Created by an experimental theatre company, Amsterdam’s WijkSafari (Suburb Safari) is an immersive performance experience. It has:
- Challenged perceptions about immigrant neighbourhoods
- Increased interaction and encouraged debate between different communities in the city
- Reached new audiences by addressing new subjects.
Amsterdam’s cultural and creative industries policies aim to ensure that art, culture and creativity contribute to the social and economic well-being of citizens. Through its Plan for the Arts, the government has invested in cultural infrastructure and cultural education for many years, and the city has a thriving scene including music, theatre, visual arts, photography, film, dance, design and heritage. It is also home to many world-famous cultural destinations, such as the Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House.
However, Amsterdam’s social mix is changing, and the city is aware of the need for cultural policy to keep up. At present, there is a difference between the audience for arts that receive the majority of the public subsidy, and the profile of young people in the city; over 60% of them are from non-Dutch ancestry. Young people interviewed for policy research in 2011 said they did not see themselves reflected within the city’s cultural institutions; young people from different cultural backgrounds especially felt that Amsterdam’s cultural institutions did not reflect their communities or heritage.
Concern also exists that Amsterdam’s creative industries, which constitute a growing and successful part of the city’s economy, are struggling to engage and reflect its full, diverse population. The projected growth in employment opportunities in the creative industries will only benefit the city’s population if these opportunities are open to all qualified employees.
Clearly, the city’s demographics will continue to change rapidly over the next few decades. For the most part, a tolerant, open attitude has meant that the city’s high level of immigrants has not caused too much discord. However, as in many big cities, some tensions and prejudices about immigrants exist, stemming partly from the geographical isolation of some immigrant communities.
The WijkSafari (Suburb Safari) theatre project aims to address some of these issues. Working between and across the various communities living in Amsterdam, it uses storytelling and performance to explore and celebrate commonalities and differences. Described as ‘a trip into human landscapes’, WijkSafari is an immersive theatre experience based around the daily life of the residents of Slotermeer Garden Town, a predominantly Moroccan neighbourhood. Slotermeer has an interesting history. Built as a post-war reconstruction project, it aimed to give city dwellers more space, green areas and light. From these progressive social beginnings, however, the area has become quite segregated from the rest of Amsterdam.
The Adelheid|Female Economy and Zina theatre groups have constructed a theatre experience that takes Amsterdammers on a tour of this community and delves into the reality of residents’ lives. A small audience is escorted by scooter along a route through the neighbourhood, stopping off at different points to attend a series of performances by both theatre makers and locals, in which personal life stories take centre stage. Following the four-hour tour, performers and audience all meet together for something to eat and drink and to continue dialogues begun through the WijkSafari.
The theatre groups develop the performance through intensive interaction with the Slotermeer community. Their approach is called the ‘adoption’ method, where they spend some time introducing themselves to, and getting to know, the inhabitants of a neighbourhood. From initial conversations, a couple of adoptive families are selected and the theatre makers live with the families for two weeks at the start of the rehearsal period. They try to assimilate as closely as possible, eating, sleeping, socialising and working together over that period. They discuss pertinent issues where there may be connections or differences of opinion. All these experiences and conversations filter into the performance, often raising challenging issues in new and thought-provoking ways.
The Wijksafari project is very much in line with Amsterdam’s ambitions to make cultural programming in the city more inclusive, to have the cultural sector engage more with a diverse audience, and to use culture as an agent of change for the emancipation of different groups of citizens within Amsterdam. The Wijksafari project has also been launched in another Dutch city, Utrecht, in 2013. The project will take place in Mexico City in 2015 under the name ‘Safari en Tepito’.