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When a director says, "The tragedy of theater is the applause," it’s a pretty sure bet his staging will be far from ordinary. In Jan Lauwers’ latest work, "Isabella’s Room," which his Needcompany will perform at BAM’s Harvey Theatre this week, the playwright-director once again demonstrates his iconoclastic tendencies.

For Lauwers, applause is dangerous because it takes away from the weightiness of theater and puts it in the realm of entertainment.

"Theater is very important," he told GO Brooklyn in a telephone interview from Ohio, where he is on tour with this production. "It’s the medium of the future. The way photography influenced painting is the same way film should affect theater. I think theater needs redefinition."

In "Isabella’s Room," this redefinition involves a cunning integration of text, music and dance, as Lauwers tells the story of the blind, 90-year-old Isabella Morandi (played by Viviane de Muynck), who regains her sight via a camera that projects images directly onto her brain. She relives her long life through a series of flashbacks triggered by what she now sees.

"Isabella is a fantastic character," says Lauwers. "She’s very flamboyant. She’s had 74 lovers. She’s a very free and open person."

Spanning almost a century, Isabella’s story incorporates many of the pivotal events that have shaped our world - two world wars, Hiroshima, the death of colonialism. As a Belgian and a heritor of his country’s legacy in what was once the Belgian Congo, Lauwers believes his play is both very European and very personal. In fact, it was his confrontation with the more than 4,000 ethnological and anthropological objects he and his family inherited upon the death of his father that led him to write "Isabella’s Room."

"I was born and raised in a household full of these objects. You opened a drawer and you found a mummy. Half of the objects are stolen. There are ethical questions that were never asked in my father’s generation," Lauwers says. "The confrontation with the collection and the ethical questions confused me. In ’Isabella’s Room.’ I’m writing about my father, but I’m not writing moralistically. [It] was a reason to start writing."

"Isabella’s Room" plays out on Lauwers’ set built from a mixture of Egyptian and African masks and carved statuettes, fossils, mummified cats and antiquated tools.

"In this case, the props aren’t the props but the real objects," Lauwers explains. "We destroy an illusion to create a new one."

But Lauwers has not only drawn from his father’s collection; he has also plumbed his own memories.

"We tell about an uncle of mine who survived Hiroshima and the first actor I worked with, who was killed in Somalia," he says.

Although Lauwers studied painting at the Academy of Art in Ghent in preparation for a career in the fine arts, in 1979, at the age of 22, he decided to put his training in the service of the theater and formed the Epigonentheater zlv collective, which used music and language as structuring elements. After five years, this company broke up, but several associates prevailed on Lauwers to continue his work. At that time, Lauwers said that if he were to continue, he would need a company. Thus was born Needcompany.

The company’s most recent appearance at BAM was as part of the 2001 Next Wave Festival with their production of Shakespeare’s "King Lear."

"Theater is a social place, a place full of energy. When I work with others, it’s totally different than working by myself," says Lauwers. "I try to balance different sources of energy at the same time. I use media I need to express what I want to express. Multimedia is always present. It’s beautiful to work with different media. Dance, music - all this energy together is theater."

Although Lauwers believes "everybody has to make his own story," he says "Isabella’s Room" is all about people’s "warm feelings."

"There’s dancing. It’s a musical. We developed the music - sing-along pop - on laptops," he says.

Certainly "Isabella’s Room" reflects Lauwers’ concern for the state of the world.

"There are good people and there are idiots," he says. "The idiots are winning and that it not good." But his vision is ultimately one of optimism.

"I wrote the play at a moment when everyone is confused and frightened," said Lauwers. "I want to tell people we are wonderful. Let’s love each other."


Needcompany’s production of "Isabella’s Room" plays Dec. 14 and Dec. 16-18, at 7:30 pm, at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St. between Ashland Place and Rockwell Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $20, $30, $45.

A BAMdialogue with Jan Lauwers will be held Dec. 16, at 6 pm, at the BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene.) Tickets are $8. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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