For Dutch theatre maker and writer Rebekka De Wit (°1985), text is the place par excellence to relate to the world. Her texts, mostly written in the first person and which she presents on stage as ‘Rebekka’, have a strong philosophical and socially engaged character, mixed with a healthy dose of humour and self-relativisation. De Wit first writes the theatre texts that she usually presents on stage herself or in a group. Several of her texts have been published by theatre publisher Bebuquin and by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek. In 2015 she published her first novel (We komen nog één wonder tekort [We’re still one miracle short]), she wrote columns for among others the magazine rekto:verso, and a collection of essays by her, Afhankelijkheidsverklaring [Declaration of Dependence], will be published soon.
From anecdotes to philosophical reflection
Rebekka De Wit graduated in 2011 from the Diction programme at the Royal Conservatory Antwerp. Her graduation monologue Hoe dit het verhaal werd [How this became the story] (2011) immediately set the tone for a contemplative way of writing that she continued to develop and refine. For her, minor events or anecdotes often serve as an occasion for deeper reflection. This text starts with a concrete situation:
‘I was there three years ago, in that village in the northwest of Madagascar. A very strange story that no-one could have expected. Absolutely no-one. Not me, and certainly not you. I found myself in that village because of the death of a boy in Amsterdam East the summer before. I think this boy died unexpectedly because when his housemates found him, there was a bowl of soup next to him on the floor and the television was still on. That boy was my sister’s boyfriend for seven years. And in a nutshell my sister’s reaction to it was: to go and sink water wells, in Madagascar. And I went with on that trip too, in the context of the tragedy of the circumstances. And also in the context of the special flora and fauna of Madagascar, which after all makes it a unique travel destination.’
It also appears that a TV team is coming to make an exciting TV documentary about her sister’s work. The mediatisation of reality and how it influences our sense of reality becomes the central theme of the text. For example, De Wit describes how she realises that something looks more real when you see it on TV, because you quite simply are closer to it. At a given moment she literally experiences this, she explains, when she is in the swimming pool and does not realise that someone is drowning, while she calmly gets herself ready to swim. Only when he is saved does the realisation – and the shock – come. Throughout the text her analytical gaze and the philosophical/literary quality of her reflection result in philosophical gems:
‘I was involved in the setting up of some reality coverage. I knew which subjects had been chosen and why. I knew that the coverage didn’t say anything about Madagascar, but only something about television. And yet, when I watched that coverage again later, I thought: ‘I want this completely, I’ve got to have it. A bit like I’d eat a hamburger. If I take one bite out of a hamburger, then I just devour it.’ That’s because almost all hamburgers contain the E-number 621. And that E-number is what makes it ‘tasty’. The thing we call tasty is E-number 621. And those hamburgers are chock-full of that E-number, otherwise you’d stop eating them. I spent years of my life watching TV, but it wasn’t till I got back from Madagascar that I realised that TV makers are not concerned with showing the world. Their concern is: ‘How do we ensure that the viewer doesn’t go and do something else, like go out cycling with granny.’ They’re only interested in generating E 621. And it wasn’t till I got back from a country without television that I asked myself: ‘What the hell have I been dished up all these years, what have I been eating all these years?’
Rebekka De Wit won the KBC-TAZ Young Theatre Prize in 2012 with this production.
In dialogue with the world
In 2013 Heimat was created, a collaboration between De Wit, Suzanne Grotenhuis, Freek Vielen, Harald Austbø and Tom Struyf. This project resulted from an earlier collaboration with Freek Vielen and Maarten Ketels from 2011, Stel je voor ik zoek een mens/Stel je voor ik zoek een staat [Imagine that I am looking for a person/Imagine that I am looking for a state]. In Heimat, a group of young people looks for answers to questions about life, about being young and growing up. They address these questions very specifically to people in their surroundings, to their parents and grandparents. The production is a true coming of age, in which meaning and solidarity are central. Heimat is the first in a series of productions (Heimat 2 in 2016, Heimat 3 in 2018). Various collaborations between Rebekka De Wit, Freek Vielen and Suzanne Grotenhuis resulted in the establishment of their own company in 2017, when theatre maker Lucas Vandervost passed on his company De Tijd to a younger generation. The affinity of De Nwe Tijd with the philosophy and aesthetics of De Tijd remains great – they all studied under Vandervost in the Diction programme at the Royal Conservatory Antwerp. But the artistic choices of the new company can be better positioned within a young generation of artists who, both in text and in acting, attempt to relate to social issues from the position of the individual.
In addition to her collective work, De Wit continued to develop her individual work, as in Presentatie van een ongecensureerd moppenboek [Presentation of an uncensored joke book] in 2014. The text starts as a reaction to people who force a worldview on others. Rebekka De Wit meticulously examines examples from her own surroundings, from the first person perspective. She even appoints someone as symbolic ‘enemy’ with whom she enters into a conversation during the course of the text.
