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Podcast! Louis Janssens on 'Desire': 'It's nice to be personal, but I don't want to make a diary play, so I also lie quite often.' #TFBOULEVARD

Louis Janssens is a young, ambitious theatre-maker from Flanders. With a string of rave reviews behind his name, he seems to have effortlessly found his place in the theatre world. This year, he is a prominent guest at Theatre Festival Boulevard in Den Bosch.

His latest piece, 'Desire', premieres at the Verkadefabriek on 3 August. The show highlights the delicate theme of longing and the so-called 'blue hour' - that enchanting moment between night and day when the world is on the border of two worlds. It is a moment full of melancholy, where old desires fade and new ones emerge. This play, which he created together with three young actors, is a deep dive into the complexity of human emotions, desires and dreams.

Monologue for four

Janssens' approach is collaborative. After writing numerous texts, he invited his fellow actors to contribute to the script. The result is a unique monologue, performed by all four actors, which takes the audience on a journey through the many facets of desire - from the things we covet to the things we avoid.

In this interview, we delve deeper into the inspiration behind 'Desire', the collaboration with the actors and Janssens' vision of theatre in the modern world. It is a candid conversation about art, passion and the constant search for meaning in an ever-changing world.

Read the - edited - transcript of the podcast here:

Wijbrand Schaap

Louis Janssens, theatre maker trained in Flanders, You are a theatre maker trained in Flanders and You seems to have made a smooth start in the industry based on the reviews received. You are playing Desire at the Theatre Festival Boulevard next week in Den Bosch. What is Desire about?

Louis Janssens

I had the ambition to make something about desire and about the 'blue hour', that moment between night and day, A melancholic moment where things have passed, but in which new things can also start a moment of possibilities, so also a moment of desires. Unfulfilled desires, and new desires emerging.
I created this together with four young players after having already written many lyrics. Then I invited them to write lyrics too. Now there is one long text. You could say it's actually a monologue that the four of us play. And all those lyrics are about wanting things and also not wanting things. You have desires, but you also have life going its own way. Desires are not fulfilled or seem to disappoint or turn out differently than expected.
But you could say that the show has become a kind of ode to desire. Better to desire than not to desire at all. I was also thinking last night: perhaps the most longing is death. Then it's all done. Although others may think otherwise. But I want to say it's still getting up every day and longing for things again. Yes, I think that's a kind of driving energy that drives me through life and I'd like to imagine that.

Wijbrand Schaap

Desire as a driving force, I get that. But you say death is almost the ultimate desire. Tell.

Louis Janssens

A lot of conversations are about: what kinds of desires are there? Loving desires, romantic desires and intellectual desires. That's it. But there is also a longing in the darkness, a longing for peace, a longing for the body. A longing for... Yes, yes... In that sense, I say death. Longing to be able to let go of everything. Yes, I think that's what I mean by that. Desires of course confront you with things all the time and so in that sense they are not pleasant all the time. And that I can imagine of yes, the moment that is then finished, then there is nothing left to desire. But yes, so in that sense the performance actually also wants to be very much a call for life.
So despite all setbacks and despite all unfulfilled desires and despite all dreams that do not come true, it is better to dream anyway than not to dream.

Wijbrand Schaap

How will you shape this?

Louis Janssens

We've been looking for that for a very long time, and I've noticed that in my work lately I've been getting more and more minimalist and minimalist. I thought: what's going to be left at some point? That text was very much our guideline. A text was made and we worked on it for a long time. I actually wrote a lot for a year and then wrote it together with the actors. They spent a long time working on a score that covered everything we wanted to talk about and which therefore reads like a single stream of thoughts. That text was our starting point the whole time and our guideline for creating the performance. I needed stillness, I think. I always like to look for a kind of strictness in form or a radical formal idea and within that to look very much for sensitivity or for vulnerability, but within a number of strict agreements.
The performance begins as a kind of photograph. The four of us take a picture, an image. And that picture comes to life. It suddenly has text. So, not to give too much away, we stand still quite a lot and we talk.

