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“We wanted to know what perspectives there might be in a place that is so devastated”


Interview with Silke Huysmans en Hannes Dereere about Pleasant Island. 

The focus for theatre makers Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere in their work is on creating documentary theatre. Silke attended the drama school at KASK School of Arts in Ghent, while Hannes was a Theatre Studies graduate. For their first show Mining Stories (2016), they conducted extensive research into a mining disaster in the Brazilian region where Silke grew up. This year they are coming to SPRING with their latest show Pleasant Island.

Can you tell us how you came to work in the performing arts?

Hannes: We first worked together on Silke’s graduation piece. It contained the seeds of the vocabulary we went on to develop in later projects. The search for a performative way to process documentary material.
Silke: We have been instilled with a fascination for the performing arts from a very early age. We were unwittingly triggered in school, I think, so it was never a conscious decision to step into this world. We create documentary performances and our research is akin to journalism, it’s quite dry. So being able to tell our stories through theatre is good.
Hannes: The research-fase is something that brought us together and that we have gone on to explore in different successive projects. During a research phase we collect material and then, we try to translate this into a theatrical form. We create staged pieces for the theatre. What’s good about a theatre venue is that you’ve got people in the room with you for sixty minutes. It works really well, because it means information is processed very differently. It’s a completely different approach than a film or a radio segment.
Silke: In a theatre venue, the here and now is very important.
Hannes: The theatre has its own laws and characteristics, and these are elements that you can work with.

How did you arrive at the Pleasant Island case?

Silke: It is a continuation of Mining Stories, a show we made about one of the biggest mining disasters in human history and about the Brazilian region where I spent my childhood. We were intensively involved in this case and we saw how mining actually means you are always destroying a part of the earth. So we went in search of place that is in fact already completely destroyed, a place where the future is already visible. And that’s how we arrived at Nauru, or Pleasant Island, an island measuring four by five kilometres that is a complete waste land. We wanted to know what perspectives there might be in a place that is so devastated.
Hannes: In Mining Stories one of the main subjects was our collective memory: how do we deal with our memories and remembrance of the past? By contrast, in the research for this show we look towards the future: what happens if we think more deeply about the future? What perspectives do we have left?
Silke: This is something that is on everybody’s mind. It’s also about post-apocalyptic images of the world and in that sense, Nauru is a micro-world. Recently there was another mining disaster in Brazil, so clearly, things are not going to end well if we continue like this. The show is not strictly about the future as you can see; it’s more about the consequences of our lifestyle today. It’s very much about the present.

How did you set about researching during your trip?

Silke: It started very much from our position. Our last show was about a place I had a personal link to. This place is not ours, and our position is very important to us in working with a true story. So we studied what people in general think about the future, and how mining works. The island was discovered by Europeans, so we also did in-depth research into imperialism and the consequences of European world domination. We never thought we would get into Nauru, because there are detention centres there and because there’s a media ban in place. Hardly anyone is ever allowed to enter. It wasn’t until we were told our application had been processed that we took our research to the next level.
Hannes: We try to incorporate as many perspectives as we can, so we talk to a great number of people. We record these conversations. From Nauru we took away not only audio recordings, but some video images as well. Then the artistic phase can start, during which we try to find the appropriate form to capture all of our material. Every research takes its own form.

How do you arrive at this form?

Silke: Because as we said, it’s not easy to interview people over there or film them, we chose to simply show certain aspects of the island. We did that in a very rough way. It’s all done using smartphones because it’s so tricky to walk around wielding Dictaphones or cameras over there.
Hannes: They approach we took in researching the project is echoed implicitly in the form. Silke plays the material. It’s important to us to uncover the process of editing, and with it, the artist’s subjective position. For example, in Mining Stories you could see Silke edit the material live.

What made you choose the title, Pleasant Island?

Silke: The Europeans who discovered it called it Pleasant Island and the people who live there sometimes still call it that. Sometimes they’ll refer to this Pleasant Island because it used to be such a beautiful place, which is very painful. When you’re on the island, the overwhelming sense is one of loss. And to us the name also refers to the world where we play, and which is so pleasant.
Hannes: The title straddles the line between a sense of nostalgia for the way things were, and a view of the future, the things you hope will be some day. The people there often talk about being able to recreate Pleasant Island. For me that’s a sense of utopia, and what would be the consequences if we want to achieve this utopia.

You can catch Pleasant Island on 20 and 21 May in Theater Kikker.

© Joeri Thiry


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