Interview by Heather Gallagher and Leslie Brand, 11/7/2012, Brooklyn College
Erwin Maas is a Dutch theater director and teacher currently holding a part-time position as Director for Performing Arts at the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York City. Born in the Netherlands, he has directed, taught, and studied all over the world, earning a MFA in Theater Directing at Columbia University and a Masters in Documentary Filmmaking from the University of Technology in Sydney. As a director, Maas has had his work presented at the Atlantic Theater Company, Cherry Lane Theatre, Sanford Meisner Theater, Chashama, Miller Theatre, Ontological Theater, The Connelly Theatre and HERE Arts Center and did assistant work with The Wooster Group and Stichting Theaterplan. He was a teacher and speaker at the University of Amsterdam, Royal Conservatory The Hague, Yale University, NYU, Columbia, and Carnegie Mellon University, among several other institutions, and is a freelance director and frequent guest lecturer throughout the New York City metropolitan area. In his work at the Dutch Consulate, Maas champions the integration of Dutch artistry in US culture and helps facilitate cultural exchange between the two countries. The Cultural Department of the Consulate was approached by Paul Organisak, Vice President of Programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, to partner in the creation of the Distinctively Dutch Festival, which featured Dutch artists across all artistic disciplines from February to June 2012.
Heather Gallagher: The Festival took place over a long period of time, almost four months. What was the reasoning behind that model?
Erwin Maas: Paul Organisak, who is the Programmer of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, did a festival of Performing Arts from Quebec a couple of years ago and one Australian festival. They were smaller festivals, not as big as this one, and they were shorter, and what he learned from that was that Pittsburgh does not sustain an audience where people come within two weeks to five different shows. So that’s why we chose to make it a longer version. But really, he was the one that created the festival. Now how did he come to the Netherlands or to us? He actually has a long history as presenter of the Pittsburgh Dance Council, so he presented a lot of dance in the past, and with that he presented Dutch dance companies. Through dance he got a taste of the Dutch Performing Arts and he became very enthusiastic about it. Besides that, Pittsburgh has a very big Children’s Festival. They presented a lot of Dutch Youth Theater in the past. There were some links already, in which for years, they presented Dutch theater and Dutch dance, so we had a relationship with him. And I say “we” because this whole festival came about before I started working at the consulate. And then, when I started working there, that’s when we really got into the nuts and bolts of doing a festival. Obviously, he knows a lot about dance, and he already had some ideas about who he wanted to present. Somebody else was in charge of Youth Theater and she also already had a pretty good idea about what she wanted to do. Dutch music and theater, however, Paul was less familiar with. So we talked a lot with him and guided him in the Dutch Performing Arts landscape, and we brought him over the Netherlands on a visitors program so he could see theater there.
HG: So for a theater company or a town that wants to have an international festival, you feel the best way is to reach out to that consulate first and build a relationship.
EM: I don’t think the consulate necessarily needs to be the first place, but I do think it is wise to reach out. For international collaborations or other efforts, so many people don’t think about the embassies and consulates and even for Americans who might not have a cultural department in other countries, you should always inform your embassy if you have an international endeavor because there might be people there that could really help. And that’s the same with us. Now of course a lot of presenters already have direct connections —I don’t have to introduce Joe Melillo to Toneelgroep Amsterdam because he knows Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and he knows Ivo van Hove directly.
HG: Right, but for a Pittsburgh like situation…
EM: That’s where we come into play, where we can help: with finding money. Funding wise, to present theatre from the Netherlands, there needs to be a commitment from the American partner. We do that so that it does not become a solely Dutch paid-for performance: we want to create a true collaborative effort, and we want to have others invest in our culture. Now once a theatre, or in this case Paul Organisak, says, “I’m interested in a festival of Dutch Performing Arts and I have an organization that can support it, but we can’t do it alone,” then, in the Netherlands, artists––or in this case because it’s a festival, the Theater Instituut participates because it was multiple artists––can apply to the Fund for the Performing Arts for international travel and visa expenses. That’s how it’s set up in Holland: artists can apply to the Fund for the Performing Arts, if they can show that they’re being asked and booked by a foreign theatre or by a foreign organization. They can apply for international travel, visa expense, and set transportation, and the American partner, in this case Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, can apply with us. Dutch artists, and a lot of people, find this very strange that they cannot apply for funding from the Dutch embassy. Only American presenters or American organizations can apply for funding. Again, they need to show that they’re presenting Dutch artists, and then they can apply, specifically, for marketing and PR, and also for accommodation sometimes or various other expenses. But mostly our money is geared towards PR and marketing because that’s why we’re here: we want to promote what they are doing.
Leslie Brand: What about production costs?