‘And I realised/that if I ever wanted to have an answer to the white leather tribune/an answer that they’d have to admit for once/that they’d got wrong/then I had to listen to the other /the enemy/I had to understand who the other was and really understand how in godsname/he came to all those conclusions about how the world works/if I can’t understand it then I can’t destroy those conclusions/I had to understand who the other/the enemy was and why he succeeded in saddling me with conclusions like scars./In the words of the man next door I had to understand why I find it so unbearable when people point out to me that the world works in a particular way.’
De Wit in an original way gives a face or voice to a ‘problem’, in order to enter into a specific dialogue with someone. But towards the end of the text, after interesting attempts to understand one another, she is forced to let go of that enemy. In a few small sentences, she powerfully broadens the issue:
‘you’re not the enemy/you don’t exist./the enemy is/our songbook/the great western songbook/how we talk/what we say to each other/to find the way/We create each other/And those conclusions that we fob off onto each other form polyps in our head. And that’s how we block the path to that mountain lake where we should end up.’
A call for new stories
In 2017, De Wit wrote the theatre text ForsterHuberHeyne together with writer/theatre maker Willem De Wolf (De Koe). In the text, both authors write letters to one another about love, radicality and revolution. They do not write in their own name, but represent the famous couple Georg Forster and Therese Heyne from the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. He was a world traveller and revolutionary, she was a writer and publisher and openly had a lover, Ludwig Huber.
suzanne When can we draw conclusions, you ask? Not yet. We agreed didn’t we that conclusions are only the result of pain seeking a way out.
willem Who agreed?
suzanne Us. Us. Here. Now. And then too. When we scrapped the first prologue. We didn’t draw any conclusions. We started not knowing everything we thought we knew. Or don’t yet know. We were going to imagine how it would feel if not one single emancipation movement had failed. How it would feel if the saying that the revolution eats her own children didn’t exist yet.
willem You didn’t say anything about that. About those children and the revolution.
suzanne I said we needed a new dramaturgy, that dramaturgy also has to be a process of emancipation. The way we tell each other stories. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t assume that we shouldn’t even know that children eat their own revolution.
The text feels like a negotiation between two authors whose ideas balance between observation and activism. Throughout the narrative about a number of historical characters, they ask each other questions about how to give form to life, how to deal with commitment, and what it means to make choices and to communicate them. The search for change is central to the text, formulated in the above fragment as the need for a ‘new dramaturgy’ or the ‘way in which we tell each other stories’.
In the texts of Rebekka De Wit you can therefore feel a slow development from analysis and description of the world and your own position, to a more active attitude: a call for new stories, based on the belief in the story as a powerful carrier for revolution. This idea forms the common thread in the production Tenzij je een beter plan hebt [Unless you have a better plan], which De Wit wrote in 2017 together with Dutch theatre maker Anoek Nuyens. The production starts with a striking analysis of the origin of the world and the place of humankind. The person as protagonist of creation is called into question and even criticised.
‘It took a long time before man appeared. First there were animals that came out of the water, and then went back into the sea. Bushes that rolled for miles. Birds that could fly round the world and back again. Man appeared much later, almost the very last thing, but he didn’t realise that. He had the feeling he’d always been there.’
The central point of the text is a reference to an article that appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC, in which an appeal was made to artists to take up their responsibility in formulating the ‘new narratives’ needed for today. De Wit and Nuyens heed the request and the search begins. Like a deus ex machina the story then follows of a lawsuit in which a judge grants a chimpanzee a writ of habeus corpus, which means that the chimpanzee is suddenly given human rights – a world first, and an event that like a paradigm shift suddenly creates other possibilities.
‘And after that, after that statement, we will have to. Have to imagine, have to imagine for long enough, that our children, or perhaps even our grandchildren, won’t be able to imagine that it was ever any different.’
This ‘activism’ is even stronger in coming projects. De Wit is currently working with Anoek Nuyens on De zaak Shell [The Shell case], a collaboration with the Dutch environmental NGO Milieudefensie. This production consists of pre-enactments as exercises for the climate lawsuit against Shell that will follow. In this, both writers/makers have developed a concrete method for how you can use a text, a good story – outside its artistic merit – to contribute to social change.
Written by Esther Severi
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Esther Severi is dramaturge at Kaaitheater in Brussels since 2015, and teaches at the drama department of the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp. She works with artists such as Els Dietvorst, Thomas Bellinck, Radouan Mriziga, Katja Dreyer and Michiel Vandevelde.
- Stel je voor, ik zoek een staat. (2011)
- Hoe dit het verhaal werd (2011) – published by Bebuquin
- Woudlopershandboek (2013)
- Heimat (2013) (translated to English)
- Presentatie van een ongecensureerd moppenboek (2014)
- Heimat II (2015)
- We take it from here* (2016)
- Veel langer dan je je kunt voorstellen* (2016) (translated to German)
- Tenzij je een beter plan hebt* (2017) – in collaboration with Anoek Nuyens
- ForsterHuberHeyne* (2015-2017) – in collaboration with Willem de Wolf (translated to German by Christine Bais*)
- Heimat III (2018)
- Monoloog voor een consument (2018)
- De stem van Shell (2018)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek