Interview: The Sensemaker

Elsa Couvreur in The Sensemaker. Photo by Kenny Mathieson.

In this series for Voila! Europe Theatre Festival, Laura Jaramillo Duque interviews artists about their work, the shows they’re bringing to Voila, and their plans for the future…

Laura spoke to Elsa Couvreur, creator and performer of The Sensemaker (Cockpit Theatre, 7 November).

The Sensemaker shows the inner turmoil of a woman as she tries to meet the impossible expectations of a synthetic voice. Smartly dressed, standing behind a phone, she is slowly stretched to her limits. Flipping between different languages and genres of music, her moves are precise as she strains to keep her tightly orchestrated routine in time. As the voice’s demands become absurd, she has to choose between obedience and integrity. Will her hopes to succeed be stronger than her growing confusion?


LJ: What drew you to the Voila festival? What opportunities do you hope it will open for you?

EC: I knew the Voila Festival because I went last year to see a show of a friend of mine who performed at the BE Festival, so I also heard about the Voila because of the BE festival in Birmingham. When I came last year I really liked the programme, I could not see most of the shows, but I looked at it and I thought it was really nice. Also, I really liked the concept of trying to have different artists from all over Europe; so I decided to apply.

About the opportunities I think it already opened opportunities for me, the first opportunity was to perform The Sensemaker in a long version because it was created specially for the Voila Festival. The other opportunities were to get to meet people, like the people that work at The Cockpit and also working at different festivals. It already opened opportunities for me to present my show at other festivals that I’ll be giving more information soon. Also I invited some guests from the press industry to have a few reviews, which were really positive, that’s also great for the piece.

LJ: What is the value of cross-cultural theatre?

EC: Its value is to discover something that surprises you and that comes from a different logic than yours. I realised that also a company from Switzerland coming to the UK is different because I have a feeling that people in the UK have more of a culture of stand-up comedy and musicals, I feel they want to laugh when they go to a theatre, it is an important part of it. An example is when I was at the Edinburg Fringe Festival you could see on their flyers comments like: “it’s hilarious, is really funny,” and it feels like its very important for people, for the audience in the UK. While in Switzerland is very different, it is more performative, profound or conceptual. The fact that my piece is funny is something that really add more people to the show, for me that is really interesting to observe, like how different audiences react to the same piece, also how reactive the audience is because people in the UK are more used to laugh while people in other places laugh about different things, probably because they think it is disrespectful. This also changes the look that I have on my piece, from being a funny piece to being more of a dark piece; it really depends on the reactions of the audience. It also depends on the reason why people go to theatre and what they like to see.

LJ: How does your cultural background affect your creative process?

EC: That is a tricky question because I am originally Belgian and I’ve been living in Switzerland for 10 years, I came when I was 18 that is just the moment when I was growing up, so I suppose that part of my cultural background is Belgian and part is Swiss. I guess I’ve been influenced by both cultures a lot. Also, I went to a Ballet school until I was 18, it was very academic and strict; it was very centred in classical techniques. So it was very funny because I discovered Belgium dance after I left Belgium. This type of dance is very theatrical and I really like it, so I wonder if I was influenced without knowing.

LJ: Why London?

EC: I guess because of the Voila Festival and again because it’s in the UK. Also I applied to many festivals and it seems that the ones that liked the piece are in the UK for the moment. I liked about the festival that there was a lot of variety in the programme and also the themes of cultural barriers, cultural differences, modern world, injustice and gender were common to all of the shows of the festival. I feel that everyone had something to say about the world and how it is now.

LJ: Why did you create Woman’s Move?

