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What I learned from Alida Dors and the Dutch Playwriting Prize

Of the 122 stage texts read by the jury of the Dutch Toneelschrijfprijs, just under 30 were written by female authors. In a field where the number of female workers is huge, this is striking. Because, the jury rightly stated, in written Dutch theatre, the male gaze is still dominant. While the theatre audience has more women than men in percentage terms.

Such demographic and subject matter facts are interesting at a time when our arts offerings are being scrutinised as part of our cultural development: is it culturally diverse and socially inclusive enough? Are all voices heard, should they be? And what role does written language actually still play in art, and how is writing and reading culture actually embedded in our lives, and - especially - our education?

Schoolchildren no longer read, playwriting students no longer read plays from what was considered a canon in the last century (Harold Pinter, Chekhov, Shakespeare, let alone Strijards, Herzberg, Vondel, Heijrmans or Simonsz Mees)

Ultimate creators

Between theatre makers and playwrights, things don't work out either. At a meeting organised by the Authors' Union between the two in June this year, it emerged that theatre makers consider themselves the ultimate creators of theatre art, with the writer being the purveyor of words, which can then be erased, used, changed and discarded at will by the creator, along with the performers.

Writers see them as troublesome, especially when - as in the Anglo-Saxon part of the world - they declare their texts sacred and assign to the theatre-maker only the function of a director, a textual conductor whose job it is to make the writer's text perform as well as possible.

In the end, they always meet somewhere in the middle, as the awards ceremony on 2 September at the Theatre Festival in Amsterdam showed, and that, of course, conforms to the picture historians have seen since the first theatrical performances in Athens 2,500 years ago. What remains of those performances are the theatres, a few paintings and statues, and a handful of texts, handed down thanks to Arab scholars and Catholic monks. From these, we reconstruct our theatre history, the history thus consisting of what has been handed down in terms of written stories. Of actual practice, we actually know nothing.

State of the Theatre

During that same Theatre Festival in Amsterdam, which continues until the end of this week, the opening was a great example of how text and performance can show a totally different world. The festival opens each year with a 'state of the union', in this case the State of Theatre. In a speech, increasingly in recent years featuring some theatrical effect, a playwright handpicked by the organisation (very rarely a writer, by the way) tells what he, them or her thinks is going on in theatre. Sometimes they are boring discourses, sometimes great demonstrations from impact, and always there is something to be said about it.

This year, the honour fell to Alida Dors. This choreographer and director with solid roots in hip-hop culture is currently artistic director of Theater Rotterdam. Beforehand, as a follower of Rotterdam's cultural turmoil, I had prepared myself for a story in which she would possibly address the policy states of a culture-hostile municipal politics and an organisation that, in part because of this, has spent the last decade has been more concerned with himself than with the city or the world. There is a lot to read about that on this site.

Text and image

Circumstances prevented me from attending live, so in retrospect that is actually a very good thing - for the theorising in this article. I had no way to watch the live stream, and so had to make do with the text made available only after the event. When I read that one I found it disappointing. Not a word about the conditions in Rotterdam. Nothing about policy. I read a lot of 'I', a lot of 'sisters', a lot of meaningful dots and little connection. I found him to come across as not very inclusive, and not even because I belong to the white male category of a certain age, a group that has recently - quite rightly - been getting a sense of what that is like: to be seen as a separate, unattractive group.

Finally: I was slightly disappointed. Until I saw the video saw.

Rarely did I see a more glowing speech, rarely a more vulnerable but powerful performance by a woman who deployed all her doubts, persuasiveness and identity to convey something very much communal to a pretty white room in an even too white sector. I heard the texts I had read, but saw a human being, and a group of people who wanted nothing more than to see and be seen. Overwhelming and pure theatre. Beautiful music, exciting dance.

Steamed-up theatre art

So here we see the primal mechanisms of theatre art at work: text and performance are inextricably linked. 'Spoken word has to be spoken! And performed...' someone said on facebook, and she was absolutely right. But so it applies not only to the art form of 'spoken word', which has been on display since Biden was sworn in so sharply defined. Earlier, I made a case for stage poetry on this site, which is often seen as inferior by the serious literary world.

The earliest literature that has survived to us was written-down narration. Indented theatricality, in other words, where only the words of the Iliad or Gilgamesh remain, but the context in which they were first told is lost.

Theatre is the cradle of modern literature, and we should also look at that ancient literature knowing that we only know half the picture.

Alida Dors made us feel that basic principle, and it is something every literary and theatre scholar should take to heart. But also every writer and theatre-maker.

 

 

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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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