FACTs and feelings | The making of What Lies Beneath

Voor Veerle Van Overloop en ShELFISH Productions | Publicatiedatum:
18 september 2019 | Foto’s © Lex Vesseur

In early April 2019, the young Greek-Australian dancer Olympia Kotopoulos (23) had a long phone conversation with her dad Glen which would prove a turning point in the making of What Lies Beneath, Veerle Van Overloop’s new show about the stories the mass media do not report, and the people affected by those forgotten stories. During the first brainstorm for the show, Olympia had realised she knew nothing about the subject. ‘Do I read newspapers?’, she would ask rhetorically during an interview for this article months later. ‘Absolutely not!’ In this respect she is a worthy representative of Gen Z, her generation, whose lives center around the smartphone and social media, not the traditional media their parents grew up with. 

She had decided to call her dad to gain some knowledge and understanding of the workings of a world mostly alien to her. Glen Kotopoulos has never been a journalist. He is an experienced executive in the market for financial services, working mainly on new digital solutions. But in that capacity he had worked for ten years (1997-2007) for Reuters, one of the oldest news and information agencies in the world, founded in London in 1851. Reuters, since a merger in 2008 called Thomson Reuters, specialises in financial news and information, but it also provides more general news on politics and other subjects. Its clients are mass media like major newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and online platforms, and financial institutions like banks, insurers and asset managers. In short, Reuters is one of the main shapers of the world news that still dominates our dailies, radios and telly screens. 

From the talk with his daughter, which she recorded on her iPhone, Glen emerges as a staunch believer in the values of Reuters and other comparable news institutions. Facts are sacred to him, as is classic journalistic objectivity: always check your facts with at least three sources, always present them in a neutral fashion without taking sides. He is a history buff too, showering Olympia off the top of his head with dates, names and events going back a century or more. The conversation is more like a monologue by Glen, with Olympia mainly listening. ‘Ín-ter-es-ting!’, she exclaims half mockingly at one point, overwhelmed by her father’s ‘word vomit’, as she calls it. ‘He is Greek’, she explains. ‘He is a storyteller.’ 

She plays the conversation back to Veerle, who immediately recognises its significance. This is not just about the news, about the working of mass media. This is the basic stuff of thousands of years of drama. It is a confrontation between generations, between young and old, between a daughter and a father who honestly tries to educate her with his rich experience and abundant knowledge. If you know your facts, your history, Glen keeps telling Olympia, you will be able to better understand the present, the current world around you. She doesn’t blame her father for her bewilderment. ‘Before this, I never even thought of asking him about his work.’ 

Almost on the spot, Van Overloop decides to give the conversation between father and daughter a prominent place in What Lies Beneath. The insertion of this new element brings a major change in her initial plans for the show – and an unwanted and unexpected parting of minds with one of her main collaborators. 

Veerle Van Overloop (1969) hails from Flanders in Belgium. In 1994 she graduates from the theatre school in Arnhem in the Netherlands. For many years after she works as an actress with various ensembles and directors, mainly on stage, but also in films. In the early noughties she settles in Groningen, an ancient university city and the capital of the province of the same name in the Dutch North. First as an ensemble member of Noord Nederlands Toneel, then as a performer and dramaturg with dance company Club Guy & Roni. 

There she conceives her first own show, in 2016. The Jungle is Our House is a mix of theatre, dance, music and visuals, inspired by the ‘Calais Jungle’, an improvised camp on polluted wasteland near the French port city of that name from where thousands of refugees tried to reach the United Kingdom. Before its eviction by the French authorities later that year, Van Overloop visits the camp several times to hear the stories of the inhabitants, and document and photograph their plight. Meanwhile she reads everything she can find about immigration in Europe, and talks to experts on the subject. She then translates this material into drama, selecting as her collaborators performers from various disciplines whose work she trusts and respects. 

