Transcript of Wende talks to Simon Stephens
Transcript of Simon Stephens speaks to Wende on the Royal Court Theatre’s Playwright’s Podcast. Click here to listen.
Released Friday 6 August 2021
Welcome to a special edition of the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast with me Simon Stephens recording at home and over the internet and during the summer school holidays (as you will definitely hear!) – a conversation with Dutch singer songwriter, composer and performer Wende.
It’s one of the anomalies of the United Kingdom’s position as an island nation that not only does it seem to me to assume that every other country in the world is spending most of its time looking on with fascination at what is happening here, but it rarely pays any attention to what is happening anywhere else. There are few arenas where this is more clear than in the performing arts.
Throughout the past twenty years the ignorance that British theatre makers have for theatre that is being made throughout the world, or that British playwrights have for what is happening in international playwriting, has struck me again and again. It reminds me of British attitude to food in the 70s or to football in the 80s. It’s not real theatre. It’s weird foreign muck.
In recent years I have become aware that the same applies to music. The artist who brought the myopic nature of the British musical world most clearly to my awareness is the startling Dutch singer, songwriter, performer and composer Wende Snijders.
I’d never heard of Wende, as she is publicly known, when I started writing a series of songs with her and for her to perform in the last years of the last decade. The extent of her status, the level of her success was unknown to me. For twenty years Wende has been one of the most celebrated singers and performers in the whole of Europe.
She released her first album in 2004 as a graduate from the Amsterdam Theatre School. A collection of celebrated French Chansons supported by the Metropole Orchestra. The following seventeen years have seen her release nine more albums and tour the continent to sold-out audiences. She has sold out runs at Amsterdam’s astonishing Carré theatre. She has plundered the European songbook with force and drama and brilliance. She has released haunting electronica. She has performed a compelling version of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise.
Her voice is graced with a haunting soul and yearning. It evokes Kate Bush to me or PJ Harvey or Róisín Murphy or Courtney Barnett but is also touched with a more historical legacy. By the spirit of Édith Piaf, perhaps of Lotte Lenya.
In 2019 she debuted a remarkable exploration of the form of songwriting in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. In a piece of work that she co-conceived with Designer and Royal Court Associate Chloe Lamford she gave the first iteration of The Song Project. Working with playwrights E.V. Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson and in collaboration with composer Isobel Waller-Bridge and choreographer Imogen Knight, Wende explored the possibility that there are some ideas that couldn’t be dramatised, that couldn’t be articulated in speech or dialogue but that could, in fact, only be sung.
It was a visceral forceful evening. She performed The Song Project, like she performs all of her work with a startling tenderness and savagery and wit. She is a creature of the theatre in her metabolism as much as her training and she brings that theatricality to every moment of her work. The evening is a celebration of light over darkness, of hope over fear, of the mess and beauty of the human body. It sings with feminism and physicality. It’s coming back to the Theatre Downstairs this summer 2021.
It is a real pleasure to welcome her here on this special one-off episode of the Royal Court Playwright’s podcast.
Wende, welcome back to the Royal Court mate!
Thank you so much. Oh my god, you and words. Thank you so much for this generosity.
I didn’t even need to lie about any of it! How are you?
Wende: I’m good, I’m good. I am in quarantine now in London and I’m really happy to be back. I think it was the 13th or the 14th of March when I was in London last year, and then my manager called me because I was recording. I was rehearsing for The Song Project because we were opening in May 2020. He called me and said “You have to come back to Holland because the borders are going to close”, I was like, “What are you saying, don’t be crazy.” I’ve come back, so it’s really nice. It feels like I’m picking up where I left off and I’m happy.
Simon Stephens: It’s one of the strangest experiences, as we come out of the last 18 months (at least for now) the kind of oddity of seeing somebody you’ve not seen, since before the start of the pandemic, or doing something that you’ve not done, since before the start of the pandemic, and it feels weirdly normal. Like it’s barely been interrupted. It’s really odd to me.
Wende: True. I have to say, though, I haven’t been able to perform for a long time. Then in July, so a month ago, I could finally do a project that was postponed and it was with an orchestra with 22 strings. We were rehearsing that, and to be in a room with 22 strings, like true legends. I just couldn’t sing, I was crying the whole time… so unprofessional (laughter). I mean, because this vibe, this energy, of being with people who make music, and then to be able to perform it. I was in Royal Theater Carré, and for the first time there were 1200 people watching, because they had been tested. I was coming onstage, I saw all these people together, and we started making music again. After the first song, I started crying, I thought, jeez, I look like these American people who start crying after one song and then do that for 12 minutes. It really was such a cathartic experience, Because I kind of felt what I’ve been suppressing for a year and three months, I’ve been like, “Okay, well, so this is a new situation. So well, let’s go on.” And then finally, when we were on stage, it all came up, it really didn’t feel like normal at all. But then by day two, it was business as usual. That’s how quick it goes on.