Wijbrand Schaap

You talk about a strict form and a lot of text. How did you come to that? You are 27 and ten years into a somewhat professional form. You started as a seventeen-year-old. Has this always been there or were you once one and wild punk and it has quieted down now?

Louis Janssens

Yes, of course I try to be punk within that rigour as well.
Indeed, I started ten years ago. Back then, I had the company De Snor with a friend. We founded that at 16 in a kind of wild frenzy.

Wijbrand Schaap

You have a moustache by the way.

Louis Janssens

Not back then. That's what it was about, of course: 16-year-olds who would like a moustache. So we made very wild performances. We did a lot of big chaotic things and what was often in there was a kind of conceptualism: we do something with wood or wooden planks for an hour. And what can you do with wooden planks or whatever? It was often called Blue Square Theatre. So that after every performance we were full of scratches and spots and things.
It was a really fun time, especially because we were so young. But we had also decided right away that we wanted to be professionals. So when we were seventeen, we were already selected for the "Jong werk" at Theater aan Zee in Ostend, a festival that has similarities with Boulevard and was therefore really a kind of playground for us. At that time, I then also went to drama school in Ghent. During Covid, I created a solo performance: Serenade. And that's where something tilted for me, I feel. That's also when the collaboration within De Snor stopped, because we felt we felt like developing our own paths. My partner had always been very much into music, so he developed much more in his music. And then I did a performance, Serenade, which was about Schubert's life and it was set in a bed. That was also because of covid. Then suddenly I was rehearsing in bed and then the idea arose that the set was a bed with the audience sitting around it.

Wijbrand Schaap

You were sick yourself, or were you just lying in bed?

Louis Janssens

No, I was mostly in bed. The lockdown was there then. The project had been started before Covid. At first, my idea was to do it all with singers and pianists, a kind of big Schubert celebration. But I just couldn't figure that out. Just before the covid that I decided: all that has to go. I have to do it all by myself. Then, of course, I had a lot of time during Covid, and felt like going to a kind of very strict minimalist simplicity and seeing how I could make poignancy, poetry, imagination, play, drama emerge within that. That performance then premiered at the Operadagen in Rotterdam and I played it a lot for two years.
Then I made Analogue with Willem de Wolf at De Koe last year. It's a performance on a black and white shiny dance floor, where the two of us do steps for an hour and also do text all the time. I feel that's something new within my work to go to some kind of essence. Mainly because I feel that this can also create a gigantic vulnerability. It's blood honest, it's painfully honest actually. Everything we think, everything, every little mistake we make and every, every nuance in our eyes, in our thinking, in our talking is immediately very visible and that makes it very exciting for us as actors, but also as an audience different. Yes, there is something at stake, so intense. And yes, I like watching people who dare to put something on the line, no matter how scary it is.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, well I also read in one of the stories on Serenade, that you quote an interview with Robert Wilson there. Now I'm going to interview Robert Wilson soon, so I I'm very curious about tips. You actually met him.

Louis Janssens

Everyone believes that. In the things I make, I like to be personal, but I don't want to make a diary play, so I also lie quite often. So then there is something about the form of those performances that makes you pick everything. So we all wrote lyrics together. We also started playing each other's texts so everyone's biography becomes everyone's too. I do the same with Willem in Analoog, for example. Willem was my teacher at drama school, a man of 61, so we made a performance about a student and teacher. But in that performance, we play each other. So we switch roles.
I did the same at Serenade. I talked about Schubert's life, especially about how he finally ended up in his bed and wrote his last song cycle on his sickbed. But it's also about his bisexuality, and there's a story about Lady Gaga who called Wilson one day before when she was making a show and she asked Robert Wilson: 'Do you have a tip for me for some kind of stadium show I'm going to make?' And Robert Wilson replied: 'The only important thing is that you have a very good beginning and very good ending and everything in between the audience will forgive you.' And that anecdote came to me through my sweetheart. He's a very big Lady Gaga fan told me that and so I tell it in Serenade as if I'm asking him that question. But yes, so it's very nice that people then indeed think afterwards that I met him.
Because that's theatre, that you say something and people believe in it. And anyway, I also always really like those good things about history. That my love heard that story and tells it to me. I made a scene of that. I am telling that again here now, in this interview about that. So in that sense, I think we are all connected to each other as well.
I also find that in the performances I make, for example in Serenade that I branched out from there to all the artists and musicians I find inspiring, but also with Liesbeth List, Celine Dion. It's like a kind of web of art history that feeds me and is important to me. That shows that the individual doesn't actually exist, but that we are all indebted to each other and to recent history and to what people do before us and after us and between us.
So in Desire, I am now on the floor with three other actors. And in that too, it's very much about being together and that and what I also said a moment ago, that each story therefore also belongs to everyone. So there are four of us on stage, but in my imagination there are a hundred of us. Everyone is connected to each other.

