Roger Nievaart: On the Role of Theatre in the Digital Age

For the Springplank Festival at Theater Dakota, Roger Nievaart will be presenting his piece 7.613.447.349, which refers to the approximate number of people on the planet at the time of his performance.

Roger Nievaart: On the Role of Theatre in the Digital Age
Credit: Lisette van Maanen

Cybil Scott- What is your theatre background?

Roger Nievaart- My mother decided to put me on theatre courses when I was 6, and I never stopped doing theatre since then. When I was 13 I discovered the art of dancing, secretly in my room, through television. When I was 21, I was brave enough to take a hip-hop course because it was for me, less feminine. Slowly, I moved from hip-hop to breakdance, to modern and then to ballet classes. After that, I started moving my body as a tool for telling stories. I see myself as a social chameleon, someone who’s interested in everyone, someone who cares. A communication designer or the glue between people!

Can you describe what interests you as a performer?

I’ve always been interested in telling stories. I remember the whole living room of my parents was one neighborhood were the most theatrical things happened between me and my stuffed animals. Later it shifted more to doing theater myself and telling adaptations of previously told stories.

What started me to interest more and more, was that there are ways of telling stories without the use of words. I explored my own body and what I could do with it. Storytellers always fascinated me. The interest of being a storyteller through my body, is still surprising to me.

I am also always trying to search for new things. I like to learn about different people, cultures, their way of thinking, their food and their music. I try to combine my interests in my work as a performer, I tell stories through my body and consider if it is enough to do it without words. Most of the subjects I choose are based on experiences in my life. Sometimes it is a feeling I like to share, sometimes I like to start a discussion, but I always try to be considerate about what I am saying and who will listen.

Roger Nievaart: On the Role of Theatre in the Digital Age
Everyone I come across in my life can be an inspiration. Everyone I see is an equal to me. I know everyone has something beautiful they carry within themselves, everyone has something beautiful to say or share.

Who are your inspirations?

I can’t and won’t say names. Everyone I come across in my life can be an inspiration. Everyone I see is an equal to me. I know everyone has something beautiful they carry within themselves, everyone has something beautiful to say or share. It is about the person I come across and if that person would like to share it with me. It can be even a random person who is waiting for the same bus as me.

For example, last week there was this girl making photos with this old-school throwaway camera. It got me curious and I started a conversation and she decided to share her story with me. She told me that for every moment in her life she makes a photo, even the moment after a good evening spent with friends, where she waited for the bus. Maybe you think right now, isn’t everyone doing that nowadays on Instagram? What inspired me and what the difference was for me is that she genuinely did it as a captured memory for herself, where Instagram can be used to show the world your life. I thought it was beautiful to come across someone who is putting effort in documenting the memories of her life, and for her only. Basically, as I see it, she is giving herself gifts and she can relive those moments through her photos. Compared to me, I am aware that I forget a lot of moments which I would have loved to keep remembering.

What is the role of theater in the digital age?

I always try to see things in a positive light, I believe that theatre becomes more accessible. People who can’t go to the theatre for financial reasons or maybe because they didn’t grow up attending theatre performances, it becomes more approachable, due to the fact that we can find anything on the Internet, and sometimes just stumble upon it.

I grew up doing theatre but before I started dancing, I felt dancing was for girls and girls only, but the digital paths gave me an opportunity to look at it and secretly rehearse it in my room while copying the moves of famous artists. Later I realized that it was an opportunity that the digital age gave me. It broke the stigmas in my head, because I saw actually guys enjoying to dance. So I sincerely believe that the digital age can bring good things from the theatre into the homes of the ones who haven’t been in contact with it directly.    

Is it a dying art form, because people consume their art and entertainment digitally? Or is it adapting?

I refuse to believe it is a dying art form; I think it is a different form of art. There are different ways to tell a story and I believe that theatre is one of those. Like I said before, I think it becomes more accessible. For example, I think that many people can describe the Mona Lisa, while they have never seen the painting in the Louvre, or even been to Paris. In my opinion, that is great. But being in Paris, waiting in line to enter the Louvre, standing in front of the Mona Lisa with sixty other people and (spoiler alert!) realizing that the painting is smaller than the screen of your HD TV is an experience in itself. It gives an extra layer, a feeling, maybe even an emotion.