With The Jungle she establishes her modus operandi, and her signature as a maker – the type of shows she feels compelled to make. ‘Theatre as a place to discover things you don’t know yet or don’t want to know. (…) Theatre as an opportunity (…) to question our laws and behaviour’, as Van Overloop puts it on the website of ShELFISH, her own production company founded in 2017. Not as a one-way exercise by a maker preaching to her spectators; she wants to involve and engage them. Her projects aim at ‘co-creating a common time and space to share and reflect on complex and difficult sides of our individual and shared existence and environment’. 

She is sharing and single-minded in equal measures. ‘Veerle always has a very clear idea of what she wants to make’, says Judith Blankenberg, a dramaturg and frequent collaborator. ‘At the same time, she stays open to other ideas and influences. That combination is one of her strongest suits.’ People come first. For a new show, Van Overloop picks her key performers when she still has only a basic notion of the eventual end result. ‘Veerle is not a dancer herself’, says Olympia Kotopoulos, ‘so she never imposes moves on me. She watches, listens, wants to understand. She gives me enough space to try things out and take risks.’ 

One Million People and Me, her second show opening in 2018, evolves from this same approach. The title refers to an informed guess of the number of people who take their own lives – worldwide, every year. The show is based on texts of astonishing beauty by Édouard Levé, a French photographer and writer. When Levé is 23 years old, one of his best friends kills himself. Twenty years later he reworks this experience into fiction, a slim novel called Suicide. Ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher, in October 2007, Levé follows his friend’s example. 

Van Overloop translates Levé’s work and extraordinary life story into a dance/theatre film called And Me, screened in an enclosed space, and a long walk out in the open, One Million People. Sometimes the show opens with the film, sometimes with the walk. Its audience is restricted to a maximum of twenty people. During the walk they follow a mysterious masked guide played by an actor. Through headphones they hear a poem-like text by Levé, transformed into a dreamy, trance-like song by Bert Dockx, a gifted musician and singer-songwriter from Antwerp who also collaborated on The Jungle. The guide’s mask has been conceived by Christophe Coppens, an old friend of Veerle, a Belgian artist who abandoned a career and flowering business as a world-famous maker of hats and fashion accessories to become a director and costume designer in opera and theatre. 

For What Lies Beneath, too, Van Overloop follows a by now familiar process. It starts when she comes to realise the black hole in the world news: all the stories never told by the predominantly Western mass media. Wars and conflicts in places that only seem remote and unimportant to Western journalists and their editors and publishers, focused as they are on the actions of the big powers – the United States, Europe, Russia and China. Van Overloop begins to read articles, books and scientific papers, and to watch movies, documentaries and YouTubes of public lectures and debates, all critical of what the media ignore, suppress and hide from us, and exposing the driving forces behind this practice. Many of these works are made by (former) journalists who have long worked for, and then fallen out with, major media institutions like the BBC and the Murdoch newspapers in Australia and the United Kingdom. 

While she is educating herself, Van Overloop discusses her findings with friends and experts, sometimes the authors themselves. She also begins to assemble her group of collaborators. Many of them are based in Groningen, like herself. Judith Blankenberg, her dramaturg for What Lies Beneath, is the programmer of the Grand Theatre, a former cinema in the centre of the city staging and coproducing local and international multidisciplinary works of performing arts. ShELFISH’ producer Milan van der Zwaan also works for the Grand. Publicity and promotion for the show are in the hands of Annedore van Zalen, the Grand’s marketeer. 

 

 

Noorderzon is another rich source of artistic soulmates for Van Overloop. Her British husband Mark Yeoman is the artistic director of this annual summer festival of cutting edge international theatre set in the Noorderplantsoen, Groningen’s beautiful city park. Richard Gregory is a regular performer and visitor at Noorderzon. He is cofounder of a performing arts company called Quarantine, based in Manchester in the United Kingdom. Gregory and his partner, Renny O’Shea, mainly work with non-professional actors, often recruited within one particular community. Their shows celebrate elements of everyday life, like our favourite tunes and dances (Wallflower, 2015) and motherhood (Spring, 2016). Both were presented by Noorderzon. Van Overloop frequently seeks Gregory’s advice for her projects. 

