‘I DON’T WANT TO MAKE PEOPLE ANGRY’ (Stef Lernous/Abattoir Fermé on beauty – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 3)

Abattoir Fermé 'Chaostrilogy'

They’ve made their mark. That’s for sure. There’s absolutely no one like Abattoir Fermé. Director Stef Lernous and the guys from his Flemish theatre company are celebrating their tenth anniversary, these days, with a book and a special theatre marathon: The chaostrilogy. We know about the horror and the flesh, in Abattoir Fermé’s performances, but what about beauty? How strange a concept is that in Lernous’ universe? Part 3 of The Utopia Parkway Files on beauty. ‘Am I selling SM to an audience by means of beauty?’

‘I’m inclined to say: beauty is not important. But now that you question me about it, I have to admit: yes, it is important. Because in the end, as a director, I’m always on that quest for an absolute kind of beauty.’

‘Maybe I have to make a difference between good taste and beauty. Good taste is something that I don’t care for. But beauty? Yes. But I do wonder, now and then, in what way I’m using that concept. Take SM, for instance. When I think about SM dungeons and bruises… that’s something that I don’t care for. It’s ugly. But when I’m looking at my work, and I see how I’m making bondage, black leather, metal and flesh look good in it… then I wonder: am I selling this to an audience by means of beauty?’

‘Now that I think of it: am I using beauty in the same way that I’m using humor? People drop their façade, when they hear a good joke. Humor makes it easier for an audience to take something in. And I think the same might apply to beauty and aesthetics. If the message is quite difficult to take in, but the wrapping looks nice, well, maybe you’re much more inclined to take it in. The wrapping is really important to me. But just that wrapping is not enough. I would hate it if people would call my work beautiful; just beautiful. Because then it’s just aesthetics.’

‘Beauty lies in the detail, in my opinion. I don’t care for beautiful women, beautiful men or cars. Stereotypes don’t interest me at all. And believe me: I’ve tried. Take, for instance, an old door, from an old house. Painted, bruised. It’s not about history, but about detail. About all the little things that are just there, but that you can’t imagine.’

‘Maybe it’s about that. Yes. The perfect woman, blond, with the perfect figure. Everyone can picture that. She is of no interest to me. But what you can’t imagine, that’s what I tend to find beautiful. That’s what happens too when I’m directing a new play. There’s lots of things that you can think of, beforehand, for the actors to do and say. But a performance becomes really beautiful when other things happen, unexpectedly. Things you never could have imagined. It’s there, all of a sudden, in front of your eyes. It happens. And then you say: of course.’

‘Let me give you another example. I know about art history. I’m familiar with most of the ancient masters. But in the Louvre, there’s a Delacroix that I had never seen before. It’s a horrible, gripping scene, in all its details. I can’t go there anymore. I’ve been there twice and I really start hyperventilating. All those details really make me dizzy.’

‘What if people call my work ugly? That would really affect me. Luckily no one has said that to me, yet. In my face. They do say that they didn’t like the performance, or that it makes them really angry. That’s something that surprises me too: when people get angry by watching one of my plays. I don’t want to make people angry. But ugly? I would really be shocked. Because all my plays really look good, don’t they?’

‘You want to know what I’m looking for? What I’m after, if it’s not beauty? A beginning. How can I create something, with the same lightness and rashness that I had when I started out. Because over the years, you’ve learned a lot, you’ve read a lot, you’ve created a lot. Is there a way to get back to the beginning, without forgetting everything you’ve learned? Is there a way to switch off everything you’ve learned, without really switching it off? Quite a paradox, no?’

‘A couple of elements that have shaped my vision on beauty? Just being creative, to start with. Don’t underestimate the fact that we’ve made 49 performances in ten years time. That helps. It creates a sort of intensity and alertness. It keeps one on edge. It makes you realise certain things. Why do I like black that much? Why are my performances always in black and white? And why do I like to throw one colour in? Red, or green. Why are the women in my plays always wearing red shoes? Is it a fetish or is it about colour?’

‘Apart from that: discovering modern art. Jackson Pollock, Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Otto Dix. But cinema has had a much bigger influence. People often compare me to David Lynch. I’m a big Stanley Kubrick-fan. For years I’ve really been interested in the dream; the dramaturgy of a dream. There are certain mechanisms governing dreams. Everybody has the same dreams: you fall, you’re sinking away, you’re walking but not moving one step, you see things in black and white, you see yourself from a distance. That made me think: how can I put that disturbed vision on stage? How can I do that?’

‘And last but not least: grain. Take those old Alan Lomax-recordings, for instance. Old voices and then some sort of grain on it. Add the right kind of music, with the right sort of grain to a performance, and all of a sudden you’d swear that you’re looking at a performance in black-and-white. That always gets to me.’

(Stef Lernous from Abattoir Fermé, interviewed by Hans-Maarten Post for Utopia Parkway, Mechelen, 14-10-09)

(photo credit: Stef Lernous)

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