Ontroerend Goed bring Teenage Riot to the Edinburgh Fringe
Renowned Belgian theatre group explores teenage angst
This article is from 2010.
Belgium's ground-breaking theatre company Ontroerend Goed is back with a darker set of teenage kicks. Mark Fisher speaks to director Alexander Devriendt about being in touch with his own rebellious side
Everyone who visits Alexander Devriendt in the rehearsal room says he must be crazy. He is 33 years old, yet he thrives on working with the most exuberant of teenagers. ‘It’s not about wanting to stay young, I don’t think about it,’ says the Belgian theatre director. ‘I don’t mind the chaos and the noise.’ This is just as well. It was Devriendt who was responsible for Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, the high-energy hit by Ontroerend Goed that blasted onto the Traverse stage in 2008. It was a remarkable show – as remarkable in its own way as the same company’s other Fringe sensations The Smile off Your Face and Internal – the more so because it was performed by 13 teenagers.
In a series of punchy scenes that ranged from the anarchic to the hallucinatory, they summed up everything that is great about being an adolescent. They were unapologetic, vigorous and passionate and their energy was infectious. Having thrilled audiences in Edinburgh, they picked up bookings from festivals around the world. No international tour has ever depended so much on the dates of the Belgian school holidays. It played for 182 performances.
In all that time, Devriendt never tired of it and neither did his teenage performers. In New York, they did some school dates and the director was alarmed to see the kind of audience he’d previously encountered only in the toughest movies. ‘I didn’t expect the show to make a connection with other cultures,’ he says. ‘In New York, it was like Boyz n the Hood, these really heavy guys. I was a bit afraid: “What do we have to tell them about being young?” But one of the guys said in the post-show discussion that “it is so weird a couple of guys from Ghent have the same feeling as me”. It was beautiful and a surprise that I made something that resonated with other youngsters.’
But it was a show with a built-in sell-by date. The actors could not stay teenagers forever and, after two years together, they fought, danced, snogged and fooled around for one last time in their home town of Ghent. ‘The 165th performance, for instance, was still as energetic as the first one,’ he says. ‘I can pretend I know why, but I don’t. They just loved playing it. At the same time, for some of them, they felt it was the last taste of youth they had; when Once and for All stopped, adult life began. So they cherished every performance they could play. For the last performance, they didn't change anything, they just played every scene like their lives depended on it. It was the first time I watched the piece with tears in my eyes. It was the best one they ever did.’
After so much acclaim, the director might have been wise to leave it at that, but he had unfinished teenage business to attend to. Devriendt returned to the rehearsal room, this time with a smaller group, some of whom he had got to know through Once and for All. Initially he worried about trying to improve on the earlier show, but once he realised that was impossible, he felt liberated to go in a new direction. ‘That gave me so much freedom. It was more of a collaboration between people I knew and that gave me a totally different feeling and joy in making this.’ Now, with Teenage Riot, the plan was to explore aspects of adolescence that the earlier show had deliberately ignored.
‘Where Once and for All was the teenagedom I wish I’d had, I wanted to make something that was closer to the teenagedom I experienced. It was more personal. And I chose actors who had a rebelliousness in them.’
First he had an obstacle to overcome. If he wanted the youngsters to speak openly and honestly and to devise a script that was all their own words, he needed a way for them to say in public what they would normally say only in private. His solution for anyone used to seeing live theatre was an odd one. He put them in a box. They would communicate with the audience via a camera inside. ‘The room on stage is a good way of getting out of the actors things they really wanted to do but they wouldn’t dare show in plain view. In that way, I could go a little bit tougher and harder.’
To generate material, he set them loose with a video camera. On one occasion he suggested they should cram themselves into a room the size of a toilet for 15 minutes and film in there. ‘Only 15 minutes?’ said the performers and insisted on staying in there for an hour and a half. Every 15 minutes he handed in a supply of food. ‘It gave them a lot of freedom because the camera was an easy way to give confessions.’ On another occasion, demonstrating Devriendt truly is in touch with his teenage self, he gave them a camera and the keys to his own flat for the night. Remarkably, it was still in one piece the next day. ‘They filmed some beautiful moments and the house was really clean the day after, though my bed was full of crisps they'd forgotten to clean.’
From such exercises, they generated perhaps four hours of material which they whittled down into Teenage Riot, finding a way also to communicate directly with the audience. ‘In form and feeling it’s a different show to Once and for All,’ he says. ‘Some people think it is funny, but for me it is darker. Generally people left Once and for All with a feelgood feeling; after this, I leave them a little bit more distressed. It’s more of a shock for adults.’
Teenage Riot, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 0131 228 1404, 18–29 Aug (not 23), various times, £17–£19 (£6–£13). Preview 17 Aug, 12.45pm, £12 (£6).