Interview with spoken word artist Amara van der Elst
‘The spoken word approach comes naturally to me’
Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
Amara van der Elst (2001) originally wanted to be a dancer. But although she got a lot of pleasure from the physical movements, at the dance academy she discovered that she was unable to express her creativity properly as a dancer under the direction of a choreographer. “There was less and less room for me as an artist,” says Amara. She spontaneously started making notes on her phone without having a clear idea what to call her jottings. An alert teacher realised from her class assignments that Amara had a talent for writing and encouraged her to take part in the Kunstbende competition. It was there that she got to know Elten Kiene, a leading light in the Dutch spoken-word scene. It was a revelation for her.
“At spoken word evenings, I saw the effect words could have on people. I saw the emotions they could unlock and I felt the warmth and sense of community. I realised that was what I wanted to do with my art: bring people together.” She felt motivated to “do my very best”, as she put it. She attended one open-mic evening after another to share her texts with audiences and get to know people. “It was as if I needed to let something out, and it was a kind of natural process getting out into the big wide world.” The same organic process led to the label ‘spoken word’, letting her give her creations a name.
NOT HER SCENE
She had always seen opera as something remote and not her scene at all. She had sampled something of the genre, going to the opera once as a child and watching ballets at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, but she had never really delved into opera as an art form. “I assumed only really rich people go to the opera, or older generations. It felt to me like a world where I wouldn’t necessarily fit.” When a spoken-word programme was organised in the foyer of Dutch National Opera & Ballet during last year’s Opera Forward Festival, Amara was one of the five artists invited to reflect on the topic of ‘New Beginnings’.
“That felt so bad-ass. We stood there in a space that had quite an elitist ambience, practising an art form that emerged from street culture. The fact that we were performing in a national opera house says something about how our art form is growing and the respect we now get.”
Opera Forward Festival was not alone in picking up on the spoken word genre. It has become increasingly visible, from the remembrance of the dead in Amsterdam’s Dam Square (where Amara gave a performance in 2021) to insurance company advertisements. “Most spoken-word artists are from groups that are underrepresented in the mainstream media. So spoken word is a way of telling stories that are new to people or that have struggled to get heard previously. But I’ll only reckon we’ve won once we get the space to be heard.”
‘For me, the rehearsal room feels like a playground’
In the production Ändere die Welt!, the spoken word gets an opportunity to share the stage with lieder and opera music. What did Amara think of that idea initially? “My first thought was how we were going to do that. But I’m also someone who always looks for weird combinations and I like mixing genres. I started as a dancer and then began writing, combining my movements with my use of language. I’d had the opportunity to work with musicians before, so I was reasonably familiar with the idea of music plus spoken word. But it was still rather scary because I had this idea of opera as something remote and not my scene.
Fortunately, it soon clicked with Mart. We’d both been to the same college (ArtEZ in Arnhem) and we had similar ideas about the creative process. We started with everything open, with an idea and a theme. That theme appealed to me immediately. It was something I wanted to think and write about from the bottom of my heart. I felt inspired to rise above the form and focus on the message, which I thought was very important to share. I wanted to do my bit in telling this story and I felt confident we’d find the right form in the course of the process.”
Ändere die Welt! literally means ‘Change the world!’ But the question at the heart of this production is ‘How do you change the world?’ “People always have this idea that a revolution needs to be violent, something big, fierce and fast-moving. The message of Ändere die Welt! is not so much a statement as a question: What if it didn’t have to be like that? What if we bring about change by being gentle and loving? So many tough, painful things have happened over the past while. Things change super-fast, which doesn’t give us the time as people and as a society to reflect on them. The way I see it, this production wants people literally to sit still a moment and reflect on what we’re doing.”
Amara wrote her own texts for Ändere die Welt! Where does she get her inspiration from? How does she come up with her texts? “If there’s a predefined topic or theme, I start listening within that framework, as it were. I pay attention to news items, articles I come across and films that tie in with the theme. I draw inspiration from all kinds of media to get an impression of the status quo. What has been written about this subject, what ideas have people had? Then I can work out my own views. Usually I also investigate my own tone of voice. How do I want to communicate about this? Do I want to act the rebel, be gentle and impartial, or mount the barricades and let rip? Then I start writing, writing, writing.”
In Ändere die Welt!, Amara has a role somewhere between a narrator, presenter, stage manager and commentator. Her texts respond to what the singers are singing. “I find it important to know what the context will be for my texts. I look at the story, the characters in the production and how they develop so I can develop my own character. What can I add and where? Where can I provide contrast and what aspects can I play around with? I studied the song lyrics to see what they are about and whether they deal with themes I can tackle in my texts. In this way, I could determine my contribution to the production as a whole.”
‘During the process, I started to see the two art forms less and less as separate entities’
Opera and spoken word
According to Amara, the biggest difference between opera and spoken word lies in the grandeur of opera versus the intimate nature of spoken-word performances. “They both have their appeal, but something interesting happens when you combine them. For example, there is a huge contrast between the intimacy of my recitation and the grand scale of the set surrounding me. But there are also moments in the performance when I can key into that grandeur. I find it stimulating to see how spoken word can take up a lot more space in this production than it normally does, and how I get to show that spoken word can also be very confrontational and theatrical. Because you’re combining these two art forms, things automatically start to blend together. During the process, I started to see the two art forms less and less as separate entities.” When this article was being written, the first rehearsal period had finished in the autumn and the second and final rehearsal period was about to start. What is it like for Amara to be part of the creative process for a music theatre production? “Of course, I found it quite nerve-racking to start with. It’s an experiment and nobody knew in advance what to expect. It was also a completely new environment for me. But I soon felt welcome and free to put my heart into the experiment. In this production, I’ve been given a lot of freedom to explore the theatrical side of my work and adopt a character. I’d already done that to some extent in previous work, but it’s more extreme in this production. I can develop my own character, who undergoes a story arc in the course of the performance. For me, the rehearsal room feels like a playground.”
CONNECTIVITY AS A CATALYST FOR CHANGE
In both its form and content, Ändere die Welt! advocates for connectivity as a catalyst for change. What can audiences expect from this ‘revolutionary’ production? “In Ändere die Welt!, audiences can expect the unexpected. It’s a production that confronts you with what’s wrong in the world, things you might have tried to ignore in the past. It is a production with an important message for our times. You see very different characters on the stage, each with their own concerns and their own stories, who still somehow manage to come together — peacefully. It is a production that is both confrontational and optimistic, an ode to connectivity and to solidarity.”
Ändere die Welt! will run from 11 March till 2 April in several theaters in the country