Simon Stephens: It’s a really beautiful story. I normally start these conversations with exactly the same question – I always say, I’m going to start with the same question and indeed, I am going to start with the same question for you. Which is, when was the first time, that you ever went to the theatre?
Wende: I think I was four, I lived in Indonesia then, my father was a civil engineer. They took us to this dance show. It’s not really theatre, right? But I mean, I don’t have many memories of when I was young, but I do have this memory very vividly that they were dancers, It was really beautiful and all the gamelan. Do you call it like that in England?
Simon Stephens: I don’t know that word.
Wende: It’s an instrument, nevermind. It’s beautiful, anyway there were all these dancers and the at the end of the show, they said, ‘if somebody from the audience wants to dance too, come on stage”, and I jumped from where I was, and really ran, I didn’t even ask my parents. I was like “Yeah, me, I’m gonna dance!” I just danced – it was so much fun. Now with all the iPhones and we have a million pictures a day of our kids and we never look at them. I don’t have any pictures of that. So I’m just having that in my memory that that was my first experience with theatre. My mother took us a lot to music. I think, the first thing was a musical. It could even be Les Misérables.
Simon Stephens: It’s your accurate French pronunciation – it’s what we English call Les Miserables. Where would that have been? Would that have been in Indonesia? Or would that have been when you were in Holland?
Wende: Les Misérables was in Holland.
Simon Stephens: Wow, that’s so amazing. Cause you were born actually born in England. Is that right?
Wende: I was born in Beckenham. Yes, my father was working on the Thames – Tims? Thames? Potatoe/potato. I had a brother two years older, and of course a mother, and she was pregnant with me. And they were living in Beckenham. I was three weeks early.
When I was rehearsing and making the show for the Royal Court in 2019, I went back to the place where I was born and I tried to find the road. I asked my mother “Where did we live? Where did we live?” She was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know”. She can be a bit chaotic and then she’d sent me my baby book pictures. I then went into a street and all these houses looked alike. I was really, trying to find it – is it this house, that house? There were three houses on the end of the road. I made a selfie with myself by that house and then I went home. Oh, no, I bought socks there. Because I thought my father put me on the earth there, so I should have socks from there to walk on the ground where he put me. So then I went home to Holland, and I looked in the baby book and on the birth card is the address where I lived. So it’s like, Mom…. Jesus!
Simon Stephens: Was it the right house? Did you take the selfie outside the right one?
Simon Stephens: Oh, no! You’re gonna have to go back this month. It’s lucky they sold socks on the street that you were born. That’s very metaphorically useful, isn’t it?
Wende: No, I just went to the street where they sold socks.
Simon Stephens: Okay. Do you have any memory of living in England?
Wende: No, I came back to Holland when I was two.
Simon Stephens: Right, I’m always interested in the relationship between artists and immigrants or émigrés, or whatever that notion of being dislocated, from a place from which you were born and then raised.
Wende: Why are you interested in that?
Simon Stephens: I think that it’s really connected. I think artists see the world from the position as of an outsider. I always think, you know, both of us living in London and Amsterdam, cities, which are defined by tourism. The tourist in both cities is often – especially English tourists in Amsterdam- is often really insulted and a subject of just kind of mockery. But I think a good artist will kind of see the world with the same perspective or astonishment that a tourist does. I like to think of myself as a tourist everywhere I go.
Wende: It’s the best sense of trying to see the world. I think that it’s good. So I was born in England, then I went to Holland for three months in a village and then I went for 10 months to Samaran, then four months to Jakarta, and then three months to Holland and then three years to West Africa, and then back to Holland. There is a nice thing about it, because you can be quite detached from where you are, but there’s also a negative thing about that, as you’re quite detached too. So I sometimes don’t have the feeling of home in a way, which is weird, because I’ve been living for 22 years in Amsterdam. I have these people around me that say, “I want to be buried here” and then I’m like, “Whoa, interesting, I don’t have that feeling as much.”
Simon Stephens: That sense of finding a place where you want to return to the earth.
Wende: Yeah, and that you’re grounded somewhere.
Simon Stephens: Have you always sung? I mean, the way you talk about that story, of your first theatrical experience….
Wende: Yeah, I’ve been gifted with, how do you call it, tunnel vision? They say that I was whistling when I was a baby. So when I was one, I was whistling. Then I wanted to be a dancer when I was four. There’s this interesting story, that I thought I had this religious epiphany, listening to Kate Bush when I was 11. Listening to The Man With The Child In His Eyes, and then having this total certainty that I’m going to be a singer, and that’s what I’m going to be. I pursued it in one big arrow until now, I’m 42 and I’m still like, that is what I’m doing. I’m making shows and I’m singing songs. Once when I was performing, I went to the lobby, and then a woman came to me and she said, “I was 18 when you were six, when we were in Africa.” She was at the American Embassy, and we went every two weeks to the American Embassy, because they had a swimming pool to swim in. Then she said, “You always wanted to go up to my room, and not swim, but listen to the records of Kate Bush, because I had all the records of Kate Bush” and I was like, nah. And she said, “Yeah, that’s what you did”. So I have this made-up memory that when I was 11, and have like sense of I know where I was, I know what weather it was, I know what I was wearing, I know how I listened to it – and then it’s all no, it’s a different memory. You were six, and I don’t have any memory of that.
