Why should theatre only be for adults?
Theatre, dance and music theatre for young audiences“The only thing we’re certain of is a desire to let children and adolescents briefly see the world through different eyes.” (Maurice Dujardin, commercial director Theater Artemis)
Barely able to stand on your feet and already off to the theatre? It’s possible in the Netherlands, where toddlers from the age of 2 can visit theatre performances created and performed especially for them. Dutch youth theatre has been flourishing since the 1980s. Both private and publicly-funded companies successfully stage performances that are often based on popular child figures and children’s books. Well-known titles such as Spot, Miss Ophelia, Expedition Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland easily sell out.
Yet Dutch youth theatre managed to develop so successfully mainly by straying off the beaten path. Unafraid to take artistic risks, publicly-funded makers in particular like to roam off into the wild where they can develop serious subjects for the stage. Their offerings range from productions on Dutch history (e.g. Toneelmakerij) to poetic happenings on the theme of consumerism (Theater Artemis), and from thematic dance performances on sex (Danstheater AYA) to linear storylines about culturally diverse families (NTjong). In short, Dutch theatre venues are open to experimentation and innovation for all ages, starting from the age of 2.
EMERGENCE OF YOUTH THEATRE COMPANIES
Why should theatre only be for adults? For many of the directors who graduated in the 1980s, this was by no means self-evident. Many of today’s youth theatre companies were founded in those years. Thanks to people like Ad de Bont (playwright and director), artistic quality and meaningful content became leading criteria in youth theatre as well. Children were even exposed to relatively controversial themes like divorce, death and war.
In the field of youth dance, Arthur Rosenfeld founded the dance company De Meekers, with a strong focus on children’s sense of humour and narrative imagination. There was also choreographer Wies Bloemen, who founded Danstheater AYA to cater to an adolescent audience, with a focus on the rough and emotional manner in which adolescents grapple with life.
In the same period, the theatre venue that exclusively concentrates on a youthful audience opened its doors: De Krakeling in Amsterdam. It is still the only one of its kind.
Until the 1990s, the youth theatre companies mainly worked with text. Directors such as Moniek Merkx and Joke Hoolboom introduced children to less common genres and narrative structures. Merkx introduced physical theatre as a drama genre, and a montage-like, less narrative form of storytelling. And in Amersfoort, Hoolboom founded a company dedicated to newly created operas for a young audience: today’s Holland Opera
Since the start of the new millennium, diversity has been the central theme in artistic developments throughout the publicly-funded sector. Compared to other countries, youth dance in particular has developed significantly in a short time, and now makes an important contribution to the performing arts for young audiences. For classic modern dance, young people can turn to De Stilte, Introdans and Project Sally. For slapstick-absurdism on the intersecting plane of object theatre and dance, there is plan d-, and at De Dansers, young choreographers experiment with the link between dance and live music.
At the same time, narrative-based theatre as brought by companies like Het Laagland and Kwatta remain part of the offering. The stories are sometimes written by the theatre makers, or they are based on well-known world literature or, instead, on lesser-known Dutch literature. De Toneelmakerij, for example, with Liesbeth Coltof as artistic director, concentrates on drama texts from inside and outside the country. This company moreover develops new youth repertoire on a regular basis, as for instance De Tantes by Roel Adam.
Young audiences also have increasing opportunities to experience live music theatre. For example, the companies Tafel van Vijf, MaxTak, BEER muziektheater and Sonnevanck always work with live musicians, orchestras or ensembles, resulting in remarkable cross-overs. All these companies find their own means of combining adaptations of (youth) novels, newly written texts or historical facts with diverse music genres, from classic to modern and from rock to jazz. Given their strong visual orientation, performances by Het Filiaal are particularly interesting for young people. This company combines music theatre with ingenious live video technology to create a highly integrated, multidisciplinary production.
INCREASING POPULARITY OF VISUAL & PHYSICAL THEATRE
At present we see a surge in popularity of visual & physical theatre. Classic puppet theatre companies such as Theater Gnaffel (text-oriented, with a special intimacy between actor and puppet) and Theater Terra (familiar (book) titles, musical, large hall) are very successful. Another notable feature of recent theatre landscape is the wide variety of companies that are less text-oriented.
Associative, almost surrealistic visual performances are produced by Het Houten Huis, while Lieke Benders of Hoge Fronten creates slightly more conceptual visual performances. Theater Artemis’s Jetse Batelaan explores the dividing line between physical theatre and anarchic absurdism; his work is sometimes classified as ‘anti-theatre’ and is considered one of the most innovative trends in Dutch youth theatre. René Geerlings of BonteHond also works on the basis of physical theatre, producing playful, funny and dynamic performances as a result.
