Sometimes writing is a way of making sense of the world as I experience it. But my writing is also meant as a ‘conversation’. Meaning is created partly through the eyes of the reader or the audience and my work doesn’t try to show the truth, but can contain many.
– Stella van Lieshout
Leading off with some basics, where are you from? And where are you at?
SvL: My name is Stella van Lieshout. I grew up in a small town near the coast in the Netherlands, lived in London for a year in 2012/2013, spent 3 months living in Kathmandu and currently I’m preparing to go to Malta for two months as a writer-in-residence.
What does Reflection and Response mean to you?
SvL: To me, reflection and response are extremely important during the writing process and even after the play is finished. I write alone and preferably night after night, but there are always several moments where I discuss the play or story with different people from different backgrounds to sharpen my thoughts and get valuable feedback to make it even better. The best ideas are often created with more than one mind.
Staging the play after writing is continuously reflecting and responding as new ideas and thoughts emerge from the minds of the director, actors and designers and through working with the material itself. And these connections are extremely valuable and can teach you a lot of new things.
Reflection also means hiking. I’ve walked a couple of long-distance paths and for me it is a way of processing experiences and reflecting upon them, while discussing with myself along the way.
How does your work fit in with that definition?
SvL: I write a lot about people who feel stuck and lost or are trying to find a sense of belonging. My characters usually have strong beliefs and dare to question. Through these characters I can reflect on life and respond to issues that are important to me from different points of view. Sometimes writing is a way of making sense of the world as I experience it.
But my writing is also meant as a ‘conversation’. Meaning is created partly through the eyes of the reader or the audience and my work doesn’t try to show the truth, but can contain many.
What else have you been working on recently? What are you looking to work on next?
SvL: The last play I wrote (and directed) was a play for a group of young actors (19-24) in Kathmandu, titled “+2, The School of Life”. In the play, a group of friends forms ‘The School of Life’. It’s a secret society where they learn everything they find important to life, but don’t learn in school. The play was written in English and then translated and performed in Nepali, an amazing experience.
Fragment from “+2, The School of Life”, 2014
SCENE 8. WHEN THE GIRL WANTS IN.
The Narrator walks up on stage and comes really close to the audience. In the back, THE BOY and THE GIRL dance, without touching each other.
In the last few months there were so many cups of tea
That even I lost track of time
She had been afraid to let him know
that she had been following him
He was afraid to tell her what he was doing
And so they spoke about all and more,
but never about the School of Life.
It was something that slept between their dreams
So they could never be close enough
THE GIRL AND THE BOY have stopped dancing. She looks very serious.
THE GIRL: I want in
THE BOY: You can’t
THE GIRL: Do you want people to find out?
THE BOY: You wouldn’t
THE GIRL: Wouldn’t I?
THE BOY: You don’t even know what it is we are doing
THE GIRL: I know nobody is allowed to know.
That should be enough
THE BOY: You have nothing. No proof.
Besides, It’s not like we’re doing anything illegal
THE GIRL: You call it the School of Life
And you really believe nobody will be mad?
That they just allow you to think, dance and speak out loud?
And in the middle of the night…You must be joking!
THE BOY: Can’t you just leave it?
THE GIRL: I want in
THE BOY: No girls allowed
THE GIRL: Girls are also a part of life
THE BOY: You got me there
THE GIRL: You have no reason not to let me in
THE BOY: Can you dance?
THE GIRL: I think so
THE BOY: Where is Paris?
THE GIRL: In Europe. France. Too far away.
THE BOY: What do you dream of?
THE GIRL Doing the impossible
THE BOY: All right. Can’t say no to that.
Guess you’re in.
THE GIRL: Guess I am
THE BOY: See you tonight
Bring your dancing shoes
THE GIRL: I will.
Girl turns around, ready to walk away.
THE BOY: Wait! You need to go to…
The girl turns back again and looks at him
THE GIRL: I know where you’re hiding
Currently I’m working on a play about six people surviving death after ‘the others’ burned down their town. In June and July I’ll write a new play as a writer-in-residence for a theater – Teatru Salesjan – in Malta, where we’re looking beyond the borders of culture and writing. I’m very excited to see what comes out of that project.
Who or what inspires you?
SvL: I get a lot of my inspiration from stories I collect during my travels and from strangers I meet. Stories that usually no one hears. One of my favorite stories was when I met a bus driver in the Black Forest in Germany, who taught me the story of being sent back to a land you weren’t even born in to begin with.
Three little houses on the hill
The bus driver parked his bus in Triberg and insisted on buying me coffee during his break. He told me he was a very religious man and believed I couldn’t be anything but an angel send by God. As far as he was concerned you needed to buy coffee for angels.
I had been travelling for some time now to collect stories from strangers while sitting on benches. As a writer I wanted to explore how intimacy changes when you travel alone and ask strangers for stories. The Black Forest was a whole new experience as I would be walking a mere 165 miles to Basel. The map I had bought was divided into stages. Its length (double sided) took up half the small hostel room. Halfway that map I ran into this bus driver, Eduard. And when it proved pointless trying to explain to him he was mistaken, I took him up on his offer. In exchange for a story.
I decided to take a day off walking to give my feet some rest and I took the bus to Triberg Waterfalls. The main street of Triberg – leading up to the entrance of Germany’s highest waterfalls – was brightly coloured. Tourists with bright yellow dresses, red hats and the colours of Hawaiian summer made their way through tourist lane. In every window pane you could find cuckoo-clocks and every five minutes another one would chime or let out a chirping bird. A dozen of people took pictures of the façade above the most popular store, where the cuckoo-clocks were surrounded by moving bears going up and down. As I couldn’t stop laughing at this sight, the bus driver would just sip his coffee in silence watching my every move.