Simon Stephens: That’s really beautiful. It might be that there was something as an 11 year old that was kindled from before your cognitive memories state, where you were in some way reminded, of what you’re like as a pre-cognitive child, you’re reminded of listening to Kate Bush. I’m just really pleased that I got Kate Bush in the introduction without having talked to you about Kate Bush.
Wende: Bette Midler and Kate Bush were my first loves. So in Africa we had two tapes, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. So I had a Julie Andrews overdose, I love her. But I mean, she was also part of the love… and hate afterwards.
Simon Stephens: Was your commitment to a life in song and being a singer, was that something your parents supported or encouraged? Or were they just baffled by it? Or what? How did they react to this commitment, this zeal that you were going to be a singer?
Wende: I don’t know. It was really natural. They didn’t say anything about it. My mother has a story that when she was 18, she wanted to go to theatre school. Her mother said no, because that’s just not what we do, as I don’t know, whatever family-tree etiquette or whatever. She was really hurt by that. She also had a younger niece, and when the niece was 18, she said, “I want to go to art school”, and then my mother’s mother said, “Oh, don’t be ridiculous.” My mother said to her niece, “You are going to art school, you have to!” So she really pushed her into art school. I think when she saw I was pursuing creative things, she just thought, “Yeah, let’s go.” My father was a bit oblivious. He’s also from that generation of men not really paying attention and just trying to keep us all safe, but not really knowing what’s going on. My mother was dragging him to every performance I ever did – he loved me, but he wasn’t really overenthusiastic… but he wasn’t against it. So that was really good. The first song I ever performed, that I can really remember, was Kate Bush, The Man With The Child In His Eyes. I can also remember, I was really sick and nauseous and so nervous.
Simon Stephens: Where did you perform The Man With The Child in his Eyes?
Wende: In school. I think it’s really interesting, as everything around it was already really important to me… what was I wearing? What were the words? What was I trying to tell? I was already very much into the theatre of performing a song, really the storytelling of music. Because I also have friends that are more into pop music and their parents brought them to club venues. It was more about going to rock bands, but with me already, it was about the singing of songs, it was always about telling a story, with words, on music.
Simon Stephens: Right? Right. You trained?
Wende: Yeah, trying to make a theatrical performance out of it.
Simon Stephens: I think that’s really compelling, every time I’ve ever seen you perform, even sat at the piano, there’s a kind of theatricality to the way you play.
Wende: Yeah, it’s not really something I thought of, but It just happened. My mother told me the story from her perspective too. When I was 11 and I started to discover songs, and went to a record store you, when you bought a CD, you also got another CD with songs that you could discover, this was before Spotify or anything. So you discovered them like that, and then I heard a song and I thought, “this is amazing, I’m gonna study that song and I’m gonna perform it for my mother.” I went downstairs and then I said, “I have a song, I have to perform for you”. It was the song Cocaine from Randy Newman. I didn’t know what it meant, but I really was into it, singing “got some cocaine from a friend” and my mother was listening, and she said, “Yeah, that’s really well-performed, maybe that’s something for later…”
Simon Stephens: You went to Theatre School in Amsterdam, is that right?
Wende: True, when I was 19. I also did audition for the conservatoire, but I couldn’t read notes and I couldn’t read anything. I didn’t even know you had to be able to do that. So I just went into the audition but they didn’t let me in. Then I also did an audition for the Dramatic School of Arts and I got hired. I wasn’t really good in school. I was a bit overwhelmed coming to Amsterdam. I mean, I wasn’t brought up in a very creative, artistic environment. Everybody was studying law or medicine, you know, it was a bit like everybody was playing tennis and hockey. It was nice, there were a lot of trees, but there was also a lot of prejudice towards artists, or to be an artist. So I came there, and everybody wanted to be an artist. I really just forgot that actually I wanted to be a singer, and it took me five years to remember it.
Simon Stephens: So why don’t I unpack that story a little bit more. You were living in Holland, but not in Amsterdam. You’re living whereabouts in Holland?
Wende: Zeist, which is a little village, just a village. With trees and shit. So a bit of keeping up appearances.
Simon Stephens: Okay. Yeah, we have similar villages in England as well.
Wende: Yeah, I can Imagine. They have them everywhere
Simon Stephens : All over the world!
Wende: You have them everywhere. Right?
Simon Stephens: Exactly.
Wende: That village is called Instagram now! So I was there from nine and a half until 18.
Simon Stephens: That must have been quite a cultural change, coming out of West Africa into a village in Holland, as a nine year old. That’s quite a dislocating experience in itself.
