Interview Theater makers Gérard Schiphorst and Marije van der Sande
The things have to audition
Amputed Barbie dolls, broken brooms and squeaky hedge trimmers. The object theatre TAMTAM has been giving objects a soul for thirty years.
They’re just irons, you might think. Just pliers, pruning shears, gas masks and dish brushes. Also used, and discarded. But in the studio of the artist couple Gérard Schiphorst and Marije van der Sande (both 53), in a workshop in the old harbour aera in Deventer, they get a second life when they turn out to be fantastic actors. In the hands of Schiphorst and Van der Sande they come to life, they acquire stubborn characters, they become rebellious, pathetic, powerful, or sad.
Provided they pass the audition. When the making of a performance starts, the couple pulls a few boxes from the racks. The ones labelled “bare dolls” for example, or “ugly ducklings” (real ones), “Frankenstein’s darlings” or “essentials” (gas masks), depending on the role the makers have in mind. “Sometimes we look for a mean person or a sweet victim. At other times we limit ourselves in the choice of materials, just wood for example, or rust’, says Schiphorst.
Gérard Schiphorst and Marije van der Sande have been the brains behind object theatre TAMTAM for thirty years. Trained as a journalist and publisher, he is less strict, more eclectic. “We always ask: what can you do, thing? I park the doubtful cases in purgatory for a while. They can still prove themselves.” She, originally a Montessori teacher and drama teacher, is stricter, faithful to the beauty of the form. She immediately sees a horse in a run over curler. Or a spy in a corroded wall anchor. They know each other from kindergarten, but only got into something when he did the design – two standing beds – for an occasional performance in which she played the leading role.
‘A real TAMTAM object’, says Van der Sande, ‘must have a soul.’ ‘And be a bit pathetic’, adds Schiphorst. Battered, mistreated, abandoned. That’s why the couple doesn’t go to flea markets until everyone has already left. “Our actors are then on the street, between what the sellers leave behind.” They find bags with old toys at their door, sometimes someone calls when old organ pipes are going to be thrown away.
And so amputed Barbie dolls, broken brooms and squeaky hedge trimmers find themselves in the wordless, cinematic TAMTAM adventures. Played with four hands in a small theatre, often no bigger than a large diorama, a black-covered workbench or a table covered with kilos of sand. It is there that moving battles take place. Pocket-sized wars.
In the visual nightmare Survival or how to survive Murphy’s law (2008), for example, a lone goat horn man continues to fight tooth and nail against supreme hammers aka property developers. In the Shakespearean greed tragedy To Have Or Not To Have (2006), a pair of pliers and a mole trap come to blows just over a mysterious package.
In No Problem! or the secret live of objects (2001) an army of rasps prepares for the total revolt of things against the people. Always committed stories about the struggle against the masses, against consumerism, against destruction, from the perspective of the loner who works for increasingly scarce human values: breathing space, privacy, contentment.
For thirty years, TAMTAM has been part of the vanguard of small-scale visual object theatre. While groups such as Dogtroep and Warner & Consorten caused a furore with large-scale spectacles on location, TAMTAM, on a modest scale, made their way with inventive and gripping performances in their traveling theater tent Objectomania.
In the Netherlands, the duo is a niche, especially known among lovers of visual theater. Abroad, the small TAMTAM is a big name, loved at all festivals for La Petite Forme, as the genre is officially called in France – and where it has a real status more than in the Netherlands. The duo has performed in more than twenty countries – from Romania to Sweden and from South Africa to Canada. And is therefore less often found in the Netherlands. Regular theatre performances are difficult to book. Schiphorst: ‘Our sightlines limit the number of spectators. We love the human dimension. Our objects drown in large sets.’ It is mainly the visual festivals where TAMTAM is a regular guest.
In the coming weeks, TAMTAM will be celebrating their anniversary extensively in Deventer, Den Bosch and Groningen. First on August 2 with an outing, an ambient music concert from the Deventer Tower, during the book market. In addition to being a theatre maker, Schiphorst is also a musician and composer. He makes the soundtrack for all TAMTAM performances himself.
Next week the new performance Miracles will happen instantly, the impossible takes a little longer will premiere during Festival Boulevard, to last ten more days at the end of August at Festival Noorderzon.
It is precisely with this new performance that the duo has taken a different approach. No audition of things this time, no Idols for objects. But objects sent by fellow artists from around the world. A silver fork with battered teeth by the French Barbara Melois, a pair of baby socks by the New Yorker Ted Killmer, two weathered fishnet floaters by the writer Wim Hofman, a chocolate Easter chicken by hermit Jozef van den Berg, a frayed veil by Nestor Feike Boschma and a stolen French flag from Paris. The couple has committed to use all objects in the upcoming anniversary performance. They have a storyline: the running socks take on the fast traffic of the ever-expanding city with its bridges and cloverleaves.
Last year, the couple took a different path. After all those years full of love for discarded objects, and always supported by the province of Overijssel, they wanted to get rid of the cycle of making, playing, making, playing. The solution was hidden in a series of invitations to other artists to collaborate briefly in visual ‘jam sessions’. Schiphorst would now like to continue with animation films, frame by frame constructed from tableaus of, of course, things from their boxes. Nuts, bolts and bottle caps that clump together into birds and trees. Only to be destroyed by an infernal fire (a short film made for Liberation Day).
Video will also be a part of their performances more often in the future. But always in small format. And never at the expense of playing their objects live. Schiphorst: ‘The golden rule in our performances: our gaze always follows the puppets.’
They are not thinking about pre-pension for the time being. Fortunately, they operate less and less as loners in the Netherlands. A new generation of theater makers is emerging that are successfully engaged in objects: Hotel Modern, Tg Winterberg, Duda Paiva and Ulrike Quade.
What will the couple ever do with their boxes full of ‘actors’ and their beautiful studio collection of works of art full of objets trouvés? They don’t know yet. Maybe their son and daughter will turn it into a museum. “They didn’t want to go into the theatre. Working way too hard.’ But the eldest is now a creative producer for television, the youngest has a small business as a theater producer. Van der Sande: ‘They did suffer a bit: we always took their toys away to use in a performance.’
31 July 2009 – Volkskrant – Annette Embrechts