Jetse Batelaan: a whole new story

Photo courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia / A Avezzù

Amidst the chaos: injustices, strikes, rabid press reports, soaring temperatures and prices, it’s hard to know what to do with the kids. Do we take them to the aquarium (of dubious ethics), the zoo (worse), a football match (potentially inciting a negative spirit of rivalry), or leave them locked in their rooms to play violent video games or watch illicit content on YouTube?
Jetse Batelaan, the Dutch director of kids theatre company Theater Arthemis, is winning grown-up prizes for his made-for-children shows that confront, engage and involve kids in the big ‘philosophical’ issues of life. The recipient of the Silver Lion award at this year’s Biennale Teatro in Venice, the company arrives (possibly) in enraged Barcelona after a near miss with a typhoon in Tokyo, Japan. “We travel to where the world news is…” jokes Batelaan, adding, “although we limit our international flights for environmental reasons.”
Jetse Batelaan trained as a stage director in Amsterdam yet decided that what he really could not stand was drama.
JB: “I graduated in 2003, but I couldn’t stand the conflict in classical plays. I couldn’t stand power games. I knew I had to make my own work, and I did: initially for adults as well as kids.”
He became the artistic director of Theater Artemis, a Dutch company that specialises in theatre for a young public. This allowed him to reach a much wider and more diverse audience.
JB: “With adults, it’s such a small specific group who buy theatre tickets but when you play to young audiences the demographic expands considerably, schools come too, you meet all of society. Also, the theatre of grown ups is quite conservative and there’s considerable commercial pressure.”

Photo: courtesy Biennale di Venezia
Young audiences are much more expressive ones, says Batelaan, they willingly play their part, even if unprovoked.
JB: “The main point is not what’s happening on stage but what’s happening between the stage and the audience. The great thing about children is that they get involved, even when you don’t want them to. Directing is about being in control and they take it out of my hands, and that’s really inspiring.”
With plays on themes such as war, Batelaan is not interested in shielding kids from topical subject matter that they are already aware of. Instead he provides a space in which they can make their own decisions and rules. His first work for children was the poetically profound The Show in Which Hopefully Nothing Happens.
JB: “It was a play featuring a security guard and an actor. The guard was there to make sure the stage was kept empty and of course the artist wanted to appear and we made a lot of crazy scenes with that in which nothing happened. Although, in fact, there was a lot happening by nothing happening.”
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He describes his latest award-winning work The Story of the Story as “a summary of all my other productions”. In it, he works with iconic figures that appear as massive cardboard cut outs: specifically, Donald Trump, Beyoncé and Cristiano Ronaldo.
JB: “So I asked myself: what do kids want? That’s why I refer to images that they are attached to. But in the play we make a whole new story out of them. These figures are not Trump, Beyoncé and Ronaldo, they are a very average Dutch family: Trump is Hans, Beyoncé is Ria, Cristiano Ronaldo is their 8-year-old son, who hates football.”

Photo courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia / A Avezzù
Like his other productions, The Story of the Story was worked out through improvisation with actors of physical as well as traditional theatre training. Fixed conventions, such as a voice over and technical elements, interact with spontaneous ones as disengaged actors wander about the entire theatre, as if hunting for food.
JB: “We like life to have stories because we like meaning and this play is questioning that. There have always been stories: religion and big ideologies… Now we create our own on social media. But maybe there is no story. Maybe there is no meaning. Can we deal with that? Kids can. So, it’s not a polite audience that you have before you. They just turn up, and they have no fixed opinion.”
The appeal to adults of such plays is becoming clear, and Batelaan, who also won the International Theatre Institute prize 2020, is finding himself dealing with grown-up audiences hungry for change. That’s a new adventure, he says.
JB: “Theatre has to be scary and you have to face the unknown. I think the real world is chaos and there’s no sense in shielding our children and ourselves from it. The theatre really is a place to build up confidence in that sense, so that we are all able to survive together.”

The Story of the Story
Teatre Lliure Montjuic Barcelona
19th October 8pm – 20th October 6pm
Mainly visual with bits in English and Catalan.
Photo courtesy of © la Biennale di Venezia / A Avezzù