A text for Inventur

Speech, Congress Inventur: Education, Further Education, Job Profiles

Before I begin, I'd like to offer you a bit of wisdom from Eeyore, of Winnie the Pooh fame. Eeyore told us that, "We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it." 

And with that... Hello, and good morning. I am Ritsaert ten Cate, founder and the first artistic director of the post academic educational system in Amsterdam known as DasArts, or De Amsterdamse School/Advanced Research in Theatre and dance Studies. DasArts was created in 1994. With the school's creation I also created a set-in-stone policy that no director could stay longer than 7 years.  

I wanted to tell you about the invention of DasArts, about how it was created, and what made it such an exceptional institute for learning. But the more I dug into material to present in this session, the more I realized that with the creation of DasArts, we accomplished the impossible. I am delighted to report that this utterly impossible institution thrives to this day. 

Behind me you can see a visual presentation created by one of the former students of DasArts, Catherine Henegan. Catherine is a video artist from Johannesburg, and she created this piece as an introduction of my work as a visual artist, work I dived into after leaving DasArts. 

Catherine's presentation gives you something a little more interesting to look at than me as I work my way through this text. But it can also be seen as a kind of illustration of the DasArts program which combines elements in an unusual way, while speaking of the world we're all traveling through, living in, and working with.
For you, the question might seem to be, WHAT was DasArts, or, for that matter WHAT is DasArts now? You know of it as the only Dutch-based post-academic studies program for theatre, now in it's 11th year. 

But if I follow that line of thought I'd be seduced into discussing what DasArts looks like from the outside... which isn't really going to tell you very much. Instead, I want to address the HOW of DasArts, the way it came into being, and how it became what it is. And that story gives us the first peculiarity of DasArts – HOW it was commissioned, and who it was commissioned from. 

When the political Powers-That-Be decided to commission someone to create a proposal for a post-academic arts training, it would have been logical – even assumed – that they would have chosen someone with a heavy-weight academic background, someone who had some experience in how schools are supposed to work. 

They didn't do that. They asked a successful producer of the international avant-garde. They asked someone who, for a quarter of a century, presented, co-produced and created some 800 productions from more than 25 countries that were spread over 5 continents. They asked someone who didn't even have a university degree to his name, someone that was invited to depart from the only university he attended (because he spent more time in the theatre than he did in classes). 

The Powers-That-Be may have had multiple hidden agendas in the way they commissioned a plan for making a post-graduate study program. At the time I frequently wondered if they were setting it, and me, up for complete failure from the start. You know the drill – "We looked into it, but nobody could give us a workable plan..." And it was easy to guess that whatever plan was produced would have to be unacceptable to the various political bureaus of Higher Education. They certainly guaranteed that much when they ask me – someone who knows less than nothing about education – to develop a proposal for a school. 

But... I was given a year to come up with a workable plan. I asked Marijke Hoogenboom to work with me and keep me on course. Which she did, and it cannot always have been easy for her to do this, given the fact that we started our research as a theatrical gambit, a traveling show complete with a set and props. 

We began at the place where most theatre ends, at the Netherlands Theatre Institute, which also houses a museum and an archive of all things theatrical in Holland. 

We arrived with two antique industrial desks, and a set of Dutch Jugend copper candelabras that were three meters high and a meter and a half wide. The two of them held eighty fist-thick candles. 

I must explain about the candelabras – I was walking through the Amsterdam street that has most of the antique shops in it a few months after I got the commission to design a school. I saw the candelabras on that walk, and was soon completely obsessed by them, for they were beautiful. Magnificent. An example of unparalleled virtuosity. They provided such a comprehensive answer to the political Powers-That-Be and it's endless abstract discussion of professionalism. 

So I bought them. My wife thought I was insane, but every time I heard the words "professionalism" and "craftsmanship" – and believe me, they came up over and over and over again – I pointed to the candelabras and said, "You mean like these. Yes, we'll celebrate all that." 

And they had to take a window out of the Theatre Institute so that we could get them in, but once they were there – and everywhere else we took them – they served their purpose gloriously. 

In the Theatre Institute we were part of an exhibition suitably entitled, 'The Theatre of the Future', and we discussed our task with a steady stream of visitors. 

Next stop, the Spring Dance Festival. There we reconstructed our set (desks, candelabras, balloons) in the reception area of the Polmanshuis, a bar/restaurant that also served as the Festival center. Once again we talked with a multitude of people. 

The last stop on our tour was at the Westergasfabriek, an industrial site on the eastern fringe of Amsterdam. The Westergasfabriek would become the operational base of DasArts, and our job at that point was to stage what the head office of a school would look like. And at that point, with endless interruptions, we started to write our report. 

Our traveling road show, complete with it's mammoth set and props, made it possible for us to knock away any possible assumptions we had about what a school was supposed to be. It did the same thing for anybody who spoke to us about what they thought should happen in a school... and we made damn sure that anyone and everyone had a chance to tell us what was their idea of what a school should do, and must be. We learned a great deal in this process, and what we learned, we applied.   

