Rikkert van Huisstede is a theatre maker from The Netherlands. With the support of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux he will be taking the show Boys Won’t Be Boys to Finland in 2024. Ahead of the study trip to Helsinki and Oulu next week we had a chat about the project and his expectations for Finland.
”This will be my first time in Finland. I have this image that there are a lot of inspiring things happening around the topic of masculinity. I am really looking forward to having conversations around it, to see if there are any differences and what we can learn from each other. I feel that there is an international context, when we talk about feminism and gender norms and regional context and differences, which I find very interesting.
There are currently 70 performers in our group, which will increase to 105 from December as new performers join, and the weird thing is that everyone feels quite lonely on this topic. Not much is shared on the topic of masculinity, people feel that it is something they need to deal with on their own. Bringing these people together is really powerful and empowering because it creates a vulnerable context and safe space to share our thoughts and vulnerable sides.
Bringing people together, we feel less alone and less weird. So I think it’s really important to have this international connection with each other. For the Dutch group, just knowing that people in Finland are also working on this or struggling with masculinity norms or trying to find more space and freedom, I think it could be really empowering.
I am trying to imagine what it’s like to meet someone from a different country and feel so many similarities. Even meeting someone working on this topic in my own street, my own city is breathtaking for me, my heart starts beating faster. It feels like I am the only one, but I am definitely not.”
What impact has BOYS WON’T BE BOYS had on the current masculinity discourse in The Netherlands? What kind of reception & impact do you think it will have in Finland?
”We have created a safe space for people to share their perspectives surrounding masculinity. I’ve heard through others that our show is mentioned as a space where people feel safe, they feel that they are not alone, that there is a place for them in this world, so it’s a really empowering place for people. I feel that we have opened the discourse. At the beginning when I tried to talk about this subject people would respond that it’s not a topic that is interesting or that feminism is already over, people weren’t talking about masculinity four years ago. But I feel that now, partly because of the #metoo movement and toxic masculinity becoming more of a topic, people know the term masculinity and that you can think about the role men play in society. What we do, is to be an inspiring place to give inspiring examples of not about not what to do but about what do you want to do. In the media there is a lot of talk about toxic masculinity and what is going wrong and we are trying to show an alternative way of being a man. I don’t think you see these alternatives very often. So I am interested to see how this discussion or discourse is being held in Finland.
At the beginning we only performed in the big cities, in theatres where certain more progressive audiences were connected to the venues. But now we are booked to perform throughout the whole country, in smaller towns. I feel that the world has changed, it’s no longer so progressive to just question masculinity. It feels like there are more open doors in smaller cities now. We have made local editions with people from these smaller towns, such as in the south of the Netherlands. We are really trying to attract all these different perspectives in the show, so that it is a platform that shows the diversity and doesn’t enforce a certain vision but shows a broader picture.
We have a very narrow picture of what a man can be. It’s really powerful to show a lot of different men in the same show or on the same stage. Just by showing the diversity the box is already being broken, Then there is no argument against it, because you can see these people standing there. You can not say “no these are not men” or “I don’t believe it” as you can just show people, which has a very big impact. ”
Having a safe space is a crucial part of your concept and is maintained during the performances as well, how have you worked on this together with the performers? What are your expectations for creating this space in Finland?
”A lot happens in the first stage of selecting who is involved, that is a very secure and precise process. So it is really good that I can go to Finland now, to meet everyone.
The selection process and making expectations clear from the beginning is really important for a safe space. I also try to put everyone in their own strength and storyline, so they don’t need to get into a discussion with each other about who is right or who is wrong. I mainly work one-on-one, rather than as a whole group. As a whole group you have to relate to each other a lot and I think for the topic of masculinity it’s perhaps too soon to relate to each other. People may not have even thought about their own identities or done their own research on this topic. I want to press play on every individual and let them come with their visions and thoughts and we work with that.
Most of the time I bring everyone together right before the show, so they don’t give each other feedback, which is also a really important part of the safe space – they are not going to direct each other. They can do what they want and I am the only one that gives feedback about the performances. It’s not about taste, right? Or what is a good performance or what kind of art is better or nicer or more interesting than other art. I want every performer to make what they think is the most important, interesting, vulnerable, open, I want it to really be their vision. Then you get a lot of different performances on one night.
