I’ve been aware of Jan Lauwers work with Needcompany since the mid-’80s, though I’ve only had the opportunity to see his work live once. Needcompany and The Wooster Group often performed at the same festivals and cities in Europe, but we were usually arriving as they were departing or vice versa. We would sometimes hear that The Wooster Group had had an influence on the work of Needcompany . . . through other sources, we heard that they had had an influence on us. I remained curious.
In the late ’90s, Viviane de Muynck, who has been with Needcompany since its early days, came to work with us on Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape when we needed to replace an actor. She and Ron Vawter, one of the Group’s early members, had struck up a friendship and to this day she remains a close friend of the company. Other members of Needcompany became friends as well. They would sometimes drop by rehearsals when they were in New York, though Jan and I never had the opportunity to talk at any length. This interview, on the occasion of Needcompany’s The Deer House coming to BAM this October, was our first real conversation.
Elizabeth LeCompte Jan, hi, it’s Liz.
Jan Lauwers Long time no hear.
EL Yeah, long time no see, no hear. Where are you now?
JL I’m in Brussels.
EL Wow, this is amazing. I’m way out in the country. I just watched The Deer House but it was difficult because it’s on tape.
JL The only thing you’ve seen live of mine is Isabella’s Room, in Basel, in 2004.
EL Ah, that’s right, I forgot. So this piece, The Deer House, seems to have several stories going on simultaneously.
JL I always work on different levels at the same time. The story behind The Deer House is a real story. We were in a dressing room somewhere, and one of the dancers in the ensemble got a phone call from her father to say that her brother, a war reporter in Kosovo, had died. It was a very emotional moment for the company; we’ve worked together for a long time. This is maybe the most intimate play that I have written; it’s not like with Isabella’s Room, where I was talking about my father. That was much easier. This play took me a while to get rid of. The first version we did, which is on the tape that you saw, was too emotional for me. We changed the show the moment the dancer herself decided not to perform in it anymore because it was too personal.
EL Is she still performing it now?
JL No. She couldn’t do it anymore. You know how it goes. You work with people for a long time, so when something goes, it cannot go out smoothly, it goes out with a bang. (laughter)
EL Well, sometimes. After about 40 years, it goes in every possible way. So the woman who took over her part, does she say the words that the original woman said?
JL Yes, exactly.
EL And how did you construct the script?
JL To replace her, I did some auditions, and I engaged a woman who had never acted before. To get that kind of emotion required a fresh approach. This version is better because it’s not so personal anymore; at the same time, it becomes personal because of the acting. That’s my obsession, in fact: What is the new content for art nowadays? Do you have to talk about yourself or about the world around you? When you do William Shakespeare, when you do Anton Chekhov, they’re further away. But when you talk about your own things, it’s risky. I like this risky business a bit. You have to acknowledge these problems and see what happens. The Deer House is the third part of the trilogy Sad Face/Happy Face. The first was Isabella’s Room; the second, The Lobster Shop. The trilogy is about how far you can go in trying to develop a new content for art. The idea is to write global stories.
EL But technically how did you develop the script? Did the company improvise off of the event? Did you record it?
JL No, I write, and when I have a full written play I invite the actors to sit around a table and read it for the first time.
EL And you assign parts before they read it?
JL Yeah, I write for these eight actors in our ensemble. I write totally alone. When we come together and read the play for the first time, I stop being a writer and become a director. We look for confrontation with the public very quickly. Let’s say we read it for the first time on Monday, and on Friday we go to a theater and read the play to 100 people. At the same time, the actors and the dancers and the musicians start to make music bit by bit. So in the beginning it’s a very dry reading, and then, after a while, there are songs or dances in it—this part depends on the group. Basically, I make the first decisions in the writing, there is adventure during rehearsals, and then I make the final decisions.
EL Isabella’s Room is mostly in English, with some French.
JL Some French, some Dutch sometimes, yeah. It’s always a mixture because we have seven different nationalities in the group. In The Deer House, there is a British actor, and then Viviane de Muynck, of course, who is English and Dutch, but no Americans this time.
EL And how do you feel working in all those different languages? Does it make a difference for you if you’re working in French or you’re working in English?
JL A very big difference. It’s also strange because I’m always writing in my native Dutch, but, in fact, in the last ten years I’ve never heard my own plays in my language. They’re always in another language, which gives me a lot of freedom, and it’s also a fact of life in Europe.
EL But when you perform this, say, in Paris, and a lot of it is in English, do you have to have supertitles?
