ITA by Ivo van Hove on 20 years of shocking spectators

ITA by Ivo van Hove on 20 years of shocking spectators

Ivo van Hovedirector: I come from a small village in Belgium. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and they thought I would never make a dime as a director. The arts in Belgium were completely out of date: there was no room for new talent, only the old crocodiles. Elsewhere performance art and punk were happening. Actor Dora van der Groen said to go to Holland because I would lose years without working in Belgium. I ran a theater in the south of the Netherlands, then took over Toneelgroep Amsterdam [which became Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA)] in 2001. When I come to a large institution, I like to honor tradition but also to innovate. I had worked a lot with my own generation, but I decided it was going to be an all ages meeting, so we would have actors between 20 and 70 years old. This is a real whole: different opinions and experiences.

Marieke Heebinkactor: The people of Amsterdam are known for speaking openly; Belgians are very nice. So there was a kind of cultural clash. We had to get to know each other. An ensemble is like a working family: you see each other’s faults.

A D’Huyscostume designer: I’ve been working with Ivo for 20 years. He often has the same people around him, he reminds me of Fassbinder or Fellini. You know each other so well and there is a sensitivity that goes very deep. It’s not just about tastes, but about his characters. I know very quickly what he thinks of them.

Robert Ikewriter-director: There is something beautiful about the way the ensemble has grown together. They are so diligent about not getting comfortable. Get depth, richness, courage, confidence and not stale. It’s a dream orchestra to conduct.

Fantasy ... Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead.

‘Productions are like rituals’… Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead. Photography: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

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

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

Hans Kestingactor: If you work with the same group of people there is no distrust, there is no fear of making mistakes. We work much faster. Ivo made the ensemble a much more professional organization and elevated it to an international traveling theater company.

Marieke Heebink: The tour is very demanding. Before Covid, we were in a new place almost every two months: Tokyo, Singapore, New York, London.

Ivo van Hove: We go everywhere so we decided to take our cook with us. The international tour is part of our identity. It is not for nothing that we are now called ITA. Our goal is to make the best theater in the world, that’s why there is the accountant, the marketers, the actors.

Jan Versweyveldscenographer: I like the fact that we have two nice houses where we work. One of our theaters in Amsterdam, the Stadsschouwburg, was built at the end of the 19th century. Then we had the chance to develop a second theater which took 10 years. It is not an easy space: it is large enough, quite open. It takes some experience to really get the benefits.

An D’Huy: With an ensemble, you get to know the bodies of the actors. I watch how they move. The actor has to live in the costume which should be like a second skin. We use video projections on stage in order to be aware of accessories and details. I’m in charge of makeup, but instead we like to see small wrinkles and sweat. With Ivo we talk about murder, blood, assault … I ask: how many liters of blood does it take? We have three back-up 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. Photography: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

Halina Reijn: When you do one of the comedies that last several hours, you really go through it! But there is nothing comparable – I miss it so much now that I have left the ensemble. Shows are about the essence of life, so if you’re dealing with death or love in private, then go on stage and give your feelings. It is much deeper than providing a line. The productions are like rituals or exorcisms.

Ivo van Hove: Each 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 with our time and the ideas of now. At the beginning of a production we take the ensemble and guide it in the new project. The first time we talk about it, everyone is invited and we do a visual presentation.

Marieke Heebink: When we start rehearsals, Jan shows us the set and tells us to sniff. The first major production I participated in was The Roman Tragedies. It wasn’t just a big stage but an event: the audience sat next to us to eat.

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

Jan Versweyveld: In the first conceptual phase of a production it is decided whether to use the video and from there the design starts. I use model boxes: The Fountainhead was practically developed into the model box by inserting one piece of paper after another. Ivo is not interested in models – he thinks they limit his fantasy of him.

Ivo van Hove: I never think about the audience until the last few days before the performance. Then I sit down and try to behave like them. If you do it from the beginning you can’t be creative because you self-think: it’s too loud, too big. I would never have done Age of Rage if I had thought about the audience. It’s four hours of war.

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

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

Hans Kesting: They are draining productions that ask a lot of you. I played Marco Antonio in Roman Tragedies and Richard III in Kings of War. Huge roles. You are almost blown away by them when you step on stage. We trust Ivo and where we will go with him. He still has a lot of fire and anger, but he has become calmer in introducing him. Good actors work well with him, lesser actors work well with him.

Robert Ike: The actors fight each other as in the family. They are not afraid of each other. You give them the smell and they perform like a pack of wolves in the scene. I’m always looking for ways to make it more visceral.

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

Draining up ... Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016.

Draining up … Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016. Photography: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

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

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

Related: All about theater About cinema: Ivo van Hove’s obsessions for the big screen in the foreground

Hans Kesting: There is a long monologue, “Friends, Romans, fellow citizens”, in Julius Caesar. I thought it would be a long and difficult process to try, but we did it in 20 minutes. Boom. Now we are doing [Hanya Yanagihara’s novel] A little bit of life. I thought: how could you turn that book, with those graphic scenes, into a theatrical production? Ivo’s idea was to have me play all the villains in the story – I embody the evil. When I get older, when I play a dark character in his works – and there are many 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: “This is an OK speech, but I think it would probably be better if it were a great speech!” I was like: you’re absolutely 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 go around the world.

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