Ontroerend Goed’s Mischievous Optimism

This article is brought to you by the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

With conspiracy theories solidly in the mediaverse’s mainstream, even theatre has its Illuminati, or as they’re called in Belgium, Ontroerend Goed. 

Far fetched? Well, this theatre company’s history sounds straight out of the subversion myth playbook. They have been known to blindfold and handcuff their audiences (in The Smile Off Your Face, 2003) then engage them in crude psychological experiments (Audience, 2011) and rituals mocking the tenets of Western civilisation (Fight Night, 2013; £¥€$(LIES), 2018). They speak an obscure language (Dutch, obviously) and commune with their followers every year in a remote HQ of occult brewings (they’ve created more work in Edinburgh than JK Rowling has penned Harry Potter novels). They have cells around the world who pursue their activities on foreign soil (many of their shows can be performed abroad by on-site teams, in part to limit the company’s carbon footprint). And in TM, available now in the digital programme of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, they dig deep into the conspiracy mindset, posing as agents of an international network seeking acolytes to spread an opaque agenda. 

Director Alexander Devriendt stands guilty as charged, although in reality he harbours no aspirations to world hegemony. “Our mind is fragile to any manipulation,” he says from Ghent via Zoom, explaining his motivations for creating TM and what he learned in the process. “Fear is a natural biological reaction to situations we don’t understand, and looking for explanations is also a normal reaction. The funny thing was, when we were rehearsing and there were suddenly twelve people in the room, it’s a bit similar; I was really raising recruiters to recruit people online!” With mussed morning hair and a ready smile, he looks the antithesis of an evil agent. 

As for Ontroerend Goed’s methods, they have been flagged as ethically questionable, gimmicky and even obnoxious, ever since the company, which began as a poetry collective with no formal theatre training, had its first success in 2001. Ontroerend Goed—the name is a pun meaning ‘“feel estate”—does espouse an unorthodox mission: to consistently challenge theatre’s compact whereby actors act and audiences watch. Their radical theatre of intimacy, performed sometimes for just one or a few people at a time, is always co-created with the audience. It’s a risky formula financially—tiny houses are not profitable—but it has earned the company a huge following. The Smile Off Your Face, toured for fourteen years and will get an update at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022. £¥€$ (LIES) played 200 performances in Shanghai in 2020-2021. 

Devriendt admits that even he is “baffled” by such success but offered an explanation: “You as an audience will always feel a certain control, that it’s your work. That’s the strength that’s always possible.” Allowing theatre to be that space where audiences can form their own opinions about issues from democracy and capitalism to harassment and dating provides the “perfect balance between interactivity and artistic content [that] theatre should be in this new century,” he says. “The time when theatre gives moral lessons is already way past.”

Devriendt was himself looking for lessons during Belgium’s second Covid-19 lockdown in January 2021, while watching rioters storm the US Capitol. Suddenly, the dangers posed by conspiracy theorists had morphed from anti-Bill Gates rants and foil hat tutorials to the attempted overthrow of American democracy. The realisation that a small fringe of election denialists could mobilise thousands to violent action set Devriendt reading article after article about how to talk people out of conspiracy theories. His research led him to create TM, which mimics a Scientology/Illuminati type of secret organisation, to question the appeal of magical thinking in times of crisis but without taking aim at any political view or conspiracy in particular. Even its name is slippery: a trademark? Of what?

TM is experienced as an online interview for people looking to join the movement. Participants watch video-taped testimonials and interact in real-time with Ontroerend Goed’s ”recruiters”: actors who lead each 30 minute segment from Belgium. Participants may find it mildly creepy, jestingly ironic, just puzzling, or whatever the show’s calculated manipulation of conspiracy tropes inspires in them, although there is a clear message that seeps through. However, more about the goals of this shadowy organisation will not be revealed here. 