Wende: Yeah, it was pretty weird, it was for me, it was weird. But for the children, me coming there was also weird, because they already had their group. I was used to speaking French all the time, because I was in the French part of Africa, in a French school. So I was also very used to having a very mixed environment. It wasn’t like this posh international school, people were coming from everywhere. I was there with people speaking Portuguese and Arabic too. My best friend came from Uruguay. Before that, I lived in Indonesia, and went to an American school, so for me to come to this very, how do you say, heteronomous? Also the clothes you wore, and the job your father did, was quite important. I kind of tagged along and tried to survive in a way. Then when I was 15, I got this friend who was so weird, in a good way. She didn’t give up, she just dragged me out of that thing, and she really taught me that I can be anything that I want and be bit brave about it.
Simon Stephens: Are you still friends with her now?
Wende: No, I think she lives in Japan or something. I don’t know.
Simon Stephens: Then you went from Zeist to Amsterdam. Which must have been another kind of disruption, another culture shock, another dislocation and that was what you were talking about. I’m interested in the experience of moving from the countryside to the city, as well as the experience of going into the theatre school, where everybody assumes that you want to be an artist. How did you find Amsterdam?
Wende: We were all thinking that we were God’s gift, 700 Billie Eilish-es. That’s not true actually, … god that woman is talented. I can’t get over her album, by the way. I wasn’t born with any feeling of orientation, so I couldn’t find my way in that city for quite some time. I can remember the first day I went to school, and I asked directions from a junkie, who was completely out of his mind, I was like, “Excuse me? Do you know the way to…?” There were no iPhones with Google Maps. He was like, “What are you asking of me?” Then I remembered I asked, “I need to buy some toilet paper? Do you know where I can get that?” He was like, “What are you? Alien, go away, go back to the farm you were born in.” I just survived on a bike and going all the time in the wrong direction. It was fun, I guess. But I was a bit scared. I now have a friend, she’s 20 and she came to live in Amsterdam nine months ago. She, even with COVID, she knew where the party was and where the fun was and all these things. I remember that I was in Amsterdam, having this little space, 1×1, and just reading all the time, I was just reading and reading, and going to school. It was quite interesting because we we had no chairs or tables, there were all empty spaces with mirrors, where you had to like discover yourself and pull your character down and then build it up again. All these things. It really tore me up a bit, and it was really good but at that time, I felt horrible, like horrible.
Simon Stephens: Were you training to sing or training to act? Or was it a course that included all of those different elements?
Wende: Oh, all the different elements. It was quite immersive. I was doing tap dance and flamenco dance and I was doing modern dance. I was doing the repertoire of singing, that means you take a song, like from Brecht, or you know from The Song Book of Holland or Cole Porter or whatever. Then you get lessons on how you perform a song but you also get the training in music and choir singing and you get acting classes and you also get a history of of theatre. It was really, actually really, great, When I think about it, it was…
Simon Stephens: Extraordinary. Such a great training.
Wende: Yeah, also we were like eight people in one class. We were spoiled. I mean, we had 20 teachers teaching us and we had 80 or 70 hours a week in school. I started drinking when I was 25, I mean, seriously.
Simon Stephens: Such rigorous work. You’re working so hard.
Wende: Yeah and then I really was trying to discover who I was and what I was doing. It was really good because I was so sure that I came in there as a singer. Then in five years, that blurred and I got into this pool of choices, artistically. I came out actually, I remember in the fourth year, because it was four years, and I had to redo the first year. So after five years, I remember going into the office of the artistic director and I sat down and I said, “I know what I’m going to be, I’m going to be a singer. I’m going to make my own shows, I’m going to tour and that’s what I’m going to do.” So…
Simon Stephens : I love that story that you went into it with that certainty that you’ve had since you heard Kate Bush for the second time in your life, when you’re 11 years old and you then decided you’re going to be a singer. Then you went into this kind of vortex of dismantling your sense of self, really losing all confidence about who the fuck you were, and then you come out the end of it. You’re going to be a singer. Something really beautiful about that, it’s a really great story.
Wende: It really is, this is my cycle. I mean, from the moment I was 20 to 20 years later, I have the same cycle all the time. I dismantle myself. I get into projects. I go to Berlin to do electronica music. I completely, like get lost in everything. Then like after a year, I’m like, I am a singer, I’m making new songs, It’s crazy.
Simon Stephens: That’s really fascinating that return to continually reinventing yourself as a singer.
Wende: And actually, you could say, I’m just curious, do you have that same experience, as a writer?
Simon Stephens: I think it was really interesting, I was really interested in something you said, right at the beginning, which is kind of saying, “I’m good at one thing:. You know, I think that’s completely the same with me. I can write and specifically, I’m actually not very good at writing for television, or not very good around film. I can write for theatre, that’s all I can do. I can’t fucking change a light bulb. I’m not that bad at swimming. I’m quite good at swimming and I’m not always terrible as a father. But fundamentally, I just write plays.
