Toneelgroep Amsterdam

"TONEELGROEP AMSTERDAM" ("Theatre Group Amsterdam") is a three-part documentary that will be broadcast May 13th (Part One), 20th (Part Two) and 27th (Part Three) at 19:30 PM on Netherland 3 within the framework of the cultural series "The Hour of the Wolf". Director Niek Koppen filmed this intimate portrait of a theatre company and its operation during the 1999-2000 theatrical season, at which time the replacement of the artistic head for the group was imminent. Actors, technical crew, designers, musicians, staff members, public relations officials, and members of the board are among the varied characters viewed in the daily life of the largest Theatre Company operating in Holland.

Selfmade Films, a company established by Niek Koppen in 1999 with associate producer Jan de Ruiter and researcher Renée van der Grinten, produced this documentary especially for NPS television. Koppen has won both the Prix Italia and the Golden Calf for his past documentary work.

Dutch Subsidized Theatre and the Powder-Puff Revolution

Many, many years ago there was a young talent budding on the Dutch theatrical scene by the name of Gerardjan Rijnders. He was quickly noted and shortly thereafter annotated by flamboyant newspaper journalist Jacques Heijer, whose adjectives lifted this newcomer up before the eyes of the theatrical world and the rest, as they say, is history. Many things have changed since then. Mr. Heijer moved from the "Haarlemse Dagblad" (Haarlem Daily) to the NRC Handelsblad (NRC Trade Paper) and has since been released from his mortal coil. Mr. Rijnders, in the meantime, became one of the two reigning directors for Eindhoven's "Toneelgroep Globe" (Globe Theatre Company) before moving lock, stock and barrel back to his Amsterdam homestead and taking the helm of the then newly formed (1987) "Toneelgroep Amsterdam" (Amsterdam Theatre Company).

A shift of power, however, has taken place in the past year following the announcement that the Belgian director Ivo van Hove had been chosen from among several candidates to become new artistic head of TGA. Mr. van Hove, who now fulfills this position as well as that of director for the annual Holland Festival, was, ironically enough, previously the director of Eindhoven's "Het Zuidelijk Toneel" ("The Southern Theatre", the company that came forth from "Toneelgroep Globe"). Ivo Ferdinand Coleta van Hove, the theatrical "wonder boy" from Heist, Belgium had already left a mark in several of his startling stage productions, along with the cows, dogs, and horses that frequently inhabited them, before assuming his Amsterdam post. His shows, he has often stated, may be regarded as subterfuged biographies and he admits that he has a strong preference for rebellion. Listed among the many pieces he has brought to the stage in the past is Camus' "Caligula". Both of these directors are noted for their spectacular productions and, even as you read this, are regarded internationally as giants of the European directorial world. Absolute theatre erupts resolutely.

It would seem that even in theatrical corridors the struggle for power is maintained, although it may be deceptively adorned in such quarters with kisses and compliments. "The times", as a folk singer once sang in the sixties (before shifting direction to pop and soundtracks) "they are a-changin'".

Niek Koppen has directed a fascinating three-part documentary for television titled "Toneelgroep Amsterdam" which follows the developments, both onstage and off, between the cast of characters directly connected to "Toneelgroep Amsterdam" from the initial announcement concerning the appointment of a new artistic head up until the opening of the first staging of a Dutch language version of Kit Marlowe's "The Massacre at Paris" in 2001. This last play is about the French Duke de Guise, who, with the assistance of Catherine, the Queen Mother, uses and abuses the banner of religion to create a bloody pathway through Paris on Bartholomew's night. He is a man who will stop at nothing to achieve the ultimate power he craves.

Outside the documentary form of this film, many are the missing pieces that beg to be pondered by the viewer in order to join the facts together. This leaves more than sufficient space for the audience to consider what and how things will evolve within the group and leaves any full analysis unresolved. The background material and fragmentary exposé is intended to supply a diary-like approach and not to be seen as an outright editorial commentary. The narration of Cees van Ede supports this approach and does not pass judgment upon anyone involved. The montage and visualization used within the framework of the trilogy, however, does sometimes make subtle and silent comments upon the proceedings. The resulting film, edited from one hundred hours of material, is fascinating and captivating.