One aspect of TM that audiences may not immediately appreciate but that was crucial for Devriendt to get right is its digital format. He had already been working on an as yet unrealised project about artificial intelligence but his deep dive into conspiracies required using the existing technologies through which they spread. At the same time, he wanted to reproduce as much as possible the focus of an in-venue performance, where you can’t multitask on your computer or leave the room. What resulted was a collaboration with the French UX designer, Upian, who tailor-made a platform for TM using ohyay, a design platform specialising in “real-time, interactive virtual experiences.” Once the interview launches, the impression builds that you have relinquished control of your computer and even your own volition to TM’s uniformly imperturbable agents. 

Initially, Devriendt had big dreams for what the platform could achieve; for example, he wanted the show to include real-time video from surveillance cameras in the host city. With Upian, he focused instead on creating a way for TM audiences to  “decompress” (although no more about that here). Upian’s clients include the Paris Philharmonic, the European culture TV channel ARTE, and the largest French labour union, and somehow TM straddles the ethoses of both high culture and an international proletarian movement. Meanwhile, Devriendt finds himself drawn to making more analogue, in-person work: “Until we meet physically, there’s gonna be something that we miss. I don’t feel you. So for me, theatre will always need that little element of life.”

Now in its third year of pandemic restrictions, Hong Kong audiences can certainly relate to that sentiment. Maybe it’s just a coincidence but ever since Ontroerend Goed’s first appearance in the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015, they have been telegraphing a sixth sense for the city’s zeitgeist. That was when the company toured Fight Night here, one year after the Umbrella Movement protested Beijing’s pre-screening of candidates for the Chief Executive election. It was impeccable timing for a show that asks audiences to either vote from a field of fictional political candidates or express their disapproval of the electoral process by joining the actors on stage. What happened in Hong Kong remains the “most unexpected” moment in Devriendt’s long career: nearly the entire audience rose from their seats. Looking back, he is still  moved: “All over the world [where Fight Night toured], the people who came on stage were a minority but [in Hong Kong] it was really crucial to show that the minority who pretends to be the majority decides over the majority, since that’s of course what happens now in Hong Kong.”

£¥€$ (LIES) followed in 2019, and seemed tailor made for a city that lives and breathes finance as much as it loves to gamble: a ticket bought access to a makeshift casino in Tai Kwun to play a fast moving game of chance reproducing the conditions of the 2008 subprime debacle. TM arrives just as a slow-burning frustration with Hong Kong’s inscrutable anti-pandemic strategy collides with anti-vax beliefs and lingering conspiracies about the 2019 protests. Asked what he would like Hong Kong-based “recruits” to TM to take away from the show, Devriendt hesitates for a long time. “We are the 99 percent, we are used to looking at the extreme, the rich, the powerful, the wicked, that’s what our framework is,” he finally replies. “But we forget about normal people like you and I who have no bad intent and are only questioning.” 

“I hope that some of our shows are a bit more insidious than they seem to be,” he continues, citing as an example £¥€$ (LIES)’s reception in Shanghai. Whereas Devriendt’s critique of capitalism made for a “safe show” on the mainland, given its nominally Communist political system, his intention is that audiences take from his work knowledge they can apply in their lives: what he calls “tools for things in the real world.” He elaborated: “I think we can ask really intricate questions and guide toward some possible routes” without telling people which of those routes to take.

Indeed, Ontroerend Goed are often recognised as pioneers of “theatre of experience,” but their mission is not without crossover into applied theatre, whose goal is to provoke or shape social change. “I really believe that the world is a better place than it used to be,” Devriendt insists, apologising for his pollyannaish outlook.  “‘If you ask me what TM can be [for Hong Kong], I hope it can be a tiny, tiny little chain of events that will lead to an outcome that feels better than this one. And working in the environment that [Hong Kong is] in doesn’t feel like a compromise, it feels like a way to communicate. “

The secret to Ontroerend Goed ’s international network then? It’s a far cry from evil machinations, and much simpler than that, too: just optimism, as far as the eye can see.

 

Each performance of TM is an individual session that lasts 30minutes. Performances run at various times each weekend in March. For more details click here.

Photos: portraits by Guinness Frateur, courtesy of Ontroerend Goed

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