Production Houses in The Netherlands

english,overig — simber op 15 september 2012 om 22:23 uur
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[Oude meuk van voor de zomer. Dit schreef ik voor het Jahrbuch des Bundesverband Freier Theater 2011/12 als uitleg van het (bedreigde) productiehuissysteem in Nederland.]

For a long time the system of production houses in The Netherlands has been the envy of the Freie Szene in Germany. The exact working of these houses however has been largely unknown.

The history of the production houses lies in the rise of black box theatres in the 1980’s. Based in the culture of community centres, squatters and punk rock venues they started to show, support and produce small scale theatre performances. In the nineties, when most of the important smaller groups received subsidies in their own right, the focus of the production houses shifted toward younger theatre artists: scouting directors and choreographers, supporting their work for a few years, helping them in setting up their own company and finding an audience.

It wasn’t a clearly defined field: some organisations called themselves ‘studio’ or ‘workshop’, some kept working with established artists. Some were inextricably connected with the venue they arose from (like Frascati in Amsterdam, de Toneelschuur in Haarlem or Grand Theatre in Groningen), some were connected with festivals (like Huis and Festival a/d Werf in Utrecht) others had only minimal performing spaces.

During the last years of the 00’s ‘talent development’ suddenly became the buzzword of Dutch cultural policy. The role of the production houses became clearly marked and the field was heavily institutionalized. 21 Production Houses became part of the so called ’cultural basic infrastructure’. They receive funding of roughly between 500.000 and a million euro each. Ten are aimed at theatre, four at dance, three at modern music and others at mime, youth theatre, music theatre and multicultural theatre.

The mission of the new style production houses was layed out most clearly in an interview with Mark Timmer, artistic director of Frascati: “When a theatre maker leaves school he or she has a diploma, but isn’t a director yet. You have to learn how to manage and inspire a group of people in practice. When you’re starting as an independant director you need some kind of structure: working space, actors, technicians, stage designer, publicity and so on. We give talented artists time and chance to develop their own artistic signature. And we do that in a somewhat sheltered environment with support and guidance within reach. Young directors need to be allowed to fail.”

This system seems to work very well. Almost every esthablished director or collective below a certain age has spent at least some time working within the structure of a production house. Talented directors like Susanne Kennedy, Jetse Batelaan or Dries Verhoeven have moved on to one of the bigger companies in The Netherland, or have founded their own. Especially interesting has been the project TA2, in which the country’s biggest company Toneelgroep Amsterdam worked together with Frascati and the Toneelschuur to have young directors work with their ensemble of actors.

On the other hand it was clear form the start that 21 production houses is a ludicrously large number. There are hardly enough young directors to fit all the (5 to 10) spots at each house, and, more importantly, the absorbtion capacity of the Dutch theatre field for new directors and groups is far from infinite.

But in its austerity fever the Dutch right wing government took it to the other extreme, cutting the national funding for all production houses, claiming ‘talent development’ is a task of the big companies themselves. This is a dangerous argument though: when young directors are limited to working within the ‘machine’ of a big company, they won’t develop their own voice, but turn into carbon copies of their predecessor, eventually not leading the company but being subservient to the institution.

Maybe the production houses partially brought their fate to themselves: they hardly ever take credit for their work, serving the artist and letting him or her shine. When they later become succesful you’ll often hear the cliché: great artists surface by themselves.

Now the future doesn’t seem so bleak as we feared earlier. Most cities value the work of the production houses within their walls greatly and do what’s possible to keep it afloat. Some houses merge with other institutions, some tighten their bonds with the local companies. Some will inevitably perish, but maybe that isn’t all bad.

The best news however is the fall of the right wing government, late April 2012. The populist PVV party is now out of power and one of the first things the government did was to reverse some of the cuts in the arts budget.

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