We are too much of a social animal to be melancholic

an interview with Jolente De Keersmaeker and Sara De Roo

Almost overnight, the two relatively unknown stage actresses became television celebrities. And yet Jolente De Keersmaeker and Sara De Roo, respectively Sofie and An in ‘De parelvissers’, still swear allegiance to their great passion: making theatre with Damiaan De Schrijver and Frank Vercruyssen as the STAN collective. “We realize there are more interesting media than the theatre when it comes to sharing something with the world, but I believe it is important to be able to look your public in the eye. You can’t do that when there are a thousand people watching.”

A building site in Antwerp. The two ‘Parelvissertjes’ — ‘Pearl fishers’ — Jolente De Keersmaeker and Sara De Roo pose for the camera amidst the piles of sand. “You’ve got to laugh, Sara”, a pregnant De Keersmaeker giggles. “Damiaan thinks we should laugh more in photographs.” “But we don’t have to listen to him”, De Roo replies. In other words, the two actresses who, together with Damiaan De Schrijver and Frank Vercruyssen, form the STAN theatre collective, speak, eat, drink and sleep STAN. Though they constantly refer to each other, they are all headstrong individuals who won’t be told what to do by their colleagues. Being able to let go of each other and yet always get back together is the elastic band that has held the Antwerp theatre collective together for seventeen years. For the first time since 1997, all four of them are back on stage in of/niet (or/not).

De Keersmaeker and De Roo have shared approximately half their lives with each other. "It’s not that we know everything about each other", De Keersmaeker says. "But there’s not much we don’t know!", laughs De Roo. "Together we have grown from girls looking for something into young women looking to discover life and anxious to carve a niche for ourselves in the theatre world."

The two actresses, who in recent months have become well-known faces on television as An and Sofie in ‘De parelvissers’ (The Pearl Fishers), actually met in the water. They were on a surfing course in the South of France and bonded because they were the ‘odd ones out’. "Sara was still at secondary school and studying diction and taking part in public speaking competitions. After the summer I was to take an entrance exam to Antwerp Conservatory studying under Dora Van der Groen", De Keersmaeker explains. She became a classmate of Damiaan De Schrijver, Frank Vercruyssen and Waas Gramser with whom she went on to form the STAN collective. It was Vercruyssen who after an evening of profuse discussion, came up with the group’s name: Stop Thinking About Names or STAN for short.

In 1989, while STAN was turning the activities of a left-wing/Communist cooperative into a theatre proper, De Roo was having to cope with her inhibitions at the Antwerp Conservatory. When she was beginning her first year, the STANners-to-be were in their fourth and final year. "I learnt an enormous amount from them. It helped being able to rationalize all the doubts I had by talking to people who had already been through it all. Dora Van der Groen encourages you to overcome your shame. She picks away at your most intimate feelings. If you don’t mind that, it helps your acting, but it had a paralysing effect on me. Personally I don’t believe it is necessary to overcome shame to become an actor and you certainly can’t enforce it at a school. Not in my case at least."

"I regard Dora first and foremost as a language artist", says De Keersmaeker. "She turns words over, ransacks them, examining them from every possible angle. I think that’s fantastic and now I often notice – listen to me! – that young actors don’t pay much attention to words. But what Dora asked of us was not easy. And you never had the feeling you had done it well, so you were sometimes hopelessly confused. Whereas the mentality of Luk Perceval, who was also teaching there at the time, was more: ‘just do it, and preferably give it your all’."

"Luk often held long improvisation sessions when we went ‘walking’ with our character", De Roo remembers. "Then we would picnic in the park as our character. I thought that was simply wond-er-ful! Nobody would ever dream of doing anything like that now, but that was the first time I felt: wow, I love doing this."

"It was also an extremely interesting time to be a drama student”, De Keersmaeker continues. "Flanders was very much in the vanguard in the eighties with artists like Jan Decorte and Jan Fabre. We were taught by ‘real directors’, like Ivo van Hove, but also 'theatre-makers' like Josse De Pauw and Matthias de Koning. Who you become has a lot to do with who you meet. It is that mix of positive and negative experiences that teaches you to concoct the soup you think tastes best. When we were taught by Ivo van Hove, we realized immediately that his director-led theatre conflicted with our views about theatre. But that experience was crucial too: only by knowing what you don’t want, do you realize what you do want."

