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'If someone has to be in charge, why not the writer?' Helmert Woudenberg and José Kuijpers star in writer Lot Vekemans' directorial debut 'Blind' 

"What I really like is that Lot Vekemans, the writer, sees and hears how some texts just don't go, or don't do it. I would grant that to more writers." Actress José Kuijpers plays alongside Helmert Woudenberg in Lot Vekemans' play Blind. The play will premiere at the Brabant company Matzer on 22 October.

Vekemans is an award-winning writer, now one of the most successful in the Netherlands. She based this play on an experience she had in South Africa. An old man, played by Woudenberg, hid in a 'compound', a living place with a fence around it, where he protects himself from society behind a fence with armed guards.

Old white men

"Older, white, rich men who get lonely, who become vulnerable: their time may be over," says Woudenberg's counterpart José Kuijpers. "That's a very specific vulnerability and a specific pain." Kuijpers plays the old man's daughter. She stands with two feet in the society the man wants to close himself off from. She is married to a black man and is committed to helping victims of the racism her father is also guilty of.

"I really like Lot Vekemans: she addresses it, mercilessly. But she also has empathy. Empathy for vulnerability and loneliness. He entrenches himself behind walls just to avoid seeing that the world has changed."

Someone has to be in charge

In this podcast, Kuijpers and Woudenberg talk about the play and what it is like, working with a director who is also the play's writer at the same time, and has never directed a show before.

Woudenberg says something nice about this: "If someone has to be in charge, why not the writer? Who knows exactly what she means. You do have a chance that there will be a tussle between the director and the writer in terms of interpretation."

Lot Vekemans himself is keen to mention that the play is not set in South Africa:
"The inspiration is in South Africa and there are references to a society like South Africa but it is an abstracted world that could be set in more places."

Listen to the podcast here

Lot Vekemans' play Blind will premiere at the Verkadefabriek on 21 October. Information via Matzer.
Read the edited transcript of the podcast here:
Welcome to the Culture Press Podcast. Today we are on location in Den Bosch at the Verkadefabriek, where Matzer is rehearsing the final touches of the play Blind with Helmert Woudenberg and José Kuijpers. A play by Lot Vekemans, the now most played writer, abroad at least, of the Netherlands. Known for the play Gif, which is something of a worldwide success. Lot Vekemans is this time not only writer of the play, but also director.

Helmert Woudenberg, just for a moment for those who may not have been paying attention for the last decade, is of course known as a creator of Work Theatre in the 1970s. Someone very good at telling his own story. He is famous for monologues on sometimes quite complicated subjects. José Kuijpers played a lot with Onafhankelijk Toneel in Rotterdam. Unfortunately, that company died in the cutbacks of the past 15 years.

Blind, what is it about?

Helmert Woudenberg

About someone going blind, a father and a daughter, in South Africa, although it is not mentioned by name. A country, though, where colonial white rule has had to give way to local rule. And the man is quite right-wing. In that respect, surely he has been a supporter of apartheid. Again: Apartheid and South Africa are not discussed, that it is there, but you do slowly get the impression that it is going that way. He has a daughter and the relationship is pretty messed up, mainly because of that racism.

So they got along very well. He was very happy with his daughter and she was very proud of her father as a child and at some point, in her adolescence, when she also made friends with black boys, the poison of racism seeped into the relationship, in a terrible way. She married a black man and I (as a father) have never met that man and I don't want to meet him.

I am also in a compound like it is in South Africa, which is the model for Lot. Where there is robust surveillance for when there are dangers in the compound. Men with machine guns and if there is danger then the shutters go down and then everybody has to lock everything. And he doesn't like to come with that, but he feels he needs someone to look after him in the long run and he hopes his daughter will do that. So through all sorts of pretexts, he manages to claim her ('the housekeeper isn't here, can you get the groceries for me?').

At least he tried to bond with her, or restore the good bond they once had. At one point, there is such an alarm and then the shutters go down and everything is locked. That means they are stuck with each other day and night because she can't get out of there.

Wijbrand Schaap

Ideal situation for a play, it seems to me.

Helmert Woudenberg

To each other...

José Kuijpers

...Convicted.

Wijbrand Schaap

José Kuijpers, you play the daughter. What's it like being on the floor with someone like Helmert Woudenberg?

José Kuijpers

Very nice.

Helmert Woudenberg

It has happened before. We know each other.

José Kuijpers

We played a lot together at theatre group Jan Vos.

Helmert Woudenberg

In Mansholt, we were wife and husband. Father and daughter in Wind.

José Kuijpers

Those are location performances. Then you're not just sitting together for those two hours around the performance, but you're all at the hotel and on location. Have one little tent, where food is eaten and spoken. You then live with each other. For several summers, we did it like that, because Mansholt has been revived a number of times. And Wind we just also spent three months with each other.... There we also played father and daughter.

