Bart Meuleman: Where does your interest in theatre come from?
Bosse Provoost: It’s a fairly typical story. As a child, whenever I saw a stage, I wanted to jump on it and do something. I think my parents realized that. They signed me up for a work week at the Kopergietery and I started taking the drama workshops there. It was the pleasure of being on stage, partly because of the attention you get. I think performing just came naturally to me as a child.
Bart: How old were you when your parents signed you up?
Bosse: Seven. I took the workshops for 10 years.
Bart: Did that evolve or was it simply something you liked to do and didn’t think about beyond that?
Bosse: I know that when I was around eight or nine I very seriously wanted to be an actor. That was already established. It had a lot to do with the show I was in, Balmoral, which we performed 30 times. I was playing in front of an audience and got a taste of what all of it could be like. Actually wanting to make theatre is something that only came to me during my studies. I don’t know if many kids think “I want to become a director” at the age of 12. But I always took acting very seriously; I didn’t do it thoughtlessly.
Bart: As a result of those workshops did you think, “I want to be an actor, so I’m going to drama school, to KASK”?
Bosse: Like most 17- or 18-year-olds, you hear rumours about what each of the schools is like, and on the basis of that I narrowed it down to Brussels or KASK. I went to the open day at KASK and Sam Bogaerts was sitting there. The way he chatted with me as a 17-year-old made a real impression on me. Then I took the entrance exam for KASK and I thought that was an extremely fine experience, too.
Bart: What did Sam Bogaerts say? How did he chat with you?
Bosse: I was concerned about my coming there for an entrance exam, with 230 people and me being just 17. What baggage did I have? Was I mature enough to take all of that on? He told me that I sounded more mature than many of the 23-year-olds he had spoken with. At that moment, Sam’s approval was very important to me, even if it was only based on a short encounter.
Bart: How did your parents react when you said you wanted to go to drama school?
Bosse: Very receptively. They have always given me lots of support.
Bart: Were you surrounded by lots of culture at home?
Bosse: My mother is a sculptor, so in any case that was very much in the picture. Not theatre. My mother was the first one in her family to go to university. It took her a lot of searching before she figured out what her options were. I think my parents really carved out a place for themselves in the world. My father didn’t grow up with much culture either. His two big passions are literature and music, and he developed those interests on his own. My parents acquired their own places in the world, and from there they gave us lots of possibilities.
Bart: Did you often go to shows as a teenager?
Bosse: Only to things at the Kopergietery. I hardly saw anything. I don’t think I had even gone to a show at CAMPO yet. And then once I was taken to a performance by Wim Vandekeybus. When you see contemporary dance for the first time, it’s very impressive. I also saw something by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. It was not until my first year at KASK that I saw roughly 60 shows: Marc Vanrunxt, Kris Verdonck, STAN…
Bart: Did that make you uncertain or was it inspiring?
Bosse: Inspiring. I think that back then I was much more inclined to be disdainful of work that I didn’t think was good than I am now. I had much less doubts back then. Which is what I see with a lot of 18 and 19-year-olds.
Bart: What was the first year at KASK like?
Bosse: For me it was absolute bliss. Purely because of how they approach you there. The fact that they acknowledge you. I had a pretty horrible time in high school. Suddenly, a lot of things were possible. The way they address you as a young adult, the responsibility they give you. Although I do think I have always been very eager to learn and highly motivated.
Bart: Did you mainly get acting exercises and theory in the first year?
Bosse: We got a broad theoretical education. The visual arts, for instance. I had grown up in a house where someone was making visual art, but that happened almost as a matter of course. As a teenager, I didn’t yet feel any need to relate to that myself. That changed in my first year at school. As for the acting exercises, Geert Belpaeme’s classes opened up a lot for me. I think I was very cerebrally oriented, and at KASK they work a lot with intuitive acting impulses, at least when I was there. They call your attention to the here-and-now situation. When you are trying to stick to a certain idea, a certain concept, you often fail to notice everything that’s already there. When it comes to gathering material for a performance, developing something, making an organic arc that is richer or more complex than what you can actually think up, those classes will have already laid the foundation.
Bart: What kind of relation did you have with your fellow students?
Bosse: I think I was in a class with very few egos, certainly for a drama school class. We had a small class, eight people. Very close, certainly in the first year.
Bart: Did you have artistic discussions?
