Lucien Rentmeester performing Cirkel during CAMPSITE Festival. Picture Cem Altinöz

We speak to Lucien Rentmeester, actor and theatre maker. It’s been a few weeks since the CAMPSITE Festival by TimeWindow at TENT, where he showed his performance Cirkel (Circle). 

The interview doesn’t exactly go as planned, like the one with CAMPSITE-makers Rosa Vrij and Borus Fortuin. What follows is just a conversation about audience, but even more so about being a maker and theatre as a medium.

It starts with a question from Lucien to our Reviewer: “What do you want from this conversation?”

Publieksrecensies (PR): During the festival, I wanted to take the opportunity to experiment with talking to makers about audiences, instead of just writing about it. I think it would be interesting to hear from your side, how you experience your audience and how they influence your practice.

Lucien Rentmeester (LR): “About what we want to tell the audiences, or…?”

PR: I am more interested in how the audience behaves and what kind of group dynamic forms during the performance. But I guess as a maker, maybe you’re more occupied with what kind of emotional effect you have on them, or what message you want to send…

LR: “I do experience in general that you’re expected to be occupied with that. You need to think about your target audience and what you want to tell them. I personally have a hard time having to think about those things. What does such a message say about me or the audience? Or about the medium?

When I visit the theatre, I sometimes find myself thinking: you’re just talking about yourself. That kind of theatre is successful. People think it’s beautiful and honest, it gets good reviews. I remember in theatre school, making autobiographical work was some kind of wow-moment for me – there is more besides Chekhov.

These days, I think it’s way more interesting to see what people do on a technical level, how they master the craft. When you claim a subject and make it your own, it becomes a slippery slope, especially when you do it because it’s current. Why would you want to talk about that in the theatre?”

PR: Your performance Cirkel starts with you screaming repeatedly at the audience: “IK BEN DAT NIET” (“That is not me”). Does that come from this aversion you feel?

Lr: “No, it doesn’t come from it, but it does address it. Or, let me phrase it like this, there’s an interface with the feeling that I have to identify with my skin color and background.

When I started making autobiographical work, I kept thinking: what is valuable? What is relevant? What defines me? And afterwards, I always thought it was too banal, that it never showed me completely. But you will never be able to show all facets of yourself. It is curated by definition. You show what you want to show. It’s always bordering on vanity.”

PR: What do you mean, vanity?

LR: “I really got into autobiographical writing after my son was born. I wrote about big, universal subjects. One night I was lying in bed and thought to myself that I was only trying to show people that I’m a good father. When I’m in the audience, I don’t think that is interesting to watch. Why do you want to share this and why should others want to know?

You’re catering to what you think the audience expects of you. That is exactly what I don’t want to engage with. I don’t want to look for marketability. I understand that, when everyone is talking about a certain topic, there must be something going on. I just think I would then put myself on stage like a watered down version of what I think the audience expects of me. You forget why you’re even making something. So I have scrapped the text from the performance, for the time being.”

PR: There was indeed no text in the performance I saw, apart from the scream in the beginning. After that the piece mostly consists of you silently interacting with a construction made of sticks. That’s another extreme, I would say. How did you eventually end up using that form?

LR: “I mostly wanted to figure out something for myself and to invite the audience to share that experience. What happens when concentrate on playing with sticks for twenty minutes? What if I show a short video without explaining any context?

The screaming was something I really just wanted to do. I have seen it myself at concerts, and I thought it was so awesome. It ignites an energy that isn’t allowed to be there most of the time. So it’s an exchange: I experience something and I want to make the audience experience that, too.”

PR: There isn’t any message you want to convey to the people?

LR: “Nope, it’s really up to you to see in it what you want. It’s very interesting to hear back from people how they interpreted it.”

PR: How do they react?

LR: “Most people start looking for a story. I have heard many different versions. Others can’t get over the form. They don’t like it at all, or it’s some sort of meditative, pleasant experience. You need to get over the discomfort initially, to be able to give into it.

Whenever I played the performance in the theatre before, I did get some angry reactions. Those people came in expecting a monologue about my identity, and they couldn’t make anything of the part with the sticks. At TENT there was a group of American tourists who came in with no preconceptions, and they loved it. One guy said: ‘You never see shit like this.’”

PR: What do you do after getting those kinds of reactions? Do they influence the further development of your piece?

LR: “No, I try not to let it influence me too much. Participating in this festival did make me discover what I don’t want to do. I was paired up with Zouhair Mtazi (actor and film maker, red.), who made a short film about two guards at the Rotterdam Wereldmuseum who decide to bring back a stolen spear to its country of origin. That is a current theme, and he seems to take a strong stance – something I try not to do. We came to the conclusion that we speak a different language. I don’t know if we understand each other’s core.

Our collaboration went well, for me it was really valuable. It’s a good thing to be confronted with something like that. It became clear that people were connecting the theme of his film to my performance, turning it into a piece about my identity – or my assumed identity. I have now experienced that I really don’t want that.”

PR: Then it means there was a context created around your performance in the perception of the audience, but it is out of your control.

LR: “You can’t escape it, of course. During the festival I was also looking around at TENT and I immediately noticed everybody there was white. Like I said earlier, when everyone is occupied with a certain topic, then there must be something going on. It’s just that I, personally, don’t want to be forced to relate to that subject, and I don’t want to force my audience to do anything.”

PR: So what do you actually want from your audience?

LR: “I want to look for common ground. Through action and activity. What happens to us when I do this, in this moment, in this small, black space? It’s already special that we got together. It’s quite a big thing that we make the effort to go sit somewhere together and relate to one thing for once, not all the other things surrounding us. Also to not relate to your phone or to each other, to not have little conversations because we are used to conversing all the time. The mutual understanding at the theatre is that you need to be there in the moment.

We shouldn’t take for granted that we voluntarily keep to that etiquette. The attention is important to me, to stand still together. There is so much value and beauty in the fact that people make an effort to attend, to give in, to give you their trust.

At TENT, one day a guy came up to me. He said he didn’t speak Dutch and so couldn’t understand what I was screaming in the beginning, but it made him cry. That felt very valuable. Not that I like that I made someone cry, but that something happens and he can’t place what exactly and why, and he only tries looking for the context afterwards. The fact that it happens, that is the activity. That is it. What does it matter then what I tried to convey? What the words actually mean?”

PR: How will you continue developing your performance?

LR: “Me and Zouhair will both be featured at a festival next summer, Hongerige Wolf in Groningen. We are separate on the program, without any thematic link. I look forward to see what my work does there in the forest, on my own. And I want to try out new material. Or  maybe I’ll go back to my text…”

Festival Hongerige Wolf will take place in Groningen from 14 to 16 July 2023. Take a look at their program to see when you can experience Lucien’s performance. Maybe we will come and see too…