DAMEN Magazine #5

A theatre for everyone in the heart of Gorinchem

Published in category: Heritage & Culture
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Theater Peeriscoop is situated on a quiet street in the heart of the historic fortress city of Gorinchem in the Netherlands, close to Damen’s headquarters. From the outside, the theatre building displays the 1920s Expressionism of the Amsterdam School of architecture. Inside, it is the showcase of one man’s dream.

The actor Fred Delfgaauw boasts a diverse CV and numerous awards. As the voice of many Dutch TV commercials, he is frequently to be heard in sitting rooms across the country. He is also the voiceover for the Netherlands’ version of any Disney animated character performed by Robin Williams, Jim Carrey or Woody Allen. At Theater Peeriscoop, and many other locations around the country, Fred is well known for performing his shows such as Wachtkamer van de liefde (the waiting room of love), with characterful puppets like Mevrouw Rauwbos.

Looking to new horizons

The theatre is named for Peer Gynt, the Norwegian play of which Fred is so fond. “I love how it’s about a boy in a grown-up’s world, and how disconnected he is from it.” But the meaning of the theatre’s name is dual: “It also refers to a periscope – a view finder, something that helps people to see the horizon, even when submerged. That’s the message of theatre, of culture; you can break through and look to new horizons.”

Theater Peeriscoop is housed in an Amsterdam School architectural style
The theatre is housed in an old school designed in the Amsterdam School architectural style.

Fred’s dream was a straightforward one: he wanted to create a theatre for everyone. A place where people could come to access culture and be entertained, yes, but also somewhere fledgling talent could find the support it needed to succeed. In realising his dream, Fred has left no stone unturned: his hallmark is to be found on every detail of Theater Peeriscoop’s lavish interior. Take the bar, for example. No conventional wooden-topped glass rest, this eye-catching feature is capped with thousands of Dutch stuivers – an old coin obsolete since the introduction of the euro in 2002.

“My father used to save these coins for my brother and me when we were young. When I came to make the bar, I had lots left and I figured it would make a good feature. I didn’t realise until after we started that

I only had enough to get this far,” he says, pointing a quarter of the way along the bar. “At the same time, the euro was coming in and everyone was taking these coins to the bank to get rid of them. I was the only person who was actually looking for them.”

But look for them he did and in time he found enough of them to fill the bar – some 24,000 coins. The energy exerted in seeking out the missing currency is typical of Fred’s approach to the theatre in general. If his dream came true, it’s because Fred made sure it did.

“I worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 1 year. It was the most beautiful time of my life. Focusing exclusively on one thing, dedicating my mind to it and each day seeing the results unfold before my eyes.It was very peaceful.”

Without culture, life is empty.

Collaborative spirit…

Of course, Fred also received a lot of support. To fulfill his ambitions, he tirelessly sought out the people who could help him to bring the dream to reality – and who could benefit from having a theatre such as this in their vicinity. “It had to be this way. There was no money available. One of the things I am most proud of is that this theatre is what it is because of the efforts of those who believe in it; it has never received a cent in government subsidy.”

As you walk through the main entrance, one of the first things you see is a row of bricks, each one bearing a plaque naming a person or business that has provided support to the theatre. “In the Netherlands we have a saying about working together,” Fred explains. “‘Iedereen draagt zijn eigen steentje bij’ (everyone brings his own stone). Here, this is literal.”

… Every step of the way

The results of this collaborative spirit are everywhere at Theater Peeriscoop, but the ornate balustrading of the staircase is a fine example. “I went to a blacksmith’s forge in Leerdam,” states Fred, getting up and making his way over to the steps. “I outlined my vision for the staircase to him and he agreed he would help me get it off the ground – he would work with me for 1 day on it.”

The wall of fame featuring gifts, offered to the theatre over the years
The wall of fame featuring gifts, offered to the theatre over the years.

Fred demonstrates the custom nature of the elegant staircase as he talks, walking down the steps, his hands resting on the perfectly spaced balustrades and over the raised ends with a flourish; perfect for a theatrical entrance. “He came here and he started the job and he loved what we were doing so much he stayed the whole week,” Fred continues. “He still comes here now to see what he calls ‘our work’.” The culture that residents of Gorinchem have access to via the theatre is diverse – in keeping with Fred’s vision of something for everyone. In addition to Fred and his puppets, the theatre features a range of musical acts and cabaret performances.

The proving ground

To many performers, Theater Peeriscoop is the first step on the ladder to success. “We let performers use the theatre to prove themselves. People, for example, who cannot access the education they need to make it as a performer. We help them put together a show – the education they receive is a practical one. We get professional people to come here – with a wide range of different skills and we put together a show, and we play it for a year. The young actors can make some money from this, a share of which they return to the theatre. It’s a win-win situation.” The theatre has created four such shows and is now working on the fifth. Via these performances, a number of prominent Dutch performers – some of whom are now to be seen regularly gracing the nation’s TV screens – have made their debut. Similarly, a number of well known acts, debut new performances at the theatre to test them in front of a live audience.

The staircase incorporating the elegant balustrading of Feed's vision
The staircase incorporating the elegant balustrading of Fred’s vision.

“Gorinchem has actually been called ‘the most average city in the Netherlands’. That’s not meant in a negative way, just that the city is a good representation of the country as a whole. That being the case, we are perfectly positioned here to serve as the proving ground for the nation’s entertainment.”

Up close & personal

For some, a visit to Theater Peeriscoop is an opportunity to see their favourite act up close. “Performing or watching a performance here is very personal, the act takes places right in front of a relatively small audience of 150 people.”

This can sometimes be a little surprising for visitors who find themselves face to face with their idols. “We once featured a performance by Mike Stern (formerly jazz guitarist with Miles Davis), which brought a number of people here from the UK. They loved it! They were used to seeing him play in packed concert halls, not in a venue such as this where they were so close to the action.”

So close in fact, that many of the acts join their audience in the bar after a show for a drink – something that is of benefit to the performer as well as the audience. “It gives them a chance to get direct feedback which they would often miss out on at a larger venue.”

Builder of bridges

Fred has received a knighthood in acknowledgement of the work he has done in building bridges between the worlds of culture and business. Not only were a number of local businesses instrumental in helping Fred to get the theatre up and running at the outset, many continue to provide support for its operation to this very day. “It’s such a good thing when companies can see the value of culture,” Fred opines. “Without them, this would be impossible. It’s black and white.”

Amongst the local institutions supporting the theatre, is Damen. “Damen has been there from the start and has always been a very loyal, very supportive friend of the theatre,” states Fred before going on to explain the nature of the relationship. “We have similar interests. A company that has so many employees in the city wants to know that these people are happy living here. Damen realises that the happiness of its employees is in everyone’s best interests. In this, Damen is a leading example to other companies in the area.”

Fred Delfgaauw with dog on staircase in theatre
Fred and the blacksmith are not the only ones fond of the staircase; it is also the favorite resting place of Fred’s Dalmatian dog, Meis – from the Dutch word meisje, meaning ‘girl’.

Mrs Josien Damen, who has known Fred for a considerable time, 3 years ago joined the theatre’s advisory board. She agrees with Fred, saying, “We will take care that our employees are happy in their work, but outside, in their private time, it is equally important that they have access to a good environment in which they can socialise and where there is culture.

“Without culture, life is empty. We want to take care of cultural life – that is why we invest in culture in Gorinchem and a key example of that is Theater Peeriscoop.”

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