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Despite closed doors, Wilminktheatre produced more than ever 

Now that the cultural sector can slowly but surely put the corona crisis and lockdowns behind it, it is time to look back. How have they done, the theatres, the clubs? Earlier, this site discussed The book written by TivoliVredenburg about the first year (Off/On). Now it is time to look at how a theatre in 'the region' survived the pandemic: Wilminktheatre and Muziekcentrum Enschede. Artistic director Simone Kratz: "I am happy that we were able to keep many artists, mostly self-employed, working."

The coronavirus locked the doors of the Wilminktheatre on three occasions. Time and again, productions did not take place and premieres and tours were shelved. Yet for the past two years, from the first lockdown on Thursday 12 March 2020, things did not remain quiet at the Wilminktheatre. On the contrary, internally they were two downright busy and creative years. The Wilminktheatre focused on online platforms and in-house productions with the main aim of serving its theatre audience. A development, spurred on by the corona years, that Wilminktheatre is continuing even after the last lockdown. 

The first lockdown: the Netherlands goes on lockdown

How it all began. Thursday afternoon, 12 March 2020. The Netherlands goes on lockdown for the first time because of the coronavirus. The new normal made its appearance and it all still felt a bit unreal. That was also true for the head of marketing of Wilminktheatre and Muziekcentrum Enschede, Daniël Janssen: ,,Initially we closed the doors on 12 March with the idea that it would take a month," he says. 

That month became two months, as corona infection numbers rose, hospital beds remained full and the vaccine was still a long way off. An open society, with the now old normal, was irresponsible. Over the past two years, Wilminktheatre therefore looked for other ways to continue meeting its audience. The first ideas for this arose at the very beginning of the first lockdown. 

"We initially started working on cancellations and relocations," says Janssen. ''Cancellations thus became our only form of communication with the public. That soon started to bother us. We wanted to do something and started looking at how we could actually reach the audience." 

Puzzle table

While marketing was pondering a nice concept, Artistic Director Simone Kratz was at the puzzle table. After all, where should all the rescheduled performances go? ,,This puzzle took a lot of time and energy," says Kratz. ,,Per impresario or producer you have to see what they want: cancel or play at a later time? Everyone wants to play. But then you have to find out: when? Because as a programmer, you work years ahead to put together the entire programme, so you already have most of next season in place. Moreover, is it organisationally feasible for everyone involved? Is it feasible in terms of technique and production? And for the actors? And is it even profitable? So does it make sense to move on or should you decide it's better to cancel?"

"In the end," says Kratz, "I rescheduled or cancelled one hundred and sixty-five performances in the period from March to June 2020. With all the producers, I went through the possibilities. The attitude was positive: everyone wanted to play. Yet, because you couldn't get out, you had to decide far too often that cancellation was the only option for major productions. Large commercial productions also met such a fate. A show like Hello Dolly by the Theatre Alliance and Medialane had to be cancelled with great pain in the heart. A show like Bride for sale by the Netherlands Reisopera, which had its premiere on 14 March 2020, I shifted and did not have its premiere until April this year (2022)." 

But, says Kratz, I now want to talk about what we have all done since the first coronal shockdown. "Because we want to be there for people."

By distance

The first concept to come out of the crisis quiver was the 'Distance your theatre' campaign in April 2020. The Netherlands is still on lockdown then, and Wilminktheatre is starting 'With Distance Your Theatre' to connect with its home audience through digital means and through multiple art disciplines. There was The Songs of the Great Hope: ten songs by home artists distributed via newsletters from April 2020. For ten weeks, you could hear the likes of Rosemarijn Luijten, Claudia Patacca, Anouk Stokkink and Anne de Blok sing. Pianist Henk Ruiter also managed to find his way to Wilminktheatre: he made the series 'Henk Ruiter met', a music series in which Ruiter hosts colleagues and friends to play together.

