Theater director Ivo van Hove has made a habit of breaching borders. Born in Belgium, he currently runs the internationally renowned Toneelgroep Amsterdam in the Netherlands and also brings his work to New York with welcome regularity. More significantly, van Hove makes an art of erasing the barrier not only between actor and audience, but also between one scene and another.
During the presidential 2012 election, his epochal production Roman Tragedies, which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, ran for nearly six hours without any breaks. Van Hove edited Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra to focus both the text and the theatrical experience on the relationship between politicians and the public. Audiences were encouraged to come and go where and when they pleased—even up onto the stage. The production became an exhilarating and indelible exercise in democracy, mounted by one of the reigning auteurs in global theater.
In van Hove’s most recent work, Scenes from a Marriage, which runs at New York Theatre Workshop until October 26, the three scenes of the first act play simultaneously. The entire audience is divvied up and escorted into one of three makeshift spaces, where they watch the scenes play out in a different order from each other. Three sets of actors perform the central roles of Johann and Marianne, at various phases of their relationship. In the second act, seats and playing areas are spread throughout one open space. The three sets of actors often perform simultaneously mere inches away from a group of spectators. The play’s collection of everyday relationship dramas become fodder for a mass ritual of coming together and tearing apart.
Soon after the production’s opening, I spoke with van Hove, as he prepared to leave his American cast temporarily and bring in Toneelgroep Amsterdam once again to BAM, which houses his stripped-down version of Angels in America (October 24 – 26). Both plays focus on doomed relationships, yet the reputedly renegade “bad boy” of the theater could be more accurately defined by his fondness for long-term commitments.
Passionate conflict, with balls-to-the-wall brutality, tends to dominate your productions. But that seems to run counter to the relationships you’ve nurtured with theaters, actors and designers. You choose to work with the same people repeatedly.
I like loyalty, because it creates an atmosphere of confidence. Trusting each other is always the best environment to be creative. I don’t like conflicts in my rehearsal room. I’m never provoking fights between my actors. I like an atmosphere where it’s pleasant to work with each other. That’s the best basis to build a solid building, supported by everybody because everybody is important. In rehearsal, the first days are there to create an ensemble that cares for each other, that wants to make each other better, and not just wants to make him or herself good. Helping them be aware that the others are equally important in a production is what I do. I don’t know how I do that. It’s from being very patient I think. Jan [Versweyveld], my designer who’s always there, says I can be very full of temperament, but I can also be very patient with an actor and give them time to discover things. For me, it’s important that the personality of an actor shines through and that the actor doesn’t pretend to be somebody else because that’s an illusion.
Your vision of personality seems to foreground contradiction. Here, they show both tenderness and selfishness.
That’s true. And that’s the character. I don’t like texts that have only one dimension. The actor has to discover the Macbeth in himself when you do that play. The Lady Macbeth in yourself. You can’t pretend that by putting on a wig and having a funny walk or something that you’re somebody else. Then you’re imitating somebody else and imitation is not art. So I want them to connect with the part in a personal way. That’s the theater I like.
You said Jan is always there. That’s uncommon for a designer.
He’s not a designer who makes a design, then comes back for the last two weeks for tech. No, he’s really interested in the collaboration with actors. For him, it’s very important that they feel good in his set, that they understand the set very well. Also, when things are getting difficult, he tries to talk to them, to see how to make it better. For me, I have the feeling it’s sometimes not clear who directed and who did the design. Of course, I do all the talking to the actors. But he also has a lot of ideas about me directing, just as I have ideas about designs. It feels like a Jan Versweyveld and Ivo van Hove production. It’s a real collaboration.
And it goes beyond the theater. He’s your partner off stage as well. How do you manage that?
For us it works very well. It’s completely private, you know? A lot of the times when I’m a guest director in opera, or when I was in London, people aren’t even aware that we’re a couple until the end. We really have very different opinions. It’s not that we always say, “Yes, you’re right.” Not at all. But we don’t bring our private life to the rehearsal room. We keep it separate.
So when your actors are brawling and pouring water over each other in Scenes from a Marriage’s second-act fight-to-end-all-fights, they don’t look to you two for advice? You don’t say, “This is how we do this at home”?
[Laughs] No. I’m also not a director who gives a lot of examples from his own private life. Sometimes I do, of course, but not a lot. To illustrate something or to inspire other people. A private thing is a private thing.
Yet making the private public seems at the core of your work. It’s remarkably intimate, even if not in the specific details of your or your actors’ lives. The films you’ve chosen to adapt, Scenes from a Marriage or Cries and Whispers and Opening Night, were all intensely personal to their original writer-director.
I think any production by me is a piece of my autobiography. So, yes, these are very personal to me as they were to Bergman, to Cassavetes. It makes no sense to turn a movie into a theater play unless there’s really an urge to do it because it was intended to be a movie. I only do that when I think I can tell something which I cannot do with any existing play. A movie is made by the edit. The big challenge for me then is to invent a world for it theatrically.
Do you know when you start how you connect with a piece personally or do you discover that as you go along?
Choosing a text is like being struck by lightning. It’s something impulsive, like suddenly falling in love with someone. It happens that I think, “Oh, this would be great to do on stage.” For instance, in Cries and Whispers it was staging death. It wasn’t important for the public to know, but my father had just died a year before. I had witnessed it, so the production was perhaps my way to say goodbye him. And I wanted to stage death in a truthful way because it’s always pathetic when people die on stage. I wanted to make it believable. It’s challenges like that I’m searching for. Then, later, because I have to work with lots of people and I have to inspire them, I have to try to rationalize why it is that I’m in love with this. If I just say to everybody, “Be in love also because I am,” that will not work. I have to give it words. And that’s my preparation. I really prepare a text. I really think about it, about what it can mean. And then I discover new things again, I hope, during rehearsal. When I do a remake, like here with Scenes from a Marriage, which I did originally in Amsterdam, I found five to 10 pages of Bergman’s text that I thought would interesting to deal with. Even with a tour, the performances develop more and more. It becomes deeper like a good wine. It’s the same wine, but it becomes better.
Besides an instinctive connection, what do you look for in a text?
I need texts that are layered, that allow me to find—that provoke me to find—my own path in the roots of the text. I’m rehearsing now a monologue that Simon Stephens [adapter of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and the upcoming Punk Rock at MCC] has written for me. A monologue is the hardest thing to do on stage. But this is beautiful. And we’re making great discoveries. “Why is this line here? Why is this character all of a sudden popping up there.” I like discoveries.