Ivo van Hove’s ITA over 20 years of shocking theatergoers

Ivo van Hove’s ITA over 20 years of shocking theatergoers

Ivo van HoveDirector: I come from a small village in Belgium. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and thought I would never make a dime as a director. Art in Belgium was completely old-fashioned: there was no room for new talent, only the old crocodiles. Elsewhere, performance art and punk happened. Actress Dora van der Groen said go to the Netherlands because I would lose years without a job in Belgium. I managed a theater in the south of the Netherlands and then took over the Toneelgroep Amsterdam [which became Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA)] in 2001. When I come to a great institution, I want to honor tradition but also be innovative. I had worked a lot with my own generation but decided that this should be an all ages gathering so we would have actors in their 20’s and 70’s. This is a real ensemble – different opinions and experiences.

Marieke HeebinkActor: Amsterdammers are known for speaking out; Belgians are very polite. So there was a kind of culture war. We had to get to know each other. An ensemble is like a functioning family – you see each other’s faults.

A D’Huyscostume designer: I have been working with Ivo for 20 years. He’s often surrounded by the same people – that reminds me of Fassbinder or Fellini. They know each other so well and there is a sensitivity that runs very deep. It’s not just about taste, it’s about its characters. I know very quickly what he thinks about her.

Robert IkeWriter/Director: There is something beautiful about how the ensemble has grown together. They are so eager not to get comfortable. You get depth, wealth, bravery, confidence – and you don’t get staleness. This is a dream orchestra to conduct.

Fantasy... Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead.

“The productions are like rituals” … Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Halina ReijnActor: When I was 13, I saw one of Ivo’s productions, Lulu, starring Chris Nietvelt. I wrote him a letter asking him to join the company. He never wrote back! It was my dream to join them, but I was also scared when I finally did. They were the biggest company in Amsterdam with the biggest theater stars. The hierarchy changed when Ivo came – he was a young director and installed a different dynamic and gave young actors a lot of space. Before that it was super intimidating.

Ivo van Hove: An ensemble is a lot of work. This is not easy and costs money. We pay the actors every month and are very loyal to them.

Hans KestingActor: When you work with the same group of people there is no distrust, no fear of making mistakes. We work much faster. Ivo turned the ensemble into a much more professional organization and turned it into an internationally traveling theater company.

Marieke Heebink: The tours are very demanding. Before Covid we were in a new place almost every few months – Tokyo, Singapore, New York, London.

Ivo van Hove: We go everywhere so we decided to bring our own chef. International tours are part of our identity. It’s not for nothing that we call ourselves ITA now. Our aim is to make the best theater in the world – that’s what the bookkeeper, the marketing people, the actors are for.

Jan Versweyveldset designer: I think it’s great that we have two beautiful houses to work in. One of our Amsterdam theaters, the Stadsschouwburg, was built at the end of the 19th century. Then we had the opportunity to develop a second theater, which took 10 years. It’s not an easy space – it’s quite big, quite open. It takes some experience to really benefit from it.

A D’Huys: In an ensemble, you know the bodies of the actors. I watch how they move. The actor has to live in the costume, which is meant to be like a second skin. We use video projections on stage so you know accessories and details. I’m in charge of makeup, but we like to see little wrinkles and sweat instead. Ivo is about murder, blood, aggression… I ask: How many liters of blood do we need? We have three spare costumes for each actor, but sometimes that’s not enough.

An event... Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt in the Roman tragedies.

An event… Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt in the Roman tragedies. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Halina Reijn: If you play one of the plays, which runs for several hours, you really go through with it! But there’s nothing quite like it – I miss it so much now that I left the ensemble. The shows are about the essence of life – so if it’s about death or love privately, then you go on stage and reveal your own feelings. It’s much deeper than delivering a line. The stagings are like rituals or exorcisms.

Ivo van Hove: Every director is different and works differently. Simon McBurney, for example, uses improvisation. My company was very open when he came here – it’s in their DNA to be like that.

Jan Versweyveld: We always try to dig deep into the material and find a connection to our time and ideas of today. At the beginning of a production we take the ensemble and lead them into the new project. When we first talk about it, everyone is invited and we give a visual presentation.

Marieke Heebink: When we start rehearsing, Jan shows us the set and says take a look. The first really big production I acted in was the Roman Tragedies. It wasn’t just a huge stage, it was an event – the audience sat next to us while we ate.

Halina Reijn: Ivo has made stage versions of so many films: Antonioni, Visconti, Cassavetes. He always said you don’t have to watch movies. But it’s too tempting! And so fascinating to see what he does with them. Ivo was one of the first to use video so extensively on stage. Video designer Tal Yarden is an absolute genius. It’s a way of breaking through traditional theatrical expectations. I used a camera on stage for Mourning Becomes Electra – Ivo based his concept on Capturing the Friedmans, the chilling documentary about a family who took home videos of each other.

Jan Versweyveld: In the first conceptual phase of a production, we decide on the use of video and, based on this, the design begins. I use model boxes: The fountain head was practically developed in the model box by putting in one sheet of paper at a time. Ivo isn’t interested in models – he finds they limit his imagination.

Ivo van Hove: I never think about the audience until the last few days before our performance. Then I sit back and try to act like them. If you do that from the start you can’t be creative because you’re censoring yourself – it’s too loud, too big. I would never have made Age of Rage if I had thought of the audience. It’s four hours of war.

Gaite Jansen and Gijs Scholten Van Aschat in After the Rehearsal at the Barbican, London, 2017.

Extensive use of video… Gaite Jansen and Gijs Scholten Van Aschat in After the Rehearsal at the Barbican, London, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Hans Kesting: These are exhaustive productions that will ask a lot of you. I played Mark Antony in Roman Tragedies and Richard III in Kings of War. Huge roles. You’re almost in awe of them when you go on stage. We trust in Ivo and where we will go with him. He still has a lot of fire and anger but has calmed down in his presentation. Good actors work well with him, less good actors get better with him.

Robert Ike: The actors fight each other like a family. They are not afraid of each other. You give them the scent and they walk onto the scene like a pack of wolves. They’re always looking for ways to make it more visceral.

Halina Reijn: I find acting and all that goes with it super scary and embarrassing and annoying. But Ivo creates a very clear context in which to be free. He doesn’t judge character. He only holds up a mirror and makes the audience witness his own behavior.

Drainage...Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016.

Drainage…Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Robert Ike: I did Oedipus with Hans and Marieke in 2018. I had written an English screenplay which was translated – they acted and talked to each other in Dutch and to me in English. It had the potential to be deeply alienating, but I loved it.

A D’Huys: Before my very first meeting with Ivo, I prepared many drawings for Othello, but it didn’t take more than five minutes. Ivo knows what he wants.

Related: All About Theater About Film: Ivo van Hove’s cinema obsessions in focus

Hans Kesting: There is a long monologue, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” in Julius Caesar. I thought it would be a long, difficult process to rehearse, but we did it in 20 minutes. Boom. Now we do [Hanya Yanagihara’s novel] a little life I thought: How could you turn this book into a stage production with these graphic scenes? Ivo’s idea was to let me play all the villains in the story – I’ll build in the evil. As I get older, when I play a dark character in his plays – and there are a lot of them – I have darker dreams. It does something to you.

Robert Ike: One day about Oedipus, Hans said to me in front of everyone: “That’s an OK speech, but I think it would probably be better if it was a great speech!” I thought: You’re right, I’ll try again. Their constant goal is to make another amazing production that can play for 10 years and be one of those shows that goes around the world.

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