In selecting her performers for What Lies Beneath, she also taps into her Groningen network. The dance And Me in her second show was performed by members of the Poetic Disasters Club, a young talents satellite of Club Guy & Roni. One of the dancers was Olympia Kotopoulos. Van Overloop admired her contribution. ‘Olympia has a kind of artistic intelligence, a capacity for reflection on her work, for thinking with me as a maker, that is unusual for such a young dancer’, she explains to me later in the project. 

For the score she has asked Robbie Thomson, a visual artist from Glasgow working in sound, kinetic sculptures and visuals. Thomson’s XFRMR had impressed Van Overloop during Noorderzon 2017. Jelle Valk is her third engagement from the city. Valk is a graffiti artist, and cofounder of WERC, a collective specialising in works of digital art. WERC has made installations of lights communicating with each other to be displayed in public spaces like forests and ponds, and visuals and animations for shows by Club Guy & Roni and Noord Nederlands Toneel. 

But Van Overloop also ventures outside her circle of trusted artistic friends. As her fourth performer she chooses Nadège Ouedraogo, an actress from Burkina Faso based in Brussels. She casts a wide net for her non-performing collaborators as well. After reading The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk, the legendary British correspondent in the Middle East, she mails him, and he readily agrees to talk with her. She travels to Beirut, where he lives, only to find out that Fisk has disappeared. Later, she learns that he had left in a hurry for Douma in Syria, to report on rumours of an attack with chemical weapons on that city by the Syrian government. 

She nurses her disappointment in respect of his decision. She never again gets to talk with Fisk, although they stay in touch via email. But she has read work by other veteran journalists critical of their own profession. By Amira Hass for instance, one of the few Israeli journalists who has kept reporting since 1991 on the dire situation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, defying the constant fury of her government and fellow countrymen. 

And by Lara Pawson, a British journalist who has been a correspondent in Africa, mainly in Angola. She starts out there as an employee of the BBC World Service. But after close to nine years she leaves this temple of journalism. She finds the simplification of the truth required by 24 hour broadcast news reporting deeply unsatisfying. She continues for a few years as a freelancer, then returns to London in 2007. In the same year she starts her research for a book about a trauma of modern Angolan history. After years of war with its Portuguese colonial rulers, Angola gains independence in 1975. The Marxist MPLA becomes the dominant political movement; it still rules the country to this very day. 

Only two years later, in 1977, a rivalry between factions within the MPLA results in a bloody purge. The event leaves deep scars in Angolan society, and is hushed in collective silence, shame and denial. In 2014 Pawson publishes her book about it, In the Name of the People – Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. Even after seven years of research, she has been unable to establish crucial facts, like the true number of victims and where they have been buried. In her book, Pawson openly admits to this, and repeatedly questions her own position. 

She is a privileged and highly educated white European woman, hailing from a country with a long history of brutal colonial violence. Why should she represent black Angolans, people whose native languages she does not understand, let alone their lives? Her openness and honesty about her feelings of being conflicted are rare among Western correspondents, who usually prefer to brag about their scoops, and bravery under fire. 

Pawson follows up with This Is the Place to Be, a fragmentary memoir, in which she explores how her years in Africa have become entangled with her childhood in England and experiences to do with gender and class. Van Overloop is deeply impressed by both Pawson’s books. She gets in touch with her via Richard Gregory, who has worked with Pawson on a theatre project. They meet in London, where Pawson lives, and talk at length about their work. They get on well. Van Overloop shares her first outline for What Lies Beneath, and tells Pawson that she keeps being haunted by one powerful scene in This Is the Place to Be: a young African soldier who has blown his head off in the middle of a village square, his wife beside his body, screaming in horror and grief. 

Veerle asks Lara to write a new text for her show, and suggests she writes it in the voice of the soldier’s wife. Pawson feels honoured by the request, but also shares her reservations about representation. To her, it simply doesn’t feel right to speak on behalf of this woman. Moreover, she explains to Veerle, the story of the young African soldier has a more universal meaning. Many British and American soldiers have taken their own lives as well, after becoming insolubly conflicted during the wars in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. Conflict is not something just experienced by ‘others’. Western governments play a leading role in many conflicts, and send ‘us’, our own siblings and children, to fight them. Pawson wants the show to reflect that, too. 

