For nearly 40 years, the Netherlands’ Oerol Festival has pioneered ‘location theatre’. As its stature has grown, could it rival Edinburgh as a destination for adventurous theatremakers? Nick Awde experiences the ‘miracle’
It’s unexpected to discover a contender for Edinburgh’s crown perched on a windswept island of dunes and dykes battered by the North Sea. But Oerol is precisely that, if not in size then in spirit. In fact, a mere couple of days traversing the sandy length of Terschelling could get you rethinking the whole idea of what makes a theatre festival.
Often called site-specific but better termed ‘location theatre’, Oerol (pronounced ‘OO-rol’) is an outdoor theatre and landscape arts festival covering the island of Terschelling off the coast of Friesland. There’s theatre, public art, street theatre, music, ‘expeditions’ (art installations) and festival sites – cryptically numbered or lettered, almost all outdoors. Beaches, woods, dunes and other landscapes function as performance spaces, while there are a few indoor forays in farmsheds, boathouses and an army bunker.
Festivalgoers of all ages spill off the ferries throughout the day and rush to the serried ranks of bikes for hire on the quay before pedalling off to their bases at campsites and B&Bs across the island. Bikes – and backpacks – are essential, since cars are few and impractical for finding a venue deep in the woods or on windswept beaches. And refreshingly – or worryingly, depending on your view – there’s no ‘bad weather option’.
Like Edinburgh, the comparative scale and organisation needed to bring Oerol’s vision to life each year constitute an impressive feat, honouring that magical link between event and location that’s rare to find and even rarer to find done successfully. A daily newspaper gets everyone up to speed trawling the island in search of ‘venues’ named “West 3” or simply “M”, while festival and island share a centre at the bustling Westerkeyn site, an info hub by day that transforms into a heaving mini-Latitude at night.
“There is another energy here,” muses artistic director Kees Lesuis. “I like Edinburgh very much, but here it’s the opposite. Here everything is curated. It’s a very precise process: we are in dialogue with each company for a long time, we invite them here beforehand and ask them to consider the place where they’ll perform.
“Edinburgh is like a jungle because there’s so much out there. But here you’re literally going out and searching in the middle of the woods. You have to find the venue first and then discover what they are going to do and how they are going to use that particular piece of landscape.”
‘When you’re out there in nature, you get a bigger understanding than you’d get if you did it in a theatre box’ – Artistic director Kees Lesuis
Since Oerol started 37 years ago, it has developed two interlinked grassroots ideas, says Lesuis. The first is building on the tradition of the island as a stage and source of inspiration, the other is creating a temporary society where 50,000 people gather for 10 days.
“The way it all started was with [Oerol founder] Joop Mulder – one guy, one vision from a local bar, then a lot of help from the islanders themselves, and that has been crucial,” says general director Marelie van Rongen. “Nobody thought it would ever grow this big. People have tried to copy the model, but this would never have been possible if it didn’t start small.”
As things grew, organisations including the forestry commission have also come on-board, helping ensure that the fusion of festival and island is as seamless as possible. “Everything we do has to allow for every occasion,” explains Van Rongen, “even if that’s an orchid growing or a bird breeding. Of course, we have to have some trust from the people who manage the landscapes before we put a glass cube where people go and sit in for nine hours as the tide comes in and out [as was the case for Lotte van den Berg’s We Have Never Been Modern].”
Understandably, Dutch is the language of theatrical currency, but this doesn’t faze Van Rongen, who points out the many non-verbal or English/multilingual productions: “A third of the programme is not a problem for non-Dutch speakers, especially the installations, and we’d like to do more of that.”
5 things you need to know about Oerol
1. Oerol was founded in 1982 on the island of Terschelling by Frieslander Joop Mulder. He now heads Sense of Place, which stages cultural landscape projects along the Wadden Area (as the Dutch Frisian coast and islands are known): sense-of-place.eu/en
2. Oerol means ‘all over’ in the local Frisian language – think older poetic English ‘o’erall’ for ‘overall’. Frisian is the closest language related to English; Dutch the second.
3. Each year’s budget is built up in advance by sales of the festival wristband, which acts as a passport to the expeditions and the two sites of De Betonning and De Westerkeyn. Theatre shows are ticketed and many sell out rapidly when released online.
4. Oerol is part of In Situ, a European network for the development of new forms of art in the public space. Oerol is one of 19 countries creating a growing exchange of artists and projects. UK partners are Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Freedom Festival. in-situ.info/en
5. This year’s Oerol features in the year-long festival in Friesland to celebrate its main city Leeuwarden being one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2018.
Today, Oerol is the least publicly funded event of its type in the Netherlands, a strange situation given the high-end artistic work the festival showcases. Private funding is far less developed in the Netherlands than in the UK, so very early on Oerol had to create avenues such as its Friends scheme and the Oerol guarantee fund, which the island’s businesses have chipped in to.
