The 52nd HK Arts Festival

Create Your Own Production in a Theatre All of One's Own

Text / Richard Lord

Two shows from Belgian experimental theatre group Ontroerend Goed play to an audience of one—who's involved in creating their very meaning.

Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed has gone out of its way to challenge audiences and take them to uncomfortable places since it was established in the early 2000s.

"This is what I'm motivated by," says the company's artistic director, Alexander Devriendt. "There are several reasons why I push these boundaries: as metaphor—if you can push the boundaries of the medium, you can do so of society. Also, since movies and TV have taken over, I think theatre should question its own role, redefine what it is."

Like all of its works, the two productions Ontroerend Goed is bringing to the Hong Kong Arts Festival seek to show how we construct most of our reality from ideas in our heads—and the results can be disquieting. The Smile Off Your Face and A Game of You, which are performed in that order and clock in at a lean 30 minutes each, are among the company's greatest hits, performed repeatedly over the years.

Ontroerend Goed completely upends the usual theatrical dynamics by making the audience active participants in creating the show. Or, rather, an active participant—because, in the ultimate example of the company throwing all conventions out of the window, the shows both feature an audience of precisely one person.

"I don't like interactive theatre necessarily, one that feels like a workshop," says Devriendt. "The visitor should never be responsible for the artistic content, but I want you to keep living while we're doing the show. A one-on-one show is something joyful, communal, different."

In A Game of You, the audience member progresses through a series of small rooms containing large mirrors, having a series of strange and at times awkward encounters in which they're asked about their life, and then challenged to do the same thing to the subsequent visitor. A test of people's reactions to unfamiliar situations and lines of enquiry, it's also an unsettling lesson in how you appear to other people that seeks to provide audience members with a new sort of self-knowledge.

"I think it's an invitation to introspection: to question the way you look at the world and the way the world looks at you," says Devriendt. "It's about how different versions of the self are existing in this world."

The Smile Off Your Face is the show that made the company's name, first performed more than 15 years ago. The audience member is tied up and blindfolded while seated in a wheelchair, then exposed to a range of different forms of sensory stimulation, in an experience that is frequently described as unexpectedly emotional.

The show, which Devriendt characterises as "a massage for the mind", has been performed more than 8,000 times over the years, and it keeps evolving. The company keeps coming back to it, he says, because "it's still relevant and it still touches people".

"It's such a joyous thing to do. I remember the first time we put people in a wheelchair, blindfolded—it's something no other medium can do. It's never stopped being exciting. What I love about theatre as a medium is it allows for a lot of experimentation; you can have any other artform within it."

Staging this kind of show, he adds, is also a responsibility and the performers always need to be aware of the boundaries of their audience. "I will never ask a visitor to do something they don't want to do."

Those boundaries, of course, are sure to differ geographically, and the company's work gets different reactions in different parts of the world—but perhaps not as different as you'd expect. "What I've learned from playing all over the world is that I'm baffled by how similar we are, not how different," says Devriendt.

"Art, for me, should challenge your worldview: I want to challenge my own worldview and then that of the audience member. What I want my art to do is add to the discussion and be part of the world."

Ontroerend Goed

A Game of You and The Smile off Your Face


Venue:Hong Kong Cultural Centre