Van Overloop counters with one of her initial ideas: to have Pawson’s text acted out on stage as a monologue, by different people. By Nadège, a black African actress, and by Veerle herself, a white, privileged woman like Pawson. Maybe by a third. In this way, she wants to make clear to her audience that the monologue applies equally to victims of war and oppression the world over, be they in Africa, Asia, the Middle East or the West. 

This satisfies Pawson, and she agrees to write the text. 

On February 23, 2019, Van Overloop convenes her team in the Grand Theatre to discuss ideas and share materials for her new show. I am present too: Veerle has asked me to be her ‘journalistic dramaturg’ – surely a world first. I feel excited. I have been writing about theatre for years, but never before been involved in the actual making of a show. Olympia is there as well, as are Robbie Thomson, Jelle Valk, Judith Blankenberg and Milan van der Zwaan. Nadège Ouedraogo has not been able to attend. 

Van Overloop explains what is so far certain about What Lies Beneath. It will consist of five layers: Kotopoulos’ movement, Pawson’s monologue, Valk’s live graffiti, Thomson’s score, and spoken word, live as well as recorded. She has also decided not to put Ouedraogo live on stage, but to have her performance of Lara’s text filmed, and projected on a screen during the show. Nadège’s limited availability clashes with the first two performances of What Lies Beneath, planned for September 18 and 19 in the Grand. But Veerle could have had these rescheduled. In the end, the decision to film her is an artistic one, which finds its inspiration in street art. 

Apart from all that, everything is still up for grabs. We share what we have read that may be relevant, and together we watch two documentaries: The War You Don’t See (2010) by John Pilger, a famous Australian journalist, and Bitter Lake (2015) by Adam Curtis. Pilger’s film is a scathing exposure of Western mass media like the BBC and Reuters as slavish conduits of official lies and propaganda during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Curtis’ Bitter Lake is an even more remarkable project. Composed almost entirely out of existing archival footage, it shows how a secret meeting in February 1945 between the king of Saudi Arabia and American president Roosevelt led to a plague of Islamic fundamentalism that destroyed Afghan society 35 years later. 

 

 

After the screenings, we have a group conversation. ‘Africa is my starting point’, Van Overloop says. Blankenberg understands, but adds: ‘This show should be about the people involved, the people we here in the West never hear about.’ I agree, but I am also confused. What is this show really about: the victims, or the media? Unfamiliar with the actual making of drama, I still cannot begin to form a picture in my mind of how Van Overloop’s vision, her four performers and five layers will gel into a coherent live show on stage. Six weeks later, on April 5, I attend one of the first days of actual rehearsal, in a studio in the Machinefabriek, a former factory transformed into Noord Nederland Toneel’s own theatre and workplace. At this early stage, Van Overloop only works with Olympia. I watch in fascination as the tiny dancer during her warm-up gradually fills the huge space with her movement and presence. 

The day before, Olympia has had her conversation with her dad. Van Overloop tells me in great excitement about her eureka-moment when she heard the recording. On the spot, she decided to switch course radically. ‘I will not perform in the show myself’, she says. ‘Olympia will be its protagonist.’ To me, it sounds like a great idea. I feel that a shift from the media machine to people, from facts to feelings and emotions, will make the show less abstract and more dramatic. It will better enable its spectators to connect and engage with the message Van Overloop wants to convey. 

During the next few days, Veerle and Olympia are joined by Robbie and Jelle. Thomson composes his score while he watches the other participants develop the show together. Valk contributes in the same fashion. Van Overloop and he decide that he will start his graffiti design live on stage, painting its outline by hand on paper, then filling in the spaces with projected digital shapes and colours created on his laptop. After long deliberations, they agree on what the graffiti will show in the end: a highly stylised version of the word FACT. 

Due to other obligations, I have to restrict my own participation in the making-of to that one day in the Machinefabriek. Back at home in Amsterdam, unaware of the further development of the show, I keep wrestling with what it will look like on stage, and with my role in the project. So far, I have amply filled in the ‘journalistic’ part of my job description. But that was only to be expected from the journalist I am. What can I possibly contribute as the ‘dramaturg’ I have never been? 

