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Without memory, our theatre continues to innovate mindlessly, it turns out at the @theatrefestival

Dutch theatre is remembering less and less. This was evident last Friday during two meetings at ITA, the building that once housed the Stadsschouwburg. During Nieuwe Grond, part of the Dutch Theatre Festival, the topic was heritage.

One meeting may be remembered by the six attendees: the two guests plus presenter, and their three audience members. The other meeting was packed with archivists, dramaturgists, journalists and policymakers. There, they discussed the deeply felt desire to close the memory hole left after storyteller and deputy minister Halbe Zijlstra forced the closure of the Theatre Institute of the Netherlands (TIN), now six years ago.


Were there times when there was an appetite for the stories of a theatre great like Leonard Frank? For the history of Amsterdam's Frascati theatre, in which he played a vital role? Or for the Jewish musical theatre tradition that he sought to 'somewhat' restore in the 1970s and 1980s with performances like Leedvermaak and Dibboek? Or would there ever be a thirst for the story behind how a Russian conquered Frisian theatre?

On Friday 7 September, that hunger was felt by three visitors to the festival. Ira Judkovskaya and Leonard Frank had no less fun: at least they got to know each other better. No cause for bitterness either, for the man who, after 50 years of teaching at the Drama School, was one day not called and never got to say goodbye. That's how things go in the theatre industry. Which, thanks to the production compulsion of a subsidy system eroded to the bone, is mainly preoccupied every day with the day after tomorrow. Looking back is not eligible.

Money on

The policy people in the other foyer of the City Theatre ITA, meanwhile, mused on whether and how something could be done about the impending loss of memory. The archive of the defunct Theatre Institute is now housed at the University of Amsterdam. That manages it for a fee, coming from the TIN's own capital left from the sale of the monumental buildings in which it was once proudly located. That money will run out in 2020. If nothing is done before then, the archive will turn into a 'cold storage' and will no longer be kept up to date.

Should all that eventually merge into a user-maintained digital and online archive, or should there also be an actual building? Some even expressed a desire for a serious 'Hall of Fame', on the American model. Provided, however, that 'fame' is valued enough to make such a thing possible.

Own story

Main issue that lingered over the market during that afternoon was: how do you make sure that people are in the past want deepen? For a sector that is itself so intensely engaged in renewing itself, that past is not so interesting, strangely enough. Every time a company or theatre revamps its own website because of a new artistic direction or leadership, the archive disappears to a deeper hidden page.

Moreover, some creators, as well as dramatists and critics, who like to be at the centre of the zeitgeist, boast of a total lack of historical awareness. Without an active archive, this allows each new generation to tell its own story about history. Preferably with a major role for themselves in it. For instance, as the 'inventor of' or the 'first to do or say something'. All this in the knowledge that, once that historically unique career is over, only three more visitors will be interested in you.

So the question is: do you want a theatre that is so ephemeral?

You may respond in the comments.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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