De Keersmaeker, De Schrijver, Gramser and Vercruyssen worked on their graduation project Achter de canapé/Yvonne Op with Matthias de Koning of the Dutch collective Discordia. "Matthias gave us the last big push to try and work as a collective, but we didn’t rush into it. All four of us decided to spend a year doing something else first", De Keersmaeker explains. "In fact we did the opposite of what many new graduates do now, i.e. immediately set up small collectives, many of which are rather short-lived. Damiaan, Frank, Waas and I decided to get together again after a year to see if our idea of forming a collective was a really valid one. It took us a long time to build STAN up bit by careful bit and we are still adding to it."

Waas Gramser left the collective in 1994. Sara De Roo had been brought in by STAN two years earlier, but not without her first having a taste of something rather different. "Before joining STAN, I acted with Het Zuidelijk Toneel. It wasn’t exactly a bastion of envy, but the human relationships were very different. A director would decide on a particular play and he or his casting director would bring actors together without anyone asking if those actors would be able to act together. The director has his interpretation of the play and the actors are expected to follow it. That didn’t seem to me to be the best way of making theatre and I still don’t believe it is." De Keersmaeker nods: "At STAN there is no competition on stage whatsoever. The worst nightmare for an actor is not trusting his fellow actors. When I go to the theatre, I can tell immediately if the people on the stage feel comfortable with one another or not. If they don’t, however well they act, it’s not for me."

"With STAN we take the word 'passion' literally and that means we go for it one hundred percent. There’s a lot of luck and chance involved but also a great deal of hard work", De Keersmaeker observes. "It is not that we were kindred spirits at STAN from the very beginning. But we were very conscious of wanting something different from what there was. And we noticed that we all felt the same way." "And we always stimulated each other in our determination to achieve it", De Roo adds. "There were also years when Jolente and I both wanted to do our own thing more and so we went our separate ways. But eventually you find yourselves back together again. I think that STAN’s greatest strength is being able to let go of each other and above all knowing when the time is right to do that." Thus De Roo made three productions with the Dutch theatre group Dood Paard and De Keersmaeker made Just Before , I said I and Kassandra with her sister, the illustrious choreographer Anne Teresa.

"We hadn’t produced a play involving all four of us since 1997. A lot had happened since then, we had been through so much and gradually the desire to do something together returned. First we did Poquelin with three freelancers, which perhaps served as a catalyst. Our new production of/niet is pure STAN, with just the four of us."

STAN is not just working together, but living together in an open relationship in which the partners occasionally go off on a journey on their own for a while instead of leaving the house and slamming the door behind them. "The funny thing is that during the first five years of STAN we constantly said: 'The day it doesn’t work any more, we’ll stop.' In a way that was our safety net", De Keersmaeker laughs. De Roo nods: "Jolente is particularly good at keeping an eye on that ‘elastic band’ which holds STAN together. I am more the sort who says: ‘that’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m off’. You should of course be free to do that, but you shouldn’t forget just how much you owe the others. STAN has become 'richer' with age. I would never have believed that of life. I would never have believed that you continue to share so much, including all the falling over and picking yourself up. It is a story that acquires depth, grounding. Like wine maturing in a barrel."

"It is typical STAN that all four of us are prepared to give it our all and to keep going after every explosive discussion," says De Keersmaeker. "None of us has ever chosen the easiest route, even though we had the chance. We have never made artistic concessions as a panic reaction: ‘shit, we might not have any more work soon’. If we were in danger of running aground, we always thought: ‘Yes, but wait a sec, if we were to break open that door, who knows, we might find another room we haven’t discovered yet’."

STAN may be a collective, but according to theatre expert Marianne Van Kerkhoven, STAN is a heart with four rooms. De Keersmaeker is the playwright, De Roo is concerned with issues relating to women, Vercruyssen is the politician, and ‘comedian-in-residence’ De Schrijver explores the metatheatre.

