A l a i n P l a t e l a n d F r a n k V a n L a e c k e
About their cooperation
Alain Platel: I had heard of Frank as a director, but we had never met, although we had both worked with Vanessa Van Durme. She brought us together. Ten years ago I asked her to play a part in Allemaal Indiaan(All Indians). I knew Vanessa from the popular theatre crowd and that she was a transsexual. Ultimately, this was not relevant and in Allemaal Indiaan she played the part of a mother with four children. Later on, Frank directed a production in which she participated and which was built around her transsexuality: Kijk mama, ik dans (Look mummy, I’m dancing). It was during this period that Vanessa introduced us to each other and suggested we get together to create a production based on her past in the transvestite scene, with several of her friends who were also part of this world. Can you imagine a greater challenge? Two directors who hardly know one another and come from entirely different worlds, working with a theme loaded with clichés, with a group of people whom they don’t know and most of whom have little experience. On top of that, we knew this production would be performed both at the Ghent Festival and open a contemporary dance festival a few months later.
Frank Van Laecke: At that time, the decision to work together was very intuitive. It is only when you actually start working together that you know if it was the right or the wrong decision. We work in a complementary way; as if we are driving a single car with two steering wheels, two gas pedals and two brakes. Without accidents. I couldn’t imagine a more natural form of symbiosis. The working method I experience here – through total improvisation – has taught me to have even more confidence in the people I work with and given me the time and space to explore this confidence in detail and draw on its most essential elements. It is an intense process and very enriching, the most amazing experience my career has seen until now.
Alain Platel: The decision was made intuitively and was so powerful that I felt I had to take on this challenge. I need new encounters to grow professionally, and as a human being; encounters with a team like this, for instance.
About the unusual cast; an ‘out’cast
Alain Platel: Vanessa gathered people around her from her own worlds; transvestite and transsexual friends, all of them gentlemen - although some have now become ladies - between 55 and 65 years of age. Many of them had already left the stage behind them and given their farewell performance. Others have never been on stage before. In addition to the seven older characters, Griet Debacker, a ‘real’ woman with whom Vanessa has wanted to work with for a long time, is also a member of the cast. Another addition is Timur, a young and exceptionally talented Russian. Inviting him to join this group as an outsider made the atmosphere of the production highly charged. His life story forms a contrast to those of the older characters, but is equally intense.
About the performance
Frank Van Laecke: We derived our inspiration for this production from the Spanish film Yo soy así about a cabaret theatre in Barcelona that is forced to close its doors. The film follows the transvestites on their last evening, their final performance. You see them as old people undergoing an incredible metamorphosis as soon as they walk on stage. Gardenia is all about this energy, but it is also about saying farewell and transience; hope and illusion. Point of departure is the last evening of this cabaret theatre. The other material came from our actors. Honest, beautiful stories: the most wonderful material emerged from this group. It is our task to stimulate it; to massage it. After that, we can start to filter it and create a structure.
Alain Platel: They provide the basic material, for a production that surpasses their stories. We did not want it to become a documentary with people telling their stories. There are already plenty of excellent documentaries about transvestism and transsexuality. However, basing a theatrical production on this subject is entirely something else.
Frank Van Laecke: Of course, our audience will not come to the show free of expectations and a large dose of voyeurism. We shouldn’t try to escape the clichés; they are part of this world, after all. What you do need to do is create it in such a way that you present a world beneath the surface that touches on multiple layers.
Alain Platel: This is why it was important to us that we show our audience the sorrow that is hidden beneath the cheerful cabaret environment. Whenever loneliness and sorrow were the subject of rehearsals, we felt as if we touched upon something that was very fragile. Some of us found that very difficult to deal with. But we absolutely wanted to include that sorrow. This is where Timur’s story takes over, which is an important metaphor. It is a mirror that strikes a personal chord not only in the members of the cast, but also in the audience.
Frank Van Laecke: The sorrow lies beneath the skin, but surfaces during the entire production in little pinpricks.
Alain Platel: The production is a tsunami of conflicting emotions. The audience can identify with the characters through emotions that everyone will recognise, even if these characters are at that moment transvestites or transsexuals. Through a powerful catharsis we want our audience to go home with an energetic and simply happy feeling. Recharged. You mustn’t always try to find your answers in complex issues; sometimes people only want to see a production about the beauty of human beings.
About the music, the tenth character
Frank Van Laecke: Gardenia is a visual production built on a very sturdy musical carpet. I have known Steven (Prengels) for several years now. He is actually a composer of contemporary music. Once, when I asked him what he was doing, he played me his latest composition. This style, this resolute language, was exactly what we needed to give Gardenia another twist. Steven also played his work for Alain and a second intuitive decision followed. Although Steven comes from a totally different background, this proved to be the right decision. He succeeded in creating an eccentric composition, a musical structure under the production, with the music the actors brought into the production from their own worlds. You could call it a symphony; a whole that was extremely well thought out.
Alain Platel: With his knowledge, Steven created a basis with which to give an extra touch to the popular elements in a song by Dalida or Aznavour. By bringing this into a composition with sounds, a way of talking, with music by Schubert or Mahler, he added an ambience to the production that lifts it into a higher plane.
Ghent, May 2010