How Dennis van Aalst creates space with humour

Happyplaces Stories (video)

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I got to know Dennis through working on a couple of projects together. We have had great conversations ever since. On the phone, on our way to clients, in waiting areas. Those conversations almost always have a layer of humour in them. Never really knowing if that what we mutually share with each other is serious or not. That is also how I learnt about Dennis his second life: during day time he helps to get the best out of creative people as a zone manager. Which practically means, that he is responsible for a part of the agency, his zone. But I think it is more about keeping creatives ‘in the zone’, within their creativity. But at night, he is trying to get the best out of himself, as a comedian. Then, he spends a lot of time driving to all kinds of open podia throughout the country to perform, to refine his repertoire, his jokes. I thought that was fascinating: during daytime spending all of his time creating stages for creatives to perform on, enabling them to create the best possible creative work. But using the night as the outlet for his own creativity. I joined Dennis when he had to perform in Zwolle, a small city in the north of the Netherlands. We met at the parking lot of the local community centre. A beautiful old building, that felt a bit squatted by the community, a rough space with some basic facilities so it could be used for anything really. Dennis was programmed last. Before him, all kinds of performing artist had the opportunity to share their art with the modest audience present. Dennis eventually took the stage after midnight, allowing us a lot of time to talk, and of course listen to the eclectic collection of performing arts, with a really varying quality. Open podium. So everything is possible, allowed and okay. A sort of Olympic thought. Trying beats not trying. People being really vulnerable, sharing their thoughts, music, ideas, compositions for the first time on a stage. Where all performing artists support each other by being there for each other as each other’s audience. Wonderful.

It is magical. I just arrived here, in Zwolle, at a former nursery. In the upper hall, as they called it back then, of a beautiful antique attic. I love this. It is so cool to look for a maximum of excitement. Step outside of the comfort zone you stay in during the day where everything is controlled. Let it all go during the evening. Look for a maximum of insecurity. From my point of view, when you are talking about space it is of importance to give myself enough space. To allow myself to get in touch with myself. More specifically, with everything that bothers me. To make sure that I can deal with what is on my mind. The things that tempt me or make me explode. Make sure I can deal with this on stage in order to share it with my audience.


But it all begins with getting in touch with myself. Without contact with myself, there is no contact with my audience. I think this is easier said than done. Because everyone always says that, on stage, you have to stay true to who you are. But I always need this for my landing. And when I go on stage, I want to make contact. Who is in the audience? Who am I? What do I want? What do I feel? And it is only after this, when I start doing what I want to do. This is a big step, because it means that I have to let go of certainties. Letting go of what was going to be my next line. Letting go of a specific attitude. Letting go of the things that provide me with surety, a specific role. And at the same time looking for contact within all of this. But also when I am working with materials, insights, ideas, and jokes, I always try to find myself. Try to find out what touches me. What is also very important, in my opinion, is to give your subconsciousness a chance. I am not someone who sits down and starts to write, because I feel pressured to come up with three hilarious jokes. No. I have insights; I see something about forgotten vegetables. And I start to think about the weirdness of this term: forgotten vegetables. It is so weird that I start to feel sorry for these vegetables. How did this come into existence? At this point, something is happening inside of me. In stead of immediately writing down ideas, I let it rest for a while. I subconsciously create space in my head to let my ideas grow. The seed has been planted and it needs to grow slowly. Sometimes this takes a month. Other times it takes half a year. But will you see that this idea always comes back to you, at some point. I like witnessing this evolution. This is the case with every insight I have. I also have, when performing here tonight. I actually need my audience. To me, the stage is a space. You have the audience and the spotlights. And you have yourself. Within this space, you need to explore everything. Exceed your own boundaries and try to locate the contact with your audience. Make sure that people are moved by what you are doing.


I am not easily moved myself. This is a nice survival mechanism. I keep everything at distance. But theater moves me. Theater is something… When I am in a theatre, I am moved. I leave the harness I normally wear when walking down the street, at work, or at parties, I leave this harness at home. And in the theater hall, I can feel someone standing on stage who, figuratively, exposes every part of him- or herself. Who came up with something and decided to share this with an audience. Or at least with me. This exposing, literally, or I mean figuratively. Every performance, you will feel and be exposed. Naked. A comedian once said: “When you are giving a new performance it feels like you are going to work dressed in your undies”. To me, it has never felt like this. But I do feel exposed. Raw and pure. I also feel this when I am on stage. I need to be open to this. And I also want to be. Because you improve your performance together with the audience. Look for flaws. Where is the timing? Where is the joke? Where is the emotion? I want to move people during their everyday lives as well. In my daily life, I work for an advertising agency. And this too is all the same. At an advertising agency, you place a brand on stage. From backstage you tell it what to do but in a way that moves the people in the audience, or the consumers in this case. Not always with humour, but in a way that catches their attention and makes them want to listen to you. This is what I do during the day. And in the evening I throw myself into the lion’s den. Sometimes you have an audience that plays with you. And other times you have an audience that just sits back and listens. Even though you need some feedback contact with the audience in order to take a step forward. You have to deal with this as well. Not all audiences are the same. When something does not work out, it is never the audience’s fault. It is your task to deliver something special. You take your work and everything else with you. Everything that happens in your life. This could also be on vacation. Or when you are at work. It could be something you notice during the day. Someone who stirs in his coffee a second too long when the milk has already dissolved. This irritates me, but it is also something I can work with. Shouldn’t we give these people a yellow or red card? At my work and in my everyday life, I have had a couple of these observations. And I thought to myself: society needs a referee. A referee who hands out yellow and red cards. This is when you have created a stage for yourself where you can express these observations. Irritations and things that occupy your mind. Where you can give people you want to get a message across. In a way that moves them, but also in a way that makes them think. “Shouldn’t this be done differently?”

