Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Leeuwarden-Friesland: The Dutch culture capital nurturing grassroots arts

Royal de Luxe’s giant street puppets. Photo: Serge Koutchinsky Royal de Luxe’s giant street puppets. Photo: Serge Koutchinsky
by -

While cities of culture are often associated with grand international theatre productions, Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018’s programme is championing local artists and attracting audiences to shows in unconventional venues across the region, as its co-artistic leader tells Nick Awde

The sleepy polders of Friesland on the edge of the North Sea may seem an unlikely setting for a European Capital of Culture. But, as the centre of this picturesque, somewhat neglected, province in the north of the Netherlands, Leeuwarden is revolutionising the way we look at culture.

Given just 11 months and an ever dwindling pot of funds to prove themselves in the public eye, European Capitals of Culture are entrusted by the European Commission to increase their profile as cultural hubs while also bringing measurable social, economic and urban regeneration benefits to their region. It’s the sort of thing we tend to associate with glitzy, unsustainable projects – opera in the main square, soft rock in the park (or the de rigueur amphitheatre), improbable community/avant-garde theatre in the suburbs.

Claudia Woolgar

But that’s not the case at Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018, where the empowerment of local grassroots networks is already having a permanent effect on the cultural landscape.

“I think our whole approach of bottom-up programming is utterly unique for an ECoC,” says Leeuwarden’s co-artistic leader Claudia Woolgar. “It’s built on the process of talking to people and finding out what’s important to them, and the direct translation of that into cultural events. What this means is an enormous commitment from a huge range of people, which proves to be vitally important for legacy.”

The bottom-up programming means that events are spread across non-traditional sites throughout Friesland – which lacks an extensive network of conventional venues – using a model that seeks out and seeds local producers and companies who then source alternative ways of funding. Of course it wouldn’t be an ECoC without the punctuation of the big international shows, but even these are carefully geared to the local spirit of ‘iepen mienskip’ or open community.

It was not without risk, though. “We were worried that people wouldn’t come to theatre shows,” says Woolgar. “And because the key financial risk lies at the box office, all the events dependent on ticket sales got together before the 2018 programme started and said: ‘We need some sort of guarantee fund, because if this goes pear-shaped we’re the ones left financially exposed, not the cultural capital organisation.’ ”

The upshot was that the province of Friesland and its municipalities got together to set up a guarantee fund. But it hasn’t been needed since the local shows have sold out to local audiences – an astonishing outcome for a whole year of programming.

Against the backdrop of the Frisian landscape, big themes of sustainability, identity, integration and community are designed to break down borders as people from around Europe come together in the name of culture. There are festivals, performances and concerts in the towns, countryside and coast, including Royal de Luxe’s giant street puppets, land art project Sense of Place, tie-ins with the long-standing Oerol Festival, exhibitions about well-known Frisian figures such as MC Escher and Mata Hari, and a series of 11 fountains created by international visual artists in each of the region’s historic cities.

Jens van Daele's Burning Bridges. Photo: Judith Zwikker
Jens van Daele’s Burning Bridges. Photo: Judith Zwikker

An undoubted highlight – and the biggest theatre production in the Netherlands in 2018 – is Jos Thie’s epic De Stormruiter, featuring 100 Frisian horses in a classic tale about the region’s “eternal battle against the sea”.

Woolgar, who is British, brings years of international experience to Leeuwarden, most recently programming for Limerick National City of Culture 2014 before moving to the Netherlands to become the only foreigner on the ECoC team. As co-artistic leader on the five-strong programme team, she specialises in theatre while having an overview of the whole programme, an enormous jigsaw that has been falling into place since 2015.

She’s obviously very happy with how the years of preparation have turned out. “People have been fighting for tickets for the theatre shows that are location-based. The shows work for audiences because they’re in unusual locations rather than in the theatres or the main buildings – and also because they deal with regional issues that translate across Europe, issues that people might actually find quite difficult, such as the massive immigration of Poles to work in the greenhouses in Friesland.”


5 things you need to know about European Capitals of Culture

1. Launched in 1985, a European Capital of Culture is chosen by the European Union for a year to programme and host connected cultural events that reflect local and EU ideals.

