ELSKE VAN HOLK

One hears almost as much English spoken on the streets of The Hague as Dutch so it is not surprising that there is a thriving English language theatre there, namely STET.

With a wide audience of all nationalities in the country’s capital and a very broad-based programme of events, I was interested to learn more about it so I arranged to meet its founder and director, Elske van Holk, for tea and a chat at the city’s library. I began by asking her how it all started.

‘I returned to the Netherlands in 2004 having worked for six years at the Southwark Playhouse in London. It’s a theatre with not only a great artistic programme but it is also very much community based. My background is as a lawyer and social worker but I also went to drama school in France so all those unrelated things came together and it all worked out well. I ended up being their corporate fundraiser and part of the production team as well.

‘When I came back to The Hague and people learned what I had been doing, it was suggested I start an English theatre here. I’d gained a lot of production experience at Southwark so I thought, let’s do it. The first show I put on was by a Dutch actress who’d spent most of her career in England and was then working as a drama teacher in Holland. Her big ambition was to put on the play Summit Conference by Robert David MacDonald and she asked me to produce it. So on 6th June 2006 STET was launched, and we always say six six six is our birthday. That was followed by us bringing over Illyria Theatre Company, the oldest open-air Shakespeare company in the UK. We then met up with Ashley Ramsden and put on his one-man A Christmas Carol which he has done here every year since. It’s a wonderful, magical show which always sells out.’

I wondered if Elske had always intended for STET to be a permanent, ongoing venture. ‘It was very much an organic thing, it grew quite quickly and we did three shows in our first six months and from the 2007/8 season it became almost one show every month.’

After having spent 13 years living in England, six of which working at the Southwark Playhouse, I wondered if Elske found there were any differences between English and European theatre in general and Dutch theatre in particular. ‘There is a difference, a huge difference. And, although when I first came back I had certain reservations about the way they do things here, I have come to love it. Theatre here is very much more based on the Brechtian school, there’s much less love for Method acting here. The northern European countries are very influenced by this German approach. There is sometimes a perception here that English theatre is old fashioned but with STET we have made an effort to overcome or circumvent that. One of the demonstrations of that policy was last year’s Another Medea which had an American writer, an Anglo-Saxon trained South African actor and a Dutch director. The beauty of it was that it had no national identity, it was truly international.’

I assumed that with such a large expat community here and the fact that the Dutch speak such good English and are generally thought of as being very broad minded it must be relatively straightforward to bring shows here. Elske sighed and shook her head. ‘It is virtually impossible to tour international productions in the Netherlands. They are so afraid of putting international work on, even English language work.’

I wondered why that was. Everybody here speaks English and that is clear at any opening night of a STET production in The Hague where most of the audience is Dutch. ‘It’s often the case that Dutch people do not consider themselves to be good English speakers, so it is a barrier. But nevertheless, for us about forty percent of our audience is Dutch. Apart from that they are completely international, virtually every nationality you see in The Hague, they all come to the theatre. The community we serve ranges from small children to pensioners so we present a full spectrum of shows – drama, children’s shows and The Hague Shakespeare Festival which we created and that takes place in the Spring.’

It must be difficult though finding shows to put on and must involve a lot of travelling and research. I asked Elske what the process was for finding plays and deciding which ones to present. ‘We have been here since 2006 so we have made lots of contacts in England and America and all over. We have visited the Edinburgh Festival and had, until recently, a collaboration with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London so we had a young talent programme which came through them.’

STET does not have its own theatre. It presents its shows in various venues in The Hague, often at Het Nationale Theater spaces, namely the Koninklijke Schouwburg and the Theater aan het Spui in the city centre and Zaal 3, a bit further out. I asked if it was a handicap not having their own theatre, a focal point where all their activities could take place.  ‘Yes and no.’ replied Elske, ‘There are, of course, enormous responsibilities and costs associated with having your own building and we could never ever afford it. But we are closely associated with Het Nationale Theater here and use their venues. All our shows are also promoted by their marketing department and details are available on their website. They do very few international productions so we complement their programme. But there is always the constant effort to bring in audiences.’

I said that was always the case, the perennial problem for theatres and suggested the wider one cast one’s net, the bigger the haul. ‘Absolutely,’ agreed Elske, ‘we made a great effort to attach ourselves to the community. When we started in 2006, there was virtually nothing. There were some wonderful productions in the Koninklijke Schouwburg here, important plays from London and elsewhere, but just for the one night, maybe four times a year. In the smaller auditoriums there was hardly anything. So, when we started there was a theatre-going public that was yearning for different types of work, using young actors and new writers – small, simple, intimate shows, but also for Shakespeare. And we do a lot of community based work. All our performers agree to do educational work while they are here. Dóra Szikra, who works with me, helped set up the Shakespeare Festival in 2013 and is responsible for our education programme. In the past four years she has set up a network of around 350 schools across the country that we are in touch with.’

Virtually all the show that STET presents are bought in – existing shows, complete packages, from other producers. Would it not be more satisfying to produce their own shows? ‘When we started we did, but producing your own shows is madness, much more expensive than putting on existing productions, even with travel and all the other costs associated with bringing a company in from England or wherever. Yes, there are actors and directors here, but producing is a very long drawn-out business. Producing our own shows would be about three times more expensive than buying one in. And putting a tour together is a nightmare and if you engage a company to do it for you that’s half your profits gone.’

I supposed that this presented a major problem if STET is only playing small venues with about one hundred seats and studio price tickets. ‘We’ve actually got quite expensive tickets compared to other small venues, the highest being €25.’ That is quite expensive, I agreed, but generally speaking theatre tickets in Holland seem to me lower than in the UK. The average main-house, best seat ticket here is usually about €25, but that includes a drink and a programme whereas outside the West End the ticket would be nearer £30 and then you’d have to buy a programme for £2.50 and a drink for £4.

‘But,’ explained Elske, ‘although our starting price is high we have a wide range of options. Not everybody can afford the full price so we have a student price, a cultural youth passport and if we do a show at the Nationale Theater, there is a special reduction for people who are volunteers in The Hague or who are on benefits and they pay only half price. We try to make sure that nobody is excluded. We have a student card which costs €15 for five performances a year and they can call up on the day of a performance and if there are seats available they pay only €3. It is one of our main principles that everybody should be able to come to our shows, the other being that all our artists, technicians and so on get paid properly. We try to be flexible, unconventional even, always willing to try new things.’

And it certainly seems to work. To keep a small, independent, foreign language theatre running for eleven years without major subsidies is no mean feat, in fact it is a major achievement and one of which Elske, Dóra and everyone involved with STET should be immensely proud. I take my hat off to them and look forward to seeing many more productions in the future.

Elske van Holk was talking to ArtsTalk Magazine editor Michael Hasted in The Hague.

© Michael Hasted/ArtsTalk Magazine 2017. All rights reserved. No reproduction in part or whole without prior permission