Similarly, the programme has its unique character, as Van Rongen explains: “Some years ago there was a danger of the audiences becoming too consumerist. They’d sit, listen, put it in their basket and then move on to the next show, next show, next show without really interacting with the artist and the work. So we started a context programme to create more of a temporary society where we really have dialogue together.”
Lesuis expands: “We try to address important issues like climate change and racism. We can address these here with a little bit of distance from daily life, city life. It’s a laboratory.”
Examples he gives include Rudolphi Productions’ Het Verbrande Huis (The Burnt-Down House), in which a woman (Bodil de la Parra) tells the history of her family in Surinam, evoking a bigger history of slavery while also revealing a very personal story of migration.
Then there’s George and Eran Worden Racisten – Een Komedie Over De Onmogelijkheid Het Hoed Te Doen (George and Eran Are Racists – A Comedy About the Impossibility of Doing Good), in which Syrian-born George Tobal and Jewish Eran Ben Michael tackle racism via a fast-moving thinkpiece that constantly challenges the audience.
Other shows include Collectief Walden’s Het Verband Van Alles Met Alles (The Link of Everything With Everything), a poetic, interactive sharing of “the ultimate attempt to reduce all of reality to one simple principle: heat” within a pinewood clearing, while Via Berlin and Cello Octet Amsterdam’s collaboration Instant Love wickedly combines cellos, songs and a large lorry to comment on sex-trafficking in a car park amid the dunes.
“When you’re out there in nature,” says Lesuis, “there’s a sense of understanding that is bigger than if you do it in a theatre box. I’m not sure why.”
More than half the shows are new creations guided by the festival. “We often invite artists to come in and look at the discussion. Sometimes it’s followed by a small residency. They make an idea and sometimes come back next year with something small to try out. Then they look for funding and come back. Sometimes these creations take two or three years.”
‘Nobody thought it would grow this big. People have tried to copy it, but this wouldn’t have been possible if Oerol didn’t start small’
Nature and wildlife conservationists are also coming to start conversations with artists to tackle major world issues such as rising sea levels or bird migration.
Depending on what part of the programme they are in, companies can start off with 75% of maximum capacity guaranteed. “It’s our risk if [the audience is] there or not,” adds Van Rongen. “In the Netherlands this is great because if you make a show here, you have to sell it to 20 different theatres, and that’s difficult.”
Oerol demands Edinburgh-style long runs – up to 18 shows in a row – which is rare for a European festival, as Van Rongen observes: “What you mostly find in Europe is if you have 10 days, you change your programme every two or three days to bring in audiences. Otherwise, you won’t have enough of an audience to fill the show.
“But if you look at our audience, they mostly don’t go to that much theatre through the year. They don’t necessarily visit their municipal theatre but stock up on a cultural holiday – Oerol. So we’ve become a guide into more adventurous work, which is a lovely place to be.”
All of which raises the question of capacity. With 50,000 descending on a community of 7,000, it could prove as much an ecological challenge as logistical. But, this being the Netherlands, there’s a typically pragmatic solution.
“We can’t grow,” says Lesuis simply. “There’s definitely a limit. In fact when I started in the job 12 years ago, we did 45 performances but made it a little bit smaller [this year there are 39 shows]. And there’s a limit to the audience numbers because of the amount of places to sleep.”
Lesuis notes that Oerol benefits from a steadily improving cultural infrastructure throughout the wider region, one of the country’s poorest. “More and more artists are coming here to Friesland. We now have an interesting network of theatre and dance companies for young people, as all this talent stays.”
Van Rongen adds: “In the Netherlands there’s the general idea that what is avant-garde and important happens around Amsterdam, so it has been a big struggle to be taken seriously. Yet in the north in the Netherlands, on this small island, it’s like a miracle happening.”
Anyone who has experienced Oerol is bound to concur. The festival’s strength stems from that gentle pushing of culture into what seems to be a very political voice for regeneration. “I would agree with that,” says Lesuis. “I think art can work in a place where politics stop or clash. Art can go further.”
Visit oerol.nl/english  for full details
Profile: Oerol Festival
Artistic director: Kees Lesuis
General director: Marelie van Rongen
Founded: 1982, annual
Dates (2019): June 14-23, 38th edition
Employees (2018): Full-time: 10; Seasonal: 50; Volunteers: 1,050
Spaces/venues (2018): 34 performance locations, 16 ‘expedition’ (installation) locations
Shows (2018): 186 theatre, expedition, music and street theatre shows (of which 39 are theatre productions)
Audience figures (2018): 50,000
Countries represented (2018): Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Japan, Belgium, Austria
Box office (2018): 120,000 tickets sold
Key contact: Sandra Bergsma, strategy and audience development, firstname.lastname@example.org , +31 562 448 448