One of the most striking theatre authors in Flanders today is an author’s collection/collective, and that’s significant. The multi-headed form of BOG., consisting of author/theatre-makers Judith de Joode, Benjamin Moen, Sanne Vanderbruggen and Lisa Verbelen, supplemented with dramaturge Roos Euwe and business manager Anne Baltus, is a sign of the times.
Since the start of the new millennium, theatre but also the entire arts field seems to have been somewhat cured of its feverish search for individual excellence, as was the case in the decades before the turn of the century. The generation of those in their twenties and thirties who grew up with the crisis is again seeking shared practices and interconnectedness – perhaps out of self-preservation, but not seldomout of desire. For a theatre writer, this means that the notion of ‘authorship’ as the intellectual fruit of a unique pen becomes less relevant and, as in the case of BOG., moults into a joint process of talking, exchanging, writing and reworking – until a shared language emerges. The oeuvre of BOG. says something about our times not only in its methodology and form; in its themes too, the Flemish-Dutch collection witnesses to a generation looking for something to hold on to.
‘A collection’ is what BOG. calls itself, and that is a programmatic choice. It applies both to the bringing together of the four makers and their (solo) projects, and to the group’s central poetics. De Joode, Moen, Vanderbruggen and Verbelen were all born in 1988 and graduated from the drama schools of Maastricht and Amsterdam. Only after making their first production BOG. een poging het leven te herstructureren [BOG. an attempt at restructuring life] (2013), did they decide to continue in a ‘collection’ of the same name. Once a year they work on a project collectively, alongside each of the four doing their own thing. What they do in this joint project is exactly that: collecting, compiling, bringing together and trying to structure thoughts, facts, experiences. (It should come as no surprise that French author Georges Perec is a recurring source of inspiration.) It’s always about trying to grasp a subject that seems too big to grasp, say: life. In order to oversee this grandeur somewhat, BOG. often uses a process of juxtaposition. The authors carefully showcase their thoughts and then examine them with the requisite amazement.
That which we do know
1 Beginning / growing
Wanting to get out
Seeing the light
Squeezing head outwards
Being pushed out
(from: BOG. een poging het leven te herstructureren)
The polyphonic method is not limited to the four authors themselves. A writing/creative process starts for BOG. with the gathering of sources of inspiration, fascinations, self-written instigations or assignments, but voices outside themselves also speak. For BOG. een poging het leven te herstructureren, the collective, for example, asked a wider group of people about the important moments of their lives, and the answers from these ‘donors of experiences’ resonated in the final text. On the occasion of the successor MEN. de mening herzien [MEN. review opinion] (2014), the collective decided to expand these casual conversation partners into an even broader circle of mostly unknowns, which since then serves as a source of reflection or inspiration – without BOG. committing itself to doing this systematically or feeling ‘obliged’ to use the collected material in their productions. According to dramaturge Roos Euwe, the relaxed handling of this in-the-meantime appropriated methodology, style or signature, is a sign of the company’s maturation, as Euwe wrote in the jubilee booklet OPGROEIEN HERGROEIEN [GROWING-UP RE-GROWING] over five years of BOG. As proof: after the collective productions GOD. (2015), OER. een oefening [PRIMORDIAL. An exercise] (2016) and KID. een voorstelling voor volwassenen over kinderen en een voorstelling voor kinderen over volwassenen [KID. a production for adults about children and a production for children about adults](2017), in December 2018 Iemand die slaapt [Someone who sleeps] premiered, the first BOG. production without the – now-familiar – three-letter title, and for the first time also an adaptation – the BOG. way – of an existing text. Van Perec, of course.
A language ritual
When a company of authors consists of different voices, it is likely that this yields different text forms than ‘classic’ monological or dialogical drama. Anyone who opens a few text brochures will notice that most BOG. texts look uniform and repetitive: BOG. is constructed of a collection of impersonal infinitives, in MEN. each sentence starts with ‘I think’ followed by an opinion, and in GOD., not coincidentally a search for something higher that connects us, the emphasis is on ‘we’.
We are going to say something.
We’ve already said something.
We said the first word.
4. Perhaps it was the right word.
Perhaps it wasn’t the right word.
2. We’re going to think of a better word for that first word. Of more words instead of that first word.
3. Of other words.
2. Of a lot of words.
4. Of no words.
Of another kind of silence.
4. Of nothing.
2. We’re going to make some sort of start anyway.
3. We’re going to say things.
1. We’re going to do things.
2. Quote people.
4. We’re going to not say a lot of things.
This results in grand musicality, an important leitmotif in the work of BOG. The repetition provides the texts of BOG. with a rhythmic cadence: the words become ritual, they are given the power of a musical formula or an incantation. Precisely because of this, they are recognisable to and shareable with a large audience. Despite the fact that the struggle of the makers is always personal and in a sense even autobiographical, the universal style form ensures a possible sensibility for everyone. The procedure of juxtaposition also guarantees the distance that is necessary to become separate from the individual: the makers don’t narrate, they count – they showcase their thoughts without attaching an emotional or moral significance to them. In her book, Euwe uses the word ‘objective’ as ‘the sum of as many subjective perspectives as possible’.