And this is also for theatre. Nowadays, there are even operas screened in the cinema, and theatre plays and performances available to watch online. Its free to watch for a bigger audience, but being there in the theatre, the smell of the theatre and the old red curtains that open just before the play starts, the sweat on the faces of dancers, the person you don’t know who sits besides you and laughs about something you haven’t seen at all.

I think it is a way of adoption; there is a new way of receiving information but physically going to see a play in a theatre has his benefits and experiences too.

How has it changed?

What is interesting and noticeable is that you can take the technology to the theatre. Some months ago I’ve seen a concert, completely performed by a hologram. After the show I realized that I sat through the entire one and a half hours and I wasn’t bored for a second. I think we should embrace the changes, and play with the new possibilities that the digital age gives us.

As a performer, the digital age also gives me new inspiration to make performances. It gives me new ways to tell the story. A year ago I went to see a play about online dating, and the performer showed us different profiles of people and let the audience decide which person was the most suitable. For me, it came across as something new and fresh, but I also kept thinking about the privacy of those real people and their profiles. I think when these questions start to pop up, you have something in your hand that is still undiscovered, as an opportunity to explore.

I like to discover and explore new paths, so I am happy with the changes within the theatre world.    

Roger Nievaart: On the Role of Theatre in the Digital Age

What is the future of theatre?

I think many people believe that theatre and TV are kind of the same thing, and I can’t totally disagree. In both, there is a story to be told, played by actors or performers. TV is for now still two dimensional, but is changing slowly too. Theatre on the other hand, has the advantage of being able to make the audience participate in the play itself. Play with smell, touch, and actually every sense a human being has.

Cinemas are adapting to this already, they smartly involve 5D effects. Dolby Surround, sometimes even movement, smell, wind and water elements. What I hope for the future of theatre is that it becomes more like an experience than it already is. Some years ago, I went to see the story of Hansel und Gretel. For this performance you had to reserve a time slot for one or two people, you became Hansel or Gretel, or both, or whoever you identify with, and listened to the story on a headset. You travelled from room to room and sometimes you had to make a decision whether you wanted to go left or right. No actors were involved, except the storyteller through the headset. They played with the senses of the audience, by adding a forest smell to the room when you were walking through the forest. A higher temperature when you were entering the next room, which signified indoors.

I think, or maybe it is a secret hopeful thought of mine, that the theatre is shifting towards fully experienced theatre.    

 

Actually the most interesting discussion going on right now for me as an artist, is a fair question: Where are the performers of color? If you think about it, have you ever really seen another skin tone different than tones of beige in a ballet performance?

Has the structure of the narrative changed in theatre due to our shortening attention spans?

I believe that we never can satisfy everyone, but that it is important as a theatre maker to be aware of this shift in attention spans. It also depends on what kind of storyteller you are or what story you’re telling.

For example, if you are doing an adaptation for a Shakespeare play, a story that has been told before, I think you can take shortened attention spans in consideration and adapt to it. But, when a theatre maker decides to tell a personal story or share a feeling, it shouldn’t matter that much.

I believe more in the power of the theatre maker and the story to be told, and that it can grow attention in people, or trigger the audience.

So there definitely is a narrative change in theatre. I just ask myself if it’s really important if the story you want to tell is authentic and pure, whether you should focus on it too much.    

What are some trends you are noticing in the world of performance?

I see two noticeable trends happening in the world of performance. And honestly, I am happy they are happening.

The first one applies to any art form nowadays, fashion gets involved, theatre is participating, stand-up comedy comes along. I am talking about taking political statements in your piece of art.  Actually the most interesting discussion going on right now for me as an artist, is a fair question: Where are the performers of color? If you think about it, have you ever really seen another skin tone different than tones of beige in a ballet performance? And what about Othello?