"Her remark may be right in part", De Roo concedes, but she doesn’t believe it really matters. "I think we’re all equally sympathetic to politics, the metatheatre, women and dramaturgy. We all share the same motive, namely acting, but the ingredients are different. Of course everyone has his preferences but the job of a collective is to prevent you becoming too set in your ways. It is counterproductive when someone attaches a label like that to the four of us, albeit with the best of intentions."

"In practice everyone has a role in the rehearsal process", says de Keersmaeker. "I think it’s great that Damiaan and Frank look after the music and I’m very happy for Damiaan to comb the second-hand shops in the Kloosterstraat looking for the sumptuous sofa we need for our Molière production Poquelin !"

So you might say that working together in a collective is just a question of who prefers washing the dishes and who prefers drying? De Keersmaeker laughs. "I wouldn’t choose that particular example. Everyone immediately associates a theatre collective with freedom and being able to do your own thing, but a collective is also the reassurance of knowing there are people who will catch you if you are in danger of falling. If we had a premiere next week, I would be terribly nervous, but also calm because the other three are there."

STAN rents a loft in an old warehouse on the Antwerp quays. This is where the actors rehearse their script, sitting round a table. They only set foot in the auditorium in the last week, sometimes only in the last few days. Priers are unwelcome in that private kitchen.

"Rehearsals are such a sensitive process between those who are going to act the play that it is almost impossible to have a spectator there. In the presence of a spectator, the actor behaves differently. Even if someone from the office or a technician comes by, you feel the difference and they aren’t even outsiders", says De Roo. "What an outsider thinks of it, doesn’t matter at that stage; it is between the four of us", De Keersmaeker adds. Once you know the script inside out, the first time you look each other in the eyes and speak the words, is so intimate."

Luk Van den Dries, drama lecturer at Antwerp University, has this to say about STAN’s approach: "The argument is essential. And it is better to argue with words which have already been through the digestion process, words which come from the belly. Or better still: from the ass." De Roo laughs: "Let’s hope that this is the last metaphor! But what he says about the digestion process is true. Because that is the purpose of rehearsing the script: chewing things in such a way that you sense all the different tastes. You look into the remotest corners of that text and ideally for the most unexpected and most contradictory interpretations. If the script says 'yes', you can say ‘no’ and you can extend that principle to the whole script." "In Frank’s case, the process largely takes place in his head. He will never try things out literally until the premiere", says De Keersmaeker. "Whereas Damiaan, Sara and I begin flirting with the script much earlier on." De Roo: "Frank is someone who doesn’t ‘rehearse’ the extreme things like kissing someone. And I can understand why: you want to postpone that sensation as long as possible, so that the first time really is the first time. It also means that the work doesn’t stop after the premiere. Ours is a living art. It is the job of the actor to keep his acting alive, to go looking for that sensation, night after night."

These days STAN enjoys a sound reputation at home and abroad. The collective attracted a full house during the two months it played at the Théâtre de la Bastille in Paris. But the theatre is still a small world made up mainly of like-minded people. Don’t they ever find that difficult?
"If we had only performed in Flanders and the Netherlands for fifteen years, I think we would certainly have answered ‘yes’ to that question", De Roo admits. "We went abroad to avoid becoming too narrow and to give ourselves more breathing space", De Keersmaeker adds. "The theatre takes us to so many different places, from Oslo to Lisbon."

De Roo believes that the difference in public reactions has a lot to do with the place theatre occupies in a society. "In France theatre is part of everyday life: you take in a show after work before getting the metro home. In Portugal and Norway the public is still rather stiff in the first instance, but in France the theatre is vibrant and it provokes heated discussion. It is a particularly enjoyable way to travel: you’re not just a guest, you also take a nice present with you in the form of your story."

"I have always thought of it as such a wonderful ambition: bringing the arts to life in as many places as possible", says De Keersmaeker. It is a legacy that has been handed down from mother to daughters. De Keersmaeker and her sister Anne Teresa were the creative ones in a family of five children. "My parents were not actively involved in the arts, but they were certainly artistically aware. My sister wanted to do ballet but there was no ballet school in our village, so my mother organized a ballet course."