Bosse: I think so. But I think I had the biggest mouth in the class. I was very much inspired by what others were doing on the floor and was also jealous of that. After a year I began to suspect that something in me after all…
Bart: Did you already have an idea that you might be better suited to standing on the side?
Bosse: It had always interested me, from the very beginning. The big click came when Jan Steen was doing his doctoral research and made a production, Zonen van, and I was one of the people playing in it. The way he addressed the performers as bringers of material, or how the performers become the material of the performance themselves – I found it very stimulating. I was also stimulated by Marianne Van Kerkhoven’s script, in which she expressed the feeling that research in theatre or the arts shifted from the mental to the sensual. Then in my second year I actually directed something for the first time: Noordswimmingpool.
Bart: How did your teachers react to it?
Bosse: They were quite enthusiastic, in fact. I still recall the jury report in which they said that I had a talent for it. Also for directing actors. I was very proud and happy about that.
It’s about feeling the potential of a simple movement of the hand, about how that can already evoke a whole world of associations in relation to the text.
Bart: Did that bolster your courage and convince you to choose directing?
Bosse: Yes. Although they also said I was an intriguing actor, they wondered how great my need to do it was. The balance between the two has kept shifting further: when I look at theatre now, I think less as an actor and instead put myself in the position of director. People were already calling my attention to that back then.
Bart: The school offers every possibility for that too?
Bosse: Yes. It became increasingly clear that acting is very complex for me. I enjoy doing it, but I feel that I contribute less as an actor than I can as a director.
Bart: Does that have something to do with the mind?
Bosse: I think so.
Bart: Do you offset that by looking for actors who don’t work mentally? Or do you instead look for actors whose approach is similar to yours in some way?
Bosse: The actors I’ve worked with are all very different. I don’t specifically look for a certain type. I have to feel that they are really into it, that I can carry on a real discussion with them about what we’re doing. They are the ones who have to bring across the material, and they need to have a deeper awareness of it, so that you can develop and express the language of a production together.
Bart: So in your second year you made Noordswimmingpool. Were any of your classmates in it?
Bosse: Four, and one person from the first year.
Bart: Who were they?
Bosse: Kobe Chielens was already involved. Sebastiaan Eggermont, Lobke Leirens, Indra De Bruyn and Ian Gysels. We used the idea of the North Pole [Noordswimmingpool = North Swimming Pole] to explore themes like tactility, rituality and slowness. The basic idea was that at the coldest possible temperature, -273°F, 15°C, all molecules come to a total standstill from a physical point of view, and thus you could say that cold is slowness. I found it interesting that the vanishing of the North Pole runs parallel to the ever-increasing speed and amount of technology and information, and I tied that strongly to what Marianne Van Kerkhoven said. Moreover, the North Pole and its inhabitants evoke almost mythical associations, which is very rewarding to work with.
Bart: You say you like to work with people who have a physical imagination. The school is known for that. In that sense, your choice of KASK was very important.
Bosse: I would have ended up making different things if I had gone to a different school. I walked in there with the conviction that I especially wanted to work with text. I didn’t have the feeling that I could do something physical with that.
Bart: The school had an essential influence on the kind of theatre you make?
Bosse: Absolutely. I went in there with nothing but my own experiences and a love of acting, with a young person’s thoughts about life and the few books that I had read. But from a purely artistic point of view, I was relatively blank.
Bart: You say, “I make KASK theatre.”
Bosse: Dangerous, of course. It sounds very much like a style, a school, like the ‘School of Stanislavski’. Whereas I think KASK focuses heavily on training students to become ‘dramatic artists’, and that can really cover a very broad spectrum. What I want to say is that I am very appreciative of the school and also indebted to it. It would be nonsense to say that they simply handed you some tools.
Bart: Are you talking in particular about Jan Steen and Geert Belpaeme?
Bosse: Jan, Geert and then in my third year, Marc Vanrunxt also. That was an especially big influence at the time. Sam too, in fact. With Sam, we sat around a table and read texts by Müller. Simply discovering what sort of associations there are while reading. That’s what so wonderful about theatre. It reminds me of something I saw by Discordia, which I very much relate to Sam. Jan Joris Lamers played King Lear, and in the scene where Gloucester jumps from a cliff, Jan Joris just stood there with his eyes closed, softly rocking back and forth. Then I thought: you can actually do anything. It’s about feeling the potential of a simple movement of the hand, about how that can already evoke a whole world of associations in relation to the text. You can actually do anything you want to. That’s what I learned from those texts of Müller’s.