I believe that we start using different platforms wisely to start talking about political issues. And why not? I am glad we are in the beginning of starting to talk with each other about issues we should’ve talked about a long time ago. You can choose as a theatre maker to make a performance that is both taking a political statement and entertaining, if you do it right.

Secondly, for theatre specifically, I notice that there is a trend of taking the stage out of the theatre. We like to play on location. It is in line with theatre wanting to give the audience a bigger experience. From theatre to reality. Why not perform your play in the Zoo instead or bringing the Zoo into the theatre? People are also more open for these new ways of experiencing theatre.    

Being an artist is being a PR agent, a creator, a destroyer, a therapist, a manager, an influencer, an entrepreneur, a trend watcher, a realist, a dreamer. I can keep going. It is difficult sometimes, but we artists choose to tell stories, to influence, to inspire, because feel we are able to do so.

What are your struggles?

I think most of my struggles come from the fact that I ask myself the question: Can I tell this story? Am I the right person to tell it? I tend to take on social issues as a subject to be told. To be shared. To be discussed. Sometimes it is a part of my story and a part of someone else’s.

Most of the stories I like to tell have a delicate base, a fragile background. I always try to be cautious with what I try to say and work from there towards my goal. Actually the goal is always the same; I want the audience who came to watch my performance to leave in a questioning state of mind. If I hear someone say after my performance: “That was cool, what are we going to eat tonight?”, I know I failed.

I find it hard to find the balance between not making something to provoke (just for the provocation itself) or something too sweet and mellow.

Do you think it is harder to break through as an actor or to find a stable income than in other art professions?

No, I can be super short about this. I think in any kind of art form it is hard to break through. Artists want to spread a feeling, an emotion, sell an experience. Every time they try to sell a little piece of themselves, it depends sometimes also on  a part of luck, besides taste and skills.

For example as a surgeon, you get schooled, trained to do certain kinds of operations; there is almost this manual you can do step by step, you’re doing a really clear service. With art it is so much more complicated. As an artist you create something, sometimes not even physical. You created that something out of an emotion, a feeling. But you portray how it feels, looks, smells or tastes for you. Then you have to sell it to the bigger audience, many different people, with opinions who maybe don’t connect with your work. Being an artist is being a PR agent, a creator, a destroyer, a therapist, a manager, an influencer, an entrepreneur, a trend watcher, a realist, a dreamer. I can keep going. It is difficult sometimes, but we artists choose to tell stories, to influence, to inspire, because feel we are able to do so.

Roger Nievaart: On the Role of Theatre in the Digital Age
Credit: Milán Tettero, From the performance Zwanenmeer

 

Does the Netherlands support its theatre arts well?

I find this a good question but a hard one to answer. When do we say we have enough support? Is there a limit at all? In my personal opinion, we cannot support theatre and art in general too much. But realistically, everything has a price. If we talk about support, do we talk about money? Awareness? When is it too little? In my surroundings I hear a lot of organizations lose subsidized projects. It sounds like things are dying and not coming back, but you can also see it as an opportunity and ask yourself why did it happen? What can we change to make art and theatre interesting again? Did theatre lose value for the bigger audience, and should it be more than only entertainment?

I think compared to other countries, the Netherlands is doing a lot for its arts. Personally, I want to have everyone experience theatre once in his life and the Netherlands should pay for that. But who am I? I am not the one who is thoughtfully giving the money, I am the one asking.   

Tell me more about your upcoming performance called 7.613.447.349.

The performance I am working on right now is about an authentic feeling. It is about missing something or someone in your life and how to deal with that. I believe that everyone had at least one moment in their life where they felt that they were not whole. Maybe there is even someone who believes they never can be fixed again.

With this performance I strive to create an environment where the audience feels equal to the performer and opens up to understand what the performer is trying to say or tell. Maybe it is a cry for help. Maybe it is just about being aware that we all can relate to that same feeling. I want to bring people closer to each other, because that is what I miss sometimes, nowadays. I hope people will wonder if they should start be more proactive to help others, because I believe that when we start sharing at least smiles on the street to random strangers, it can help already.

This performance, will be our dance!