The power of humour

It would be most unique, and this is one of my secret hopes, if we could bring back the power of laughter, because humour is powerful. Humour puts things into perspective, connects people, and breaks the ice. We should use World Laughter Day to accomplish good things. In theater, people often laugh at jokes. But it would be great to use these jokes to bring people together. Or to solve problems that cannot be solved without humour. I have this concept in mind, called ‘All you need is laugh’. So not L.O.V.E., but L.A.U.G.H. So the power of laughter. When you can use laughter to teach people something… Or when you can make someone smile who really deserves to, but who does not have the time or the money, or the utilities but who feel the need to laugh, to make these people laugh by doing pop-up performances in unexpected places to surprise and bring these people together by means of laughter. I think this is magical. It is something that encourages people to open up. Everyone is so serious. And many people are too serious. And they take themselves too seriously. ,And every day, people are trying so hard to be anyone but themselves. But especially with humour and theater, you will have to open up. This feels like a contradiction but you cannot play a role on stage. The stage is real. The audience is real. The contact between the audience and me is real. Pretending to be someone you are not will not help you any further. But this has to be a two-way process. The audience needs to be energetic. And I need to be energetic. And this needs to be combined. Sometimes this is not the case. This is when your spotlight is kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel. And other times, it does work out. This is when the spotlight is energising like sunshine. You have to search for this insecurity. There are times when you will be a hero on stage. And there are times, maybe tonight, when you will fail miserably. And you will then think: please put me in a coffin right now. I am done. But chasing after this tension is incredible. I hope everyone gets a chance to experience this. Look for this tension, find your boundaries and cross them. This is when you will find out what your talents and strenghts are.

Space creation

It has worked the same for me at my work, when I first started here, I quietly observed everything. But after two days, I stopped doing this. I had to shape the function around myself. I discovered that this can change on a daily basis. Reshaping to match the situation. This is a process of constant improvisation. Find out what your strengths are and how you can use them in a particular situation. This goes way beyond a function description, a company profile, or a mission. This is about giving yourself enough space. Daring to challenge yourself. This sounds weird but it is true. Dare to challenge yourself into going beyond your boundaries. Do not walk the paths that have already been taken. But constantly look for renewal. This is only possible when you are thinking from the product’s point of view. From the point of view of your creation. Because when this is the point of focus, you will have to keep renewing in order to build everything around the product. This creation is actually the hero on stage. The creative product, the concept, the grand idea. You will just have to go along with it. Constantly adjusting like a chameleon, but with preservation of your own strenghts. Adjusting to the team, to the company, to the client. All to get the most out of this product. Because during the day, I help people see what makes them unique. To create something beautiful. In the evening, I take this role myself. I do not like it when there are people with me on stage. I do not want to make plans with people to go to a performance together. Driving there myself. Touring for miles straight. Walking up the stairs, arriving in an empty theater. Dark rooms, a small light somewhere. Being with no one but myself. During the day I am the straight man. What Frans van Dusschoten was to André van Duin. And in the evening, these roles are reversed. In the evening, I want to be André van Duin. He is not my favourite comedian, but it is a metaphor. During the day, I make the first move. I make sure everything is set up, I build a small stage for someone else to give a performance at this place. In the evening, I take this same stage with me and I stand on it. Turn on the light. You can feel it burning. Microphone. Go for it. The old clown, indeed. I like that. The old clown, who is looking for something especially for himself and who wants to find this on stage. He can only find this by opening up to what happens in that moment. Yes. I come up with the cause and I create urgency and the audience can fill in the emotion. But this is important to really stick with my own story. I should not think for the audience. When I am mad about something, I have to tell my story. But the audience needs to feel that this evokes anger. The audience needs to feel this anger. I should not act like I am angry. Because then it would be theater in the sense of a play. But on stage, comedy is raw and pure. You have to mind the urgency, the necessity, your story. Do not try to be funny. Be proud to tell your story. Of course, every time I get on stage I want people to like me. But I have to get rid of this thought immediately after getting on stage. This is not your goal. You have to be proud to tell your story. If you want to use laughter to do something good it is all about visiting people in unexpected places. Surprise them. And from this surprise, give them the attention they need. And by doing so, providing them with perspective and relativize things. Let them feel new energy. Energy they might need the day after, or even today. “Look, I can also give this to others.” This changes my perspective on where I am right now. It would be great if people would get in touch with themselves when they are given more attention. And spread this. Laughter is an universal language. Everyone understands and speaks this language. I went on a vacation to Brasil and I did not speak Portugese but I was walking down the street and this old man came up to me and tried to explain something to me I had no clue what he was trying to say. But at the same time, because we shared a sense of humour we had contact. This takes you to the next level. We said our goodbyes smiling and waving at each other. It would be such a good thing if people could give others more of this contact. This could be at a supermarket or at the playground of a school it could be in a traffic jam or… Do make contact. From positivity. This is often a container definition and because of this, it is hollow to many people… Make contact from humour. Everyone should build their own stage. Wherever this stage may be. Even your bicycle may very well be a stage. Try to draw people into this positivity with you. Try to emotionally move people. Instead of doing the opposite, which we are all very good at. Thinking: I am leaving the house today and I will put on my most depressed face. I will make sure that everyone sees this. Whereas you could also turn this around. It sounds like a cliches, but it is so worth it. This is what I see. At the cash register of a supermarket, or at work an e-mail you have to reply to. If you could just put a certain amount of attention and humour in all of this. This does not mean that everything you do has to be hilarious. You will have contact. This is a good basis for all of us to take a step further.