Wijbrand Schaap

It is an extraordinary development, I think. In Dutch theatre, many ego documents were made by people who stayed very close to reality. Their story, their research, their thing was central on stage, so the fiction line was actually missing. What you say is very much about one: everything is fiction, and two: everything is no longer bound to a personality, but is actually a kind of collective thing. How do you come up with that?

Louis Janssens

These texts are also very personal and very vulnerable. So in that sense it's very much an ego document you could say, but I feel that, what I said a moment ago, that strict abstract form does something in the process that also makes you as an audience think all the time: this is about me. I think that works the same way in literature. And the more specific and detailed you are, the more universal it becomes.
I try to look for that movement all the time, because I very much believe in that starting from yourself and your person and the personal, but also all the time the sense of opening that, because to share, to shout out, "Do you have that too? That you help approach each other in that. And I notice that so that does work, for example with Serenade, but also in the performance with Willem, that people recognise a lot of things in that or and there are a lot of different things that they can relate to.
It's feeling all the time: this is about me and I find that very nice and important to feel. But it's really also something I'm still very much working on myself. How do you transcend the diary and how do you make drama out of it?
Also, being a gay man never used to be a theme in my work either. I feel that that is more and more a theme now, but that I also want to get away from that all the time because I also want to approach that as not an issue, but just: 'this is who I am'. And when I tell a love story, it's obviously about two men, but I hope that a mother from Kortrijk or Tilburg can also be moved by that. Do you know you can do something with that too?

Wijbrand Schaap

You also use a song by Brian Eno, 'By this River'. That's a song from my childhood that has been very meaningful to me. I thought it was kind of special that you came up with that actually. How is that for you? How does it end up here?

Louis Janssens

I do have a bit of a soft spot for things from the past anyway and love listening to classical music, but also the 80s, 90s. I once watched a Netflix series, Elite, one of those stupid Spanish Netflix series, which had that song in it. Through Shazam, I could already see that it was Brian Eno. For me, that again shows that intertextuality or so and feel how everything is connected. I actually wanted to use it for the performance with Willem, Analogue. Eventually that fell through and so now it's in Desire. There's something minimalist about it. It's also about my sense of time. It's a kind of wandering through time, through history, through life.
So I really like to let both the old and the new interact with each other like that in my work. For example also a serenade I use that Schubert's music, but confront there with Liesbeth List or with other artists. Because that, I think, is also what my performances are often about. The repetition of time, how everything today is actually also a repetition of the past, how things go on. That is very much a theme in the performance with Willem, of course. How he used to be young and that I now come off as a boy with that Brian Eno.
But we also talked, for example, about today's drama school students who sometimes look like Brian Eno in the clothes they wear. And then Willem showed clips from the past, that you thought: oh yes, it's actually what Brian Eno used to look like. That's how theatre students dress today, so I really like that interweaving through time and I also notice in my performances that they manage to appeal to an old - or an older - , as well as a younger audience as a result. I am very happy with that.
At Analogue: I was I was at a party recently and a girl of nineteen came up to me and said: I've come to see it twice already. I am absolutely devastated by such a beautiful performance. But later, an eighty-year-old man from Amsterdam came and said exactly the same thing and I thought, Oh yes, that's so nice actually that both that nineteen-year-old girl and that eighty-year-old man can relate to that. That has to do, for example, with the fact that you then register Brian Eno there. And whatever you say now, the music also works with memories. That evokes something, yes, and I like to give that back to the audience and then put it back to them and let them decide what they do with it or what it triggers in them.

