and in darkness, the question is: what can we do with it in the present day?’

‘The flexibility of this building also lies in the technology of the fly-tower, with its 49 electronically-controlled fly-bars that go up and down. This sort of architecture is actually conceived for working with flat planes, that’s what it’s for. The flys offer an infinite number of possibilities, as long as you use painted scenery and backdrops – infinis as they are called in French. This is quite uncommon these days, but it challenged me to think about how we could use this sort of space for what it was designed for. The old technology turns out still to be extremely practical when it comes to enabling several things to exist at the same time in a single space.’

At a certain moment Wouters visited the municipal theatre in Kortrijk, to help the researcher Bruno Forment inventorise scenery that was painted a century ago by Albert Dubosq. Since stage design is an ephemeral medium, the preservation of such large collections is quite rare. ‘In Kortrijk there is a whole stock of sets, which made me realise that the KVS today is like a slide projector with no slides,’ says Wouters. ‘In the past, proscenium theatres had a storage area next to the theatre where a whole series of sets was available that could be set up in no time and from which the director could make a choice on the spot. So perhaps that is the question that the KVS_Bol was putting to me: which stock of sets would the KVS need today?’


Other spaces

One of the main sources of inspiration for INFINI was the work of the eighteenth-century French stage designer Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, who has fascinated Wouters for some time. ‘I have been carrying scraps of the Servandoni story around in my mind for ten years now. In Paris he created “machine plays” that comprised astonishing animated scenery elements. Servandoni wrote that he wanted to liberate painting and stage design from the yoke of poetry and dance. For these performances, which consisted solely of stage design, a theatre was put at his disposal that had been empty for sixty years – the Salle des Machines – which had originally been built to create the biggest illusion ever, with a stage that was five times deeper than that of the KVS_Bol. After it had been built, however, it turned out that the stage was useless for performances because the acoustics were so bad and no operas could be performed there. So Servandoni was able to realise his dream there. In the first year, 1738, he showed a copy of St Peter’s basilica, out of the desire to enable people who did not have the money to make the trip to Rome still to be able to see this masterpiece of architecture. The following year he decided to show seven different spaces in seven successive sets – which is where the idea of showing a series of backdrops comes from. And he continued in this way for several years. It was only later that I discovered that this whole enterprise bankrupted Servandoni. It seems it did not work particularly well and there was little interest in his performances.’

In the Renaissance, Rome often provided the backdrop in theatres, so audiences had a view of the perfect city. Historically speaking, theatre is a place where a city and a community come to look at an idealised image of themselves. What can we do with this tradition today?

‘Thanks to the walls of the theatre, you can forget the outside world and evoke a completely new reality on the inside. But the question is not which idealised world we should show these days, but rather how this mechanism can still be meaningfully used,’ says Wouters. He gives several examples of theatre-makers who are making a contribution to INFINI: ‘Michiel Vandevelde told me that the walls of the theatre should be able to keep out precisely that idealised world that surrounds us every day, so that you could allow a negative space to come into being inside. Wim Cuyvers too claims that the city as we know it has ceased to exist. What are the consequences of the city becoming increasingly virtual and placeless? What meaning does it have these days when one demonstrates or occupies a square? What significance does a monument still have? All of this naturally has an impact on that theatre-machine that stands there in the middle of the city with the historical purpose of depicting the city. Or else take the project initiated by Chris Keulemans, who held conversations with migrants: everyone in the city imagines it in an infinite number of ways. So what can we still do with this theatre building? How does the city portray itself nowadays? What do the radical changes in the urban space signify for stage design, and thereby for the creation of spaces that above all have a front and can only be seen from a distance? What new possibilities can we discover in this way?’


How do we view things?

Just when we are in the midst of a philosophical conversation about the contemporary space, Wouters observes that his focus is after all on stage design. ‘For me it is also a personal quest for what it means to be a stage designer. What does it mean to continue with this old profession at the present time? For this project I had resolved to learn to paint illusions and draw perspective, two things I am not able to do, but which are at the heart of the history of my profession. After a bit of ringing round I ended up finding Thierry Bosquet, an almost eighty-year-old retired scenery painter who had spent most of his working life at La Monnaie under Maurice Huisman. For some time I went to his studio in Uccle every two weeks. I took a model of the KVS_Bol to these lessons, as well as paintings, drawings and photos that occupied my thoughts, such as St Peter’s basilica and pictures from the newspaper. He told me about the history of stage design, the perspective view and the vanishing point. Thierry took an image and divided it into vertical planes between foreground and background, which I then had to copy one by one and hang in a model in such a way that the perspective is correct when you stand in front of it. So there I am, sitting opposite a man who was also a stage designer, and in spite of the huge differences we also share a history and a desire. We are both engaged with spaces that are viewed, with organising the direction of view, and with the question of how people view things.’

