I was at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) 25 years ago with my first production: Eugene O’Neill’s “More Stately Mansions” (1964). Since then, people have called me “the man you love to hate or hate to love” — a badge of honour, as far as I’m concerned. Later, I moved on to Broadway, but I kept returning to NYTW. Its rehearsal space is upstairs on the third floor, and I originally disliked it because it feels like a big living room, but eventually I fell for it. I’ve now done eight productions here, the last of which was “Lazarus” in 2015 with David Bowie.
When we took this portrait, I was preparing for a February festival in Amsterdam, where my company and I presented several plays based on the works of the French novelist Édouard Louis. My most recent adaptation of one of his books, 2021’s “Combats et Métamorphoses d’une Femme” [“A Woman’s Battles and Transformations”], premiered in the Netherlands last September. Édouard’s story of growing up gay in a provincial town was also the story of my life — I’m from the village of Kwaadmechelen in northern Belgium — and I connected with his struggle: the loneliness of a young homosexual; the desire to get away.
When you’re adapting a novel, you must find a way to make it into theatre. You have to invent. “Combats et Métamorphoses” was done with actors from my own ensemble, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, since I like to work with people I trust and who trust me. There was, for example, this one crisis moment where the character of Édouard’s mother loses her mind. It can easily be over-the-top but, during rehearsal, we kept changing the dialogue, cutting things and also adding.
I’m known for my short rehearsal times: just six weeks. My last two weeks are famous among theatre people because things move at a very high speed. In “Kings of War” [a single-play amalgam of William Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, “Henry VI” and “Richard III” that travelled to Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2016], I cut 40 minutes the day before opening night. In these rehearsals, I make it clear that people can tell me anything; we’re all so deep in the material. But I don’t give notes after a full run-through. People are tired, and they just want to hear that it’s good. That also helps me not be impulsive.
This process has taken a long time to develop. In the beginning, I spent weeks talking about the play. Now I don’t do that, perhaps because of those early experiences back at NYTW. For “More Stately Mansions”, I had only four or five weeks before the first preview, and I thought, “Well, if I’m going to sit at a table for two weeks, there’ll never be a premiere.” Against my will, I was forced to immediately rehearse, and I found myself liberated. It’s more freeing to just get into a space and start.