EM: Production cost, mostly that comes down to the American partner. We have this funding system in place because we know that first of all, European artists are often much more expensive than American artists—generally, they ask for more money—but second of all, we understand that it’s very expensive, for the performing arts particularly, to do international work because of the international travel and transportation expenses. So that’s why the Fund for the Performing Arts created this idea of, “What if they can apply with us for those kinds of costs, then we basically make them more competitive.” Now they become “locals” for American presenters, they’re already here. We pay for them to come here, so it’s much easier for you to present them now. That’s also what happened with Pittsburgh, in this case. The Theatre Instituut applied for all of these artists together to come to America, and in total––which was really quite cheap I must say––including support from the Fund and from the Consulate, we came to about 150,000€ that we invested in it. That’s really not a lot.
Helen Richardson: That was for five groups to come?
EM: No, that’s for all of them.
HR: How many groups was that?
EM: It was not only the performing artists. Ben Van Berkel, the architect, came over to do a seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. There was a whole side programming of workshops and meetings + round table discussions, and that makes it more of a cultural diplomacy effort. This also created a lot of challenges, because it became so successful, actually, in that sense, it kind of ran away from us, that we didn’t have the manpower to do all that. But we wanted to create this addition to the festival. We wanted to get students involved. They are an important target audience for us as they can become the next Cultural Ambassadors.
LB: Can you describe the programming for the festival?
EM: The core programming was Dance Works Rotterdam, Wunderbaum, PIPS:lab, Last Touch First, The News, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and then there’s visual arts: Girls ‘N’ Guns, Global Navigators. There were also three jazz, and two youth theater programs. We had a delegation from the city of Eindhoven, because the city of Eindhoven and Pittsburgh have gone through similar challenges, and that created more political & economic engagements. There was a whole program built around the core programming, and this is why I am very proud of it also, because it really showed that culture, the arts, they were the starting point that opened up all these other possibilities & collaborations. The economic department got water managers over, and there was a program about that, and it was all born, if you will, out of this performing arts festival.
HG: I know there was also a connection to restaurants in the area, to sort of have a food festival. Was that at all connected to the festival or did the restaurants just decide to do that?
EM: That’s what happened, and that was the great thing about it. That was one of the other things that our office went over to Pittsburgh for a lot beforehand & the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was meeting with local organizations for: it’s about getting the people to know that it’s happening. Paul told me––when we were talking two years before the festival––he told me when they did the Australian festival, all of a sudden it turned out there was an Australian CEO of a company there, and he said, “If I had known this was happening, I would have flown over people from Australia and we would have done a convention that might not have had anything to do with the festival, but I would’ve planned that convention during the festival because it would’ve been fun for us to showcase home.” Those things, those links you want to make. That’s why we need to let the community know this is happening far in advance. And that’s what happened, the restaurants did it themselves, and the Phipps Conservatory did a whole flower show based on the tulips. The Carnegie Museum highlighted everything Dutch in the existing collection. So those kind of things happened, and we had nothing to do with it, but it was great. There was a website, and all those things were added to the website. So it was really a three month celebration of the Netherlands in Pittsburgh. The big question that you also asked, we asked as well, “Why the Netherlands? Why Pittsburgh?” First of all in New York [2009 New Island Festival] it’s very obvious: The Dutch started New York, it was New Amsterdam, it was the 400th Anniversary. And to give you an idea, that was one of the rare occasions where we did kind of produce the whole festival. It was almost solely Dutch money, but that was because it was not just the cultural department, it was not just a cultural event, it was really a country manifestation. It was a celebration of 400-year ties between America and the Netherlands. Pittsburgh has no clear relationship with the Netherlands whatsoever. There’s not even a Dutch community there. It’s heavily Scandinavian and German and Eastern European. But there is no…there are very few Dutch people in that area. So it didn’t really have a clear link, but again, it was an opportunity for us because they came to us. We had to answer the same question that you’re asking, “Why Pittsburgh? Why The Netherlands?” One of the things that turned out to be very helpful, that actually happened later, Obama called Pittsburgh the example of a city reinventing itself. Pittsburgh is considered really a success story, and it really IS a success story. It is extraordinary. I myself, I knew Pittsburgh, I knew it was steel & coal, and everybody has that image of it—and it so is not anymore. It is really a wonderful city.
HR: Didn’t Theresa Heinz have a lot to do with investing?
EM: Yes, and Carnegie & Mellon—
HR: You know, her husband is probably going to be the next Secretary of State, so that might…
EM: Well, there you go. Yeah, it’s Heinz and Carnegie.
HG: I worked over the summer at the Met Opera, and my office mate was from Pittsburgh and would not shut up about Pittsburgh. She loves that city, apparently everybody from Pittsburgh is just ridiculous about living there and just loves it.