Months later, Judith Blankenberg will reassure me during our interview for this story. ‘We dramaturgs always arrive too late on the scene’, she explains. ‘The creator of the show will always be far ahead of us. But that is not a problem at all. Actually, it is an essential part of our role. By coming in with a clear mind, we can reflect freely on the maker’s work. We will ask questions she hasn’t yet thought of.’ In her own practice, Blankenberg keeps coming back to two simple questions in particular: ‘Why?’, and ‘What do you mean? What is your intention with this?’ 

Just like me, for a long time she could not imagine how Veerle’s ‘five layers’ would work together. Blankenberg was especially baffled by the graffiti: what was Jelle doing on stage? And why had Veerle decided not to perform in the show herself? 

‘Come and listen’, she was told. ‘Then you will understand.’ 

Blankenberg duly came over, and Veerle played the recording of Olympia’s conversation with her father. 

‘Now you get it, don’t you?’, she said expectantly. 

‘No, I don’t!’, said Judith. ‘Please explain!’ 

Blankenberg only ‘got it’ when she heard the conversation again during rehearsal, in an early montage. 

And that was among ‘Groningers’. If they felt like it, Judith and Veerle could drop by each other in a matter of minutes. Most of the other collaborators are living too far away to do that. That applies to me, to Robbie and to Lara Pawson. She didn’t meet Veerle anymore after their first long conversation in London, and neither was she able to attend the rehearsals. Since that first meeting, they had only had contact by email, and then they had chiefly discussed Lara’s text. This time, she had left out her years in Africa, and drawn exclusively on her own experience in the UK and Europe, and on material she had gathered from Syria, Northern Ireland, the civil wars in Spain and the Balkans, and Europe during the Second World War. Veerle loved it. The only changes she asked for were a few minor cuts, to which Lara readily agreed. 

On May 30 and 31, two try-outs with a full audience are held in the Grand. Pawson comes over for the first one, in excited anticipation of the result. Her first reaction is one of enthusiasm. She loves to hear her text performed for the first time, and she is impressed by Olympia and Nadège as performers, and by Robbie’s music. But later, back in London, she starts developing second thoughts. When she took her seat in the Grand, she had still expected to see her text performed by two or three different players. Why did only one remain? Why was it a black actress, African to boot? Had Veerle forgotten her sensibilities about representation? 

In the end, with some trepidation, Pawson writes a long email to Van Overloop. She chooses her words carefully – praising Veerle effusively for the obvious quality of her work, repeating how much she loves and respects her, as a maker and as a person. Only then does she share her doubts, in a polite and apologetic way. Veerle acknowledges Lara’s message by email, and also explains that she simply isn’t able to immediately give a proper reply. First she is immersed for ten days in performing one of her shows at Oerol, another Dutch theatre festival. Then she goes on holiday with her family for a couple of weeks. During the long wait, Pawson feels increasingly forlorn. 

Upon her return from holiday, Veerle finally writes her reaction, similar in tone to Lara’s email. When she first read that mail, she was taken aback, of course. But Van Overloop is confident that she will be able to bring her around to her vision, to make her see why she changed course. She also sends Lara a video registration of the show. If she watches it a second time, Veerle reckons, she will surely understand. Alas, the exact opposite happens. Lara now sees details that have eluded her during the live performance, or that she has forgotten. For instance, that Nadège’s mouth is often hidden from view while she performs her monologue. We hear her speak, but we cannot see her lips move. 

Van Overloop has done this to emphasise that the voice of the victims gets lost. In the eyes of Pawson, however, it emphasises the cliché she had wanted to avoid: Africa as a continent in constant chaos, the African woman as pitiful and powerless, tossed around by constant conflict. In a second reaction, she tells Veerle she has decided not to come to the opening night. It is a sad outcome, and felt as such by all involved. Partly to blame is the distance in space and time between maker and writer, their unavoidable lack of communication. 