We also connect on a human to human level. At every show and every time we meet with the group we stand in a big circle, we hold each other’s hands and we share how we feel in that moment. We don’t have to share our whole background or try to impress each other with our resumes. We just share how we feel in that moment and connect with our emotions and feelings. We just try to support each other in our individual journey.
After the show we do what we call in Dutch a “kringetje”, a little circle, to make sure that everyone has the space to share their feelings before we go into the audience. This circle is the place that we feel the safest. The feeling that we create in this circle, that is the feeling that we want to share with the audience, to be vulnerable and open and respect our differences.
In that sense, it is my experience that it is important not to start with a group process but to have an individual process first, and then bring your individuality into the circle, to stand on your own two feet, feel secure about what you are going to do on the night and then open upto to all the other people.
I have heard that people do not open up that easily in Finland, which could be a challenge. But I feel that having an individual process first, could be a really nice way to work, since people will have already shared with me or with a smaller group and they already know what they want to share with the bigger group.
If people don’t open up so easily, it may be easier to create a safe space. In Holland people can be very direct, also about their opinions. Sometimes I have to keep the space safe as people may say something that can hurt someone.
It’s also interesting, because it is a work setting. A lot of men would not voluntarily go to a place where you only do a sharing circle. I think a lot of men would say no, it’s not for me. But in this way it’s like we’re going to do a show, we are going to work, we are going to earn and we are also going to do a safe space circle. By the end, the safe space circle is the nicest part. But most of the people we work with are not afraid of this circle.”
Creating a relaxed atmosphere for your audiences is also part of your artistic principles. For example you have said “If you can’t see it well, you can get up”. How do you think audiences in Finland will react and engage with this concept?
”In theatre or when you go to an art project quite often as an audience it feels like there are certain rules that you have to follow. Being respectful to the artists means that I don’t cough and I am silent and I can not go to the toilet as it will bother other people. Everybody in the audience is also an expert on the topic of gender in their own individual lives, everybody has a certain experience when you speak about gender or sexuality or masculinity, so I don’t really feel this divide between the audience and the performers. It could be swapped around. Everyone in the audience could share a story that would be interesting, it’s just that we have picked a few people who have been informed that they will be the performers. So as the audience you should not feel this audience responsibility too heavily, it should feel like you are at home, that there is a space for you to exist with your whole body, with your whole bodily experience.
Usually we do not use a stage, but instead have a floor space and the audience sits around the performers. The audience may feel like “oh my god, we are taking part” so it feels a bit unsafe, so I explain that they are the audience and they can sit back and relax. I also explain that it doesn’t mean that they are not allowed to move or not allowed to breathe, I recommend breathing! And if you need to cough you can do it. You arrived with your whole body, so it can still be in this space during the performance. You shouldn’t put yourself on pause. Of course, I also explain that the performers may present something that they haven’t done before or they may not have been on a stage before or not in this context so please show your love and respect for these people. For me it feels very logical. The way it is done normally feels more weird.
When the audience is coming in, most of the performers are already in the space and we chat with them, so it’s also not so clear when the performance really starts because you just step into our world. This world is a place where we suggest a new way of being and you can just be in this new world, and experience if you like it or not, if it triggers something or not. It’s just about welcoming people into this new world. After the show we also try to interact with the audience. We are not performing in a way that we are acting out that we are someone else. If you go to a theatre performance where it’s a stage play, and the performer has a certain character that they are performing, that’s a different thing of course. We are just sharing our own personal stories so it is not fake. At the end of the show I say something like – it may feel like this is the end of the show, but it is not. It might have felt like a show, but it is not a show, it’s our lives. It may also be your life. I really like that we create this world, you step into it, but there is no end. We just say since you are in this world, take it with you wherever you go and spread it out, into Finland.”
Rikkert van Huistede
Rikkert van Huisstede is a Dutch theater maker, singer and poet. He studied music theater at the Conservatory of Haarlem.
Van Huisstede has been in the theatre with the performance BOYS WON’T BE BOYS since 2018.