Name: Niek vom Bruch
Occupation: Managing Director of the Grand Theatre
Location: Groningen, the Netherlands
Involvement with Meet the Neighbours: Niek led on the Grand Theatre’s involvement in Meet the Neighbours
The city of Groningen is the largest city in the north of the Netherlands, two hours north-east of Amsterdam by train. After a long period of stability, the city is currently experiencing rapid change. This is the result of several factors, among them: high-level investment focussed on attracting international students to the city’s university; an unprecedented increase in the student population, particularly international students; a growing refugee population within the city; the disruption and decline of traditional regional cultures, marked by the movement of people from the countryside in to the city and the disappearance of local dialects; and a newly galvanised sense of political and social responsibility centred around these issues, particularly from within the student and artistic communities.
The Grand Theatre recently reopened under new management. The building has a historical connection to progressive politics in the city, having been squatted by artists in the early 1980s after it had been abandoned in 1977, and has long served as a space for cultural and social experimentation in the city centre.
In response to this history and the questions prompted by the rapid social and economic change in the city, the Grand was interested in using Meet the Neighbours (MTN) to explore its relationship to the city as a cultural institution, and how the work it programmes and produces might best respond to the changing needs, interests and experiences of the population.
Niek has been managing director of the Grand Theatre since it reopened in 2016. He was responsible for leading on the theatre’s programme for MTN, working with the team to organise projects that created new relationships between the Grand and communities and areas of the city.
“From the very start of the new Grand Theatre we decided it has to be much more open to the city than it used to be… We really wanted to make new connections to the city and [Meet the Neighbours] is about making new connections”
The Grand’s intention was not just to use the opportunity presented by MTN to build relationships with new people, but to see how the practice of being a neighbour to different groups and communities within the city might inform how they worked as an organisation. With this in mind, each of the Grand Theatre’s projects was framed by what Niek describes as a relational ‘triangle’ between neighbours, artists and the theatre itself. In every project, each of the three were seen to be learning from the other two and the new situations they created.
The Grand delivered four residencies:
They collaborated with art and design collective WERC to work with refugees supported by INLIA (International Network of Local Initiatives with Asylum seekers). INLIA provide food and housing for a number of asylum seekers on the Amanpuri, a former riverboat now permanently moored on a canal on the outskirts of the city centre. Members of WERC spent a week on the boat talking with resident refugees. They drew on these experiences to develop MS Universal, a 3D printed sculpture and art installation that they shared with staff and residents at the end of their project.
They worked with the Groningen branch of multinational student accommodation company The Student Hotel to develop a residency with two artists from the MOHA collective. For two weeks, Alice Pons and Olivia Reschofsky lived in the hotel. They joined the staff as cooks, cleaners and waitresses, and set up a meet and greet desk in the hotel lobby, becoming part of the life of The Student Hotel from morning to evening. They shared their findings in a performance event that took place in the hotel’s basement.
They invited two students made homeless by a localised housing crisis to live in the theatre building. The residency ended with a public performance devised by the students with the support of local performance artist Sieger Baljon. (Read a case study with one of the students, Mollie.)
Also working with Sieger, they built relationships with local members of the international environmental activist movement Extinction Rebellion and invited them into the theatre for workshops and conversation. The workshops had two main aims: to see how theatre practice might overlap with Extinction Rebellion’s activist agenda, and to consider how the theatre itself might be more open to the kinds of social and political activity taking place in the city.
MTN has had a long-term effect on how the Grand Theatre operates as an institution, how it understands its relationship to people in the city and the region, and how it intends to develop its programme in the future. Niek is directly continuing the practices developed through MTN with six residencies in rural communities over the next two years. These will serve both as a way to promote the presence of the Grand beyond the city, but also as an opportunity to understand a broader section of the local population and to integrate these experiences into the programme and working practices of the Grand on a long-term basis.
For Niek, there were two main outcomes of the project. The first is a clearer sense of who the theatre’s neighbours are (beyond the artistic community), and how they might engage with them in the future:
“On a practical level, we really have more of a sense of how to work with non-cultural organisations. We agreed that we still want that, because for us that’s a really refreshing way also to connect to the world. We look at ourselves as: we’re part of a social infrastructure, only we do culture, someone else does refugee housing, and someone else does education, but we’re all part of this field of social organisations.”
The second is a more developed understanding of how their work as a cultural institution might contribute to the development of the city in ways that align with their political values:
“This used to be a really activist city, and that sort of disappeared… Of course, activism or protests are a form of theatre, in a way, so it’s also interesting to look at it that way, and what can theatre bring to it.
“Also looking back on our work: do we want to be a neutral space? Or do we feel we can connect to something like Extinction Rebellion? …For me, it’s really important to have those kinds of conversations as a team, because they are also conversations about our identity… What’s a theatre also? Can a theatre be used explicitly for a public act, and not just a closed-door act?”