I remember Helmert from when I was a student. I used to tear tickets at Baal. I saw those performances at Baal as many as 40 times. I preferred sitting in the auditorium.

Wijbrand Schaap

Baal was Leonard Frank's ensemble in the 1970s. World-famous, of course. Because of Judith Herzberg's Leedvermaak.

José Kuijpers

I watched that endlessly and saw Helmert play many times. I can so recite all the scenes you had already forgotten.

Helmert Woudenberg

I only knew José from drama group Jan Vos. At Mansholt's, I met José for the first time.

José Kuijpers

Both of us, of course, come from not really pure collectives, but companies with a very collective working form.

Helmert Woudenberg

As we actually do at Toneelgroep Jan Vos. In a hierarchy, though. Jeroen van den Berg is a director, but also someone who competes with you on an equal level. I feel very much at home with Toneelgroep Jan Vos, whereas with other things where there is really an artistic leader... a leader who determines everything, I have problems with that because of my collective past. I actually still swear by the collective, by equality.

José Kuijpers

I worked briefly with Het Zuidelijk Toneel when Matthijs Rümke was still alive. I also found that a difficult time. You are a pawn in a format. Someone comes up with a format and you work in it. I thrive best in a collective process.

Wijbrand Schaap

Are you people with authority issues? There are still a lot of actors who really like someone telling them what to do. You don't belong to that genre.

José Kuijpers

I just like to think. I might be more of a thinking actress.

Helmert Woudenberg

In a big company, it's really about the artistic director and the writer. And then you feel like if the actors are the foot soldiers or reproducing artists.

José Kuijpers

Making actors we are.

Wijbrand Schaap

This play Blind, written by Lot Vekemans, is also directed by Vekemans. Normally playwrights, actors, directors, tend to refer to a play text as a half-product, i.e. material with which the actors and director can mainly do their own thing. But now you have the writer himself telling you what to do.

José Kuijpers

It developed very organically. We started giving lectures. We were so engaged with the subject matter and the piece that at one point we said: We have actually already started. Then we thought: do we need to find another director to lay another egg with that? Then I said to Lot: why don't you do it yourself? And she pretty quickly said 'yes'.

Helmert Woudenberg

If someone has to be in charge, why not the writer? She knows exactly what she means. Then again, you still have a chance that that will be a tussle between the director and the writer in terms of interpretation.

José Kuijpers

Lot really reads us. And when you have the writer as director, and especially with those pieces by Lot, you always work very concisely and essentially. She knows why she wrote that, so you can also ask about the sources. So I think it's very rich and Lot can see very well what works and what doesn't work about our play.

Helmert Woudenberg

It is a kind of equality after all. There are three of us sitting here and not two performing actors who provide their services at the creative genius. This is very equal.

Wijbrand Schaap

Theu Boermans, also a very text-oriented director, almost told his actors where the emphasis should be. If you are a writer and and also directing and you hear an actor take a wrong accent, or put the wrong accent in a sentence, how hard is that?

José Kuijpers

Above all, Theu was also an actor. And Lot is not, of course.

Helmert Woudenberg

Sometimes things need to be fierce. Then she says, "this is too intense". And then I understand that too.

José Kuijpers

We also have discussions, you know. Then something is said and then I think, "This is said three times. Can't you delete it twice? Then we'll say it once". Or: "What do you mean by this sentence?" "Yes, but it doesn't say that. Then let's say that". The text goes back and forth.

Helmert Woudenberg

There was also one scene that was suddenly there, not that it was really a conflict, but that I said, "I can't play this". To which Lot said, "Well, then we'll have to rewrite it."

Wijbrand Schaap

Can you talk about where your boundary is then?

Helmert Woudenberg

There was a scene at the end that revealed that Helen's mother, and therefore my character's wife, had kept a secret for 20 years. And that was revealed rather crudely, While the daughter was also found to be in on the plot.

Wijbrand Schaap

Is a hugely beautiful layering, though.

Helmert Woudenberg

It is still there.

José Kuijpers

But that's much more exciting now. What I really like is that Lot, the writer, in this case, sees and hears how some texts just don't go, or don't do it. I would grant that to more writers.

Wijbrand Schaap

I have a very ambivalent attitude towards improvisational theatre. A writer can come up with loops and turns for characters in his or her study that you, as an actor, cannot come up with yourself, then you have to push boundaries. If you come up with it yourself, the risk of staying within your own familiar comfort zone is quite high.

José Kuijpers

It is a very strong text huh, which also asks a lot of us. It is also a very precise text and we rehearse very precisely. It's really about one word.

Helmert Woudenberg

With my solos, I work in a way that I worked with the Working Theatre. So completely on my own intuition, but after the premiere I don't improvise anything anymore. It's a score then. I made my first solo without writing anything down, but it was completely fixed. When you make a score, you understand.