“You see those three houses on the hill there?”, he suddenly said. I nodded while having a sip.
“I like to sit here on this bench because those houses remind me of the houses of my family in Kazakhstan.” I wanted to ask another question to keep his story going but there was no need to.
My company in exchange for a story. To explain his nostalgia he needed to inform me on a piece of history high school never taught me.
In the 18th century a lot of Germans were recruited to work in Russia. These ‘Volga-Germans’ worked and lived in Russia but were allowed their German traditions, culture and churches. They settled there, generation after generation. That was until the Second World War changed things drastically. A lot of Volga-Germans were put into labour camps and eventually send back to Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell Gorbachov made an extra effort to get rid of the Volga Germans and Eduard headed for Germany with his wife and kids.
Eduard sighed. A clock chirped. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Here I was, crossing the Black Forest for 165 miles by foot to collect stories from strangers. Here I was learning about a history I never knew existed. I was a traveller that had run into the reality of everyday life. The expression on his face had changed. The charming and cheerful bus driver had made room for a lonely looking Eduard. With eyes that wanted to cry but remained dry despite the effort.
“So you came here and became a bus driver?” I asked him. He continued. Just after he had left Kazakhstan declared its independency. His family was on the right side of the borders and they became citizens of Kazakhstan without any problems. Eduard was stuck in the Black Forest with the memory of three little houses on a hill. There was no money to go back as he needed to provide for his kids. His wife was probably working too although I didn’t ask. His words came from a place he hadn’t visited for a long time. He was feeling homesick, lonely and detached despite all the love he had to give to his wife and children. They never spoke of it back home.
“I know you’re not an angel. I just need you to be one in my memories. Because then God has send me an example of freedom. And then there’s hope for a better future.”
I can tell you I felt embarrassed by his strange compliments but I didn’t dare to say so. I was wearing the same jeans and shirt for ages and had no proper shower in days, so I couldn’t imagine being the personification of something hopeful. I was probably even smelling of sweat and pine trees. Among the tourists I looked like I didn’t belong. I just wanted to know what he meant and what was next. “Your eyes have no home. No attachment to a specific place or time. When I look at you I get a glimpse of freedom. Don’t ask me why. It’s just how I feel.” I thanked him for his honesty. Asked him if he ever wanted to return and he said that even going back to Kazakhstan probably wasn’t enough anymore. His home and his heart forever belonged to the memory before leaving. In a strange way he was aware, but couldn’t let go of the thought of returning someday.
“I drive this bus to keep going, my dear.”
Eduard looked at his watch and suddenly stood up. He let the moment we had carefully built fall onto the ground and left it there, shattered. Kazakhstan suddenly became Triberg again and left it feeling like a circus where one of the tricks just went wrong. The clocks started to chirp and chime with an immense speed to get us back on the track of time. As if nothing happened he announced it was time for work again, thanked me for my time and hoped I would enjoy the rest of my trip. When he slowly walked away through the crowd of tourists he suddenly stopped. Turned around and looked at me. “Can you be here tomorrow?” he asked. “I can’t.” I replied.
He smiled and then forced himself through the waiting line, back to the parked bus.
For some reason I only expected to find stories about a quiet rural life, where every small village looked inwards and lived like people would whenever surrounded by hills. Places that were safe and enclosed, with every little street filled with gossip and spying ears and eyes. That were the stories I found in the days before and after. This wasn’t anything I anticipated for. On that little bench in the biggest attraction in the Black Forest I found a hidden treasure: three little houses on a hill forever telling the story of a bus driver that drove because he couldn’t belong anywhere no more.
I stared at the hill and imagined him starting the engine of the bus. He would drive on with his charming bus driver smile until it was time to go home. He would kiss his wife as if nothing special had happened. But she would notice something had changed in his eyes.
I read a lot of books and I have a special fondness for Scandinavian writers such as Peter Høeg and Johan Harstad. When it comes to playwriting, I get a lot of inspiration from the plays of Dea Loher (Germany), Mouawad (Canada) and Beckett.
Is there anything else you would like the Collective to know?
SvL: Besides writing, I do a lot of other things within the Creative Industries. I’m also working as a theatre programmer, spent a few years organizing a literary event for emerging writers and spent a couple of years working as co-artistic director at a small festival in the Netherlands; the Young Art Festival.
Shout out to…?
SvL: Dries. He’s the one I always come home to after my long travels and months abroad.
Translated fragment, Opening scene from the play ‘Totdat het ons loslaat’
(Until it lets go of us), 2012
Winter in Stockholm. A bench. Lights everywhere.
Alize (47) is walking towards the bench, carrying more than 7000 letters in suitcases, stacks and bags. She sits down. Takes pen and paper and starts writing (Voice-over)
Sun sets at three o’clock in winter
The city, chained islands with each its own character
The city, partly build on rocks
A city that always feels warm, like a blanket
Even in winter, even when it rains.
Nature is so close that you can climb onto the rocks
in the middle of Södermalm and see the whole city
Little shops everywhere,
with winter lights flickering from behind the windows;
Candlesticks and paper stars with holes,
As if everybody helps each other through winters’ darkness
houses and rooftops coloured yellow, pink,
red brown, light green or blue.
Gamla Stan, with its small steps and narrow alleys
Doors, where you have to bend to get inside.
And all around Stockholm you’ll find benches
To gaze upon the lonely but connected islands,
the colourful houses, the sky-high Christmas tree on the deck,
the abandoned amusement park, ships that are tied to the shore,
It feels like the city has put her arms around you, saying:
Don’t you worry, you’re safe with me.
Reflection and Response