Bart: Then of course you started your third year with the idea, “I want to make a production this year.” Which you did.
Bosse: That was Wezend leven. At that point I was just starting to read Imre Kertész. His whole oeuvre is about the Holocaust and morality. And then I ran up against something I had considered impossible until then. It became clear to me for the first time that there are some things that you can make theatre about, and other things that you can’t make theatre about, or at least not yet. In any case, I couldn’t make a production about morality yet. I was busy with very physical theatre, with slowness, with the senses.
Bart: Not with drama?
The choice was clearer than ever: Should I be in it, or should I sit out front?
Bart: Maybe that’s more connected with morality?
Bosse: I don’t know. I do recall that at the time I was reading a lot about suffering in the Christian tradition. About how one forms such a view of suffering and whether suffering can have something meaningful or beautiful to it. And whether one can draw a kind of wisdom from Auschwitz. That actually fell away pretty quickly as a starting point, but it did remain dormant as a theme. After that we simply made a duet which was very far removed from that.
Bart: Who’s ‘we’?
Bosse: Kobe Chielens and I. The two of us were naked on stage and carried out little rituals with cups of water. We were both 20-year-old boys; I think it must have been very touching to see. There was a kind of trust between us, a tenderness toward one another that was an important part of that show. Singing Pergolesi in the nude. We also tried out things with light for the first time. At that point I was influenced by Caravaggio, chiaroscuro, the duality between the holy flesh and dead flesh. Kobe was actually the one who came up with the rituals. He was the…
Bart: Subject of the suffering?
Bosse: The Christ figure, the hope, the lump of flesh. He also has a very good body for that. His bones and ribs stick out a lot, it’s a body with many visual qualities. With me, everything’s a bit smoother. We also tried out things with a candle, a puddle of water. A kind of beginning minimalism that was very aesthetic at the time, without our being aware of its holiness. Perhaps that’s why it also sometimes bordered on kitsch, because it was beauty for the sake of beauty.
Bart: What were the reactions?
Bosse: More divided than with Noordswimmingpool. Yeah, I have a thing with puns in titles. Moore Bacon!, Wezend leven, Herberg, which takes place under a bridge, The Act of Dying – as opposed to The Act of Killing.
Bart: But the reactions weren’t as good?
Bosse: Some did see something in it, but the hyper-aesthetic aspect also put others off. Since I didn’t see it myself, I can’t look back at it with very much satisfaction.
Bart: The choice was clearer than ever: Should I be in it, or should I sit out front?
Bosse: That really was the case with this. I did the directing and I looked at Kobe, but I myself didn’t contribute that much as a performer. Kobe was very wrapped up in what he did; he was very focused on his own experience. The idea was to communicate his experience to the audience, with me as the go-between. By looking at him, I actually built a bridge between the audience and Kobe.
From then on, I started looking for the figure.
Bart: Then you started your fourth year.
Bosse: I wanted to direct something again. Here at the end of the street there’s a bridge, and when you ride along there you can see a sandy plain beneath it. I was very intrigued by that as a child; it felt like a different sort of place, a dangerous place where you couldn’t go. I went back there once, and thought: “Wow, this is such a rich setting. What could happen here? What goes on in a spot like this?” But a hobo was living there and he had an attitude like: “Fuck off, you little theatre maker, you might think this spot is beautiful but I’m living here in fucking poverty.” We finally ended up using the bridge over route E17 in Ledeberg.
Well, as elective subjects I took animated film history from Edwin Carels and film history from Anke Brouwers. I became acquainted with the work of Piotr Dumala and Walerian Borowczyk. That opened a whole world for me. I was crazy about silent films, about how the actors performed in them. Or the characters in animation films – the drawings, the movements and the lightness that are not utterly devoid of tragedy. So much was suddenly possible with those media as sources of inspiration. From then on, I started looking for the figure.
Bart: What do you mean?
Bosse: That bridge was humungous. A bridge like that brings a person down a peg or two, humbles you. It makes you feel insignificant. Under such a bridge, what power of expression is left to a person? What can you still say?
Bart: That was your starting point?