The juxtaposition of thoughts does not happen arbitrarily, there is definitely an evolution, a dramaturgy in the collection of meanings put together. In MEN. the opinions evolve from simple to complex, from general to specific. Also in OER. een poging, a sequence ofthree monologues in which Moen, de Joode and Verbelen each in their own way try to understand the process of thinking, the makers shift from abstract-philosophical thought-experiments to concrete-personal confessions.
I think the plait is silly.
4. I think the sandal is chic.
2. I think the coffee is weak.
1. I think the deer is frisky.
4. I think the dog is funny.
1. I think the sister is funny.
3. I think the sister is fat.
3. I think the sister is stupid.
3. I think the sister is sweet.
I think people should know more about politics.
2. I think I should know more about politics.
3. I think the colour plastic green is ugly..
I like the smell of cocoa.
1. I can’t stand the smell of a beer brewery..
2. I think you don’t always have to be friendly.
4. I think you always have to be friendly to tram drivers.
I think pedophilia is a disease.
I think we should treat pedophiles like humans.
I think we should preventatively painlessly castrate pedophiles.
I think we should learn to accept the existence of pedophiles.
I think we should tolerate pedophiles by turning a blind eye to them.
I think that pedophilia is an orientation.
I think that if a pedophile moves in next door to you you should get compensation paid annually.
I think pedophilia is part of nature and should therefore be recognised.
I think we should put all pedophiles on an island with a fence round them and never mention them again.
I think we should all have a conversation with a pedophile at least once.
I think that pedophilia is also a form of love.
(from: MEN. de mening herzien)
At BOG., thinking is writing, and writing is thinking. But it would be wrong to consider BOG. texts as streams of consciousness, because they are extremely well elaborated. The fact that during the performances they seem to arise spontaneously in the minds of the performers mainly says something about the mastery of the actors of the ‘sincere playing style’, as BOG. calls it.
It is striking that in terms of theme, the work of BOG. is very much in line with that of contemporaries such as De Nwe Tijd or Hof van Eede – although the intent is not to paint these companies with the same brush. Overall, this generation is dealing with a number of shared issues: the meaning of the ‘I’ in the bigger picture, “choice stress” in a world of unlimited possibilities, globalisation and digitisation, the migration issue, ecological challenges … Major issues, which in the case of BOG. rarely explicitly come to the surface in the text, but, as it were, demand attention between the lines. The actual subject of the productions is not the issues themselves, but the makers’ search for ways to deal with this complexity. Because there is always something new to be dealt with. After the destructive irony of postmodernism, the BOG. generation seems to embody renewed hope and decisiveness, without, however, linking this to the politically naive utopianism of the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, this generation knows that comprehensive ideologies no longer exist and that the Great Stories (from a single source) are ill-founded, but that doesn’t stop it from constantly trying to formulate something. This attitude has been given the label ‘metamodernism’ in recent years.
Alfa and omega: language
Finally, there is one philosophical issue that is intertwined with the entire practice of BOG., with the manner in which the collection works, with the form and content of the texts, and that is the issue of language: its possibilities and impossibilities, the way it creates worlds and limits others. The relationship of BOG. to language is that of a fight. The authors wrestle with the unreliability of words, with the problem of interpretation (they get their inspiration from Susan Sontag) and with the inescapability of this linguistic thinking, even when they would rather just feel. Linguistic thinking holds and frees, because things quite simply are paradoxical, as BOG. is forced to repeatedly acknowledge.
Ooooo poor word
poor poor words
pieces of displaced air
I’ll give them one last chance
I’ll hold the words in my arms and put them
in the cupboard at home,
for later, you never know.
(from: OER. Een poging – text fragment Judith de Joode)
The desire for something to hold on to extends even to a micro-lingual level. The simple three-letter words are exemplary: they are an attempt to capture a vast multitude of meanings in three essential characters. At the same time, the short, powerful titles sound like a timpani, like a fist on the table, like a language act. In this way, each BOG. production is a statement of a generation that recognises the enormity of its life questions, but chooses together not to allow themselves be paralysed by them.
Written by Evelyne Coussens
Translated by Dan Frett, Rina Vergano, Emma Wierda and Benjamin Moen
Evelyne Coussens studied Classical Languages at Ghent University and Theatre Studies at Antwerp University. She works for publiq and writes as a freelance cultural journalist for the newspaper De Morgen as well as for various Flemish and Dutch cultural media (among others, rekto:verso, Etcetera, Ons Erfdeel, Theatermaker). She is an editor at-large for Etcetera and has sat on various juries. Coussens is also a guest lecturer on the theory and practice of art criticism at various colleges and universities.
- BOG. een poging het leven te herstructureren* (2013) (translated to Canadian French by Centre des Auteurs Dramatiques and English by Emma Wierda and Benjamin Moen)
- MEN.* de mening herzien (2014) (translated to German by Uwe Dethier)
- GOD.* (2015)
- OER. een oefening* (2016)
- DAM.* Een oefening in niet-vergeten (2016) – tekst by Sanne Vanderbruggen
- KID* (2017)
- Iemand die slaapt (2018) – adaptation of ‘Een man die slaapt’ by Georges Perec
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek