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In 1996, American actor and director Rufus Collins died in Amsterdam. As co-founder of the first professional, multicultural theatre company in the Netherlands, De Nieuw Amsterdam, he played a key role in the – admittedly slow – shift towards greater diversity in theatre. He directed many productions and left behind a substantial archive. This video material is now being shown as part of a special event, organised in collaboration with RIGHTABOUTNOW Inc. The footage enables us to get to know Collins through interviews with him and other theatre makers who worked with him. We will also be exploring his impact on the contemporary arts scene.
As colourful as Kalverstraat
According to the charismatic African-American director and actor Rufus Collins (1935-1996), theatre should reflect the diversity of Amsterdam’s Kalverstraat, the city’s main shopping street. That’s
the goal he set for himself when, in 1985, he shook up the then lily-white Dutch theatre scene by founding the multicultural theatre company De Nieuw Amsterdam. He wanted his troupe to reflect the vibrancy and pluralism of the Amsterdam streets, populated by both native-born Dutch people and newcomers.
When he was 11 years old, Collins – a native of New York City’s Harlem district – was offered a scholarship to the prestigious American School of Ballet, but instead he decided to enroll in a Jesuit seminary to train as a priest. Collins would later state that this caused him to become aware of his own blackness only quite late. This realisation, and his burgeoning awareness of the various political and social implications this carried, would come to play a key role in his subsequent life and work. After a brief stint in drama school, he joined Living Theatre, an experimental theatre group in New York City. In the late 1960s, he relocated to Europe, and in 1978 he was asked to lead the Black Theatre Co-operative in London: a troupe whose mission was to stage pieces by black writers exploring what it was like to be black in Britain. In 1981 he was invited to teach a workshop in Amsterdam, where he would end up settling and continued to live and work until his death in 1996.
Together with SurinameseDutch theatre producer Henk Tjon he directed a slew of productions, including the opera The Kingdom about Haiti’s black independence movement, which generated considerable publicity at the time. For the first time a big and very diverse group of amateur actors performed at Amsterdam’s De Engelenbak theatre. Collins taught drama and directing at the Theaterschool (currently known as the Academy of Theatre and Dance), and he and Tjon also gave workshops in non-Western directing styles. In 1985 he and Tjon established DNA. Collins used the term ‘Nieuwe Nederlanders’ (‘newcomers to the Netherlands’) out of aversion to condescending terms such as ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘immigrant theatre’. DNA staged numerous Shakespeare plays, including De Koopman van Amsterdam (‘the merchant of Amsterdam’), an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, as well as the first production of Genet’s The Blacks to have an all-black cast.