Bosse: Yes, it was very open. The preliminary research consisted of looking at it. I felt that a tremendous musicality could arise between the pillars of the bridge. The effect of disappearing and appearing between the pillars was so sharp. It was a shock to see somebody disappearing behind a pillar and not coming out again on the other side. There was also a difference when somebody stood 100 or 20 meters away; you could use that to tell a story. Music and rhythm were very important as guiding principles of movement, just like in silent films and animated films. That musicality is what we started working with. In the improvisations, we soon noticed that the movement material could become very cluttered, so we had to be careful about that. We were looking for an extreme clarity and legibility, and that finally led us to the figure. The research under that bridge actually coincided very well with what I was being taught about the figure, about the human presence in animated films or silent films.
At that time we had our first residency, in Buda in Kortrijk, where we could try this out. I want to always remember how special that was, because it’s so hard to remain thankful for every new chance you are given. That was our first recognition.
Bart: What was the offer of residency based on?
Bosse: Wezend leven. Liv Laveyne said, “That thing with the candle, there was so much potential in it that hasn’t been developed yet. It deserves a show of its own.” Which was indeed true. We then started working purely on the fragmentation of a body by means of light. Very clear, very enjoyable work. An immediate decision: keep the head invisible throughout the entire performance, in order to use the body as material, as something sculptural or sensual, without the viewer having to be busy with psychology or what someone is going through. Without the embarrassment you can feel in front of a naked body. Instead, you can look at it with the calmness of an observer.
Bart: I had thought you were talking about Herberg, but during the residency you evidently were doing preliminary research for Moore Bacon!, which you made half a year later?
Bosse: They were both made in 2015. In January we did preliminary research for Moore Bacon!, in April and May we made Herberg, and from September to November we finished doing Moore Bacon!.
Bart: With a premiere at De Werf in Bruges.
Bosse: The show was ready, the only thing was it still had to be made. It was the final part of a research project, a fascination that had begun with Jan Steen’s Zonen van, in which I played; from there we went on to make Noordswimmingpool, then Wezend leven and then Moore Bacon!. If I were to sum up that research I would say: a fascination for tactility, for representing a body on stage.
Bart: So may I conclude that Moore Bacon! was a kind of synthesis of four years of KASK?
Bart: When you say that you came in there semi-blank and when you look at who you met as teachers, who you became acquainted with as fellow students, your interest in light, film, animated film…
Bosse: It actually felt like a new part, because in your Master’s you are finally searching on your own. And I had chosen those elective subjects myself. I already had certain interests and there was the fortuity of the bridge. Maybe I should say that it was a synthesis of ‘my’ four years at KASK, not so much of the course programme, but of the personal trajectory that I followed there. I was ready to seek my own path. You get all of these things handed to you, with very rough guidelines, but you also reach out for what’s around you.
Bart: Moore Bacon! was a big success. In Belgium you won the Theater aan Zee Award with it and in the Netherlands, an ITs Award. I found it surprising that this production would be so highly regarded in the Netherlands, of all places. After all, it’s relatively unusual. How did the tour of what nonetheless were some 20 shows in the Netherlands turn out?
Bosse: I think it helped that people there were less familiar with this kind of idiom than in Belgium. The tour worked well, so we often had lots of people in our audiences. It was a well-oiled machine and sometimes that’s a little at odds with what you are making or how you want to share something with an audience. But the show was well received and the reviews were positive.
Bart: In the meantime, you cofounded a collective, de polen, with Kobe, Geert and Lieselotte De Keyzer.
Bosse: Yes, that was a result of our working together on Herberg. In March, we premiered at the Vooruit with our show The Act of Dying, in which we tackled what dying or being dead on stage can mean. Once again, the continuing fascination for the actor as a figure on stage was very important in that; we looked for a movement idiom that explicitly refers to violent Polish animation. It includes a wooden framework on strings that comes toward the actors in the grey zone of half-dead figures.
Bart: Are you satisfied with The Act of Dying?
Bosse: I am really happy about that show. It was a difficult work process, yet I think that all of that digging resulted in something clear.
Bart: The opposite can happen too. Do you have any follow-up plans?
Bosse: We are putting de polen aside for a while. In November 2018, I am premiering a new production, Matisklo. I am working on that with theatremaker/handyman Max Pairon, who will be knocking together a series of brutish costumes. I want to figure out how to combine costumed figures with the fractured language of Paul Celan and writer Imre Kertész. And together with installation artist and painter Ezra Veldhuis, I’m going to look for scenographies for the Cosmos and Auschwitz parts of that production. Beyond that, I’m also planning to spend a lot of time working on possibilities for the new P.U.L.S. location on the De Vrièrestraat. There’s a great deal of potential for an interesting dynamic arising between different artists’ practices there.