Wende: What is the difference between writing for TV and writing for theatre?
Simon Stephens: The liveness, the liveness that we’re in the same room, we’re just in the same room as each other. You know, when you talked about seeing 1200 people in the Carré theatre for the first time, that miracle. The miracle of the possibility of the assembly of strangers, and the fact that you can take 1000 people and they can share an experience together. I find that really profound. I think it feels almost like a religious thing for me. I’m not a religious person, I’m quite a secular thinker. A quiet, scientific thinker, but that possibility is touched with a spirit of faith, I think for me.
Wende: Yeah I agree.
Simon Stephens: When you left the theatre academy, your career started incredibly quickly, right. I mean, you you made your first album how long after out of university? And how the hell did you do that? Did you just tell the artistic director, “I’ve got to be a singer” and he’s like, “Okay, I’ll call my mate, he can record an album.” What happened? How did you get your first album?
Wende: It was crazy, when I think about it. I just worked like a dog.
It’s crazy because I was so sure. I was also very excited about the possibility of magic. So what you’re saying about coming together and experiencing something and being able to create that and to share that, for me, that gave me such a boost of energy. When I finally thought yeah, I’m gonna make a show. I was really determined, I’m really pragmatic about it also. Like okay, so I need songs, I need arrangements, I need musicians, I need a website, What do I need? Where do I need to go? I need to move quickly. Now, before it just slips all out of my fingers and I get lazier. So, I don’t know, I was of course, afraid of death, like we all are in some ways. Then I had also during my time at school, they call it études. Etudes are something you do for 10 minutes, and then you just try something out, you try out theatre making, I was very privileged to know the French language because I had lived in Africa. Everybody was singing kind of the same iconic songs and I was like, “Yes, I can go into the library into the French section and I can understand all these beautiful poetic existential words from chansons from the 50s and the 60s.” The amazing repertoire that is found there, like the songs Piaf has sung, Juliette Gréco, Léo Ferré, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Charles Aznavour, and I wasn’t really aware of the fact that there was this nostalgia hanging on to it or that there was this a bit of, maybe even conventionality about it, or something conservative about it. I just thought “Wow, all the songs are about loneliness, about death, about war and about love, in a very deep way. Not just, I’m hurt because somebody broke up with me. No, it’s really like, there’s depth to this feeling of what it is to be a human and to experience love and to lose it. Those were all there, I could understand them. So I thought, I’m gonna use the classes and sing these songs, and that was a big success. I kind of thought, “I’m bad at everything, really.” You can see my reports and they are horrible. They’re literally like “We don’t know what to do with you.” So, I was like, this is the only thing I should be doing.Then I thought, okay, if I’m gonna make shows, I’m gonna make, conceptually, a show of 90 minutes with the French chansons of the fake 50s in the 60s, and then I made it. Well, I’m not gonna bore you with the whole story, but I became such a success. I was quite startled by it. Also, because I didn’t know there was this whole community that kind of was like, “Oh, there’s this girl of 22 who is singing the great iconic songs in perfect French. What is this”, so it was quite interesting in a way. I had this naive conception that everybody understood the French. So everybody was listening to 90 minutes of a girl singing French and I felt really connected. Then slowly and gradually, I found out, that a lot of people were there because they were thinking of their second house in France, they liked the baguette, and they liked the “da-da-da” and the “tra-la-la” and the gauloises was like, “No, man, this is about now”. So I was really grateful for the success and I could really get a signature, get my training hours of performing. I think for young people, it’s very very important to just perform, perform, perform, perform. But after a while, after three years or four years, I was like, “No, man, this is going to stop”. I just closed the door on all the French songs on chansons said “I’m never ever going to do that again” and I wrote my own songs, I went into the clubs and tried pop music. That was a bit less successful, but for me it was huge, a huge success. Because I discovered a whole new way of being a singer.
Can we talk about writing for you? What were your first memories, or your first attempts to write your own songs? What kind of writers were you drawing on for inspiration? And how did it go? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy writing? You’re writing in Dutch or are you writing in English or in French, what language are you writing in?
Wende: I wrote a song when I was 13 called Rip the Ribbon. That was a song that I was going to take off everything that I’ve ever known. A lot of songs that I write are about transformation. You know, my name Wende in Dutch means turning around.
Simon Stephens: I didn’t you know that.
Wende: Die Wand in German is the falling of the wall, 1989, I was born already, but it’s all about taking down walls and trying to transfer. When I was 13, of course I was not so deep. Still I write a lot about trying to see, look into the mirror and find where I’m following my inhibitions and where I cherish what I am and have, but what I need to tear down to have a broad perspective about what life is. I think also when I was a kid, and coming into Zeist, and then seeing that everybody had this one truth about what life was – trees and tennis. I came from a world which was totally different. I still have this urge to go into all these different worlds – modern classical music into electronic music into pop music into singer songwriting and chansons. Just singing these things all the time to tell all these worlds there are different truths everywhere and we have to pay attention to that. I write in English and Dutch.
