Bart Meuleman: What prompted your interest in the stage?
Hannah De Meyer: You want childhood memories? Well, a very long time ago my father took me to see a performance of Babar, a children’s comic character, an elephant. Someone was chosen at random to play Babar and that was me. Babar is actually a boy, but I looked like a boy. Over my head I wore a large mask with two little holes in it. I was tiny, and yet that memory is still so real. I can still see the steering wheel of the little car I was driven round in, and how the actor in the show lifted me in and out of the car and gave me back to my father.
We also put on plays for our parents. One of them was a sex show, a mythical production. I was the – what do you call it? – the ‘host’ for the evening, and one particular scene was the presentation of the ‘seed distributor’. Orlando, a boy who took part, had a LEGO brick in his trousers. Out of that LEGO brick came two tubes which ended up in our sisters’ knickers. After the presentation, at a signal from me the two girls left. I mean, they went out into the corridor. And then they both came back into the sitting-room with a doll in their arms. My mother wet herself laughing, but it seems that Orlando’s mother was really shocked. We felt we were doing something you were not supposed to do, and yet we weren’t doing anything wrong. I still think that’s a fantastic entrée into theatre! You know it’s a game, that it’s not real, that there’s no actual danger. And yet there’s a communication breakdown in your head. You don’t know whether to laugh or blush or cry, whether to look away or take a better look.
Bart: Did experiences like that set you on the path to becoming an actor?
Hannah: Not immediately. When I had to decide what to do after secondary school, it was taken for granted that I would go to university. Studying arts was an option I didn’t consider. The possibility never entered my head.
Bart: What did you do at university?
Hannah: Dutch and English and after that comparative literature. In Ghent.
Bart: Was that an active period culturally?
Hannah: Not at all. I hardly saw any theatre in those years, and I certainly didn’t do any theatre. Later on I was pleased that I had chosen to study those subjects because they provide an introduction to philosophical texts and you have to learn to be disciplined enough to finish books. Difficult books too. That’s a good thing.
But, all in all, it was a depressing period. The ratio between the quantity of fascinating input and what you had to do with it was wrong. You just had to dissect those works, kill them off. And then write formatted papers about them. It wasn’t possible to do anything with that inspirational input to give it a life of its own. At least, at the time I couldn’t see how to do that.
Bart: After university you decided to do something else. Why?
Hannah: At the end of secondary school we moved from Ninove to Vollezele. Our neighbour there is Koenraad Tinel, the visual artist. We had a very good relationship with him. He had seen me in plays at the Academy and he said “ça te fait comme un gant” – that fits you like a glove. You should do theatre, and you should learn to do it at the best school you can find.”
Around that time I was doing a master class at Campo and someone mentioned Maastricht [The Maastricht Academy of Performing Arts]. I went there and had a look round and ended up in the Performance department, so directing as well as being on stage.
Bart: You didn’t want to go to the Acting department?
Hannah: I had to do ‘directing’ as well. Acting, I felt...
Bart: You could already act?
Hannah: Yes. I knew I could do that. But the idea of directing gave me a real thrill. I had never made anything myself when I started in Maastricht.
Bart: Did your parents support that plan?
Bart: Was there culture of any kind at home which steered you in that direction?
Hannah: There was no culture as such, but there was an open atmosphere. As a child I had to make and execute my own plans. As far as I remember, we never had to be home by a certain time or anything like that. My father was househusband and my mother brought in the money. She stopped working a couple of years ago, so now they can lead their own lives. They’ve got a large garden and goats, etc. People should be able to do what feels right, make their own rules without waiting for someone else or society to do it – that was the atmosphere at home. And through the Academy? we often went to the Plomblom, the cultural centre in Ninove. I’ve seen a few really good things there. Eric De Volder performed there, for example.
Bart: Did you see him there?
Hannah: Yes. I think I was busy with auditions for Maastricht when he died. I thought damn, I would love to have met him. His work was insane. Those productions really got under my skin. Afterwards I couldn’t say exactly what they were about, but they left me totally disoriented. Last year at the Gentse Feesten [annual music and theatre festival in Ghent] I saw Achter ’t eten again. That is incredible. Your first impression is that it’s so Flemish, so small. But actually it’s very big. And it’s still as necessary and topical as ever.
