It was thanks to the corona pandemic that theatre makers Loes Hegger and Sarah Kemp finally managed to flesh out the collaboration they had so long looked forward to. Using Zoom, their respective theatre groups in Amsterdam and Hexham propelled each other to great heights. The cultural exchange resulted in two productions for and by senior citizens; a wonderful example of how an international dream can turn into a successful partnership. Just back from England, a participant gleefully says:
'The trip to Hexham has literally expanded my horizon. I never thought I’d still embark on an international career.'
Tired but proud: it’s the most fitting description for how director Loes Hegger feels now. She just returned from the trip to England, where she and a theatre group of ten elderly people performed a piece titled De Fifties. This piece is a follow-up to the Alive and Kicking performance, which was created with the support of an ‘exploration grant’ provided by the Cultural Participation Fund’s International Collaboration subsidy scheme.
Regarding her contact with the English director Sarah Kemp’s group, Théâtre Sans Frontières, Hegger says: ‘Sarah and I have been part of an international network of theatre makers since 1994. Independently of each other, in recent years we both came to focus on elderly people and physical theatre, and we started probing the possibilities of working together.’
When the first lockdown made normal theatre activities impossible, the time was ripe. Alive and Kicking was an experiment in which ten 65-plussers from the Netherlands and England describe how they experience the corona pandemic. ‘From one day to the next, they were confronted by the stigma of being “dead wood” and “vulnerable citizens”’, Hegger recalls. ‘In the performance, they contrast this experience with the turbulent sixties and seventies of the previous century, when they were young and were part of the sexual revolution and the second feminist wave. How did this social upheaval impact their lives at the time?’
These were the themes of both the Dutch and English theatre shows. Over the course of the project, groups of participants of both countries exchanged experiences via Zoom. The two theatre groups also supplied each other with a scene for their own piece. The results were recorded in a short film, shared via YouTube and Facebook. Hegger: ‘Partly because of the lockdown, there was a huge sense of solidarity between the English and Dutch participants.
'It was touching to see how the seniors got a grip on themselves again, through this creative and online exchange, and how they shared stories about feeling shut in and about gaining freedom.’
Inspired by these experiences, Hegger went on to conceive a follow-up project titled De Fifties, made with the support of a “collaboration subsidy” provided by the International Collaboration subsidy scheme. ‘The Amsterdam senior citizens of 2022 had revolted against the authorities and their parents’ strict morals in the 1960s. Now they look back and wonder: what was life like for their fathers and mothers, growing up during the post-war reconstruction years?’ The participants present their personal stories in the setting of a dance school. Story, images and dance combine to form a picture of the 1950s. Kemp and Hegger held bi-weekly Zoom sessions about their progress, but there wasn’t as much contact between the English and Dutch participants as the first time. ‘Everyone was completely fed up with Zoom. Instead, people really craved meeting each other face to face.’
Fortunately, the corona pandemic fizzled out and at the end of May, Hegger and her group flew to Hexham. During the kick-off party, all the previous Zoom sessions really paid off. ‘Right from the start, the Dutch and English participants engaged in warm and lively interaction. The Dutch visitors were invited to stay over with their English counterparts.’ The theatre show was put on in Queen’s Hall and – to Hegger’s surprise – it was a tremendous success. After all, the Dutch actors spoke Dutch with projected subtitles, which is not what English audiences are accustomed to. ‘But the audience was on board right from the very start. They had lots of laughs and were very impressed.
For me as the director, it was wonderful to see the result of the theatre lessons. I always stress physical awareness: how do you stand in space? Think about your legwork, don’t wobble on your feet. Look at the audience, invite them to become intimate. This worked very well, everyone was able to tap into their personal strength, so that the individual stories acquired a universal appeal.’
“There’s so much more you can do”
Hegger is particularly proud of the fact that it proved possible to truly exchange experiences and to inspire one another through theatre and stories. ‘Despite the language barrier, people really felt touched to the heart. The audience’s reactions went beyond the well-known British politeness. Elderly people were activated both physically and mentally. I kept having to think of the books by Hendrik Groen, about life as a senior in a care home. There’s so much more you can do.
'Some participants hadn’t travelled abroad for many years. They now joked about starting an international career.’
The dream now is for Théâtre Sans Frontières to travel to the Netherlands, as soon as their piece is finished. And after that, perhaps another collaborative project with another country? ‘I did my theatre training in France and a substantial part of my foreign network is there. So who knows!’ Hegger strongly urges other cultural organisations and associations to engage in international collaborations. ‘Just extend your feelers and be bold! Don’t worry too much beforehand about the subsidy application and accountability report. It does take a lot of work, but then it gives so much satisfaction.'
'I wanted to tell you that I was pleasantly surprised by this performance. It's a very cool idea to do performances with non-professional actors. Very!'
Want to do a collaborative project with an international partner?
The International Collaboration subsidy is available for projects in cultural education and participation. This can include, for example, heritage projects, or collaboration with the social field, or a project aimed at talent development. You can apply for subsidy to support the first step or to develop and implement collaboration projects.Read more about the subsidy options.