JL Yeah, we do that. From the beginning I work with supertitles; it’s like having another actor. We’ve done some shows where you can see the supertitles, without actors having said anything. If you don’t want someone to play a part, you just show text. It’s part of the game. In New York, The Deer House will be partly in French and partly in English. And the French parts will be translated into English, as supertitles.
EL I mean, for me, as soon as Viviane and some of the other actors go into a language I don’t understand, it changes the tone of the piece so incredibly. It’s almost like two or three different instruments.
There’s another story in the play, the one that’s spoken at the lectern. What is that?
JL Well, it’s a fairy tale, an invention. So there is the real story about the dancer’s brother, who is a war photographer, and the fake story in which the brother is trying to find the deer house. The deer house is a country house somewhere in the mountains, where they raise deer to sell the antlers. The photographer is forced to kill a woman. Quoting from the play: “I was taking photos of an execution of women and children. They forced me to take sides. I said I wasn’t allowed to do that. One of them said it was a game: sofitsyok. He pronounced it as if it was a Chinese dish. Afterwards I understood what he meant: Sophie’s Choice. But I never saw the film. There was a mother with her daughter. He said I could save one of them if I shot the other.” So he brings the body of the dead daughter to the mother, who lives in the deer house. The mother accepts him as a new son, so he takes the place of the daughter.
EL When you wrote the original script about the death of the brother, were you also thinking about the fable? Did you integrate it at the same time as you were writing?
JL Yeah, exactly.
EL What about the dance? Is that something that you’re responsible for or does the company come up with—
JL That’s the company’s work. My work is to find the timing and the balance between the words and the movements.
I like to have different centers of energy at the same time on stage. I learned from John Cage that to have good theater you must have five different centers at the same time. I like that idea very much. In fact, I learned that a bit from you also, when I saw L.S.D. (1984), the second part of The Road to Immortality trilogy. That was the first thing I saw of yours. I was 21 or something; it changed my idea about theater. That show was about timing and constant energy. So you are a big source of inspiration.
EL That’s funny because that was my next question: what were your influences in making this particular piece?
JL Well, it’s this woman Liz LeCompte, from New York. You can write that down, it’s really true.
EL Okay, I’ll take that. So how has it changed over the years, from when you were 21?
JL What has changed is the writing, I think.
EL Are you doing more writing?
JL I’m becoming more and more of a playwright maybe. I don’t know. I have my visual-art projects, my film projects, my theater projects, but, more and more, the fun is in the writing. To be alone and write is fantastic after working with actors and all these egos.
EL That’s what I wanted to ask you about. As you know, as I know, it’s fabulous working with a company, but extremely difficult to navigate all the different egos.
JL Yeah, to find balance is one of the most difficult parts of the job. I’ve learned over the years to have an ensemble in evolution, so for every production I try to find a new naïve person who comes into the group and changes the interrelationship between the members of the ensemble immediately. In The Deer House there’s this young Japanese girl whom I’d never worked with before. I thought it would be good for an older diva like Viviane to have this young beautiful woman next to her; it’s another challenge. Dancers against actors is different; the preparation is different. It’s true; it’s hard work to keep an ensemble motivated and to avoid these moments of big egos and bubbles of psychological problems.
EL And also certain ruts that the director and the performers get into that have to be broken. You know, a way of behaving or a way of moving that is the same all the time—to break those patterns, I think, is difficult.
JL When you work with wonderful performers they also challenge you constantly. It goes both ways. It’s difficult for them to work with the same director over and over. At the same time, it’s a bit like when you have a good improv-jazz ensemble. When they’ve been working together for a long time you can have fantastic moments on stage; that’s why it’s best to work with a fixed ensemble that is always evolving a little bit upon the arrival of new members. If you work with the same people for ten years, the work can only become better.
EL What’s happening with theater in Brussels and in Belgium in general, and how do you identify with it?
JL They talk a lot in Europe about the “Flemish Wave,” but that’s more in dance.
EL But when they talk about the “Belgian Wave” or the “Flemish Wave,” what do they mean?
JL Well, for the last 20 years in the European performing arts festivals, out of ten groups there will be four or five groups from Belgium. Last week we performed at the Malta Festival in Poznan, Poland, in one of the biggest festivals in Europe, and out of 15 participating groups, 12 were Flemish. It’s amazing.
EL But do you know why that is, why there is so much theater? Do you get more help from the government than, say, they do in France?
