Dutch theatre groups wake up to an international audience

Medea theatre amsterdamWith more internationals living in the Netherlands than ever and staying longer than before, Dutch theatre groups are seeking to engage international audiences on their own turf. Esther O’Toole reports.

Walk through Amsterdam centre on any given day and you are likely to hear as many people speaking a foreign language as speaking Dutch, and they’re not all tourists. Hundreds of thousands of non-Dutch nationals have made the Netherlands their home.

Culture and entertainment groups are getting wise to the fact that there is this new permanent audience with plenty of disposable cash, time to explore and an eclectic taste. In theatre, for instance, accessibility has become a higher priority and theatre companies are looking for new ways to engage the diverse international community.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam

Toneelgroep Amsterdam is the largest theatre company in the country and has long offered weekly performances with English surtitles on Thursdays, though this still isn’t widely known. In order to get the word out about these and in an effort to try and entice more international residents through their doors, they’ve recently begun a series of complimentary programmes, in English, that run alongside their normal productions.

Last month a Sunday afternoon performance of Medea was kicked off by a breakdown of Dutch theatre history by a Groningen University theatre professor and a comic take on ‘the dos and don’ts’ of visiting the theatre from Dutch-American stand-up Greg Shapiro.

Karlijn Mofers has been heading up the programme for the group: ‘This is what we do best’ she said. ‘We tour the world and perform in Dutch, with surtitles. The actors use of language is their strong point. We want to be able to capitalise on that whilst making our productions more accessible to an international audience here in Amsterdam. We’re also under the impression that people may need more from us to understand Dutch theatre.’ The next international programme will complement their show The Hidden Force on Monday 11th January.

‘I guess I was hoping to get an insight into why the Dutch theatre is so director-orientated – as I’ve been led to believe,’ said Kristine Johansson, a literature professor originally from the US.

Alajandro Mondragon (originally from Mexico) was keen to see ‘what the largest theatre might have to offer.’ ‘So far it’s been really good for us, we really enjoy theatre but don’t speak Dutch and it’s hard to find performances in English,’ added his wife, Alline Pẽna.

Mofers says the Toneelgroep does not have plans to add English language shows to their repertoire at the moment, preferring to play to their strengths. These expat programmes are a simple and effective way to open their doors to international residents. Additionally, they are becoming more international by bringing in top notch directors from around the world, to work collaboratively on producing new work in Dutch.

English language productions

Throughout the country smaller international theatre groups are taking root. Performing in English with professionally trained international actors, groups such as STET, based in The Hague, Mezrab storytelling centre and Orange Tea Theatre (who both work out of Amsterdam) are forming small but loyal followings.

‘Though we perform our work in English, we feel our company and work reflect our modern, global world’ said Lora Mander the co-founder of Orange Tea, which focuses on new writing.

Elske van Holk, who spent time in Britain at the renowned Southwark Playhouse and now heads up STET, has a very collaborative approach to producing.

‘We like to help each other. We’re hoping to set up a small touring circuit soon. Though we get visitors from around the country to our shows it would be great to take work to the growing expat communities in Eindhoven and Groningen for instance.’

So what should companies such as these do to increase their appeal to internationals?

New approaches

Teunkie van der Sluijs is a director who has trained and worked in both Britain and the Netherlands. His company, DubbelAgent, focuses on bringing work from one country to the other and cross-border collaboration. Having worked extensively around the world he had this advice for theatre makers looking to engage broad international audiences.

‘What works in one culture, and how one culture works, might not apply to another. But the tension between the two can create wonderful results. And never assume that everyone everywhere will just (want to) speak English.’

Old favourites

Currently resident director on Anne, the stellar Dutch language musical based on the diaries of Anne Frank, Van der Sluijs also pointed to digital innovations coming into vogue. For instance, visitors to Anne can use a tablet computer mounted on the seat in front of them to follow the show in eight different languages, either through surtitles or dubbing.

Other methods are on show at Royal Theatre Carré where world music stars, such as Turkish ‘pop diva’ Sezan Aksu, together with massive events like the World Christmas Circus, seek to entice a local audience as well as temporary visitors. Later this month, the original English cast, including Jason Donovan, will be on stage performing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

‘Language no problem’ shows are also becoming more visible, as the recent programme at The Hague’s De Betovering (the Enchantment) festival testifies.

Further information

Toneel Groep Amsterdam

Carre (information in English)

Anne is on until the end of 2015


English language theatre

STET, the English theatre

Orange Tea Theatre

InPlayers (Amsterdam’s oldest English language theatre group)

Queen’s English Theatre Company


International Theatre in English

Rotterdam English Speaking Theatre

Mike’s Badhuis Theatre   (Amsterdam)


French-language theatre

L’Autre pays du théâtre (4-5 productions from France a year)

Alliance française de La Haye (2-3 French language productions)

Amateur groups include: GEST, Le Coq et la Tulipe, Compagnie Avalanche of Alliance Française, Les Bandits du grand Moulin, and Compagnie Coup de Théâtre, part of the Institut Français Amsterdam

We are compiling a list of foreign language and surtitled theatre in the Netherlands. If you know of an initiative which should be included, please email editor@dutchnews.nl

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