And columns came: the 'Tales from the prompter's booth' By Marco Krijnsen, 'Listening tips' by Jacques Klöters and the 'Ode to the Big Three' of the audience. Krijnsen's part consisted of sharing historical stories about the theatre, Klöters gave you to know what is nice to watch and hear, and with your memories we brought Willem Wilmink, Harry Bannink and Henk Elsink back on stage together. The Twente cabaret performers did not stay quiet either. From April to June, Thijs Kemperink, André Manuel, Nathalie Baartman, Jan Riesewijk and Bert Eeftink made ten episodes Other people's V.I.R.U.S., a series that looked at the corona crisis from a satirical point of view. 

Hundreds

The end of the first lockdown comes in juni 2020 in sight. The Netherlands may go outside again and seek each other out, including on terraces. But also at the Wilminktheatre festival Honderduit. At this multi-day festival, from 3 to 12 July 2020, a total of 100 visitors a day could enjoy a whole host of artists: the singer(s) of De Liedjes van de Grote Hoop were now performing live in front of an audience, amateur companies Studio 65 and Music All Enschede showed off their skills, Twente cabaret performers made their jokes and the pocket operas Pyranello and Willemijn Verkaik also appeared on stage. All proceeds went to the artists. 

Although much was allowed again, the one-and-a-half-metre distance rule remained. Together with producer Gerard Cornelisse, Kratz looked ahead to how to do that from September 2020 then. After all, a play needs the feeling of a full auditorium, and the old audience arrangement created palpable gaps under the rule. 

Other room arrangement

Cornelisse therefore tackled PAY. Hall: the audience no longer sat on the rows, red chairs, but at round tables on the large stage. The stage was now against the back wall. That way, some three hundred people could still fit in the room, and it was cosy together. Kratz: ,,The setup felt like a Las Vegas nightclub, singer Danny Vera told me on 8 September. You no longer felt the one-half-metre rule."

But the investment in the lasvegas setup was to no avail. "On 14 October 2020, we were told we could only play for thirty people," says Janssen. "Imagine our Scrooge the Christmas musical for thirty people." Thirty became zero two months later: on Wednesday 15 December, Holland went on lockdown for the second time, this time a hard, long lockdown. Half of its own Christmas productions were scrapped, namely Santa's Revue and Scrooge, and the other half were given online versions (Kerst komt altijd concert and Diner veur ene). All large hall performances also went out of programming. 

Behind the curtain

Yet Wilminktheatre did not become winged. For the commitment to digital communication with audiences continued beyond the summer of 2020, and even expanded in January 2021. First of all, the journalistic platform 'Behind the Curtain'. "Previously, the paper brochure was the big contact moment with audiences, but that was always a one-off," says Janssen. ,,Via Behind the Curtain, the contact is permanent. That happens through in-depth articles, audiovisual content and podcasts. In February 2021, the first articles flowed from the fingers of the editors (Marco Krijnsen and yours truly)." 

Marco and I were happy to take advantage of Theatre talk, Wilminktheatre's newly created talk show in which artists take a seat on the sofa to talk about their performance in the 2021/2022 season. The lockdown had left artists' schedules empty. Theatre Talk thus became a meeting place for those in the profession since January 2021. Because children's theatre and art with Twente tongues needed their own approach, the spin-offs emerged Theatre talk (presented by Belicia Kuijpers) and From Streek (presented by Jan Riesewijk). 

Future-proof ventilation

The experience of the corona summer of 2020 was that open-air productions did offer opportunities due to natural ventilation and space. The production of location performance Strange Birds got underway in January and premiered in summer 2021. The productions Hamlet by King's Men and The Young Dogs' Spaghetti Riot also finally saw the summer light at the end of the second-lockdown tunnel thanks to support from the Wilminktheatre. Speaking of ventilation, the Wilminktheatre invested €300,000 in a future-proof air system

In the first half of 2021, Wilminktheatre artists also worked on productions that came out before the summer. For children, the puppet series Driftwood and Pup established: Doll maker Joris van Veldhoven provides the adventures of this dog and its owner in De Kleine Willem. Musical productions also started: with Songsmithse featured singersongwriters' own work through digital means, and Maarten de Groot, better known as Martin LeGrande, made the album Find Calm featuring local talent. Children could also choose their favourite children's song during the Willem Wilmink Prize and saw 10 April Typhoon win. The week of 10 April also saw the Children's Music Week  place and it was BIG BANG Festival.  

