Last weekend I headed north. For the past few years, Culturapeida has had a partnership with PeerGroup, a theatre company from Drenthe in the northern Netherlands. We worked with them on a project for the Preston Guild in 2012 and have maintained the relationship ever since. We are currently working with them on a project called Bridging Blackburn which is about conversations with strangers and encouraging communities to communicate. Our other partner in this venture is a project that works with young people in Blackburn called Slyncs which is headed up by an old friend and ex employee of Culturapedia, Jaf Hussain.
Last weekend a group of seven young people from Blackburn visited PeerGroup to work with four of their young people to further explore ideas that will ultimately lead to a performance/happening/event, in Blackburn in the Summer of 2017.
I headed off, with my bike, and caught a train to Assen. From there I had a 45 minute cycle ride up to PeerGroup’s HQ which is an disused 1960s cold war ammunitions base called Donderboerkamp, surrounded by forest. The site consists of a grid of streets with buildings sparsely placed amongst the trees. Peer Group manage this site. It is where they are based but it also houses sheltered work opportunities for people with learning difficulties and mental health issues. Most of the buildings have been, or are in the process of being, converted from storage units for ammunition into useful spaces for staying, rehearsing, building, eating and creating. They are functional red brick boxes but they have a simple aesthetic with their shutters in amongst the trees.
The weather was great and we had good company. The challenge was focusing on the task in hand – to think about how you had conversations with strangers and how we communicate – with words, pictures, actions…
On Friday night we set off in a convoy to go and see PeerGroups current production, an hour and a half drive away in the village of Kimswert on the Friesian coast. Five hundred years ago this was the home of Grutte Pier, a celebrated Friesian freedom fighter resisting Dutch or Saxon rule. Friesland still has its own language, quite distinct from Dutch and a proud identity all of its own. The performance, which came half way through a four year programme of activity celebrating Pier’s anniversary, was spectacular. We were lead from the road, past the site of Pier’s farm house, (burned down on January 1515), by a giant drum and a choir of local women farmers and farmers wives. We arrived at a massive outdoor theatre with seating for over 400. An army, made up of 20 local people were training hard in the mud, preparing for battle. The stage was marked out by upturned tree trunks, brutally thrust into the ground and standing fifteen meters high. This was a hard setting – we were going to witness war. Beyond the trees lay the battlefield. Throughout the performance we witnessed layers of activity, body-bags being dragged, buried and burned. We saw Grutte Pier’s descent into madness, despair and cruelty. His conscience was represented by a narrator dressed in red – the only colour in the production. She tormented him and fought with him verbally throughout. She was his mind, his dreams, his ideas. All the dialogue was in Friesian apart from the narrator who spoke in Dutch. A lot of what she said had been directly lifted from the speeches of Geert Wilders, an frightening, active, charasmatic, outspoken right wing, nationalistic politician here in the Netherlands.
Naturally, I didn’t understand what was being said. I could pick up the odd word but it didn’t matter. This was physical theatre and the actions portrayed the meaning. It was fantastic. I loved every minute. I feel privileged to have seen it. Ticket sales have been so good, they have extended the run. By October nearly ten thousand people will have travelled to this small village on the coast of Friesland. Amazing.
Back in Donderboercamp we further explored ideas and got to know each other better. Connections were made and strangers became friends. We improvised and we discussed ideas, ambitions and dreams. The next phase of the project will be back in Blackburn in mid October….
We had seen a depiction of war and violence on a field in Friesland and I had slept in an old weapons store. I cycled back to catch my train back to the noises and hubbub of Rotterdam having spent some wonderful tranquil hours in the peace of Donderboerkamp – glad that the weapons were a thing of the past and that Bridging Blackburn will be about talking to strangers, not fighting them.