interview with Frank Vercruyssen

No learning lines by heart, no rehearsals, no one seemingly in charge: just four stroppy students sitting round a table, talking a lot, smoking and reading texts. This sounds an unlikely point of departure for one of the most successful theatre companies in Belgium. But these are the rules that tg STAN, a theatre collective based in Antwerp that started its life 20 years ago, set out for themselves. Now, 60 productions down the line and an international tour schedule that’s choc-a-block for years to come, Frank Vercruyssen, one of the four founding members, claims these basic working principles remain unchanged.

Frank Vercruyssen, Damiaan De Schrijver, Jolente De Keersmaeker and Waas Gramser, the four first members of the collective, met as acting students at Antwerp’s conservatory in the 1980s. They quickly realized they didn’t fit into the mould prescribed by the school. “We weren’t at all interested in simply doing our acting parts in the way a director, whoever he was, wanted us to,” Vercruyssen recalls. “We needed to get our hands into everything; get involved in all aspects of making a show. When we found that wasn’t possible at school we got bored and started to grumble.” As a reward for their truculence and resistance to the traditional methods taught by the school, they were made to repeat a year before graduating, but the exasperated faculty decided to leave them to their own devises. “It was then,” says Vercruyssen, “that we really found what we had been looking for. We decided to make something on our own under the guiding eye of Josse De Pauw, a maverick figurehead in the Flemish theatre world. We found a whole hotchpotch of texts that we really loved and suddenly felt this enormous explosion of freedom.”

The initials S T A N stand for Stop Talking About Names, and the company still describes itself as actor-oriented and undogmatic. Their charisma on stage is proof that their rebelliousness at school preserved their natural acting talent but did not prevent them from honing their technical skills and spot-on timing. Another company characteristic is their passion for a huge range of mainly classical authors whose works they treat with their trademark irreverence.  STAN does not rehearse in the conventional sense. They don’t set their performances to a predetermined format that is easy to repeat every night; instead, they move straight from their table and conversations about the inner workings of the characters onto the stage. Their dialogue retains a genuine spontaneity and all the action has a fresh and dynamic element of unexpectedness. They often treat language with a similar, carefully crafted impertinence. They themselves undertake the translations of well-known classics into unflowery Flemish, relishing the slang and colloquialisms of their own language and jettisoning the more elegant, official, Dutch versions. When performing in English they make no attempt to mimic a BBC accent nor do they give French affectation to their Molières; instead they might have a prompter sitting conspicuously on stage, catching them when they trip hilariously over words or forget chunks of text completely.

Humour is a large part of their appeal for many audiences (the tears of laughter running down my face when I saw STAN’s version of The Importance of Being Earnest remains a cherished memory), but it is not the main criterion for their choice of texts. STAN’s work almost invariably incorporates social criticism, political comment and experimentation with art forms other than text and theatre. The current core-group artists (Sara De Roo joined the company in 1992, and Gramser moved on in 1994) also regularly collaborate with other like-minded artists and companies. STAN has worked regularly with contemporary dance, for instance. Jolente De Keersmaeker is the sister of choreographer and Rosas dance company director founder Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and their respective companies have collaborated in creating two full-evening works:  Heiner Muller’s Quartett and In Real Time, with music by Aka Moon, the Belgian avant-garde jazz band.

Vercruyssen is perhaps STAN’s most political voice. He has made two multimedia solos focusing on the West’s role in the two Gulf Wars and, in collaboration with actor Malumba Anderson, a work based on the letters of George Jackson, a Black Panther supporter who was shot in a California prison in 1971. “These performances were not specifically anti-American,” says Vercruyssen. “Rather I used the American defence machine and the massive Crime Bill signed by Clinton in 1994 that had far reaching consequences on civil liberties, as metaphors for what we — and I mean all of us in the West  — in Britain and in Belgium, do to the world.”

Vercruyssen recently embarked on what he acknowledges to be one of his most challenging ventures to date. In the tangible, he is bringing three young dancers -- a Canadian, a Norwegian and an Italian --on stage together with two actors -- a Syrian and a Palestinian -- and asked two artists from Ramallah to create the visuals. When I talked to him in Antwerp one month before the premiere, the big table in the rehearsal space had been pushed aside to make room for the dancers, but STAN’s collective rules remained the same: the talks, the reading of texts and the possibility for all of the project’s participants to contribute equally to the creative process.

The main source of inspiration for the show is ‘The Fertile Crescent’ – the region shaped like a waxing moon that once encompassed the Orient, old Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt – also called ‘The Cradle of Civilization’: it roughly corresponds to today’s The Middle East.

“As a traveller in the Eighties, I fell in love with the region,” says Vercruyssen. “Of course I became involved in the political reality and am hyper-aware of the ramification of Western countries’ action in the area over the centuries. We’re not intending to make a documentary though; films like Death in Gaza, Checkpoint or 33 Days have done that already and cannot be bettered. The performance will not be explicitly about the Israeli -Palestinian conflict and its consequences. We want to use our different outlooks and personal realities to talk about a more general, poetic or abstract sense of loss.”

The Bulletin, Oonagh Duckworth, April 2010