Bart: What was it like to arrive in Maastricht and start that course?
Hannah: Wonderful. The Academy used to be an orphanage and it still is. If you take all the years together there are around one hundred students. Not much happens in Maastricht, there’s not much contact with students on other courses, so it’s a closed bubble. A family. The team of lecturers at the time was so diverse. Some were stricter, others more affectionate; they balanced each other out. It made for an unusual atmosphere.
Bart: Were you together with actors and directors from the outset?
Hannah: For the first project in the first year, they mix up the three courses.
Bart: So you only choose later?
Hannah: No, you choose at the beginning. We had a number of theoretical subjects together and there are projects where directors from the higher years ask if students from the lower years want to act with them. There are also free periods in which you can work together. The rest is separate.
Bart: Were you taught by Peter Missotten?
Hannah: The first time was half-way through the first year.
Bart: What was that like?
Hannah: It wasn’t easy to begin with. I really wanted him to think I was good, but he thought I was a frightened rabbit from the Kempen – and I don’t come from the Kempen! Stop nodding yes, do someone you want to do, he would say. That only made me more frightened.
I had an image in my head of what Peter thought was a good performance - visual and with lighting and so on. So a very vague image. He also said, I hate scripts and I hate emotions. So I tried to make something that complied with those conditions. Yes, that is doomed to failure of course.
At the end of that study period, I drove back to Belgium with my parents, and my mother said that Jan Fabre was holding auditions, but I was too late to enrol. I sent him a two-line email: “I know I’m too late but if I were you I would invite me anyway.” I was allowed to audition. The cramp of uncertainty I felt at school had gone.
Bart: Just because you were allowed to take part in that audition?
Hannah: Yes. First of all because I thought I had nothing to lose as it was highly unlikely anyway that I’d be accepted. And after that, after several minutes in that audition, I thought: hold on, this is just up my street. It’s highly likely I will be accepted.
He said “We’re in the United States of Antwerp, this is an orgy. Go”. Fantastic! The audition consisted of two rounds and during the first round you had to say your name and where you worked or studied. He said: “Ah, the Performance course in Maastricht, do they also do a course in that now? With me you’ll have to do something different from what you are used to there.” And I said: “Ah, but I’m not afraid of that”. “That’s good. Well then, come back this evening.” I went back that evening, but I wasn’t invited back to the next round after that.
Bart: Why not?
Hannah: For the same reason I chose the Performance course and not the Acting course. I wanted to be an actress with Fabre, I knew I was capable of it. I can give myself over completely, almost religiously to someone whose vision I believe in. That’s fine. But to make something so radical yourself, to put something in the world yourself as you yourself envisage it - that’s what I wanted to do. Even if I had no idea how to do it.
Bart: You went back to Maastricht, didn’t you?
Hannah: Yes, with new-found energy.
Bart: What did you do with it?
Hannah: At the end of the first year we had to make a solo piece. The first thing I thought was: fuck Peter, I’m going to use text anyway. Then quite by chance I happened to see an interview with [Belgian cultural historian, archaeologist and author] David van Reybrouck. He said he was in Congo on his way to a hospital for victims of sexual genocide. For women who are sometimes raped for days on end, their bodies totally mutilated, as a war tactic. He said that while driving along in their press minibus they heard Bart De Wever say on the radio: “We have to intervene because cultural genocide is being committed around Brussels”. And at that point, indignation and rage broke out in the minibus: “Are we going to explain to them, are we going to explain to those women that we use the same word for frenchifying on the outskirts of Brussels?” I reacted to it almost physically. I still feel that combination of rage, indignation, grief and pent-up anger. It shouldn’t be like that. People shouldn’t have to experience such things while nobody speaks out. I was also moved by the fact that it was specifically about sexual violence. At the same time I was reading letters by Rilke, “..... not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!” That is profound wisdom. But wisdom you want to bash into the ground in the face of scenes of great violence.
I thought of my father’s nephew, who was buying a pack of nappies for his newborn son in the Delhaize supermarket when the Nivelles Gang burst in. He was hit near his eye and has a facial paralysis. That’s what my solo piece was about. About that antithesis. How much wisdom can you tolerate in those circumstances? What do you do with that wisdom then? It is also very unnerving.