LB: There’s very intense Pittsburgh pride, everyone that I know from there…
EM: I was pleasantly surprised, I really was. It is very, very good living there, and there’s a lot of arts. They really did a very good job. And actually, Cleveland and Detroit and many more cities are looking at it because that’s their model. Pittsburgh is also one of the few cities in 2008/2009 that never lost jobs, where the unemployment rate went down in America. And then the National Geographic— it was before the Festival but after we already started to collaborate—called Pittsburgh one of the twenty-five places in the world that you have to visit. That was a big thing for us, and for Pittsburgh itself. In the Netherlands we have very many cities that went through a similar process, not necessarily from steel, but the Netherlands is also very much a knowledge-based economy—culture and knowledge: because we never really had the industrial revolution in the Netherlands. Pittsburgh also became this culture and knowledge center, and that’s what we very much reflected. From a historical point of view, Pittsburgh is considered the gateway to the West, because of where it is, and the rivers. And the Netherlands of course also has the three rivers and is considered the gateway to Europe. So there was this nice tie that…
EM: Yeah. And then there were a couple of things that economically tied Pittsburgh and the Netherlands, because Pittsburgh is very big in robotica and the Netherlands is as well. And Pittsburgh is, of course, the number one employer is health, not health care but…
EM: Pharmaceuticals, and the Netherlands has many pharmaceutical companies as well (that are also active in the US). And then there is the water. Pittsburgh is surrounded by water, and there is a lot about water management in Pittsburgh, and that has a lot of presence in the Netherlands as well. So there were also economically major ties, and that’s of course what we really put forward, because we got in a position in the Netherlands where, like I explained, culture needs to defend itself. Basically the government said, “Cultural Diplomacy needs to be in service of the economy.”
HR: Well, it always has been, you know, I’m sorry but…
EM: But it has never been the goal, it always was the side effect…
HR: Or it was taken for granted.
HR: Now it’s drummed into us.
EM: Right. Which I don’t think is necessarily the smartest thing: To measure the value of the Arts economically, I mean. The Arts have so many other important functions in society.
HR: Well, how did Da Vinci and company, how did they survive? To serve their patrons.
EM: So, [looks at questions] just looking quickly through these, “Were there other cities you considered for the festival?” No, because again, Pittsburgh came to us. Although, we are of course making relationships. Obviously we’re focused on the northeast corridor because that’s just where there is a lot of European art and exchange. The west coast––LA, San Francisco, Seattle––is also important to us. And there’s pockets that we focus on in the consulate. And for the performing arts, I feel the pockets are, well, Chicago and then there are two major pockets that really are starting to come up, and those are what we refer to as the Texas triangle: Austin, Dallas, Houston. That is really, very vibrant and very exciting what’s happening there. And again, this is my job’s role, to be there and identify that. We had two Dutch companies at the Fusebox Festival this year, and of course South by Southwest (SXSW) is huge.
HG: You said Chicago, Texas Triangle, and is there one other?
EM: And the third one is [North] Carolina. Particularly Chapel Hill, Carolina Performances [Carolina Performing Arts], they’re doing great stuff. And they’re actually now even commissioning. At the moment, Netherlands Dance Theater is commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and the Music Center in LA, and they’re touring in 2013, which is almost like the opposite world, it’s Americans commissioning Europeans to do work here. That’s really quite extraordinary because usually it was the other way around, and American artists made their money in Europe, touring in Europe. I’m talking mostly about the theater collectives, I’m not talking about Broadway of course. Many of them [collectives] said they could survive in America because they tour in Europe, because the festivals in Europe pay them.
HR: Have you worked with the University of Texas at Austin? Because they’re a big presenting organization, and they do go to a lot of the festivals. I met them in Colombia at Bogotá.
EM: Yeah, I have reached out to them because, the funny thing was that the IPAY Conference, the youth theater conference, was in Austin last year, and it was at the University of Texas, so I did reach out, but the presenter was not there at that point. But I’m definitely curious. And something that we’re actually looking into far more is university performing arts centers. I think that’s where a lot of exciting presenting is happening. Regional theaters tend not to present a lot of international work; they tend to be more usually focused on Broadway; also because they have huge houses that they need to fill. But the university performing arts centers are very exciting, and that’s where there’s money also, and that’s also important.
HR: And they have more of an international…
EM: Focus. Plus, that’s where we want to be. Because that’s where there is an audience that is interesting for us. I totally believe that it’s the students––the young people—they’re usually more curious about new and different things, and that’s the people you want to find because they might actually say, ‘Hey, let me do my MFA in the Netherlands, or let me go there sometime.” And that’s how you build long-term relationships. For example: the Gaudeamus Muziekweek festival that we did in Brooklyn totally just happened because one of the curators studied in Rotterdam for a year and saw the Festival in the Netherlands, and now, so many years later, he is the curator of ISSUE Project Room. You can’t have a better link. Because for the rest of his life, he is going to present Dutch music because he feels connected to the Netherlands. And so in that sense, that’s why we have these visitors programs, we bring people over because we think it will create long-term relationships.