REMARKABLE INTERDISCIPLINARY PRODUCTIONS
Three Dutch companies stand out for the remarkable cross-pollinations that they bring to the stage. Stichting Oorkaan, for example, produces unique music performances for children until the age of 12. The company makes acoustic live music accessible to this target group using theatrical means. Recently, Orkaan enjoyed massive international success with the performance for toddlers titled Glimp, winning the YAMA Young Audiences Music Awards 2015 for ‘best production of the year’ and ‘best small ensemble’.
Two other companies take a unique place in the Dutch youth theatre landscape: Maas Theater and Dance and NTjong. Under the direction of Moniek Merkx, the Rotterdam-based Maas company combines the disciplines of dance and theatre. The company has its own Maaspodium to stage both its own productions and those of other companies. In The Hague, under direction of Noël Fischer, NTjong operates as an independent subsidiary of the renowned theatre company Het Nationale Toneel. Where Maas stresses visual and physical aspects, NTjong concentrates on a repertoire based on (youth) theatre, (youth) cinema and (youth) literature. NTjong regularly invites young talented writers to contribute texts.
THEATRE FESTIVALS FOR A YOUNG AUDIENCE
The Netherlands is a country very fond of festivals, including festivals that cater specifically to a young audience. Every year, Tweetakt festival presents the most striking Dutch and international dance, music and theatre performances. With Petra Blok at the helm, the festival brings together progressive, experimental, controversial and highly successful performances. The festival not only serves a broad and young audience but also provides a platform for theatre makers to meet and exchange ideas. Furthermore, for each edition young makers are invited to create new work (e.g. Anneke Sluiters, Phi Nguyen).
Specifically for toddlers, the Netherlands has been home to the Twee Turven Hoog festival for over fifteen years. Here, Ingrid Wolff presents her high-quality baby and toddler theatre, brought from all over the world. She moreover offers (young) Dutch makers, musicians, choreographers and artists the opportunity to create new work for this age group.
COUNTLESS OPPORTUNITIES FOR TALENT DEVELOPMENT
The whole sector shares a responsibility to stimulate new talent. All companies offer short or longer programmes for recently graduated writers, directors and actors. This ranges from graduation projects and class performances (e.g. Sanne Nouws) to travelling shows (Sanne Zweije).
Youth companies such as DOX and Likeminds furthermore offer education programmes and projects as an opportunity for young people to develop their talents.
INTERNATIONAL ALLURE OF DUTCH YOUTH THEATRE
Dutch youth theatre can also boast a long and successful tradition on the international stage. This tradition began in the early seventies with theatre texts by makers such as Ad de Bont, which were translated into various languages. Today, companies like Theater Terra, De Stilte, De Dansers Erik Kaiel/Arch8 and the multi-disciplinary dance company ISH routinely visit theatres around the world, while Dutch directors like Inèz Derksen of Het Laagland regularly work for companies abroad.
In 2012, Theater Artemis, Het Filiaal, Lejo and Stella Den Haag (which merged with NTjong) had their own festival on Broadway titled ZOEM! New Dutch Theatre. Theatergroep Max. (now part of Maas) put on the performance Help! (about the Beatles) forty-nine times for sold-out venues across the United States. And Theater Kwatta conquered the hearts of American and Canadian children and their parents with the shows Manxmouse and Love that Dog, which successfully toured North America for several months in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons.
Dutch makers and companies enjoy working outside the country. For example, choreographer Erik Kaiel produces and stages his performances both in the Netherlands and abroad, while dance company De Dansers has co-produced two productions with Theater Strahl of Berlin. And in the field of international co-productions, De Toneelmakerij for instance collaborates intensively with various companies, theatres and networks from Norway to Gaza and from France to Ukraine.
PERFORMING ARTS FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES ADDRESS TOPICAL ISSUES
Dutch children are introduced to performing arts from an age where they are just learning to speak. Through intensive cooperation with the education sector, performances are accessible for children of all cultural, social and religious backgrounds. The Dutch environment offers opportunities to both commercial and more experimental projects that seek to inform the young audience about contemporary society. This is a society that has become increasingly diverse in recent years, and this is reflected in the themes, the genres and the wealth of ideas found in the theatre landscape. Youth theatre can address the very topical issue of uprooted Muslim youths (e.g. Jamal by De Toneelmakerij) or gender issues (e.g. Mongens and Jeisjes by De Stilte). But it can also tackle universal (e.g. HyperISH by ISH) or historical themes (e.g. De Witt of Oranje by Tafel van Vijf). Dutch youth performing arts thus offer an accurate reflection of contemporary and urgent issues in our society, even if new schools or trends cannot be identified clearly yet. However, for many makers the goal remains the same: to let children and adolescents briefly see the world through different eyes.