Take a trip with us though the long history of the Huis van het Nederlandse Theater (House of Dutch Theater). The Stadsschouwburg on Leidsplein dates from 1984. But the history of the Amsterdam theatre dates back much further, from 1638. The theatre burned completely to the ground, twice. It was rebuilt. After a thorough renovation, and the opening of a new state-of-the-art theatre hall in 2009, the Stadsschouwburg is ready to serve as a theatre for the future.
The first Amsterdam theatre
In 1638 a wooden theatre, designed by Jacob van Campen, was opened in Keizersgracht. Joost van de Vondel wrote Gysbrecht van Aemstel, a piece that developed into the Dutch theatre classic, specifically for the opening. Since then 'De Gysbrecht' has been the traditional opening show of the the new year. Every resident of Amsterdam knows the show. Gysbrecht van Aemstel played uninterupted in Amsterdam for over 300 years, until this tradition came to an end in the wave of theatrical innovations in the 1960's. Three years ago Het Toneel Speelt and Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam revived the Gijsbrecht (now in a modern take!) to full glory.
On 11 May 1772 the first Amsterdam theatre burnt to the ground. To create more light on the scene the number of candles, which at that time was the only source of light, was doubled. Because of this the curtains took flame during one of the shows. 18 of the audience members died, as well as one fireman.
The new Stadsschouwburg on Leidseplein
A new theatre was opened on Leidseplein in 1774. This building was also created completely out of wood. In the period that Napoleons soldiers marched through Amsterdam the theatre changed names various times, and was known as the State, Royal and City theatre. Napoleon himself visited the theatre during his visit to the Netherlands in 1811. He saw Johanna Cornelia Ziesenis-Wattier perform, and called her 'the greatest actress of Europe'.
To avoid a noise nuisance from horses and carriages the theatre was given a stone outer wall in 1874. The facades were decorated with sculptures and gave the building a strict classical appearance. But this theatre also went up in flames. On 19 February 1890 a grand fireworks display on the Leidseplein led to a grandiose spectacle. Later that night the theatre turned into a large sea of fire. A smoldering firecracker was most probably the cause of the fire.
The current building
The Royal Society 'Het Nederlandsch Toneel' immediately took the initiative to rebuild, made possible with money from wealthy Amsterdammers. During this period it was believed that any respectable City, after all, had to have their own theatre. The architects A.L. van Gendt en J.L. en J.B. Springer designed a new stone theatre. The old classical facades were replaced by a neo-renaissance style facade. The new Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg opened on Leidseplein in 1894. This building is still there.
The many doors of the theater: an issue of rank and position
Originally the Stadsschouwburg had many different entrances. This was because every population group had its own position in the hall, consumed their interval drink in separate foyers, and therefore also entered the theater via their own entrances.
The main entrance in the center was exclusively for distinguished clientele. In front of this entrance there is a passage where the carriages used to be able to ride right up to the door. In the Rotunda, a round hall with mirrored walls, the distinguished folks waited after the show until their name was called by a guard, to inform them that their carriage had pulled up to the door.
Both other entrances were on the left and right of the centre entrance. These entrances were intended for the less influential public, and led to the second and third balcony, with only wooden chairs and standing spaces. To access the third balcony one had to ascend 88 stairs.
There were also three entrances in Marnix street. In addition to the still existing artists entrance, there was also an access to the so-called Paardenbrug, which was used to bring the horses to the theatre, and a Royal Entrance for Royal visits.
The hall and the public
The Great Hall was constructed in Baroque style and richly decorated with sculptures, ornaments and chandeliers. The edge of the first balcony holds the name of great playwrights. The hall is built in the shape of a horseshoe in court theatre style.
There were 900 seats. Today only 750 of these are used, the other places do not provide sufficient visibility of the scene. This was not really an issue back then, because it was not just about the performance, but to a large extent also the social life around it. A visit to the theatre, up to the 19th century, was a matter of 'see and be seen'. The horseshoe shape ensured that the public had a good view of not only the scene, but also the public. The best visible was the Royal family. The Royal Box, in the centre of the first balcony, was (and is) reserved for them when they visit the theatre.
Opposite the Royal Box was the Royal Foyer, formerly exclusively for Royal visits. It even had its own Royal toilet. Queen Wilhelmina however found this luxury unnecessary: she wanted to be a 'normal' spectator. Since then the crowns were removed from the balustrade of the box, as well as the Royal toilet.
There never used to be any seats in the hall itself. The public leaned against partitions which were placed on the floor. On the first balcony the boxes were mainly hidden from view. In these so-called 'boxes' the titled lords could enjoy the spectacle on the stage (and their other business) with their mistresses, away from prying eyes.
The behavior of the theatre audience has changed quite significantly since the 19th century. These days the public is expected to remain quiet. Back then this was very different: spectators ran in and out, talked, ate and drank during the performance. The public sometimes got so caught up in the game that they forget it was just a play. Spectators often interfered with what was happening on stage and shouted out loudly what they thought of a character. Especially the regular public who purchased cheap standing spaces on the third balcony (the Engelenbak or the schellinkje), were often noisy. A railing had to prevent the artists from being pelted and a police officer was necessary to maintain the order. Sometimes artists were even waited for outside or insulted and taunted.
The Stadsschouwburg and its artists
Since the opening in 1894 Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam is the most important theatre in the Netherlands. The Dutch Opera and The National Ballet, and invariably also the largest theatre company in the country - these days the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, used to be permanent artists.
With the arrival of Het Muziektheater in the Stopera the Ballet and Opera left the Stadsschouwburg and the theater company was the only remaining regular performer. The theatre also increasingly started heading in their own direction with (especially) theatrical performances, but also contemporary dance, musical theatre and theatre for children. No cabaret, no musicals: the offer may be a little more serious, thought provoking, stimulating.
The portrait gallery of the theatre holds various paintings and photos of all great Dutch actors and actresses who have graced the stage of the theatre throughout the centuries. However, in recent years the winners of the Theo d'Or and Louis d'Or, the most important Dutch acting awards, are presented with their own portrait.
The 21st century: innovation and a second hall
At the end of the 1980's the Stadsschouwburg appeared to be falling apart and the building was seen as an inaccessible fort. Before and after performances the doors remained closed and it was quiet in the theatre. The home company Toneelgroep Amsterdam also had a great need of a hall for their technologically advanced performances. Great plans were made: not only to build a new hall (between the theatre and the adjacent pop stage Melkweg), but also to open the doors of the theatre and turn it into a vibrant cultural meeting place.
After years of dreaming, plans, permits, building and breaking in 2009 the time had finally come: the new hall of the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, Toneelgroep Amsterdam and Melkweg opened, and the renovation of the front end of the theatre was ready. The New hall, the Rabo hall, was certainly no small one: it has a capacity of over 500 seats. The adjacent New Foyer hovers over Lijnbaansgracht, which makes for a spectacular view of the water. “Amsterdam is just gotten a little greater", says the Volkskrant.
With the new bar and the revamped program, the dust is gone and the theatre has become a bustling place.