[EM looks through questions and the answer below is in response to the question, “What was the vision that drove your work for the festival?”]
EM: The vision of the festival became very much about cutting edge, innovative arts. That’s what Paul Organisak wanted to present to the Pittsburgh audience. He felt that is something that the Pittsburgh audience is less exposed to. It has been exposed to that in dance, but definitely not much in the rest of the performing arts. Through the programming of the Dance Council, there was a big audience for cutting edge dance, which wasn’t there necessarily for experimental theater. So it turned out to be harder to get audiences for the theater, and I think one thing that we failed to do, and that also Paul himself mentioned as a lesson learned, was to make that link to the dance programming, like, “Hey, if you like that programming, this is kind of what that is.” Because people need a reference. But nevertheless it went very well and people were enthusiastic, so it was successful. We invested a lot in making the links to the universities. Because Pittsburgh has a lot of them, I think it has the most universities and colleges inside its borders of any city in the U.S. And they came and got very excited and I was excited to see that when they came to the first performance of Wunderbam for example I saw them all back at PIPS:lab also and I saw them back at the other performances later. They really got enthusiastic. And links were definitely made afterwards in the bar. I saw the actors of Wunderbam talk to these students and email addresses were exchanged. I heard also that one of the Carnegie Mellon students this year has now focused his thesis on, or was inspired by, this production of Wunderbaum. So it definitely sparked something, which was great.
HG: Excellent. I wonder if you’ve had a chance—I don’t know if you’ve been involved at all or have talked to people about this—but I’ve been reading recently about the new Arts Holland website that’s been launched. They linked open data. Have you heard about that at all?
EM: I just saw your email about it.
HG: I just thought it would something interesting to ask you about. It seems to be linking different cities in Holland and really explaining to tourists and to fans of the theater community.
EM: Yes, that’s the Arts Holland website and they work very closely together with the Bureau of Tourism, and last year for the first time we actually also did a collaboration with them and we made this clip together where they indeed present the Netherlands, so to speak: they link the four major cities of the Netherlands and what’s happening there. In that same clip we presented, “What does Holland bring to the US?” And that was, of course, what our office is doing. So Pittsburgh was one of the things that was presented. The ZOEM! New Dutch Theater Festival on Broadway was presented. Rieneke Dijkstra at the MOMA was presented. There were several other things: the Van Gogh exhibition in Philadelphia. What was happening arts-wise in the US. Arts Holland is basically what’s happening arts-wise in Holland.
HG: The clip on their website was really exciting. It was very innovative.
EM: I think they’re very good too. That’s one of the reasons we collaborated. We are discussing how we can do that more frequently. Is that something that we can combine? There are two completely different goals, because one is, of course, to inform people about what’s happening in the Netherlands, and one is to inform people here about what’s happening Dutch—here.
EM: But we came out with a very nice clip. It’s the launch of the year 2012 so it’s quite far back now in the blog, but you can find it on the Dutch Performing Arts [website: www.dutchperformingarts.com].
HG: You had mentioned the Dutch consulate provided funds mostly for marketing and PR. How does that work, practically? Do you have any say in how things are marketed, or is it basically a straight grant and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust could use that money to fund their marketing initiatives however they strategize?
EM: Yes, they applied for money from us, they got that money, and they used it for their PR for this festival.
HG: So now that you’ve been through this whole process—you had this very successful festival—if someone came to you and asked for advice about having their own festival, what do you think is the one biggest piece of advice that you could give to them as they try to organize their own international festival?
HG: It’s a bit of an open-ended question.
EM: Yeah. I think probably the biggest piece of advice is probably that you can never start too early. I think you need to have a long breath, as we say in Holland. You’ve got to start early because there are always unforeseen things happening. And I think you should not overestimate the manpower and man-hours in a festival such as this. Generally, a lot of people immediately look to the financial picture which is obvious, and of course that’s important and you need that in order to make it happen, but I think sometimes people might think, “Oh, as long as we have the financial picture together, we can do it.” But then you forget about all the man-power and man-hours that are going into it that are not necessarily financial. But I think that is very important.
HG: Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us this morning.
EM: Yeah, not a problem. Thank you and I look forward to seeing your journal. Toi toi toi, as we say in Holland. That means “break a leg,” and you can quote me on that one.
Heather Gallagher is Institutional Giving Associate at Manhattan Theatre Club and has her MFA in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College.
Leslie Brand is Organizational Development Specialist at The Public Theater and is pursuing her MFA in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College.