Their initial concept for Fight Night, where actors voted each other out of a performance, was almost forgotten by experimental theatre company Ontroerend Goed. Years later, the freeze in the Belgian government formation and the rise of a nationalist party spurred the group to revisit to the idea of a democratic performance. But, this time, the audience would have the voting power in a theatrical exploration of real life politics.
Fight Night, which is supported by Australian company The Border Project, has the audience vote off actors based on limited snippets of the candidates, such as their appearance or speech. It asks the audience why they do or do not vote, and for whom.
The minimalist boxing ring stage set represents no particularly country, just the symbolic one-winner fight present in democracies across the world. With the UK General Election looming, Alexander Devriendt – the groups’ artistic director – is very excited to take Fight Night to London. A stand-out run was at the Hong Kong Arts Festival where an “immense” audience reaction greeted Fight Night in a city still reeling after mass protests against its electoral system, he says. Unprecedented numbers opted out the show’s voting system and occupied the stage. “This always happens in shows, but never so fiercely. People were screaming “this is what Hong Kong people should do!””
For Devriendt, voting doesn’t always seem to be based on “political reasons but human reasons. I always voted for the same politician because I trusted him. For the show, I tried to question my own vote and looked into his programme. Turns out he was the complete opposite of me. The show is built around that”. He says that giving the audience a voting device results in “an immediate emotional and intellectual communication. You don’t get that anywhere else… Well, apart from in a real democracy.”
Fight Night’s reflection of real life is key to Ontroerend Goed’s work. Just as Devriendt pauses and self-corrects when talking to me, Ontroerend Goed, too, values honesty: like in real democracy, each performance of Fight Night could have a different outcome depending on the audience. “I keep my eyes open for people who want to opt out – because I’m like that… don’t want to have to provide the content of the show. For me, it’s very important to be able to opt out…The only thing I want the audience to take away is that they will question how they vote.”
“Art should always be a mirror,” he continues. “When an audience comes into the space, you don’t have to believe anything – you don’t have to believe that an actor is a suicidal Prince of Denmark. I base the characters’ personalities on the actors’, so even the actors don’t have to believe something. They can play themselves or a version of themselves.”
It might be unsurprising that Ontroerend Goed’s non-traditional take on theatre came from a non-traditional birth. Devriendt and friends started creating poetry, but found they always preferred the performance of their work to the poetry itself. They often get asked if their pieces are truly theatre which Devriendt sees as a “beautiful compliment…The worst thing you can do to a medium is limit it. It becomes traditional and conservative.” The company extends this experimentation to their shows’ content. “If art is not challenging, why bother? You don’t want something that just confirms your world view, but questions it.”
Fight Night is similar to many other of Ontroerend Goed’s shows in that it values audience participation. “The beauty of theatre is its immediacy. It’s a black box – not only the stage but, for me, the moment you enter the venue… It gives a beautiful possibility. It’s not a white canvas or a screen. It’s not a book that doesn’t have that immediacy, where you can read it but always feel that the author is in the past. I believe that’s why audience participation, if it’s needed in the context, should be used.”
“Your personal interpretation is always there, always open and always possible,” concludes Devriendt. He sticks to this mantra even when I ask why people should see Fight Night, a question creators usually use to outline the highlights of their show. “If you want to go, go,” he says. “I’m not going to push anybody”. I’ll advertise for him, then: if you want more of that same free choice, see Fight Night.
Fight Night is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see their website.