But there's something I've got to add here. And the importance of what I'm about to tell you cannot be overstated. What we learned fifteen years ago about what was needed in the theatrical culture of that time is most emphatically NOT what is urgently required by the theatrical culture now. 

Anyone who sets about learning how to build a school today, using the same sort of wide open and confrontational methods we did then would come up with a completely different set of materials, inspirations, needs, desires and responses. Which would then lead to the creation of a completely different school from what DasArts was under my tenure. 

Creating and maintaining a school of the sort that DasArts was, and is today, requires desperation, and passion, an overwhelming sense of curiosity... and an ever-present sense of fun. None of these things will work second-hand. 

BUT... we sent our plans to the political Powers-That-Be, using a lot of words to describe a space that we'd purposely emptied of all obvious educational tools. We left a space – almost a vacuum – that demanded to be filled with creativity, with experienced, hands-on information, with challenges and confrontations, with learning by doing and a growing awareness of who you are and what that means. 

It was, essentially, a school for people in this world here and now today.  

As the commission ran, DasArts was expected to be a school for people involved in theatre, mime, and dance. Anybody who had a diploma from theatre or dance training was welcome. Equally welcome were those who were kicked out of formal training programs, or those who were already engaged in performance-based work. Very quickly we found ourselves stretching the original definitions to the point that anyone with any form of artistic obsession from whatever discipline could apply and would be considered for the school. 

Thus it was clearly established that whatever program DasArts had would be completely multidisciplinary. We were not about teaching skills that could be learned in existing institutions, and we were working with people who already had some vision of their place in the firmament. (Even if we might turn that vision upside down in no time, a strong vision to begin with was necessary). 

The student selection process was fierce; it is not an exaggeration to say that prospective students were, quite literally, grilled by Marijke and me. From first moment any prospective student had any contact with us, we made it clear that it was the responsibility of the participants to determine what the future of the performing arts could be. The question was whether or not they were capable of handling that. 

What DasArts did was to organize confrontations between the students and international specialists from the fields of theatre and the arts. We added to this list specialists in marketing, police work, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, poets, composers, Hawaiian Dancers, philosophers, specialists in the history and preparation of food, musicians, visual artists... the list was very long, and extremely varied. And the point of much of this list was that it wasn't obvious. That was an extremely important aspect of it all. 

Each block of ten weeks was designed and supervised by two mentors. The mentors were internationally recognized specialists from various artistic fields. The students and the mentors had a period of ten weeks to work together – a pressure cooker for talent that demanded a performative response to an avalanche of varied input. 

A staff of 6 people supported and assisted in the execution of all activities, while also exposing the students and their work to a continuous process of minutely detailed evaluation. This staff included myself as the artistic director, Marijke as my assistant and dramaturge, a financial specialist, two production managers, and a liaison for students. We all worked pretty much around the clock in the course of each ten-week block. And, of course, the weeks running up to the opening of any given block were also intensely driven periods... there was never enough time; there was only barely enough energy. But like life in the theatre, working at DasArts was a dedication, not a job. 

For the students, a full study program took up to three years and required a minimum participation in three blocks. The fourth required block was known as the individual trajectory, and was executed outside DasArts but with a supervisory mentor appointed by DasArts to work with that student. 

The preferred number of students for any given block was twelve to fifteen people, but we had fewer if we found that there weren't enough strong applicants to allow into the program.

To give you a flavor of how this worked in practice, I will tell you about the first DasArts block. 

I was approached by the drama department of the University of Giessen, in Germany, to be a guest professor in their program. I told them while I was honored by their request, I could only do it if we could combine the first DasArts students with Giessen students, and work from there. And with astonishing rapidity puzzle pieces started falling into place. 

On the outskirts of Giessen there was a huge military camp with barracks and bunkers built for the German army, and later used by American occupation forces. In 1994 most of these spaces were unused, and in the middle of the camp was a big empty barrack that still had the word 'Theater' on it. 

We made the theatre our working place, built a new large stage in the middle of it, and installed on the original a monstrous bronze sculpture by Wessel Couzijn, on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum near Arnhem. The sculpture's title was 'Auschwitz'. 

We were operating in a place jammed with elements of the past and from the present, a chaos of ideas and intentions out of which we would define a future for theatre. 

The Dutch contingent slept in campers parked around the Theatre. In the Theatre building was a canteen in which we placed our specially designed transportable kitchen, and the two ‘Amsterdamse School’ Candelabra.  

Tom Stromberg was the artistic director of Theater Am Turm at that point, and I arranged with him that we could use their Probebühne for two weeks. The Norwegian group Baktruppen was invited to perform at TAT, back to back with whatever we could show as a result of our six weeks in Giessen. 

Then the whole circus moved to Amsterdam. In the remaining week individual members of Baktruppen became teachers and created yet another event with the students. 