Simon Stephens: Does it feel very different writing in the two different languages? Could you describe what the difference is?
Wende: Well, now I’ve worked with the writers – I’ve been writing with you and I’ve been writing with playwrights, and the writers in the Royal Court. Before that I was writing in English, and now I’m a bit ashamed actually… I mean, the depth that you can bring into language because it is your language. I will still write in English, but I’m a bit more humble about it than I was.
Simon Stephens: Because there are other advantages as well to writing in a second language. I’m sure, I think the lyrics for The Song Project have a really profound depth to them. The depth that comes out of writing in your first language, but you know, I’m haunted by the way Samuel Beckett, for example, would always write in French. Because he wrote his first draft of a lot of his plays in French, because he cherished the kind of clarity that the dislocation of writing in a second language gave him, he was able to think more scientifically, because he wasn’t just coming out of his soul. He was coming out of a different side of his mind. And I wonder if that’s like writing in English for you?
Wende: Well also, it’s much easier to to write, I love you or Je t’aime than it is to write Ik hou van jou. I can feel it when I say it. When I’m performing, performing better in French, I had to really, really, really train to perform in Dutch. I couldn’t. I have been doing it lately, really extensively, in the last five years. Before that, I felt it was so awkward to perform in Dutch, I’d rather do it in English than in French. It’s easier. But I’m so curious how singing I love you feels for an English person to sing? Is it the same as for me to sing that same thing? Or write that same thing in Dutch? Or is I love you a bit less? Has a bit less weight? Because it’s culturally? I don’t know, are English people throwing around I love yous a lot?
Simon Stephens: I think traditionally, conventionally, it’s perceived, that emotional access is something that’s very difficult for English people. I’m not sure if that’s still necessarily true. What I’m thinking though, is just that phrase, I love you. It doesn’t only articulate with kind of simplicity and directness, what a feeling of one person for another person. It also evokes 100 years of songwriting, or kind of 100 years of cinema. So when you tell somebody you love them, you’re kind of also quoting John Lennon and Paul McCartney, or Elvis Presley or something, because that language is so soaked in 100 years of songwriting.
Wende: Interesting but I also think it’s really interesting to know, because your introduction was actually brilliant and true. The other way around is the same thing, I mean, we are listening to a lot of English and a lot of American language all at the time. So for us to sing I love you has a different meaning, than for an English or an American person to sing. Because for us, I’m quite anxious to do The Song Project in Holland, because the moment people start singing in English, there is this laziness of listening. When people start singing in Holland, in German, or in French, or in Dutch, they start listening. English, because it’s this radio mode where everybody starts vacuum cleaning, or just doing their dishes. I was also a bit surprised when I came into The Royal Court, as people were actually really listening to the lyrics and in Holland when there’s English, they just don’t really.
Simon Stephens: How did The Song Project start?
Wende: Well, it started actually with you. I mean, I came to get to know you, which was wonderful. Then we were working together on the project I was doing Holland, and then this question came out, that I felt really alone writing everything myself. I really wanted to know how it would be if I worked together with people who did that for a living and were born with this religious epiphany as well. Then I asked you, “What if you didn’t have a play but a song?” And I’ve been doing that in Holland too. I’ve been asking writers of literature, “What if you didn’t have book but a song?”, and from there came came a show. Chloe Lamford was doing the set design there, and she’s a brilliant person, she’s wonderful woman, she does a lot of opera and theatre, and she’s really theatre royalty. She is an associate of the Royal Court and said, “Well, you know, The Royal Court is the place, where there’s contemporary writing, and we have this huge network of writers, wouldn’t it be fun if we asked writers, what if you didn’t have play but a song? And then we make a show out of that at The Royal Court? And I said yes but I didn’t have the connections. So we started working on that.
I had another thing, I had always been working with men, not as a statement per se, it was just what happened and then we thought, wouldn’t it be fun to see what happens. – not like in the themes – but just how is it to work with women? How is that? Then we were working and we found a group with Somalia Nonyé Seaton and Stef Smith, Sabrina Mahfouz, E.V. Crowe and Debris Stevenson, all these different kinds of voices in the theatre world and have a conversation and just ask the same question, that I asked you, what if you didn’t have a play? But a song? What could we write and from that came The Song Project. I was working with Isobel Waller-Bridge, making the songs, and I was going on and off to London. It was this pressure cooker, it was insane. It was like psychosis, trying to write these 20 songs or something, it was crazy, crazy. Out of that, we had a bunch of songs, we had like this huge material of beautiful words, words, words, and we made 20 songs and those are The Song Project.
Simon Stephens: When I wrote with you, I delivered text to you as though it was almost kind of a poem on a page to be read. There was this remarkable and for me profoundly moving transposition, where you would take something that I’d written down in words on a page, and then the next thing you would send me would be you singing these words, and you imbued them with life, and musicality, and it was profoundly moving. I really cherished that. Was that the same process for the playwrights, they delivered you text as though they were writing poetry? And you and Isobel found the music? So first of all, did you speak to them altogether? Or did you speak to them individually on one-on-one conversations?