Passion

April is also the month of Easter, and although the lockdown did not tolerate a live passion concert, a digital one came anyway: the Markus Passion. Jos Pijnappel, Esther Pierweijer  and Wilmink Project Orchestra brought Jacob de Haans Markus Passion performed. That same passion had been performed live this year on Sunday 27 March place.

Wilminktheatre not only wanted to serve its regular, existing audience, but picked up the gauntlet to look for new audiences. City programmer Amir Firouztash came aboard the Wilmink ship in December 2020 to carry out that mission and has since been seeking out communities in Enschede that are less likely to find their way to the theatre. For example, he leads Masters of Anatolia, a series of concerts featuring Middle Eastern artists. In this way, the Turkish community is also part of the audience reach. He does the same with senior citizens (Seniorenraad), Enschedeans with a migration background (Zing Nederlands met mij) and young people (Young Creatives Academy). He also helps Gogbot and Concordia (Theatre on Tour) with programming.

ZZP'ers paid

"I think our tech guys and gals have never put in so many hours," Kratz summed up the plethora of activity during the second as well as other lockdowns. "I'm glad we were able to keep a lot of artists, many of them self-employed, working." 

Kratz was hugely pleased with dhe many digital activities from January 2021, especially since artists, all self-employed, could still get income that way. Kratz himself began the programming puzzle for the second time: "You have to imagine, a large part of the performances from 2020 that had been pushed through now had to be pushed through again. The 2020/2021 programming puzzle had finally worked out. We had our busiest schedule ever, about four hundred performances. A large part of those four hundred performances now had to go somewhere again." 

Public confidence

"From September 2021, we opened the doors and from the beginning we set out to regain public trust," Janssen said. ''You have to rebuild that. At Honderduit in July 2020, we noticed a lot of tension. Uncertainty about the safety of a visit. Fortunately, a year later we were full in the vaccination campaign." 

Regaining that confidence also went well. In late November, Wilminktheatre experienced a peak. ,,We had hundreds maybe even a thousand visitors for Fred van Leer, the Queen concert and Snelle. All performances of our own production The Peasants' Revolt  in Tubbergen were sold out. We planned new ones."

Christmas performances cancelled

Still, the Wilminktheatre has yet to deal with a final dip, and it announced itself in the same month as the audience spike. In November 2021, media wrote that the infection numbers rose again. On 18 December 2021, just before the Christmas holidays, Rutte again shut down the cultural sector. So again, Christmas performances were cancelled. Again, the musical Scrooge could not take place and again no Christmas concert. Even the Christmas revue 'Willems Kleine Kerst' (William's Little Christmas) by in-house directors Abel Leeman and Chaira Re halved in number of performances. The Tubbergen shows were also slimmed down: less audience per show in the gymnasium and the final debate between farmers and politicians, ''Freedom & Responsibility Tubbergen', took place online

Now, in mid-April 2022, the Wilmink Theatre's struggle with the coronavirus and its measures seems to be at an end. Looking back, Kratz knows that great lessons have been learned and things have been set in motion that are no longer reversible. "Practice and reality changed," says Kratz. ,,The whole management of the business went up a notch. It is now the case that you programme closer to the ball. Not a year ahead. Also, you have to be more flexible in programming: more willing to adjust."

Own productions

Wilminktheatre producer of its own productions Ellen Wisse agrees that the programming game is played differently. Flexibility is important. You get that partly by focusing on your own regional productions. Then you are theatre and producer and have control over how and when you want to show your offer. Because we have been betting on this for several years, we have a whole slew of our own productions." What's coming up in 2022 from its own hands: the Presentation of the Willem Wilmink Prize, Children's Music Week, the Big Bang festival, the (live) Markus Passion, the ABBA concert, No Mother's Day by Magda Nij Bijvank and children's productions Ben and the duckling and Schooltv Consent. Other bigger productions such as Of cotton and water are also in the planning and even scaffolding.  

Two years on and a launched digital platform, three lockdowns, a handful of his own productions and six hundred shows moved or cancelled, Kratz can take a breather. "Only now am I taking it easy." 

Bran Remie

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