Longread / Sachli Gholamalizad & Valentijn Dhaenens: Living Apart Together

Sachli Gholamalizad and Valentijn Dhaenens maintain a LAT relationship with their fellow actors. On the one hand they are eager to work together in theatre companies, on film sets and in television series, but on the other, they are also developing a personal oeuvre in which they often appear alone on stage. They are looking forward to coming across each other more often in the near future, they are both members of the open ensemble at the KVS.

Sachli, whom you may know from the TV series De Bunker, is making (Not) my paradise, and for the KVS is also doing a French version of her acclaimed production A reason to talk. Valentijn, a founding member of SKaGen and well known for his solo performances DegrotemonD and DeKleineOorlog, will also be a constant presence at the KVS next season. He will be creating his new production, Domestica, there, performs in Odysseus, een zwerver komt thuis (Odysseus. A wanderer returns), will make a guest appearance with Ontroerend Goed and lends his voice to Jaco Van Dormael’s opening production Cold Blood. The journalist Michael Bellon spoke to them.

MB: You have known each other for some time. Do you talk shop when you meet?
VD: We talk a lot about life, and through that about our projects too.

SG: I occasionally ask Valentijn for advice, for example now that I am taking A reason to talk to Toronto, where he has already been. It was his monologue DegrotemonD that opened my eyes to what I really wanted to do in the theatre.

VD: The things Sachli does make me reflect on my own work. A reason to talk is the proof that you can make highly personal theatre without behaving like an exhibitionist. That’s something I admire and may even want to do myself, but it scares me.

MB: In your work, the personal aspect is more deeply buried.
VD: DegrotemonD was a really personal performance, but it can hardly be seen because I perform several characters and texts. It will be similar in Domestica, though it will probably be even more personal. My parents divorced when I was young and I suffered a lot from it. So it’s quite clear that I am creating this play on quarrelling couples – with a child as the victim, also appearing on stage – because the topic affects me so much. But rather than telling my parents’ story, I shall be looking at world literature to find a sort of history of domestic violence, which has been depicted in everything from Molière to the YouTube films in which Mel Gibson abuses his ex-girlfriend, from The Taming of the Shrew to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. I shall then make a mash-up of all these samples, the same way I did in DegrotemonD and DeKleineOorlog.
But, for example, I also have a very intemperate relationship with my father, and seeing Sachli’s play made me start to think that one day I ought perhaps to risk being more explicit about that. It is after all something that is inside me and about which there is a lot to be said.

MB: You also hesitated for a long time before using your relationship with your mother in A Reason to Talk. But in the end you didn’t regret it.
SG: Right up until the day of the first night I was thinking ‘this is a serious mistake, I really shouldn’t do it’. And afterwards I did receive some comments from people who didn’t like the harshness of the play. But in the end it felt like a victory that taught me a lot. Previously, I had never really felt understood in the theatre, because I never truly claimed my position or knew how to put it into words. Now I have done it, I have got a taste for it.

For a long time I was also afraid of being ‘the migrant’, or of making ‘migrant productions’, and I got angry when I was put in that box. And in my view A Reason to Talk was not about Iranian mothers and daughters anyway, but about mothers and daughters in general. On the other hand I did want to elicit empathy for other stories than those that you always see in Flemish theatre. Especially when it’s a matter of migrants, everyone has their own view, while the migrant’s point of view is nowhere to be found. It was also the anger and the frustration about it that made me do that play. So migration became my subject after all, even though for a long time I wanted to deny it. Sometimes you just have to accept what you come across.

(Not) my paradise is again a family story. This time it’s about brothers and sisters who have already been trying to solve an inheritance issue for twenty-five years. This story also automatically shows up the positions of the characters, back in Iran and here in Europe. So it is about borders and the way they divide and mark families.

MB: It seems that you both like working solo in between your collaboration for TV, film and other companies.
VD: It’s agreeable to be able to make one’s own choices and work intuitively. I’ll be performing Domestica together with Alejandra Theus, but I’m going to create the whole play myself first. The extracts I choose will be linked to what specifically fascinates me in the way people quarrel, and how they often end up in a loop they can no longer get out of.

SG: When you work alone you are in a cocoon. There is nothing to indicate whether you are on the right track. You only have your intuition and the need that you feel to keep on chasing your idea. It’s often a matter of slogging away, distress and suffering. But it is only by working alone that I have learnt to say what I want, and to stand up for myself instead of going along with the group, or with what others expect of me. Though I also want to remain alert and flexible by working with others and standing on stage together. It’s also a pleasure not just to be faced with it or only be able to react to other people’s inspiration.

MB: In that sense, the open company that Michael De Cock advocates at the KVS is a good system for you both.
VD: I completely agree with his idea that a permanent company is no longer appropriate for the times. You have to see that everyone has their lines on time, so you have to work in accordance with others rather than on the basis of the story you want to tell. So it seems to me to be healthy that when you want to reshape this theatre you do it with people who from time to time go off again and come back with renewed energy.

MB: By performing A reason to talk in French at the KVS you are also strengthening its relations with the French-speaking community.
SG: I’m already having nightmares about it, as I haven’t kept up my French very well (laughs). But I definitely very much want to do it. I find the French language and culture marvellous and think it’s a shame that in this country we don’t do more with it, and that things are often so divided. So I hope that this theatre can help bridge that divide. We should not continue to avoid each other’s worlds. This too is one of the essential elements in my work.

MB: Do your international tours teach you anything about how theatre is made here in our country?
VD: I think we can be happy with the situation here. In Anglo-Saxon countries the theatre scene is really considerably less well-developed. They are often very enthusiastic about our work there, because they are surprised by the innovative forms we have on offer. Our dancers have paved the way as far as Australia, and the theatre followed. Belgium has become a quality guarantee.

Valentijn presents Domestica two more times in KVS this week.

A reason to talk will be presented in French at Théâtre Nationale as a part of the selection Toernee General.