TGA, the largest theatre company in Holland, has 100 permanent employees, of whom 25 are actors with contracts for duration of the current season. The company receives structural subsidies annually from both the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sciences and the City of Amsterdam as well as additional support from sponsoring partners.

Part One

In Part One of the documentary, Rijnders is preparing his production of Corneille's "De Cid" ("El Cid"), the story of a man bent upon revenge for an insult made upon his father by an older man. He pursues his vengeance, despite the unfortunate fact that the older man is the father of the woman he loves, but the object of his affection, in turn, visits her vengeance in turn upon him. A fully rounded circle. Rijnders comments that naturalism is a method that neither applies to this play nor the performance he ultimately hopes to achieve.

When the board of the company announces to present members at a group meeting that Ivo van Hove has been selected as new artistic director, silence takes hold for some seconds. Rijnders remarks that it would be hypocritical to deny that his personal preference had been toward a new head whose profession was not that of stage director, but general acceptance prevails during the meeting. Titus Muizelaar has already been approached about the fact that he will not be directing in the future, but a similar discussion with Gijs de Lange has not yet taken place.

Van Hove makes his initial appearance on the scene as we follow him around the hallways of the office and rehearsal building attached to the theatre proper. Dramatist Janine Brogt suggests to the Belgian head that he might have some reservations regarding her function as dramatist for the company simply because she has worked so closely with Gerardjan during the past 25 years. Paul Gallis, also a longtime associate of Rijnders, hails likewise from the olden days of "Toneelgroep Globe". Gallis continues developing the seemingly simple, but intricate combination of hanging cloths that will create the "Appia-like" variation landscape for the "De Cid". Hanging the curtained decor in Roosendaal for the first tech-rehearsal encounters typical staging problems such as the bright reflection of a steel cable from overhead lights (a solution for which will ultimately be found by masking the wire with electrician's tape).

The organization meets back at home base to discuss such matters as what exactly is to be understood as a working hour, whether lunchtime falls under the category of working time and how actors are to be paid in relationship to other employees, such as crew, who also spend time eating lunch. Gerrit Korthals Altes, as representative head, takes responsibility for such matters as does additional financial head Dhian Sian Lie. These types of discussions have been going on for decades in the Dutch theatre world and never seem to become completely resolved.

Altes also discusses more serious matters with co-head Muizelaar regarding various changes that must be adapted into the planning for the future, once the new artistic head has been contractually engaged. Titus Muizelaar, an amiable and politically adept person who explores his potentials by performing leading roles in productions such as "Jeanne D'Arc van de Slachthuizen" ("St. Joan of the Stockyards") as well as directing the revival of David Storey's "Mooi Weer Vandaag" ("Home"), seems to be well-equipped in dealing with both the dictates of one artistic head as well as the demands of another. Without feeling the need to choose sides, he appears to be equally welcomed by both.

Undoubtedly, the situation within the company has partially become strained by the decision making of the Secretary of State for Culture, Rick van der Ploeg, who sometime earlier announced that if a new artistic head were not chosen for the company, then the subsidy might fall by the wayside or at least be diminished. His opinion appears to suggest that TGA's bigger productions are well appreciated, but that perhaps the excessive concentration on smaller programs which are less orientated toward a general public might invite a decrease in the annual ten million guilders normally awarded to the company.

In the meantime, various members of the company begin to announce their planned departures for the coming season. Among them is Hans Kesting (a lead performer in "De Cid") who has decided to accept an offer from Paul de Leeuw, noted cabaret and TV star, to co-host a television program. He feels that the time has arrived in his career to attempt such a vehicle, also based upon his enjoyable experience in the past working on TV for "Taxi". Others want to try their luck in New York or (such as Barbara Pouwels reveals in Part 3) contemplate leaving to join other companies in Holland offering them larger roles.

Lia Merhottein, direction secretary for the company, has made a point of greeting familiar visitors and notarieties at premiere performances since the inception of Toneelgroep Amsterdam. She does this once again for the opening of "De Cid". She, too, will be leaving the company in the not too distant future when she retires.

