Focus Jan Ritsema (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Mar 2002English

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‘My thoughts about theatre and my creation of theatre can no longer be distinguished.’

(Jan Ritsema)

‘Come quietly closer and immerse yourself in the multipartite pattern - just avoid the suction that wants to draw you into the list of noncommittal images, images which you, as a surrogate ruler, show off...’

(Peter Handke, Nog één keer voor Thucycides)



Once again, this focus article is about someone who has a long career behind them: Jan Ritsema (b. 1945), the Dutch director, actor, dancer, teacher and publisher who in the Netherlands has put together productions for Werktheater, Mug met de Gouden Tand, Maatschappij Discordia, the Nationale Toneel, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, ’t Barre Land and many more.
In Belgium he has worked with, among others, Dito’Dito, but mainly with the Kaaitheater. In 1989 he came to Brussels together with the actor Johan Leysen to propose Peter Verburgt’s play Wittgenstein Incorporated to us. It was to become the first of many Ritsema productions at the Kaaitheater. After that he was a guest in Brussels almost every year. Wittgenstein Incorporated (1989, French version in 1990) was followed by Het trio in mi-bémol by Eric Rohmer (1991), De Opdracht by Heiner Müller (1992), Philoktetes Variaties (Jesurun/Müller/Gide) with Ron Vawter and others in 1994, Kopnaad by Stefan Hertmans (1995), Maria Salomé by Peter Verhelst (1997), April S.A.I.D. (1999) with Sara De Bosschere, Verwantschappen (2000), Hamlet with ’t Barre Land (2001) and now TODAY ulysses.
If we now look back at these productions, we can trace several clear lines or tracks. In the past, Ritsema has chosen both existing plays from the world repertoire (from Shakespeare to Müller) and contemporary work that has not been performed before (Hertmans, Jesurun, Verburgt, Verhelst), as well as adaptations of such prose writings as James Joyce’s The Dead, Virginia Woolf’s The Years and Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. However, more fundamental is the fact that Ritsema’s creative work has always been accompanied by theatrical research, and this in two fields: the constantly repeated quest for a here-and-now approach to acting on the stage and a type of research whose aim was to liberate thinking while on the stage.

‘The main thing is: say what’s there. This means that as an actor you should not interpret in advance, that removes the clarity. Let the words do the work themselves.’

(Jan Ritsema)



When Jan Ritsema works with actors, he is recurrently in search of a way of acting in which the actors are involved exclusively with what they have to say or do ‘at the moment itself’. In this respect he often refers to a text by Kleist, Uber die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Sprechen, about the gradual development of the thoughts during speech. When they are acting, actors should be involved only with the present moment: they should be what they are thinking. Ritsema wants actors who are themselves in front of an audience, who dare to be private in public, who speak the words as if they were their own. He wants to banish moaning, self-pity and the display of powerlessness on stage. He sees acting as achieving a sort of elevated, enlightened state of consciousness. And most of all, non-conclusive speech, leaving everything open, so that everything can be related to everything else. He wants actors who mean what they say and who take responsibility for their actions and for the whole working process: self-reliant, independent actors. Such options do not make working with actors simple; a working process with Jan Ritsema can sometimes be a very bumpy ride. In this quest for ‘true theatre’, its makers are often stripped of their skin; the pain of this demands mutual trust, but also creates a bond by ‘going through the pain together’.

‘So that theatre, just as music sometimes does, will once again clean deep wounds. So that theatre again exposes things. But to achieve this it must itself be bared, skinned. It has to rid itself of its traditional packaging and seek new forms that serve only the confrontation with pretence. In the new theatre, pretence has had its day.’

(Jan Ritsema, Pamflet over de leugen)



Jan Ritsema’s philosophy of life and work is populated by stubborn thinkers: Kleist, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Levinas, Wittgenstein, Beckett, Müller, Godard, Barthes, Baudrillard, Zizek, etc. - people who are always prepared to contradict themselves. When Jan Ritsema directs an existing play, his main aim is to ‘communicate the author’s head’. On stage, the actors should grasp the idea that lies concealed in a sentence and reproduce it in a flash. The actors should fill themselves with all the associations that lie behind the words and at the same time keep a philosophical eye on the whole of the play. They must constantly withdraw from the dead-end of an unequivocal meaning: every word can go in several directions; there is no hierarchy between the words; there can be only parataxis and equality. ‘Where there is no doubt, there is no knowledge,’ said Wittgenstein. Jan Ritsema seeks in all his actors quick, nimble, brilliant thinking as he encountered it in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

‘After all, consciousness assumes a duplication, an inner division, an observation as if from outside, of something that is going on inside and that may or may not gain the approval of the self.’

(Patricia de Martelaere, Verrassingen)



January 2001 saw the opening of Hamlet, in which Jan Ritsema directed the young company ‘t Barre Land, a coproduction with the Kaaitheater. Was this ‘play of plays’ a ‘crossroads’ for Jan Ritsema, in which his quest for acting stripped of its codes was combined with liberated thinking on stage? A confluence and at the same time an outflow towards a synthesis which he is now able to exploit to the full in TODAY ulysses?

‘The Image of theatre is not a pure product of the mind; it is neither the product of comparison but it is the product of the reconciliation of two realities more or less different.’

(TODAY ulysses)



Jan Ritsema is undoubtedly a committed dramatist, not only as far as his profession is concerned, but also regarding political standpoints. In his professional life he took the decision, very late in his career, to appear on stage himself, as a dancer (cf. his solo project Pour la fin du temps and his duo with Jonathan Burrows, Weak Dance Strong Questions) and as an actor: in TODAY ulysses, a duet with Bojana Cvejić, he is once again, after April S.A.I.D. and Verwantschappen on stage, naked and vulnerable. They perform a discourse on the politics of looking. The words he has written or spoken over the years demonstrate his concern with the present position of the performing artist. In his State of the Union, given at the 1999 Theatre Festival, he said, ‘The concerns of artists shift from thinking about what they necessarily and reluctantly have to make, to whom they have to do it for and how they get them into the theatre. ... Art has become a business. ... Together with the press and science, art is part of the fermentation tank of society. Leave the fermentation to us and let the result remain open.’ As early as 1993 he did the solo performance Alleen helden herstellen, in which he worked with purely social material taken from world politics. One label is not enough for Jan Ritsema: in his theatre he is engaged with the world, society, politics and art as a whole, while at the same time carrying on his own research into acting and thinking on stage.

‘Ambiguity is a good thing in art. And ‘not knowing’ is a fine state to be in.’

(The artist Richard Deacon)


(translation: Gregory Ball)