Wijbrand Schaap

You often come across as very loose during the performance, as if you are thinking it up on the spot.

Helmert Woudenberg

Acting, there is no such thing. But watching, talking, listening and having the need to do what you do.

José Kuijpers

While, of course, we are both quite taken aback by Lot when we illustrate, for example.

Wijbrand Schaap

Name an example.

José Kuijpers

When you sit and illustrate that you are waiting. Lot has a very pure stage sense I think: "Just wait." Well, well, those are basic things, of course. That score, we do share that.

Helmert Woudenberg

She is the creator of the score.

Wijbrand Schaap

It is set in South Africa. I understood from the publicity that it is also based on my own visit to South Africa, where these kinds of gated communities, as they are called in America, exist. We call them courtyards, but with a fence around them.

Helmert Woudenberg

And certainly no courtyards.

Wijbrand Schaap

How is it for you that that's South Africa and not the Netherlands?

Helmert Woudenberg

It is about a kind of racism, a kind of blind hatred. At a walk-through, someone said, "I kept thinking about what's happening in Israel now, that blind hatred of away, those people who don't suck! Exterminate!

José Kuijpers

It's also kind of a generational thing. It's an older white man, very wealthy, who gradually gets locked into his own security, gets lonely, gets vulnerable, so needs someone anyway. I do think that's a phenomenon, that's going on. Older, white rich men getting lonely, becoming vulnerable. Their time may have passed. That's a very specific vulnerability and a specific pain. And I really like Lot's point: she addresses it, mercilessly. But she also has empathy. Empathy for the vulnerability and the loneliness. He entrenches himself behind walls just to avoid seeing that the world has changed. It may be partly wishful thinking on my part, but I think of many of these old-fashioned leaders, that their time is up.

Wijbrand Schaap

Then you shouldn't tell them, because that makes them even more annoying.

José Kuijpers

This is accompanied by a specific pain. This man is not used to having setbacks. Things have always gone his way, always.

Helmert Woudenberg

He is very good at reasoning and defending himself though so that no pin can be put between them. This is also well written. It is not unambiguous. It's actually idealism versus nihilism. He says to her at one point, "You are the strongest woman I have ever seen." At the very end. "I don't know anyone who is that steadfast. I think a lot of people are afraid of that," he says and she then says, "Are you afraid of it too?" And then he says: "I am a pragmatist, they are never that steadfast."

José Kuijpers

It's a totally different way of being in the world. And in that, Blind is not just that man's literal blindness, but blindness in a broader sense: how do you look at the world and want to see everything there is to see? Are you looking at these other neighbourhoods? That applies to your street, but also to the Palestinians: Are you looking or are you blind?

Helmert Woudenberg

These are all things that have actually been dormant for years.

José Kuijpers

That vulnerability of these older men, that's something I signal and that also touches me and I'm also glad about it. In the In the Corona era, I started helping families design their funerals. I would go and talk to families for a very long time and then I would write the funeral and then I would also preside. Those widowers... I noticed that I did find myself in my theatre bubble. Suddenly I was in the middle of society with all those families. The older widowers, that's really so poignant. Those hung in my eyes. That total helplessness. Those men didn't know they had a belly. And suddenly they have a hole in their belly because that woman is dead. That despair.

Wijbrand Schaap

Helmert, how do you yourself avoid becoming a stuck block of concrete?

Helmert Woudenberg

I don't play to live, I live to play. To be so engaged with the world and and and involved. To make theatre without them being a pamphlet. To make theatre that touches. Many older actors are drinking anyway when they stop playing. But I can still do it and I never finish there what the phenomenon is of playing, what that can do, that you can actually, to put it big, lift up time and space.

I also don't like a performance where you think, "What a great performance that is. Well done, well spoken." I knew a couple who never go to the theatre who went to iphigeneia. That play measures Agamemnon who has to sacrifice his daughter for his career. And afterwards you ask that couple: How was it?""Yes, wonderful, those costumes and so beautifully spoken and in those days in those old days..."

I prefer a performance that you don't get in with that couple, that the man says: "But that man is the head of the army. What do you want him to do. He is at the head of the whole country! Your daughter? Surely it's a scare! That's a good performance. Joop Admiraal used to tell me that he went to a performance, with Ramses still at the time, by a German company. Where a very famous actor played Wilhelm Tell. At first they thought: 'then we'll get Deutsche Gründlichkeit, we'll walk out.' Until the moment that actor came on and then the whole hall went silent, even though he wasn't doing much at all. With open mouths, they stood watching the man playing Wilhelm Tell.

Wijbrand Schaap

A talent Joop Admiraal mastered extraordinarily well. You too, by the way. You are also an actor with whom if you bring up a letter in a supporting role at the back left, that the audience is silent and pays attention to you, that happens. What is the secret of that?