JL You can’t compare our situation with yours in the United States. We have good support from the government; we can pay the actors we work with. That’s already something. For example, Needcompany has 17 people on full salary now, year-round, which is amazing. We have to perform a lot for that, but with the support from the government, we can cover those salaries.
EL Do you know approximately what the percentage is of your support from the government and grants, and your support from box office and touring?
JL Needcompany has, let’s say, 35 percent government support and 65 percent touring. That’s very unique—Needcompany does very well; some of the groups in Belgium have up to 90 percent support from the government.
EL Ours is closer to 60 percent box office and touring, and about 6 percent government.
JL It’s difficult to compare both systems. For example, we have a different tax system and, therefore, almost no sponsorship possibilities. But, anyway, we are a bit spoiled compared to you in New York or in the States. That’s why I’m a big defender of the European system for artists. It’s interesting; we’re going more and more in your direction since our political system is becoming more right-wing and nationalistic, so there’s less and less support now. It’s not a good evolution; it’s all a question of spiritual freedom. You lose so much time if you always have to think about money. But, I must say, the art you make in the States—you and other people in theater and film—is very strong because you’re a bunch of fighters. Sometimes in Europe you get a bit lazy.
EL Well, it’s changing a little here in the States. Originally, very few of the artists I knew went to art school of any sort. We just came to New York to make art. And the younger generations now, they go to school, so they come out with a very different idea of how to work and how to make a living out of it. You know, it separates out the people who really enjoy school, which for me is more like being in Europe, because you’re so subsidized. You come out and if it’s tough, you leave, and so we don’t have as many artists here. It’s a smaller pool. When I go to Europe there is such a big . . . almost a class of artists. It doesn’t happen here.
JL Yeah, it’s a world of difference. Nevertheless, I started to make art because of American artists, because I saw your work, and the films of John Cassavetes, another one of my sources of inspiration when I was young. There’s over-professionalization with the new generation in Belgium and in Europe. They go to school to become artists. I never studied theater.
EL Me neither. I studied painting.
JL Yeah, me too.
EL More people are calling themselves “playwrights” or “choreographers.” I came out of a time when all of those systems were broken up and you could do anything. We emulated the art. We worked with dancers, with sound artists, we worked with anybody. Now because of funding in the States, you have to declare what you are pretty soon, because those pools of money go very specifically for “writing,” or “film,” or “directing,” and if you fall in between it’s very difficult to make a living. But that’s all new in the last 15 years.
JL So a group like The Wooster Group could not make it in New York anymore. Maybe it’s possible, but I don’t see it now.
EL I don’t either; I see other things: people making groups through new technology, for instance. It’s very different, but it’s still making groups and making work online. Real time. Do you have a family, could I ask?
JL Yeah, I have two children.
EL You have two children? I didn’t know that.
JL Yeah, a daughter of 15 and a son of 19. My wife, Grace, and I started Needcompany together.
EL I didn’t know this about you. And Grace is still with the company?
JL Yeah, of course. We’ve worked together for 24 years. And also the children; I involve them in projects. I go on tour a lot, but we all work like a team. When the children can work with us, they do.
EL And you and Grace, do you ever talk about what it was like when you first started and what it’s like now?
JL A little bit, but we are not nostalgic. We just work and go on.
EL Is there anything you think about that you are so happy to be rid of from the past?
JL Hmm . . . the first Needcompany group? I cannot say that. (laughter)
EL You just did! I don’t know if off-the-record applies here. That was only a short-lived company, right?
JL For one show.
EL How did you form the second company?
JL Well, the first company exploded, in fact, in the States. We were touring with this first show and—
EL What was the show?
JL Need to Know.
EL And where did you perform it?
JL We performed it in New York and Seattle in 1987. We were driving from New York to Seattle in two cars to make a road film, and there was too much stress, and there was some kind of bar fight between me and someone in the company, and I was arrested by the sheriff and sent home—
EL In what town?
JL In the middle of the Midwest somewhere, in a very small town.
EL Peoria, perhaps? (laughter)
JL Maybe in South Dakota . . . I don’t know.
EL But in which theater did you perform in New York? I just wonder why I didn’t see it.
JL It was not in Manhattan. It was in a university theater in Long Island.
EL That’s right, and I think it was in the summer, yes? That’s why I missed it.
JL Yes, it was a summer festival.
EL I remember that, they brought European companies over for that festival. And so what’s the difference now, coming back? I know you were back here about seven or five years ago.