Bart: How did Peter react to that solo piece?
Hannah: He thought it was fantastic.
Bart: So you were ‘launched’?
Hannah: After that we saw eye to eye. Mainly because I stopped trying to please him. He was also my mentor. He made a wonderful speech about me at the end of my time at Maastricht. He said: “Hannah always said ‘yes’ and I thought that was nice. I think it’s nice when people nod in agreement with everything I say. It was a while before I cottoned on to the fact that Hannah is actually Japanese and when she says ‘yes’, she means ‘yes, the sound waves have reached my ears and now I am just going to do what I feel like doing.’”
Bart: Were there other lecturers in Maastricht who were important to you?
Hannah: All the lecturers there. They were all so completely different and that made it a place where I thrived. But Yvette Fijen was very important for me. Whereas Peter’s tactic is often to be tough, clear and provocative, Yvette is clear, wise, calm and down to earth. The ‘Rilke of the Maastricht Academy’, you might say. The fact that such contradictory voices could be expressed with equal vigour made the Academy a very special place for me.
Bart: When did you start making productions the outside world also came and watched?
Hannah: Quite quickly. Partly as a result of coincidences. In the second year I made a show with Julie Cafmeyer and Alexia Leysen. I found out by chance that the Mayday Mayday festival was coming to Campo [a Ghent-based arts centre]. I asked if students from Maastricht could be there, too, and in fact Maastricht has been represented there each year ever since. In Amsterdam we also performed that show at [the performing arts theatre] Frascati. I ended up showing work I had made at the Academy at Frascati three years in a row.
Bart: Hence your contacts with Campo and Frascati?
Bart: At Frascati I saw Solace, the show you made with Bram Suijker in the fourth year. You wrote it and acted in it and he acted. How important was writing it to you? And how did you come to suspect that you would be good at it?
Hannah: Yes, writing is very important to me. But in that respect Solace is an exception because that script consists almost entirely of ready-made material: text messages, transcribed dialogues which I had recorded, diary excerpts which Bram and I wrote about each other, letters to each other. Compiling all that material and making that the play was my idea, but Bram was certainly a co-writer. Solace was a crucial show. In all the larger and smaller productions I made at the Academy, sex, power and violence were a sort of leitmotif. The choice of those themes was very personally motivated because I had had a number of experiences of sexual violence and they made a deep impression on me. Those experiences were so much a driver of my artistic work that I shared them with people I worked with.
Solace began with my wanting to make ‘sharing’ the explicit starting point for a production. I didn’t mean sharing with an audience; I meant sharing with a man. Sharing those experiences as a woman with a man I liked. And that was Bram.
I thought: If I share everything with him, eventually it will lead to complete and total intimacy. Love at last. The reverse proved true.
Bart: Perhaps you should explain briefly what the show is about.
Hannah: It’s a sort of documentary, an account of the rehearsal process, which begins with that confession and how Bram and I saw each other as a result of it. What we thought of each other. What we wanted and didn’t want from each other.
Bart: How literally should we take that play? At times it is quite confrontational, isn’t it? You divulge raunchy details which the audience doesn’t need to know, but which work very well in the production.
Hannah: You can take the play very literally. It was the desire to eliminate distance, the distance between lovers, the distance between Bram and me, the distance between the character and the actor. When we performed it at the Academy for the first time, I thought I would faint or sink through the stage because of all the nakedness and the exposure. After that I could handle the exposure because the audience seemed to interpret large parts of the play as fiction. And also because it was exposure with a cause. Many forms of sexual violence are not talked about by the perpetrators, victims and bystanders. It was important to me not to be silent.
But for Bram it was different. For him there was only the nakedness and not the cause. I didn’t fully realize it at the time. When we performed at TAZ (Theatre by the Sea) I said to Bram that he should allow it all to come closer again, because otherwise that play is nothing. He said “No, because if I do that, then I look at you and the only thing I feel is anger and hatred. I hate you for what we are doing here.”
Bart: You jointly won the writing prize at TAZ. How did Bram react to that?
Hannah: He left after the show. I told him that we had won the writing prize. He said: “Ah, that’s good”. I transferred a part of that prize to him, and that was it.
Bart: You don’t have any contact with him any more?