As Koppen's camera moves around the backstage territories of the Municipal Theatre, the viewer is given an insight into the atmosphere and tensions that are the eternal plight of the actor's mechanism. (Pierre Bokma, for example, as we can see in Part 3, finds peace, solace, and concentration while shining his shoes before a performance.) On a table against a wall are the simple opening-night gifts ("Toi-toi's") and well-wishes that actors receive on such occasions. The flowers will be given later.

When the performance has ended and the company gathers in the grand foyer for the opening-night post-performance reception, kisses, as usual, are as abundant as praise.

Some days afterwards, on the balcony of the Municipal Theatre overlooking the main square of Amsterdam, Ivo van Hove awaits the exercise of his new function.

Part Two

Coffee and cookies are spread on the table before the initial reading of "Mooi Weer Vandaag" ("Home"), a reprise of a TGA performance from six years ago which reunites the memorable cast of Joop Admiraal, Kitty Corbois, Sigrid Koetse, and Jacques Commandeur. A journalist is present with the intention of keeping a written record of proceedings throughout the rehearsal period. Joop Admiraal and Kitty Corbois are undoubtedly two of the most fascinating actors connected within this company. Both have extensive careers behind them and remain towering figures on the stage. They represent the past world of Dutch theatre as well as the present. Those aware of their position within these worlds must settle, within the framework of Koppen's filmed triptych, for the rare comment or facial reaction caught on camera as events transpire around them.

Mixed reviews for "De Cid" appear in Monday's papers and Rijnders, at least, seems pleased with the word "breathtaking" ("adembenemend") that appears in one headline. Other critics feel that emotion is missing from the performances despite the striking and overpowering visual imagery present on stage.

The Board of Directors gathers together for one of their six annual meetings to analyze and assess ongoing developments. They are overjoyed with the houses for "De Cid" which have reached a total of over 10,000. They admit that, although it is not their position to either suggest or instill any artistic viewpoints (because that is not numbered among their tasks), they would nevertheless appreciate being kept aware of the reasons behind the choices made for the repertoire. "De Cid" is still running and will be performed 17 times outside Amsterdam.

2000 marks both the beginning of a New Year and a new era. Discussions are to take place concerning educational productions. A reprise of the youth production titled "Over De Mol Die Wil Weten Wie Er Op Zijn Kop Heeft Gepoept" ("Concerning the Mole Who Wants to Know Who Pooped On His Head") is included among the performances for children this season. Titus Muizelaar mentions that Ivo van Hove has let it be known, during a Christmas holiday conversation, that he would like to have separate discussions with all the actors regarding the future of the company.

The latest major production on the agenda is Bertolt Brecht's "Jeanne D'Arc van de Slachthuizen" ("St. Joan of the Stockyards"). A question that might occur to the viewer is why this play specifically ("Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe") was chosen for production. The story, which dates from 1929/31, deals with the plight of a young woman who can no longer accept the injustice of the world around her. With striking activists at her side, she attempts to combat the managerial powers-that-be armed with the word of God as her weapon. Falk Richter, a German director who has been invited to guest for the production, openly voices his objections to the play from the very beginning. Nevertheless, the choice has already been made. The 30-year-old Richter greets the company and tells them he is especially interested in working with older actors who actually experienced the 60's. Koppen's film never attempts to investigate or explain how Richter came to be involved with the company or the show and one can only surmise that it is either his extensive knowledge of Brecht or an exchange of artistic insights shared abroad with Rijnders (who has also frequently directed pieces in Germany) that determined the collaboration.

When the end result of this production lacks the power to maintain an audience's interest or to draw more than minimal houses, one is not truly surprised. On opening night, the visiting director asks Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok how he, as an ex-union leader, reacts to Brecht's play and is rebutted with the short, precisioned reply, "Ah, in my union days the play was already considered worn out territory". Richter returns to Germany leaving everything, including much-mentioned scene 9, behind him and the company of actors carries on with their performance.

Rick van der Ploeg, in the meantime, attends "De Cid".