JL Joe Melillo invites us every two or three years. We did Morning Song (1999) there first; it won the Obie Award for best international production. Then immediately after 9/11, we came to do King Lear. I phoned Joe to say, “Is that a good idea, to do a war piece just after 9/11?” And he said, “You have to do it.” That was a very emotional moment. To perform in New York is always a highlight for Needcompany. I like the Harvey Theater very much—it’s a great space.
EL What are the audiences like in New York?
JL I like them very much. They know a lot, you feel that. At the Harvey they are very generous to us. There is beautiful energy in the room and I’ve met some wonderful people there. Harvey Keitel came to see King Lear, Holly Hunter was there also. And it’s really fun for us, coming from Europe, to see people we admire.
EL I have some silly questions now, all right? You ready for these?
EL We here think that the Flemish theater has certain things about it. We know that the French theater does. The German theater might have certain things that are so German: a philosopher taking off all his clothes or something . . . But the Flemish are very specific; you always have a scene in underwear, and you used to have a lot of smoking, like the French. Do you know that that’s a kind of cliché about the Flemish theater?
JL That we are in underwear and smoking?
EL And naked blond girls.
JL Oh, well, in The Deer House there is one naked blond girl.
EL But it’s not uncommon! Have you ever heard this, though?
JL I never heard it, but I have to say I have a lot of post-show Q&As and people ask a lot of questions about nudity. The younger generation thinks that nudity is more and more impossible on stage or something.
EL Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. In America nudity on the stage isn’t common. When it does happen it’s often a celebrity we want to see naked—Nicole Kidman, Vanessa Redgrave. It’s not a casual thing for us Americans, like for you Europeans. It’s not casually accepted.
JL I’m not involved in that so much, although there’s a lot of nudity in The Deer House because it starts in a dressing room, and on the stage you see people changing to do the show. They are naked without being naked. Or they are very naked at that moment, because they’re not playing with it. Then, in the second part, the woman is dead and they try to cover her nakedness. So if it’s dramaturgically correct, I use it.
EL But it’s you who makes the decision.
JL Together with the actors. If they don’t want to be naked, they are not naked.
EL I just wondered if they improvise and that’s just part of the improvisation as well.
JL You know, some of the actors like to be naked. Don’t forget that.
EL Yeah, I do know that. And I wanted to ask about smoking. Are you allowed to smoke now on the stage?
JL Less and less. We have problems with that in more and more countries. Viviane smoked in Isabella’s Room and in England it was forbidden, so she had to pretend to smoke, which became very funny. We are less politically correct here than in the States.
EL I will miss that; I kind of like watching people smoke on the stage, and it’s becoming rarer and rarer. Oh, I wanted to ask you about Viviane. In this piece was she there from the beginning? Did you have an idea of what she would play?
JL Yeah, she was in it from the start. I’m writing a new play for her and I just finished a solo with her; we work a lot together. But she also works more and more in film and with other directors.
EL She’s very sartorial in this piece. Because I know her, she has a history of so many other pieces, so many things come with her. All the other people I don’t know as well; they’re younger, they’re dancers, and she’s so an actress. She wanders through in this kind of . . . she’s like this fabulous old elm tree among all these willows.
JL She becomes better and better. She is an amazing actress.
EL Yeah. Is there anything else you want to say, because I think I’m done.
JL We are very nervous to come to New York as always, and I really hope I can see you. Are you doing well with The Wooster Group?
EL We’re doing fine, actually. It’s odd. We’re so conservative fiscally and we’re so comfortable with the home—you know, we bought The Performing Garage—so it’s very easy for us to expand and then retract. I kind of enjoy the ride, I have to say. And we’re doing okay, we’re surviving very well. I mean, not very well. What can I say? Our salaries are so low that it’s ridiculous, but everybody works in other media, so I’m able—you know that thing about a company that doesn’t stay the same, that mutates . . . Hold on, one second. Can you still hear me? (Hey, who’s out there? Can you bring me the other phone? It’s in the other cabin.) We’re really out in the woods here.
JL Really? (laughter)
EL Really. Believe it or not, we don’t even have a computer here. So I hope I can see you too. It’d be very nice to spend some time with you, Jan, after all these years. I never have. It would be lovely.
JL Yes, very good.
—Elizabeth LeCompte is the director of the Wooster Group, an experimental theater company based at the performing Garage in SoHo. Since founding the company in 1975 with Spalding Gray, she has directed all the Group’s works for theater, film, and video, including Three Places in Rhode Island, The Road to Immortality, The Hairy Ape, House/Lights, and Hamlet. Forthcoming is the Group’s version of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré, to premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in February 2011.