Two strong personalities trying to work together from different professional backgrounds, from different artistic languages, is another factor contributing to the rift. Pawson and Van Overloop each have their own goals, and their own dynamic. Writing is essentially a lonely business, conducted behind a desk in fierce concentration for days on end, submerged in silence. When the work is done and has to be shared with others, the writer always feels very protective of her text. Theatre making is a collaborative practice. For Van Overloop, Pawson’s monologue is just one building block for her show, albeit a cornerstone. When she reckons it needs a different position or a different treatment to make the whole building more coherent, she will shift it without hesitation. 

There is a parallel here with journalism. When we journalists interview people, we will rarely use their words verbatim. We will pare them down and put them into context to emphasise the point we want to make with our story. We will make an effort to be fair, not to distort. But even then, what emerges is not necessarily the point the person interviewed wanted to make. For her, the result as read in print – or as seen on stage – can be quite a shock. 

And finally, there is the show itself. One Million People and Me is an immersive and intimate experience, evoking understanding and even sympathy in its participants for what drives all these men and women, often very young, to leave their beloved ones behind in shock, and with terrible feelings of loss and guilt. What Lies Beneath is a totally different animal. Presented on stage, in a more traditional setting, at a more familiar distance in space, it bombards its audience with sensory sensations: Olympia’s movement, Jelle’s graffiti, Robbie’s music, Glen’s ‘word vomit’, Lara’s monologue, performed by Nadège as we only see her face, projected on screen in larger than life close-up. 

Van Overloop is fully aware that her show demands a lot of her spectators and collaborators alike. As she prepares for the opening night, she keeps tinkering to get the balance right. Especially with her dancer. ‘During the try-outs’, she says, ‘Olympia was sometimes overshadowed by everything else happening around her.’ As always, Veerle is confident she can rectify that. ‘Together, we will work on her movements to make them just that little bit stronger. It might not seem much, but it will have noticeable impact, believe me.’ 

And there is something else she will work on. Actually, Lara’s text does partly get performed by two different people. When Nadège acts out the last page of the monologue, her voice and image disappear as Olympia takes over. ‘Lara apparently missed that during the try-out’, says Veerle, ‘and maybe more spectators with her, because it comes right at the end.’ During final rehearsals before the opening, she plans to give Olympia a few more paragraphs to perform live. ‘To give more space to the fundamental idea behind the show: that we should never forget that, yes, this kind of stories can happen to all of us.’ 

LINKS TO READING MATERIALS RELEVANT TO WHAT LIES BENEATH

More information about Veerle Van Overloop and her shows can be found on the website of her production company ShELFISH:

www.shelfish.productions/what-lies-beneath/

The monologue in What Lies Beneath has been written especially for the show by the British writer Lara Pawson, a former Africa correspondent for the BBC World Service. Pawson has published two books. In the Name of the People is an investigation into a 1977 massacre which still casts a shadow over Angolan society. This Is the Place to Be is a fragmentary memoir, in which she explores how her African experience became entangled with her memories of growing up in the UK, and of other places from her life. Here is the link to her website where you can find more information on her life and work:

https://unstrunglarapawson.wordpress.com/about/

Amira Hass’ Rules and Tips for Real News about the Israeli Occupation. A YouTube- interview with Amira Hass, journalist with the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHYGik4F5Xk

Amira Hass interviewed by Riz Khan of Al Jazeera:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epOZ_08QJB4

On ‘forgotten’ or ‘stealth’ wars and conflicts, which are vastly underreported by the mass media:

https://www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/off-the-radar-stealth- conflicts-and-the-media-32071/

State of Denial – Western Journalism and the Middle East. A YouTube of a lecture by Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent for The Independent:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6ASJA7fbcE

Robert Fisk on the false representation of Hezbollah by US media – a YouTube interview:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaCN9qZJNsw

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his children ‘have toppled governments on two continents and destabilized the most important democracy on earth’. A profile by The New York Times of the family owners of the most powerful media conglomerate in the world:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/03/magazine/rupert-murdoch-fox-news- trump.html?emc=edit_na_20190403&nl=breaking-news&nlid=56148339ing- news&ref=headline

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