To celebrate the 65th birthday of actor Jacques Commandeur, actors Joop Admiraal and Hans Kesting join each other at tableside during a birthday party and parody a scene from David Storey's "Home". Their improvisational technique undoubtedly comes with relative ease, considering that they have spent a season together improvising a performance entitled "Vertraagd Afscheid" ("Delayed Departure"). Joop is received with gales of laughter when he says, "This is a psychiatric hospital". A statement like this not only reveals the secret built into the original play (for those unfamiliar with it), but also makes a statement (as cleverly used in Koppen's montage) on the state of affairs within the theatre company itself.

St. Joan, in the meantime, tries to find the path to salvation. The organization at home base is well aware that, although the present situation may be difficult for the actors, it is worse to cancel a performance in a theatre and turn potential audience members away than to perform the play for a small audience that has shown up to see it. Nevertheless, a couple of performances must eventually be cancelled because of the strain upon Hayo Bruin's vocal chords. Neither the rock performances, the swinging "Kyrie" nor the subtitle of "Global Crisis/Jesus Loves You" seem to have had suitable appeal for adults. The production does, however, as we discover in the third part of the documentary, eventually manage to obtain positive reactions from school audiences of twelve-year-olds.

Part Three

Rijnders holds a preparatory meeting in the Café Cox to discuss his upcoming production of "Stalker". This decor meeting takes place five months before the grand opening under the auspices of the Holland Festival, which is headed by Ivo van Hove. The play, also written by director Rijnders, is about a man who forces his way into the life of another man who becomes his perfect vision of love. Willing to go to any lengths to realize the objective of his obsession, the stalker operates as a catalyst who wants to charge from the world of incomplete creation into the world of stagnation (where creation exists in a primitive and formative stage and) where many things remain unfinished and unsaid. The music and sound design for the production, which consist of piano pieces interspersed with music-box chords and the constant clicking of barber's scissors, is to be composed by Harry de Wit. Actor Roeland Fernhout will most likely have well-exercised fingers after the amount of scissor-clicking he must perform on stage during the run.

Ivo van Hove's general philosophy is exclaimed with the remark, "My view of life is that you're never happy", and is summed up with the simple adage, "You can't drink two cups of coffee at the same time".

Barbara Pouwels, one of the performers in the cast of "Stalker", discusses her departure from the company with van Hove and mentions that she feels awkward about the chosen moment because her presence will undoubtedly be missed at this already advanced stage of rehearsal. Van Hove, in turn, discusses the situation with Rijnders, who feels he can cope without it becoming a great problem as long as her replacement is found immediately.

The set model of set designer (or "scenographist" as he is referred to in the TGA credits) Erik Kouwenhoven for "Stalker" appears on camera as he explains, "It's not completely finished".

Van Hove has chosen "The Massacre of Paris", which he describes as "a play about power", for his directorial debut with TGA.

Rijnders rolls another cigarette as he prepares for his latest stage production.

And then the annual governmental ceremonies awarding the ribbons of Orange-Nassau arrive and Mr. Rijnders receives accolades in honor of his long service to the arts. On April 28th, shortly before the Queen's birthday, he has both the medal and great appreciation pinned onto his chest. On May 15th, the advice of the Minister of Culture appears on website and the company is upset to learn that they have lost a portion of their annual subsidy. One of the organizers openly and spontaneously comments to the effect that he cannot comprehend why they should lose funds in order to shift subsidies to other groups considered as "new initiatives" in theatre.

The new posters for the upcoming Holland Festival, at this moment in time, adorn the hallways backstage and the heads of both van Hove and Rijnders, according to the graphic designer's concept, can be seen atop footballer's torsos in separate portraits where both wear orange shirts. It would appear that they are teammates and this suggests that only footballs and not heads will be rolling over the open field of competition.