Wende: Well, first, I want to say yes, it was mutual, I really found it a very profound experience, being able to talk to you about it. Really the first process, which is going to be I think, a lifelong process now because I love collaborating, with you and people that are truly gifted with turning life into words. And having the conversation about what is a song actually. What is the chorus? What is the verse? What’s the bridge? What’s rhythm, what’s rhyme? And then how to curate themes and how to ask you or the writers like what is really moving? What would you like to be sung, what is very important for you to have sung right now? It can be very simple, it can be very profound. If it’s profound, we have to acknowledge the fact that it’s not a book and it’s not a poem. People are in a room listening to it directly. We can’t have sentences that are so complicated, that everybody could raise their hand and I’d singing and they can think about that sentence. Paul Simon, Nick Cave, David Byrne, Kae Tempest, are all examples of people who are truly gifted in having very deep poetry but also being very communicative too. so the first thing we did, Isobel and me, was having them in the room to kind of say, we’re good people, we’ve made songs already out of texts, from them little shards of words. Stef Smith made a play and I made a song out of that. I wanted to show them instead of talking about it, show them. So this is what I could do with a song and you have to be open to the fact, that I’m gonna copy, paste, and play with them. For me, it’s very uninteresting to get a text and then say thank you and write a song. It’s like you’re going into into the ring with each other and you’re trying to find this language and this song, this music, that is really a collaboration. We started talking about songs and about themes. They had one day to write lyrics, this was the first workshop we did which was one week. After one day, they sent us lyrics and in two days, we made songs out of all these lyrics.
Simon Stephens: Wow.
Wende: That was crazy. I agree. really.
Simon Stephens: Really, all done in a week?
Wende: Yeah, I was in the hospital after that in Amsterdam. There was one or two songs that we thought, “ah this is a lead”. I don’t work conceptually as in, “Okay, so this show is going to be about death or loneliness.” No, it’s going to be like, “We’re gonna have one lead and then we’re gonna follow a path, then in the end, the show is going to show itself to us.”
Simon Stephens: That’s beautiful.
Wende: I bluffed also because I kind of said everything is going to be alright. Just trust me, they were like, “Okay. Oh, my God. I don’t know if this is going to be” but it did. Actually the show is really generous but I mean, it takes work right, Chloe Lamford, she curated a lot of things and Isobel and I were thinking like, if this song is here, then we would need something that juxtaposes
Simon Stephens: Yeah juxtaposition.
Wende: Now we need to have this. If there is a love song, shouldn’t we have a curse? If we have something about generation and intergenerational things like the things I got from my mother and grandmother, shouldn’t we also have a song about what we want to give to the future? In our collaboration, not every piece of text is used in the song. So you can write 15 lyrics, and then two, out of that, are the right ones. That doesn’t mean the 13 other lyrics are bad, but they are in another world. They’ll come back, I have had songs that I’ve sang after 10 years, because that was the right moment. I’ve really had to explain that not everything that has been written with heart and love will be used. It was what came out of it.
Simon Stephens: And was Isobel Waller-Bridge, composing the music with you. How were you two working together?
Wende: Well, I am in awe of this woman, I have never met someone so generous. And so gifted in sensing what is happening in a room and feeling what a song needs and what I need to do, to make things. She’s funny, and she’s fiercely talented. We didn’t know each other, so the first days when we got the words and we were in one room, and we didn’t know each other, and a bit awkward, so I was like now we’re gonna do awkward things, It’s like get naked, get started.
Simon Stephens: Was it Chloe Lamford put the two of you together?
Wende: Imogen Knight actually said we should meet each other, and then right away it was really safe and challenging. I don’t like working in a room composing but she was both, very safe and very challenging and we just wrote and it went all quite organically and sometimes she went out into another room and then she was like “I’m gonna look at this part you go do this” and then I played things for her or we just played out a melody or something. It was fun, really good and now she has been arranging also a few things.
Simon Stephens: Tell me about the role of Imogen Knight, who is another artist I’ve worked with a whole load of times and absolutely adore. Chloe brought Imogen to you and then Imogen brought Isobel right. So what was it like working with Imogen for you?
Wende: Well Imogen is really like a very subtle, subtle influence.
Simon Stephens: Right.
Wende: Also she’s really directing the movement directly. So she really looks at how the things are evolving and amplifying that, so she’s not making up things and not saying, “Okay here you should do a little dance and you should move like this.” She’s really looking at what’s happening and could we theatricalise that bit, but she’s also very aware of the fact, that it’s also a concert and you shouldn’t over-theatricalise it. It really is about, how do we get the right emotion across? Not how good is the form we’re making out of it, because then it becomes very theatre-y. The music is already a lot of theatrical information. So she’s actually the guardian of truthfulness.
Simon Stephens: Really interesting.