Wijbrand Schaap

Where did you learn all this if I may ask? Because this strikes me as very mature and wise. What you say, and I don't want to sound very old, does come from an old soul. What kind of nest do you come from? Where and how did you get this from home?

Louis Janssens

I did grow up in a very artistic nest in Antwerp. My father always worked in theatre as a set designer, he worked in opera, so I saw a lot of opera as a child, but also worked with Toneelhuis, where I saw performances by Guy Cassiers, Ivo Van Hove as a child, so that definitely had an influence on me. I was always very mesmerised by that as well. My father would also just take me to the opera and I would sit in the auditorium all day watching the rehearsals or walking around the dressing rooms there. My aunt worked in the costume department, so I felt very much at home in that building. My mother has always worked in hospitality, always in restaurants, cafes, that's how vibrant city life comes in. She has also always had a lot of artistic friends and she is very creative herself.
My parents always made me listen to a lot of music, took me to concerts, to exhibitions, to theatre. But my mother also made me eat things, taste things. That's how I learned about the beauty of form, of texture, of colour, of being curious about things. Of course, the things I say also come from things I read, other artists who inspire me. So that forms my worldview and my way of looking at art.

Wijbrand Schaap

That sounds extremely convincing and like a rather ideal childhood for someone in the culture. But have you ever also had a generational conflict with your parents?

Louis Janssens

No, actually no. My mother is still very young. She was 21 when she had me. So we are also very close. She wasn't very old. Of course we have discussions and disagree on things. With Willem in Analoog, I also definitely wanted to make a performance that doesn't show generational conflict, but love between generations. Of course, that doesn't mean there can't be friction within that, or disagreement or discussion. But the ground is love and I do think that's important. Especially because then to put that on the theatre. I notice that lately I felt like putting love on stage. Now that sounds very woolly or something, but I mean that in a very existential fundamental way. I don't feel like putting violence on stage.

Wijbrand Schaap

Where did that come from?

Louis Janssens

I don't know. I like watching people having a good time together. For example now in Serenade: the four of us touch each other the whole performance. You watch four actors who also support, sustain each other for an hour, who hold each other's eyes for an hour, who listen to each other for an hour, who are together for an hour.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes, fascinating. We were taught at school: art and drama, that has to have conflict in it. There have to be secrets there. Your work has always received very high praise and I am also very curious about Desire. But isn't that also a bit scary?

Louis Janssens

The past few weeks I was really in a tunnel with Désirée. And that's when I manage to let go of the outside world. Then I think: OK, we are now making what we want to make. And of course you could do it in a thousand other ways. But this is now how we think we should stage this material. And I'm obviously starting to feel now, and also through this conversation, of: oh yeah, okay, it's coming, it's coming. But I also feel that I'm ready for that now too. The show is really ready for me. We're premiering in three days and just doing run-throughs every day now. We are fine-tuning the lighting, but also getting better at playing every day.
Because we are making that rigour of us and finding pleasure in it. So in that sense, I can handle it now. Come on, come and see and then maybe I will find that now that. Really making a performance every time is just hard. And even Willem de Wolf, who has really been in the business for some years now, said to me recently: making a good performance is just very difficult. And that it will remain so. It really is searching and trying every time. Last week, a few people came to see it for the first time and they said very nice things, so then I am happy too. Do they say things. Do they have a nice performance or understand the performance I wanted it to be about? Or do they name things that I am then very happy about? So now I think: come and see it all. And then? Some people will get something out of it and others won't and that's true time and again.
So that's very exciting. But I am also trying to resolve it because I feel it can also be very paralysing. But I do like it. So I notice that my work also has quite a large audience. Not large in number, because I play in small venues.
I recently played in Purmerend for twelve people. Yet I was glad that I was there, because I had a very special evening with those twelve people and had a conversation with them afterwards and you also feel that they could do something with it. So I thought: yes, it's good that we came to Purmerend to play this performance.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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