Helmert Woudenberg

I am defending my character. I can disagree. With Pim Fortuyn, I did that where I completely disagreed with his politics. But the moment I play Pim Fortuyn, I am a medium. So come on, defend yourself, you're dead, you can't do it anymore, but here, now, show who you are! Do you understand? If you go 100% for your character.

Never play that the other person is the problem. You are always the problem. No matter how noble and noble you are. Lifting the artificiality, time and space. That everyone forgets, that you are in a neat suit at the premiere. I also sometimes hear from Russian performances that you don't understand a word, but you breathlessly watch what happens.

Wijbrand Schaap

José, we talked about the old white men who can stiffen. What about the not-so-young white women? Is it true that women are more open-minded?

José Kuijpers

I think so. Maybe women are a bit more willing to have an honest conversation after all. And maybe also more willing to seek each other out when it comes to activism. In a nutshell, what I learnt from those funerals: women who lose their husbands are much stronger. Those are used to having to figure things out for themselves a lot more and stand up for them.

Helmert Woudenberg

You are really choosing something. You joined that demonstration yesterday. Tr while I would never do that.

José Kuijpers

Yes, I think that is very important. I was very happy that so many people were there and it went well too. It was particularly emotional, with a very different feel than and climate demonstration.

Wijbrand Schaap

This was the demonstration of solidarity with the Palestinians. This is a discussion that is of course seeking all extremes at the moment. Because if you run with that then you are wrong according to some and otherwise wrong according to others. Wonderfully complicated area. So does it also make the conversations you have at such a rehearsal for a play like this different or more complicated?

José Kuijpers

No, not more complicated. We have...

Helmert Woudenberg

...Well good...

José Kuijpers

...Conversations. You said once in the beginning, - and I thought that was very good, but then you were very vehement - if all I have to do here is play the wrong racist, I'll stop.

Helmert Woudenberg

But that wasn't the intention either, mind you.

José Kuijpers

The good thing about that piece is that it denounces some things very clearly. But at the end, there is a very small hatch to something indicating rapprochement. It is all very well named, but they are human beings. You see a father who loves his daughter incredibly despite everything, and as the play progresses there is a willingness to take steps. That's very important to me personally. That's where the hope is. Don't shut yourself off. Keep it flowing.

Wijbrand Schaap

Yes well I do, because I I hear a lot about a development that Helmer's character goes through. Because what is your character's development?

José Kuijpers

But so it is a woman who has a black husband and that husband of hers, is a writer and he has a reading. He is actually in the whole process between black and white just a bit further along than she is. He says, "You shouldn't sit around waiting for excuses." He is not saying that mistakes were not made, but you should not wait for excuses, because then you remain dependent. You have to move forward. And by not being able to forgive this father in her biography on a very personal level, she actually advances just less with her than with her husband. There is also a friction in the play there. She does insist on apologies and that is because of her personal life with him. Because he represents her, that whole racist world. Which she can't forgive him for. She's stuck in that in a way. And then again, she is daughter, because in the beginning of the play she says: "Family is a concept. Family doesn't matter to me at all, and I don't do family." He extremely does want that.

Helmert Woudenberg

She is also the idealist. She also works with black people with legal aid, she is a lawyer. And as a father, I say, "What has this idealism really brought? As a lawyer, you work far below your means for a pittance with volunteers who don't show up half the time. What are you doing?

José Kuijpers

What I think is very important in the piece is that here you have a white person who has a black man. My sister has a black husband, also for 30 years, so I know that. I know very well what she goes through on a daily basis with her mixed-race children. My character is a white person who understands very well the daily pain of a coloured person.

Wijbrand Schaap

How much do we recognise from the Netherlands? Because you say we still want to see ourselves as extraordinarily organised and and free from any racism and things like that. But we are not.

José Kuijpers

What I like about the piece is that it links racism to an economic principle. Because racism and colonialism, that's about money. That's not just skin. This is a man who became incredibly rich over a period of time. That's why he's in that gated community with that fence. It's not just black or colour, it's also just economics. That is not reserved for South Africa.

Helmert Woudenberg

That it was set in South Africa is a point, though. They asked Lot: "can't you rewrite it for the Netherlands? And then in the future. Those men with the machine gun at the compound, isn't that maybe the same here in 10 years or 20 years' time?" We chose South Africa, didn't we?

José Kuijpers

The ingredients are South African. It only makes it stronger. Because, of course, that apartheid was not abolished at all that long ago and black and white marriage in South Africa is still a problem. It was banned until 1990 so it just makes things sharper I think.

Helmert Woudenberg

Like in the Netherlands now, that anti-Semitism rearing its head again, or the other way around. That is racism as shown. That could just as easily be a Dutch man. It is linked to the economy there though. i think Dutch men think that about black men too: they are lazy. That's kind of universal.

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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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