Wende: That’s really nice, you need like a third eye that can do that, it’s really the artistic group, like Chloe, who’s curating and conceptualising the thing but also making the space for the songs and the words to land in. With Isobel, we’ve been making and giving the words a house.Then Imogen is making movement of these houses. We are all like that, a team with the five writers. I can’t emphasise enough, how beautifully, it has been a collaboration. All these voices are The Song Project.
Simon Stephens: It’s really articulated with great beauty. I’m really interested in the specific question of how Imogen works with you as a performer. Just because there’s something in there about the difference between Wende and Wende Snijders. Because, like a lot of singers, who perform their own work, or it’s almost like a kind of stand-up comedian perhaps, who will perform their own text or some theatremakers who will perform their own writing, it’s not Wende Snijders we’re watching, it’s a persona that you’re part of distilling and creating. Is that fair? Is that a fair description, that you’ve created a persona?
Wende: I think it’s really interesting when you sing, that the good thing about singing something towards an audience, is that there is always this notion, that the person who’s singing it is really also experiencing it. Well, when you see somebody play Hamlet really well, you never think like how does Al Pacino do this?
Simon Stephens: His poor dad.
Wende: Oh, my god call somebody. But no and with me, there’s this ambivalence that you’re always like, is she actually experiencing this or not? And I kind of like this question, because the audience has to think about themselves like that. Is this actually my experience? Because it’s not about me, I really don’t like watching people perform, that are forcing me to admire them or saying something about their private life. I mean, everybody has to do what they have to do but I love it when somebody is super personal. There is a big difference between personal and private. That’s what the persona in a way is. I’m really amplifying, I have this these emotions of loneliness. It’s not dramatising them, it’s like perfume, you’re just concentrating them in order to create a space where people come together. This is what I like about the live thing of theatre, is that we go into our lives and we have to take care of our kids, we have to pay the rent, we have to do the groceries, we have to be good at Christmas dinners and all these things. And then at one point, you have this life that passes on and passes on, is there a greater thing than to go into a room and collectively, just in your chair, on your own, experience all these emotions, song by song by song? And then, have to be the vehicle of that. That’s what my work is. So people can see, I’m alive – this is what I am, this is what I feel. Then they go into the world and have their life again.
Simon Stephens: Extremely beautiful. Are you looking forward to doing it again, you’re looking forward to bring The Song Project back?
Wende: Totally. I’m working on my articulation, because – Jesus Christ – but I mean, it’s great. It’s great talking to you and that you’re taking the time. I really feel like I’ve got another home, besides Amsterdam, I got also this text of Isobel she said, “Welcome to your other home”, and I was moved. Because it was yeah, it’s true. You know, the Royal Court. I can’t, I mean, they have taken the risk to make a concert like this. I’ve bluffed my way into the fact that, I knew what I was doing there and they don’t know me, they just took the jump and they took the adventure. I mean, Vicky and Lucy who are working there are such legends, not only with me, but they just produce show, after show, that are risks and adventures, and they really welcome you. They really welcome you and I feel really happy to have found, this place, where I can share that.
Simon Stephens: In the theatre downstairs, this time as opposed to the theatre upstairs.
Simon Stephens: With its beautiful back wall, and its great legacy and history and 65 years of storytelling. It’s a very spiritual room the theatre downstairs, I think you’ll find the spirit of it.
Wende: I’m really looking forward to it. The first thing I do, even when I go into this apartment, where I’m doing the quarantine at, I’m always like, sniffing out the soul of the place, I’m looking forward to having a bit of that experience in the Royal Court.
Simon Stephens: I think I believe that really strongly, I believe, I think the Court reminds me of Theater Carré in that sense and that great theatres carry their histories with them. Every performance and every utterance that’s been performed and uttered in both of those spaces continues to linger every night that something is said or performed or sang there. I think it’s really beautiful and you have the tube trains going past too.
Wende: You know, down in Carré, it smells of horses.
Simon Stephens: Still? Yeah it’s nice. You should tell that story because we both know that story and people listening to that might not. Well, why does the Theater Carré smell like horses?
Wende: It was a circus and there’s another story I have to tell about Carré. Nobody knows what Carré is but you know, the circus ended and the the director of the theatre had 12 horses, and he shot them on the beach because he didn’t want the horses to be sold and become workhorses. That’s a crazy story, right? That your favourite horses, the horses that you loved, you shot them to save them from? Weird story.
Simon Stephens : A life outside the theatre. It’s been a beautiful privilege to speak to you Wende.
Wende: Thank you so much. Really, the same thing. So thank you.
Simon Stephens : Thank you very, very much indeed.
(music played – Wende singing Where You Gonna Go)
That was Where You Gonna Go performed by Wende with music by Wende and Isobel Waller-Bridge and lyrics by Somalia Nonyé Seaton. You’ve been listening to a special edition of the Royal Court Playwrights Podcast with me Simon Stevens, produced by Anoushka Warden and Emily Legg.