How do we view things? A broader cultural history narrative resonates in this question, a story in which stage design plays a part as a medium and as technology. ‘Historically speaking, the construction of the view is not only a matter of the theatre,’ says Wouters. ‘But in the past too, stage designers already applied the theatre view to the outside world, to the way we read the city. For example, Servandoni also designed festivities, processions and fireworks, and then there are also parks, gardens and fountains. So the history of stage design and viewing in a theatre finds its way into our reading of space. You might say that the way an image is composed emerges from the way we have made sets for hundreds of years. I encountered a striking example of this in a photo by the war photographer Teun Voeten, who, when in Syria, unknowingly chose the same framing as Thierry Bosquet was to choose when portraying a space. That is their embodied knowledge.’

So the question of what you can say today using old technology such as the salle à l’italienne is unavoidably linked to a second question: what effect do old technologies have on the way we look at the world today? This makes the question of showing ‘other spaces’ a complex affair. What does it mean to show ‘other spaces’? When we look at this so-called other world, for example when reading an article on Syria in the newspaper, does it really take us outside, to that other space? Or are we after all caught up in our own viewing habits and expectations?

This tangle of questions takes us to the role of the ‘correspondent’, a leading figure in INFINI. Eight artists (theatre-makers, writers and an architect) were requested, as ‘correspondents’, to provide a report from the world with which the Scenery Workshop could set to work. ‘At a certain moment I started embracing the theatre space as a place that could portray other places. Historically speaking this was in fact the function of a scenery workshop: to depict places we are not actually in at that moment,’ says Wouters. ‘The question remains of which spaces one is going to build. With the curator Dries Douibi we invited a series of people to the Scenery Workshop and asked them all the same question: can you decide which landscape we should show in the theatre? We also gave them a budget and a few restrictions. We wanted, for instance, to tell everything in terms of space, with no actors. It is all about depicting other places, really trying to build a bridge between here and somewhere else.’


Negotiating in space

The question we put to the INFINI correspondents – ‘Which space should we depict at the present time?’ – yielded just as many answers to the question ‘How do you want to work in the large theatre at the present time?’ So are the eight correspondents the directors of the production? Or is it Wouters himself who, as set designer and artistic head, decides upon the final result? ‘In this process we are constantly passing on questions to each other. I receive a question from the KVS, which I pass on to eight people who in their turn ask a question which I then have to consider again with the builders in the Scenery Workshop, which raises new questions, and so on. I imagine this structure as a large group of people around an empty centre, a stage or space where we have to determine what we are going to build, whereby we are constantly passing questions on to one another. So it is both my project and that of these eight people, but there is a vacuum at its centre. I would like to believe that the theatre elicited the performance and it comes down above all to listening to this context.’

For Wouters it was an important step to set up the temporary Scenery Workshop where the correspondents could exchange ideas with the set designer and a group of builders about the places they wanted to depict. ‘To me, the workshop feels like coming home. I am grateful to everyone here that the Scenery Workshop is a space where I can discuss things with a lot of people and where we can ask each other questions. The correspondents often come up with a place, concept or discourse that I don’t entirely understand, but we are able to carry on the subsequent conversation in space. When one of the correspondent’s needs change during the process, I can make adjustments on the spot, for example by moving a partition or sawing a piece off. Unlike architecture, set design is like a big, flexible model. I think that the moment when directors have to come to the scenery workshop is often the most interesting point in the production process.’

As the designer of INFINI, I reflect on how we are going to depict the various spaces, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, how all these things can exist together in the theatre. For example, Michiel Vandevelde wants to start out from an empty stage, so we have to put wheels on several other sets so as to be able to roll them on and off easily. Set design is negotiation in space. Negotiation between the space it refers to and the space that there is. Negotiation between the makers’ wishes and the reality of the material and the budget and the technical aspects. And also negotiation between the audience and the stage: how does one view things? How does one focus one’s gaze?’

Ultimately, this continual asking of questions and negotiating in space is an experience that Wouters wants to share with the INFINI audience. In fact he sees the performance as a series of essays in which experimentation and trying things out defines the form. ‘Bart Verschaffel wrote of the essay that it is a heterogeneous collection in search of a place where a bashful subject can appear. And from Wim Cuyvers I received the question of whether architecture can hesitate,’ says Wouters. ‘The Scenery Workshop is a way of creating space in the course of the exploratory process, and perhaps set design is the pre-eminently hesitant architecture. By seeing INFINI as an essay, it is perfectly possible that the things we show are still hesitating. I think that we show the Scenery Workshop itself. To me it’s important to create a space where you can ask yourself why certain things do or do not work and why that is so – that is what I see as hesitating on stage. I think the great desire behind this project is to share the space hesitatingly and thereby to be able to hesitate about space.’


Brussels, 19 August 2015

(Translated from Dutch by Gregory Ball.)