Director Alida Dors is pushing for inclusion at Theatre Rotterdam. What does this mean for a 44-year-old white director with great success with traditional audiences, as now with 'Sadness is the thing with feathers'? A Q&A.
"Erik Whien's theatre is all about people. About the mind and everything that happens in it. Every human has thoughts, in the mind we can wander and think endlessly. Sometimes this is liberating, awareness helps us not to drown in mundanity. But at least as often, our heads run wild and we get stuck."
André van Duijn
The apt quote comes from the announcement of 'Sadness is the thing with feathers' by Theatre Rotterdam. Whien's play based on the successful debut novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers of the Londoner Max Porter goes on tour (playlist) after previously being wheeled in by corona. It tells of a father (Jacob Derwig) and two sons (Minne Koole and Romijn Scholten) trying to live on with the death of his wife and their mother. Raw and loving, and above all a poignant story of grief
Erik Whien (1978) grew up in the Betuwe as the son of a postal worker and housewife and was a childhood fan of André van Duin, Theo and Thea and Van Kooten and de Bie. He was admitted to the Maastricht Drama Academy and, after graduating in 2000, was an actor for almost a decade before finding his talent as a director. Whien strung together successes with Toneelschuur, Oostpool, Zuidelijk Toneel and now alternately with Theater Rotterdam and Het Nationale Theater.
How's it going?
"Very good, we are very happy to reprise 'Grief', and immediately in a full house in Rotterdam. We were allowed to do the performance in 2021 with 'testing for access' and for a live stream, but you make the performance for an audience."
What do you love about being a director?
"For years I found it anything but fun, that's something from the last few years. I discovered my talent in directing, it suits my character. As I get a bit older, a bit more relaxed in work, I push less and manage to tell a story better. I need fewer bells and whistles while still making a bigger impact. It communicates better with the audience. I am in the fat years, though.
And fun is it anyway to be in charge, not dictatorially, but that you get to set the lines and also pull the strings to execute it your way. When you act, you are a part. Now, from lighting to costumes, I get to interfere with everything. That suits me just fine."
Why wasn't it fun before?
"I was still so searching for my style and my own way. Every performance had a different outcome, because you borrow styles from others, search for your signature. That has crystallised now. It's not set in stone yet and I want to stay open to surprises. I also have a team of actors with whom I get to work more often, and can show more and more my own style. Others also see: this is unmistakably his performance. Ten years ago, it could have been someone else's. Now my plays coincide with who I am as a person."
How do you select your pieces?
"Of Porter's book, I happened to read a review. That's often the case. Frankly, looking for good material is agony. I have also known missteps, that in week of rehearsals I discovered: I really shouldn't have done this. Then there is no turning back. But the selection of pieces also comes closer to myself. Choosing material is an intuitive job."
Which pieces did you feel like a misfire, and which did not?
"At Toneelschuur, we had conversations that I would do more repertoire. I chose exactly the wrong piece, too lethargic. Privately, I was not feeling well, and that always affects your work. So I couldn't get that piece to work. I learned from it, because subsequent choices, such as The Improver of the World, were actually good grips."
What will you make in the coming years?
"I like to stay with Beckett, my great love. In The Hague, I'm going to 'Happy Days' do with Antoinette Jelgersma and Jaap Spijkers. And I have another piece by him in mind and something by a new American writer. In Rotterdam, I am continuing to work with Anoek Nuyens, with whom I made De Zaak Shell. We are going to do a new project around Tata Steel in IJmuiden for Theatre Rotterdam."
Oh yes, Every Brilliant Thing with Bram [Suijker] and Tamar [van den Dop] we are going to resume at HNT, also Revolutionary Road returns, at Theatre Rotterdam. With that, we'll even end up in Carré a couple of times. And I also do a solo with Romana Vrede: 'Time will tell'.
Is such a huge amount of work doable?
"After a quiet autumn, it will be bang on. It's manageable, with some reshoots. Tata, Happy Days and Romana are three solo performances I can handle well."
Also The World Advocate with Sanne den Hartogh solo pleased you so well...
"Yes, funny huh? Überhaupt, I like to play performances with few people and then very intense. I sat in the auditorium at Grief is the Thing with Feathers and thought, "Boy, what a small club for such a big hall." Yet it works."
How do you deal with your clients TR and HNT side by side? And do you continue to do so?
"Definitely, if it is up to me, yes. I alternate six months working for Rotterdam and The Hague. The former doesn't have its own ensemble and HNT does. In Rotterdam I pick them myself, which is nice, in The Hague I have the luxury of a nice, diverse talented ensemble."
In Rotterdam, you ended up in the middle of the misery of the merger of RO Theatre, Rotterdamse Schouwburg and Productiehuis Rotterdam into 'Theater Rotterdam', and was open about it: "We as creators and the crew have ploughed on in very unfavourable, frustrating working conditions, in which we could only just keep our heads above water." How could and do you carry on?
"That was easy, because inside the walls of a rehearsal room, I don't deal with that. You get lost in your daily work. The trick, when you open the doors, is not to get caught up in the politics, hustle and bustle and stress of that directionless company back then. I could put my back to that organisation. That's precisely how I was able to make my best performances in Rotterdam in those turbulent years, also helped by small clubs to work with."
You come across as down-to-earth, choosing your own path?
"I also feel like an autonomous creator in the field. I have also been at a crossroads a few times that I was in danger of becoming an artistic director. I refuse those offers for now out of self-interest. If you put me in a political arena with meetings I become unhappy. I want to make, want to rehearse. That's a luxury position. And in five years' time I can talk about it very differently."
I recognise that, quit a journalism company to go back to purely making my own...
"So you have to recognise where your core lies and facilitate for yourself the opportunities to make. Sometimes ambition or responsibility creeps up on you to grab a spot or want to move up, rather not."
Alida Dors (45) who as the new artistic director may yet make Theater Rotterdam (TR, 11 million subsidy) a success spoke in a interview in de Volkskrant on the change in direction with the, nowadays inevitable, emphasis on "diversity and inclusion". As a traditional, white director of 44, did you read that as threatening?
"That's a good question mind you, but I read it as realistic and honest more than anything else. As a creator, I want to go all the way with that story. On all levels, it has to be more equal. And yes, I then become aware of my own identity, male and white, with the consequence that I cannot say: very well, but I'm staying anyway. Otherwise there is no movement, it's jammed shut.
With Alida, I have an open conversation, because she has a mission and is looking for space to move with the regular makers as subjects as well. She doesn't just throw me out on the street, but enters into dialogue with me. She is also curious to know what kind of actors I want to work with. I also want to include non-white actors, appeal to different audiences. I don't want to be a kind of white enclave with white actors for a white audience. My conversations with Alida inspire me. She challenges me."
This is about identity, but socio-economic differences return to the debate. Drama is for the rich with the requisite checkmarks. Should something be done about it, and how?
"Recently with the premiere of Grief, I really felt that apart from the traditional audience, the new generation was also there, with We Are Public allowing young people with 10 euros admission. Primisi by Alida premiered with mainly coloured audiences. Cautiously, a change is coming that I hope will continue. It is sometimes still a bit forced, also a matter of marketing, who do you approach. Eric de Vroedt in The Hague is also very busy with this. With Romana there will soon be a completely different audience. I hope it comes together, that Jacob and Romana are in a play together and the audience also mixes. That would be a win..."