EC: I realised I wanted to create some pieces and I didn’t want to that alone; I wanted to create on my own but I didn’t feel strong enough to have a company on my own. So I talked to two friends of mine 6 years ago and they agreed, so we created Woman’s Move collective and we are three artistic directors. We started with small projects that we felt like doing, we didn’t choreograph together, but is always like if one has an idea and lead the project while the other ones support her in terms of paper work, administration, publicity and all the things on the side. So we change the roles so that each one can lead a project and create a piece. It is quite nice because is very heavy to have a structure on your own and its something that a lot of people that don’t work in the arts is know and is that you spend 90% of your time not doing art, you are doing administrative things instead, so when you share this its really nice. It is actually a job, people live for that kind of job that they do fulltime, is just that when you are a small structure you need to do that job yourself. I had to learn like three other jobs besides choreographer; I had to learn just by doing it how to administrate, how to be an accountant and how to be a community manager. I think a lot of artists are in the same position.

LJ: Why is dance an important art form to question the society we live at?

EC: Because it comes from the guts, it makes people feel things because before they think of them. For example what you said about this piece making you feel a certain way is very nice to hear because is what I want to do is people to feel empathy so that they can feel my situation, so that they can feel the same things that I felt: shame, humiliation, vulnerability, wanting to resist and not knowing how to do it. I think that dance is a very good way to make people feel a certain way without explaining the situation. I think that if you try to explain emotions to the audience then you will not me able to make them feel them because dance is a very instinctive form of art, you just have to move and let your body do something to deliver a message in a natural way. There is a common thing in most of arts and is how do you make it understandable and accessible for other people. The way dance can communicate is with feelings rather than toughs.

LJ: How did you manage the timings of your show, how did you find a balance between too much and not enough time for you and the audience to wait?

EC: It was very nice performance for me, I really felt the audience with me and I think this piece requires a lot of concentration from the audience in the beginning because I am just waiting for 5 minutes. So it’s like: “Hey guys, we are going to wait together.”

I made this possible by trying different timings and trying to feel when it was too long for me. Also, because I performed this piece in the short version that is 25 minutes long, actually the solo just existed in that version and it was really nice to make it longer for Voila. Sometimes I performed the short version outside and it is very tough because I needed to make the times shorter because people is not locked up with me, so it was much more difficult to have the attention and to have the same effects. But in general just by trying, make it a little bit longer, a little bit shorter and see how it felt. Also in the whole piece I played with timing to make it a little bit too long or a little bit too short.

I use to play music and I am really sensitive to music and to rhythm, so somehow it is a part of it. Also in acting it is about right timing and right rhythm.

LJ: How does repetition allow you to challenge our ideas of authority?

EC: that particular part where I repeat a lot of gestures with different sounds, in itself is not questioning authority, that part is more of an introduction to make people come into this absurd world in which the piece is going to happen. For me this is like a view of the piece because you have a lot of different languages, I repeat the same gestures over and over again and they fit every language, every part that the people say. For me it is questioning the lack of communication and lack of understanding between different people, different languages, different cultures and different countries. In one of the reviews that I had they said something about the authority of a continent that has more than 30 countries and probably twice as many languages, so I think is about that because it can be hard to communicate.

LJ: In your piece you only spoke for a few seconds when everything was dark, how does authority erase your voice and your capacity of speaking by yourself?

EC: yes I think so, also because in the piece there is this moment that I start dancing the little stupid music of the phone; it is one of the only moments in the piece that I am really joyful and then I am interrupted by this voice telling me that I am being filmed in order to improve their services. This is also something real in our world because with Internet, our phone and gps we are constantly observed. For example now we are talking on Skype and someone can hear this is they want to crack it, I have a camera so probably someone can look at that as well, or when I take my phone somewhere there is a gps on it so people can track me. So for me this moment of the piece where everything goes dark is the moment that the machine stops working and that is why I talk, cause I feel relieved but also a bit panicked when I talk because there is a problem, I am not happy with the machine but at the same time I cannot do nothing without machines, even if it hurt me in different ways. We now depend on machines.

LJ: What are your next projects?

EC: for the moment I have the premier of another project of my company, but this time is not me choreographing is one of my friends of the company, the piece is called Gender Cubicles and it is questioning the gender rules and the rules we have to fit in and follow, and those that we can break regarding gender. It is a project that Iona made in collaboration with the university in Geneva, so we worked with a round table as well and I am really exited about that. For what I personally do I have exiting news for next year that I will be releasing soon on social media…

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