In the beginning this plan was nothing more than a monstrous balloon filled with hot air. But we had faith in that balloon, and – it all came together. Momentum built on itself – and finally we had it: the impossible lived. 

And we all survived. We left Amsterdam in a trail of nervously driven campers, with an idea of a school that was comfortably and clearly defined. Then we installed ourselves on the Giessen military base and – with no hesitation whatever – tore up all plans, understandings, assumptions, and definitions. After six weeks we ended up with a seven hour presentation of performative response to our stay there which left a visiting audience from the Giessen University breathless... whether they liked what they saw, or not, the result was breathtaking. 

In Frankfurt we appropriated the Probebühne and fought and ruthlessly cut our way through to a one-hour compilation out of the seven-hour's worth of material. We performed this for sold-out TAT audiences back to back with Baktruppen. 

We ended our stay in Frankfurt with a historic football match of our gang against the technical, artistic and administrative forces of TAT that people are still talking about. (TAT won, but they had corrupted the arbiter). We finalized the block in Amsterdam one week later with an event that left our audiences stunned, embarrassed and generally in disarray. The energy level of the performers, Baktruppen and the students soared to unimaginable heights. 

None of us had ever made a school, but now we had one. As time went by the structure became firmer, our handling of situations and the people, better. The first block ended June 25th in 1994. It took us 6 months to evaluate what we had and shape the consequences from that Giessen block. In January of the next year we began the second block entitled "The Art of Survival" The first diploma ceremony was held 7 blocks later, on December 4th 1997. 

And by then the system we had devised was in full swing. "Let’s Suppose It Is Today: The Making Of A School", followed "Art of Survival". Then came "Object, Objective", "Orchestra Zero and Family Tree",  "Culture and the Other", "Cosmologies" and "A Hunger Artist", “The city as a site for questions”, “Structures: How to map the complexity of reality today?”, “Reconciliation and storytelling”,  “What’s cooking? Still life/turbulent recipes”, “The makeable truth”. These were loosely held themes, mostly inspired and prepared by the two invited mentors who were also the line producers of a block. The execution and organization were handled by the staff, and the students moved in and out, weaving their routes towards completion of a degree within the prescribed three-year period. 

Everyone joined in the concentrated fullness and madness of it all. First, second and third time students were mingled, as were ages and disciplines. First timers were supported by those who had been there before, and knowledge about a variety of disciplines was shared. It was fairly rare for students to take on back-to-back blocks – the requirements and experience of a ten-week block were too intense. Most often a break wasn't just a good thing, it was a requirement.  

In my time in DasArts we invited two specialists, people we personally respected, to be block mentors. A mentor was not necessarily from a field relating to stagecraft; neither did the two mentors always know each other beforehand. 

We felt that would get a more challenging curriculum for a block this way. It's also true that this occasionally added up to conflict between mentors, sometimes, but we figured that conflicting opinions offered by working professionals would be of more use to students than any kind of homogenized approach. Mentors and guest teachers alike were made to understand that they had to offer more than the basics of their expertise. In so doing, they, like the students, would very probably be changed, perhaps profoundly so, by what came out of a 10 week block.

Individual mentors for individual trajectories, something like a final master's program before a diploma could be granted, were selected specifically for that particular student. 

And when all is said and done this spicy, chaotic stew did work. But the easiest route to go. It wasn’t. 

In my time at DasArts we executed 12 blocks. Ten of those blocks had two mentors and two of them had three. One block took place in Giessen and Frankfurt, one in Gent (Belgium); the rest took place in Amsterdam. We had 198 guest teachers, 55 of which gave workshops for more than one day (one of these guest teachers taught for three weeks, and the other for five weeks). On average each block had 17 teachers and four workshops. 

It is now almost five years since I was directly involved with DasArts. I’m proud of what we did, I am proud of what DasArts could give to most of its participants and how they manifested in what looked like a new found strength, energy and focus, to express their talents. I am proud of the fact that none of them looked alike, that we did not create clones.  

But did we really make a school? Now I don’t think so. We made something that looked enough like a school to operate more or less unharmed within a system that adhered to strict rules, with a recognizable structure, with a curriculum that could be repeated year after year after year.  

I think we created a container for ideas, and impulses, inspiration, red herrings, contradictions, experiences; a first-aid kit for talented narcissism and neuroses to deal with the absolute fear and vulnerability of what it means to perform to be a creative entity in its own right. Operating within a socio-cultural environment and not adjust to it, but rather passionately and professionally working on what you might add, what might be given. 

Meanwhile I have to believe that even now the structure devised for DasArts can be as flexibly interpreted as before, as an energy resource bank. Or, in the words of M Scott Momaday: We are what we imagine. And for all of you, don’t copy DasArts, imagine or invent what might work for you. Then go for it.   

Vienna (AU)


Inventur. Edited by Colleen Scott