The entourage of characters pass by and perform in this theatrical carnival: Roeland Fernhout eternally searching for his mother, the edge of a smile subtly curling Joop Admiraal's mouth, the tardy entrance to the rehearsal space of Kitty Courbois after changing her shoes, the nervous rolling of endless cigarettes by Gerardjan Rijnders, the worries of Hayo Bruin about his strained vocal chords, the concern about the weightlessness of a prop-sword by Hans Kesting, the promise of a free evening almost going amiss for Marieke Heebink who hopes to see her child for the first time in weeks. These and more are all moments that recall the humanity of the people who must daily don the masks of other personas. These are among the many moments to be enjoyed in this curious film where the performance onstage takes a backseat to the performance backstage. Confronted with a microcosm of society, we see how the politics of another world create the rules and reactions of the populace within it. The participants may be able to pull off their latex faces after a show, but they cannot easily escape the roles they must play in their professional lives.

It is unfortunate that the documentary doesn't manage to penetrate even further into the deeper workings and emotions of the people involved. Of course, this remains a world where most are attuned to portraying other characters. Although there is a faint glimpse of what might possibly be going on in someone's mind or heart, the resolute facade of the performer (actor or otherwise) is sufficiently exercised to render an appropriate reaction for the lens that can serve several purposes and possibly avoid a more candid response. And so, despite Niek Koppen's fascinating and well-crafted result with these three films, the panorama leaves one hungry for the revelations that are left hidden behind closed doors and drawn curtains.

Whereas the documentary has all the effect of a fly-on-the-wall piece, all the participants are consummately aware that there is a spy loose and on the ball in their temple and so they retain the fortitude of mind necessary to perform throughout accordingly. These resulting performances are well-tempered enough to achieve the desired effect and so the viewer remains charmed, fascinated, and enchanted by the world of thespians and their organizers. The only moment which shows what might have been is when Secretary of State van der Ploeg (fully aware of wearing a microphone) is heard remarking before a performance that "Rijnders is being replaced by someone who is not so old-fashioned". What delicious exchanges might have proved added substance for a fourth part if only hidden cameras and microphones had been positioned in certain central locations. Missed chances for some have prevented mischances for others.

But, as often is the case in revolutions where powder-puffs have replaced gunpowder, the changes remain to be seen. A make-up well applied will create another countenance.

After a special screening of Mr. Koppen's trilogy, attended by staff and members of the TGA, numerous notorieties from the world of stage and film, and even Job Cohen, the new mayor of Amsterdam, it was interesting to note that the latest poster hanging before the main entrance announced the upcoming production of "Macbeth" as directed by Gerardjan Rijnders. Everyone knows the story of "Macbeth"; it's about someone who kills a king in order to become a king himself. (One wonders how the characterizations of Macbeth and Duncan will be explored upon the stage.) It appears that theatrical revolutions do not always sweep the boards clean for change; they only shift the power in the easiest and most diplomatically acceptable way.

Many years ago in Holland there was a spontaneous explosion in the theatrical world known as the "Tomato Movement", during which time youthful usurpers attempted to express their discontent and change the future of the stage by throwing very ripe tomatoes at several well-known performers from the established theatre. Many felt this heralded a new beginning. Several of these smitten performers can be seen passing the screen in this new documentary and the turbulent youth from that time have, in their turn, become the staid and stolid performers of the established circuit. Many of the techniques and methods present four decades ago have not managed to alter with the passing of time. Undoubtedly, the new garde of the present era will be seen in a similar light during the reign of the next generation, if another documentary should be made forty years hence.

In the meantime, news has recently been bandied about that the new director of the Municipal Theatre ("Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg"), to be announced in the coming months, will possibly be Melle Dammen, ex-director of the Mondrian Foundation, or Jacques van Veen, financial head for the Holland Festival (and, therefore, present organizational partner of Mr. van Hove for this Festival). The new director of the theatre will unquestionably be preoccupied with the imminent construction of the 59 million guilder flat-podium stage with 550 seating capacity connecting the theatre to an adjoining space in the "Milky Way" ("Melkweg") entertainment complex next door. These construction plans have been under discussion for some years and are finally about to be realized. There was also some discussion during these past years of a fusion between "Toneelgroep Amsterdam" and the "Stadsschouwburg", but this plan has been cast aside, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, the thirteenth season has now passed for Toneelgroep Amsterdam. The only question remaining to be answered is whether it was a lucky one.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett