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On the death of a teacher (on Wil Hildebrand and the fate of the theatre scholar)

Learning is less about what you learn than from whom you learn it. Not that what you learn doesn't matter, but you simply learn more from an inspired person than from a teacher finishing his list. Fortunately, I have had many good teachers. Some of them are now demented or dead, and we have lost touch with almost all of them. What then remains is the teaching material.

Wil Hildebrand was one such teacher. Last week, he died. Why he should be remembered is neatly listed in his obituary at In 1983, I was part of the first batch of theatre studies students who embodied the completion of his early life's work: an independent institute for theatre studies in Utrecht, not as a subdivision of a specialisation package for Dutch students. That he spent the 30 years that followed mainly trying to keep things afloat while the university went through reorganisation after reorganisation, including the accompanying, zeitgeist-appropriate titles, must have hurt him. Wil Hildebrand was above all off the scene.

And so he was a teacher.

Paradox about the actor

With Diderot's Paradox about the actor I was also introduced to Hildebrand's method. We spelt out the 18th-century booklet, a dialogue between two people on the essence of the art of drama, paragraph by paragraph. There was something to say about every sentence. This form of close reading impressed a generation of playwrights whose roots were in Utrecht. Most famous of these: 't Barre Land, a collective that originally emerged from the Utrecht Institute for Theatre Studies, where early members Peter Kolpa, Jacob Derwig and Czeslaw de Wijs also took lectures from Hildebrand.

That stage acting is more about playing spectators than feeling through every emotion played itself is at the heart of Diderot's Paradox. Rather interesting information, especially in the 1980s. Hildebrand himself had experienced gestalt-like situations in the turbulent 1970s in which drama students were emotionally and physically drained under the guise of training. Excesses of the kind of 'lived-in' acting promoted by Russian theatre innovator Stanislavski in the early 20th century.


Not that Hildebrand indoctrinated us with his views on acting. He was too much a teacher himself for that, one who subordinated his own personality to conveying his teaching. The fact that he did fight all his life against the collective forgetting that is part and parcel of the theatre profession does have a strong personal motivation. He devoted entire lecture series to biographies of once-famous actors like Andries Snoek, Marten Corver and Johanna Cornelia Wattier. At first sight because these biographies taught us a lot about the mores of 18th century theatre, but certainly also to save these professionals from oblivion. Their names may still be chiselled in the balconies of Amsterdam's Stadsschouwburg, but no one still knows who they were and what they brought about.

In 1990, I graduated with him with a comprehensive study on the poor reputation home-grown theatre work has among our theatre-makers. This work, whose inevitable conclusion was that it was based on an intractable prejudice, eventually led in part to the founding of Hans Croiset's company Het Toneel Speelt... . For part of the 1990s, that company endeavoured to revive original Dutch-language repertoire.

Hildebrand himself, in his last years as an active teacher, also spent a lot of time digging up forgotten Dutch drama. He tried to make his students as enthusiastic for this as he was himself. A potentially fruitless struggle in an institute, now called 'Media and Culture', where in the study description the word 'theatre' appears only twice.

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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