De Roo and De Keersmaeker have shot to fame since taking part in ‘De parelvissers’. "We didn’t hesitate for a moment about acting in Tom Lenaerts’ series. I found the underlying idea, that of filming your own decline, really interesting. Moreover, we were involved in the project at a very early stage, when there were still no scripts. And though we had to work with a director, we had quite a lot of input", says De Roo.

A relatively anonymous stage actress, De Roo suddenly became a television celebrity. But she still continues to do what she has always done. "I realize there are more interesting media than the theatre when it comes to sharing something with the world, but I believe it is important to be able to look your public in the eye. You can’t do that when there are a thousand people watching.”

When asked to have a ‘chat’ with a popular magazine, she declines with thanks. "One of the advantages of getting older is the realization that you don’t have to do everything. I have learned that you should only do the things you want to do and that you can easily say ‘no’ without it being a setback." De Keersmaeker agrees: "When I was still studying, I went for a film audition. I sat there in the waiting-room awaiting my turn and it was like being at the doctor’s. It was awful. I never went in. You often make a choice not because you are strong but out of weakness. And I don’t have a problem with that."

"Look, I regard the fact that you are doing this interview with us because we were in ‘De parelvissers’, whereas the new STAN production is a play involving four people, as something of a compromise. But I am not holier than the Pope; I know that the press is important when it comes to publicizing a production", De Roo admits. In a recent ‘Humo’ interview she fervently defended her decision not to do television advertisements or radio spots, unlike lots of other actors. At STAN they all take a firm stand on this. "Everyone has to live his own life and that also applies to my colleagues at STAN. But if one of us does something the others find difficult to accept, you can be sure there will be a lot of serious discussion about it. If one of us suddenly decided to do advertisements, then it would be discussed endlessly. That sounds harsh but it isn’t really. It has to do with the basis on which our company is built, i.e. the passion for acting, the passion to be able to look people in the eye and try and show a part of yourself in the hope that it has the effect of helping that person in some way. The whole mechanism of theatre is so fragile that I would never in a million years dream of getting sucked into advertising. If I did, I wouldn’t know how to go on making theatre. But apparently there are enough actors who can reconcile the two. So let them do it, but I would regard it as flying in the face of all my dreams and moral considerations. Acting is already negligible. 0.01 percent of the population goes to the theatre. If you treat that mini-segment of society in such a cavalier manner, there is nothing left."

"Lots of actors may have been offended by what Sara said in that particular interview", says De Keersmaeker. "Their reaction is undoubtedly: 'Listen to them, the STAN moral crusaders. It’s easy for them to talk; they are subsidized’. But don’t forget, we have worked hard for those subsidies. Moreover, it is not as if advertising is the only way an out-of-work actor can earn money. And I am not only talking about actors, but perhaps even more about would-be film-makers, who as a result of advertising, never get round to making the film they wanted to make." "Perhaps their desire to make the film is not strong enough in the first place", De Roo observes dryly. "If you no longer believe in the power of your own action, wouldn’t it be better to stop? The day I no longer believe my opinion can have some effect on the world, however small, I won’t go on stage any more. I’ll stop acting."

"I read somewhere that the brain receives up to ten thousand commercial impressions a day." De Keersmaeker points to her pullover. "That applies to the logo on this pullover, to the advertising I hear on the radio while looking at an advertising hoarding out of the window. It is impossible not to be influenced by advertising. If you go along with it, that is your right, but then you also make it clear that you condone the way of the world today. It is a statement, not something to feel half-hearted about. It is already considered strange even to question it. Ten years ago advertising was still a ticklish question among actors. The poison of advertising works in an insidious way and you start to believe it is normal for advertisements to be branded onto your retina and drummed in your ear. Inventors are currently experimenting with personalized advertising. There is often a barcode on the label inside your clothes. Now they want a signal to be transmitted via that barcode to the advertising hoardings you pass so that the advertisement adjusts to your specific ‘needs’."

Neither of the two actresses wishes to be described as melancholic. "We are too much of a social animal to be melancholic", De Keersmaeker remarks. De Roo firmly believes that people will always go to the theatre. "If we ask critical questions of our society, it is not because of melancholy but because of an intense love of people and the desire for all to be right with the world."

De Morgen, Liv Laveyne, April 15th 2006