Leading the way together: a conversation with interim-director Mechtild van den Hombergh and deputy director Anthony Heidweiller

photo: Jeroen de Beer

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The Academy of Theatre and Dance (ATD) has had two directors since September. A conversation with interim director Mechtild van den Hombergh and deputy director Anthony Heidweiller.

Mechtild, you are new to the ATD. I read that you have held various (interim) management positions, among others with the Prins Claus Fund, the Humanistisch Verbond (The Dutch Humanist Association) and the DOEN Foundation. You also lived and worked in Kenya for eight years. What is the experience that has been most useful to you here now?

Mechtild van den Hombergh: The Design Academy Eindhoven immediately comes to mind. I was interim member of the Executive Board there from 2018 to 2020. There was a crisis in the Executive Board and there were numerous issues at the organisational, teaching and research levels. It was also the period of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and then came the coronavirus crisis in 2020. Apart from the fact that I worked hard, of course, to make a significant contribution, I learned an awful lot there.

What struck you most when you started to work here?

Mechtild: First of all, that it is a fantastic school with a wealth of study programmes, employees and students, as well as a rich history. The former Toneelschool (now part of ATKA), will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2024. There is a funny anecdote in our family. My mother, who would be 115 now if she was still alive, enjoyed acting when she was young. The director of the Toneelschool at the time travelled all the way to Heerhugowaard from Amsterdam, by train and on foot, because he thought she was so talented. He wanted to convince her father that she had to train to become an actress. To this, he answered: ‘Not a chance, my daughter will not be going to your school.’ That was in the 1930s.

In addition to all the wonderful things about the academy, I also see an organisation that deserves a little more peace, attention and change. It is important to examine its history. In 1996, a number of totally different theatre and dance study programmes were brought together in this building on the Jodenbreestraat. In addition, we have two other buildings that house a few study programmes. How do you create a sense of unity from that without sacrificing the diversity and individual character? Being together under a few roofs has brought many benefits in the past 30 years, but there is also a need for greater unity. In short, it is also fair to say that the organisation has been neglected. Everyone is ready for change, while at the same time being wary of it too. Together with Anthony, the artistic directors, staff and students, I hope to plot a course for the coming years. We will do that step by step. On the basis of that shared vision and strategy, a – possibly modified – organisational structure will emerge. There is a great deal of vision at programme level within the academy, but that is less so, or it is hidden in any case, ATD-wide.

Anthony, you have already been the director here for two years. What it’s like for you to be working together with Mechtild now?

Anthony: I find it incredibly enriching. The past few years have been tough for a number of reasons. The range of responsibilities is clearly too great for one person alone. Moreover, someone like Mechtild helps you to think in a different way. Her areas of expertise are leadership, management and structure, whereas mine are the performing arts and education. We complement each other and are critical towards each other.

How are your duties allocated?

Mechtild: We have been working together for eight weeks now and we are still experimenting with that somewhat. Anthony is looking at the teaching, the research and the academy-wide projects in terms of their content, as well as the content of the various curricula. I am looking more at the organisation of the study programmes, the communication, the vision, the relationship with the other academies and the Amsterdam University of the Arts (AHK), personnel policy, finances and other facets of the operational management. All of this is being done in cooperation with the various teams. For example, I am currently visiting all the artistic (and sometime business) directors, together with the Head of Operational Management Paul Jeroen Willems. The initial conversations have immediately revealed the huge differences between study programmes, while at the same time we also see the similarities and collaborations that already exist.

Anthony: As Mechtild has already said, I focus substantively on the teaching and research at the ATD. The focal point for me is inclusion and connecting the performing arts and arts education with society. That has been at the heart of everything I have done as artistic director at various institutions in the past 25 years. I am very happy to have Mechtild, with all her qualities, alongside me now. It gives me the space to also go into the school and attend lessons. In order to make an actual transition possible, it is important that we remain attuned to what is going on in the school. Therefore, I prefer to meet students and employees in the workplace, the rehearsal space or the ballet studio, where everything is happening.

Text: Hester van Hasselt