2. Cultural capitals always come in pairs. Besides Leeuwarden-Friesland, Valletta in Malta is the other ECoC for 2018. The two are collaborating on exchanges such as Potatoes Go Wild, Opera Spanga, Behind the Front Door and Visual Arts. valletta2018.org

3. The European Commission manages the programme and each year the Council of Ministers of the EU formally awards the ECoCs. To date, 58 cities have held the title.

4. As with Eurovision, non-European Union cities have been awarded ECoC status: Reykjavik, Iceland (2000), Stavanger, Norway (2008), and Istanbul, Turkey (2010).

5. Despite this, the European Commission cancelled the UK’s bids to host the ECoC for 2023, saying they were no longer eligible.

A good example is Orkater’s Lost in the Greenhouse, a Frisian Romeo and Juliet based on a headline in the local paper about a Polish worker found dead in a ditch, an incident that was hugely controversial at the time. The piece takes place in an actual agricultural greenhouse and reflects on how people engage with the issue of immigration and that there are more refugees per capita in Friesland than in any other province in the Netherlands.

In Global Citizens of the Voorstreek, a theatremaker and journalist collaborate on a multimedia work about a part of Leeuwarden where many different nationalities live. “As a community, these people are almost hidden within the Capital of Culture,” says Woolgar. “A show like this gives all those people a voice. If that’s what theatre does, then it works.”

De Veenfabriek en La Compagnie du Tire-Laine's Pinokkio. Photo: Ben van Duin
De Veenfabriek en La Compagnie du Tire-Laine’s Pinokkio. Photo: Ben van Duin

Tellingly, the international theatre programme Strangers on Stage has been a harder sell, mainly because there is no real tradition of staging international theatre in Friesland, says Woolgar.

“In retrospect we would have put Strangers on Stage as a focused festival rather than spreading it through the year. Because if you spread it through the year, you’re having to find those audiences afresh every time, instead of selling a festival.

“But these are the things you learn – the frustrating thing about a European Capital of Culture is that most people only ever do it once because it’s so exhausting, yet you learn so much as you go through the process.”

The Leeuwarden team has ensured that this learning will remain after 2018. “We wanted to invest in culture and in a creative climate going forward. So you’re investing in people, you’re investing in imagination, you’re investing in creative possibilities. That sort of thinking is much more likely to have long-term impact,” says Woolgar.

Maas Theater and Dance’s Uniform at the Oerol Festival. Photo: Nichon Glerum
Maas Theater and Dance’s Uniform at the Oerol Festival. Photo: Nichon Glerum

“What will happen at the end of 2018 is all the thousands of people who’ve made the programme will continue to live in Friesland and will continue to create work, and in terms of safeguarding legacy we have to find a way to continue to encourage that. To have people working together, rather than revert to their ‘I’m a theatre company and I need to find funding for myself.’ You need to encourage that co-production, both with local communities at a community level and between organisations and internationally.”

This community spirit led Leeuwarden-Friesland to react strongly against the European Commission’s decision not to let the UK host the European Capital of Culture for 2023, dashing the hopes of the five UK towns and cities that were bidding. The timing was especially spiteful since the bids had already been completed and paid for.

“There was immense surprise that anybody could be shut out,” says Woolgar. “We all felt that this was against the original reason for European Capitals of Culture. And to then exclude a country that is geographically in Europe because of what I saw as a sort of anger.

“It goes against what an ECoC is. And there is no reason within the rules why the UK couldn’t host one. So all the ECoC family wrote a joint letter to the commission. It didn’t make any difference, but there are still people lobbying for the decision to be overturned.

“The mayor of Leeuwarden is sending a letter to the UK bid cities to say: ‘You’re still welcome. Please, come over and see. See what a European Capital of Culture can do. Both for your city and for your sense of being European.’ And I hope they’ll come.”

Leeuwarden-Friesland 2018

Chief executive: Tjeerd van Bekkum
Artistic leaders: Claudia Woolgar, Sjoerd Bootsma, Meinke Noordam, Immie Jonkman, Rikkert Kremer
Official opening event: January 26-28, 2018
Events: 1,100 – the artistic main programme comprises more than 60 events, including The Giants Royal de Luxe, Oerol Festival, Welcome to the Village, Sense of Place and Oranjewoud Festival
Engagement: Hundreds of partners from across Europe, as well as countries including Japan, USA, Senegal and Canada
Budget: 75 million, of which 53 million goes to the artistic programme of events
Contact: Tjeerd van Bekkum, info@2018.nl

Further details: 2018.nl/en

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.