Hannah: No. And I am now beginning to see what the core of that conflict was. The method of self-exposure was the core of Solace. But eventually I discovered for myself that that method was unworkable. Particularly if you work with several people, and particularly if you are no longer on the stage yourself.
Bart: After that you made Vast Glowing Empty Page, a much more abstract play about a very painful subject: dealing with loss after a death. I have the impression that this is an important theme for you. In the play, we see people gather in a space after the death of a family member, and what happens then. In all its extremes.
Hannah: Yes. After Solace I made Vast Glowing Empty Page, and then Überdramatik. Those two shows can be seen as a diptych. They have the same starting point, the same story: someone dies and the characters respond to it.
In Vast Glowing Empty Page a child in a large family dies. That death is seen through the eyes of children who are too young to understand the drama of what has happened. They are too young to be shocked at the death of that cousin. Young children have a very inhuman relationship with death. They are like Buddhist robots. When I see how my young nephews and nieces react when an animal dies, even a pet. Adults approach the subject very cautiously and tell comforting stories about stars and heaven. But children look at that animal and say: yesterday it moved, today it’s dead. That distance, that indifference, that’s what I find fascinating. I mean: whose reaction is the most astute?
The actors in the play don’t have a script. I tell the story live, as a voiceover. The actors walk around in the space and embody a number of emotions through their body language, through sounds they make with their voice, but really they remain untouched. They don’t enter into the game. On the other hand, there are no comments or irony either.
Überdramatik is actually the reverse, in the sense that there is no distance vis-à-vis the drama. The characters are identified by their grief. A friend of theirs is dead and they are left with a gaping hole in their lives. There is no solace, solace is not even desirable. For me they are scenes of complete desperation, derailment and depression. Those characters look for the rock bottom, for the lowest level from where they can drag themselves up, but that level isn’t there. “In the end it just happens,” says Louise towards the end of the play. “In the very place where I cried over him yesterday, there’s a Ferris wheel today.”
Bart: Überdramatik drew vehement reactions. Some people were really angry.
Hannah: And I can understand that. That play is not nice to look at. Desperation and depression are not nice. Particularly if you are not offered an answer, if you cannot find a way out. But, sometimes things are like that, aren’t they? I don’t know if theatre should always be pleasant to look at. But I do know that it doesn’t necessarily have to be unpleasant. Though, no, I’m not really sure about that either.
Bart: Did you have to make that play?
Hannah: I made that play.
Bart: Levitations is your latest play. I think you’re very radical in a number of respects. Four weeks before the première you threw out all the actors and said, I’m going to perform it myself. How important is it for you to be on the stage yourself?
Hannah: Yes, radical, actually it was monstrous. Not only did I sack all the actors, but also the costume and lighting designers. Then I had my father build a set which he brought to Amsterdam. And after five hours spent constructing it, I said: it has to go back on the trailer and back home. It was a battlefield. To add insult to injury, while on stage I ruptured my Achilles tendon doing the most pathetic jump ever. It was ironic that as a Greek hero I fell on my own battlefield. In fact it happened while the sacked actors were sitting in the audience. H’m, that’s the bitch named Karma.
I’m not sure yet how I should interpret all that, you know. It was really stormy. I felt paralysed and stressed by that work process. The main problem, I think, was that I had collected 700 Peter Missottens in my head. All people, visions and opinions which I was trying to satisfy. It must be like this, it must not be that, but it must... Then eventually you are so afraid that you cannot take another step. Very literally in my case. I was operated on and walked round with a gigantic black brace from my knee to my toes for two months. Many people said to me: goodness, what a picture, on one side that slim young woman’s leg and on the other that robotic iron foot.
I‘m reading a book by Jacques Rancière called The Emancipated Spectator in which he describes a Greek sculpture, the Juno Ludovisi, a woman’s head without a body. And he says something like: ‘We abandon ourselves in ecstasy to her heavenly grace, her celestial self-sufficiency makes us recoil in terror.’ A sort of natural force, that’s what I’d like to be. I’d like to go forward with fearless, radical steps, an elegant woman’s leg on one side and on the other side the iron foot of a robot. Levitations is now a sort of road trip, a quest for the Virgin Mary, but perhaps I should change it into the quest for the Juno Ludovisi.