Oerol artistic director Kees Lesuis: “Art isn’t gone. It’s still here”

Since 1 June, the first cultural venues have slowly begun to open their doors again. But when exactly? And how? We asked artistic director Kees Lesuis, whose Oerol festival (which was set to start 12 June) has now been reimagined as an online festival, Het Imaginaire Eiland (15 – 19 June).

When did you realize that the Oerol festival, the way it was originally planned, wouldn’t be able to take place on Terschelling?
It was a gradual process. Pretty early on, starting from the press conferences on 12 and 15 March, we knew our chances were slim if we wanted to carry out the festival the way we’d envisioned it. We immediately started thinking about different scenarios for a live experience: fewer performances spread across more days, and with smaller audiences. To be completely honest: we initially dismissed the possibility of a digital platform. For Oerol, physical encounters are fundamental.

In the end you were forced to decide against even a small-scale live festival.
Reality caught up with us. On 21 April, news came out that the ban on events would be prolonged from 1 June to 1 September. For a festival like ours, everything hinges on getting permits. A huge part of our job is procuring the right permits to be able to work in protected natural reserves. I think that, knowing what we know now, we might have been able to make it work. We have the space, so people could be spread out. But being an ‘event’ means we couldn’t get any permits, and without permits, we can’t host anything involving an audience. We had to make the very hard and painful decision to cancel Oerol 2020, including all performances.

What made you decide to have an online event after all?
Once we had made the tough decision to not have a live event, it set our priorities straight. What’s the most important thing to do right now? To make ourselves heard. Art isn’t gone. It’s still here. And we as a festival exist to offer a platform for art, to facilitate meaningful encounters between the artists and audiences. That’s when we decided to really embrace the digital format, and look at the possibilities it offered.

What did you find?
Oerol has always been about triggering the imagination. With our digital festival Het Imaginaire Eiland (The imaginary island), the audience’s imagination will be taxed to the max. One of our inspirations was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a novel in which Marco Polo describes the most beautiful cities to the Emperor of the Tartars. But the cities he describes are all fictitious; they only exist in the minds of his listeners. Everyone, even people who have never been to Oerol, has a mental image of what the festival is like. With Het Imaginaire Eiland we want to tap into these impressions. Sometimes quite literally. For instance, audience members can sign up for a special project, called Het eiland luistert (the island is listening), in which Anouk van Kolfschoten will try to take people back to their fondest memory of the festival.

How do you recreate the island experience in a digital environment?
The sense of community and the opportunity for special personal encounters are very important to Oerol. There will be a lot of interactive programming, such as livestreams of performances, Q&A’s and an Oerol Café where people can meet in between shows. There are even opportunities for private meet and greets with artists like singer Jeangu Macrooy.
We also try to activate the senses. We’ve sold a special Island hamper, filled with local produce, and in a daily cooking show, Het Kookeiland, Wilbert van de Kamp will show people how to prepare their own island dishes. With Levende duinen (Living dunes) people are encouraged to venture outside into their own surroundings while our podcast transports them to Terschelling. For us it’s an adventure as well. Normally I would have seen everything beforehand, now I’m going to experience almost everything at the same time as the audience.

Will every live performance take place on Terschelling?
Not all of them, no. In the serial performance 1000&1 Nacht by Tryater – only accessible for Friends of Oerol – all the actors will be performing live from their own homes.

Have you tried to transfer performances that were supposed to be at the original Oerol festival to a digital format?
Sadly, no. We decided we needed to make a clean break and start from scratch. Two performances have been transferred to Het Imaginaire Eiland. Lotte van den Berg has an ongoing project called Building Conversation, a series of communal thought experiments, which also works really well in a digital environment. The same applies to Laura van Dolron’s project Jouw zin wordt de mijne (Your sentence will be mine). In its original version, visitors would visit her at het Bostheater and ‘donate’ a sentence, which she in turn would incorporate in her performance. Now the donations can be done by e-mail or through Zoom. Emke Idema, who was supposed to unveil her latest project Forest – a life-size party game for grown-ups – has now put together a Hug Pack (Omhelzingspakket) which people can buy and send to loved ones.

Have any shows been advanced to next year?
This is something we will have to address with the artists and companies after Het Imaginaire Eiland is over. The basic assumption is we’ll be creating a new programme for Oerol 2021. In the end it all depends on what we can and cannot do next year.

The website does mention the possibility for a pop-up festival later this year.
We’d like to organize a small get-together as soon as we’re allowed, just to celebrate this special occasion. But it won’t be until September, at the earliest.

Will Oerol be possible at 1.5 meter’s distance?
I’m quite positive it will, although it will take some drastic rearranging. We have the space to accommodate great numbers of people at 1.5 meter’s distance, but we have to think of something for the festival hotspots where lots of people come together. The same applies to the shows. Oerol presents small-scale projects which only accommodate a few people at a time, but also bigger ventures where the numbers can reach up to five hundred people. Which, financially, will pose an important question as well: can we invite big productions for a maximum of 100 paying visitors, if we need 400 to break even? We’ll certainly have to rethink a good many aspects – which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. I’d rather see it as a challenge. We can’t go back to the way things were, not even if we wanted to, it’s just not a real option. Art is a part of society, and when society changes, so must we. This is our new normal, how can we make the most of it?

I’m also very interested to see what we can take away from this digital platform. It already has one important, positive, outcome. Putting together a whole new festival on such short notice (we started at the beginning of May) and on such a small budget (Oerol relies heavily on paying visitors) meant we had to work even more closely with the artists than we normally do. That’s something we will certainly take with us into next year.