CV LIESBETH COLTOF
Director Liesbeth Coltof (b. 1955) is seen by many as the face of contemporary
theatre for children and young people in the Netherlands. Her work transcends
cultural and geographical boundaries and has inspired many people at home and
abroad: it universalises major themes by zooming in on the small-scale, individual
level, and truly engaging with it.
In the 1980s, Liesbeth Coltof was one of the first theatre makers to break with
the convention that youth theatre should be the sort of trouble-free entertainment
made because adults viewed the complexities and contradictions of ‘real life’ as
unsuitable for children. She experienced in her own childhood how it feels to be left
alone in a supposedly carefree children’s world, when nobody talked to her about her
mother’s death. It was this that motivated her to make work for the stage that did
feature emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and she brought her subject matter
close to home by always focusing on a young person and following his or her story.
In 1987 she made Iphigeneia, koningskind (Iphigenia, Royal Child) about a daughter
who gives up her life for the love of her father, as well as De koning en de rest (The
King and the Others), which dealt with death as a natural inevitability. Kinderjaren
(Childhood) in 1991 was a tribute to the courage of children surviving in wartime. The
recurring ingredients of her plays were a lightness of touch, humour, dynamism,
musicality and the obvious pleasure her actors took in their performance.
In 1990 Liesbeth Coltof became artistic director of the large Amsterdam youth
theatre company Huis aan de Amstel, which would merge in 2009 with Wederzijds
theatre company to become Toneelmakerij. This long-term commitment allowed her
to become an adventurer in theatrical practice and the exchange of ideas with other
artistic disciplines. She instigated adaptations of classics such as Shakespeare’s
Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and The Tempest, and Schiller’s Don Carlos, as well as
lots of new works, many of them written by her artistic soulmate Roel Adam. She is
famous for her work with auteurs and produces each year about 3-4 completely new
texts. The plays her company presented ranged from large-scale site-specific
productions to music theatre including Purcell’s opera King Arthur and small, intimate
performances in schools or neighbourhoods – bringing them close to audiences both
young and old.
She received at a young age already the biggest cultural award in the Netherlands
the prestigious Prins Bernard Award for all her work. And till now she is still the only
one in the Youth Theatre who received this award .
Liesbeth Coltof also staged her work abroad. Her plays have been performed
at numerous international festivals, from Munich, Vienna and Berlin to Philadelphia,
Yekaterinburg and Moscow. In Zurich, Bijna was ik goed (I Was Nearly Right), which
was inspired by the experiences of children and adults with learning disabilities, won
her the 1998 ZBK Förderpreis, an award for daring, innovative theatre.
Liesbeth Coltof has the ability to give theatre a genuinely new dimension
across borders by working with foreign counterparts to create something new.
Working with four colleagues in Bosnia she made The Right Shoes, a play about
children’s rights that was performed in refugee camps in 1994. And in 1997 she
made Netochka with Russian director Boris Tseitlin: the central character in this
compelling fusion of Dutch and Russian theatre tradition for all ages is a girl who
keenly observes her parents’ unhappy lives. And for seventeen years Liesbeth Coltof
has been closely involved as a director and teacher with Theatre Day Productions
from Gaza, which stages shows for young people in the camps in Hebron, Gaza and
the West Bank. She has also taken young Dutch theatre makers to Palestine to make
plays with Palestinian fellow theatre makers. Coltof is the co-initiator of Connecting
Stories, a network of theatre companies and directors from the United States, Iran
and the Netherlands. Here too the aim was to produce a genuine meeting of cultures
through theatre, succeeding where the politicians of these countries generally fail.
Liesbeth Coltof returns to the Netherlands from her travels bringing
international themes she uses to make stage work that bridges different worlds. In
2000 an exchange with Palestinian theatre makers resulted in De dag dat mijn broer
niet thuiskwam (The Day My Brother Didn’t Come Home), written by Roel Adam. In
recounting the tragic history of a single Palestinian family the piece sheds light on the
bigger story. In 2003, Coltof turned her attention to Africa to create a theatrical
experience based on Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road and spanning many
generations – in the African narrative tradition. She also journeyed with playwright
Roel Adam to the Bosnian city of Mostar, a trip that yielded Aan de Overkant (On the
Other Side), about the bridge that for centuries connected the Muslim and Christian
quarters of the city. Destroyed by shellfire, the bridge now symbolises a painful
reconciliation. This was followed in 2006 in Saint Petersburg by Quarantaine
(Quarantine), which explores how people interact when they are condemned to each
other’s company. It blended theatre with film of the Siege of Leningrad during World
War II. Coltof’s travels to India led to 2008’s Bombay, which focuses on people
whose entire lives are taken up with grasping at any potential opportunity. She made
Bombay in collaboration with the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam and PlanNederland,
a development organisation that works at an international level to strengthen the position of children.
When in 2009 the theatre companies Huis aan de Amstel and Wederzijds merged to
form Toneelmakerij, Liesbeth Coltof became the joint artistic director of the
Netherlands’ largest youth theatre company, along with Ad de Bont. After his
retirement in 2012, she remained as sole artistic director. In her work at
Toneelmakerij she has continued with her form experiments, as for example in
Thaibox Verdriet (Thai Boxing Sorrow) by Ad de Bont, a play set in a boxing ring, and
combining martial arts, poetry and beatboxing for audiences aged 15 and above. And
Ontspoord (Off the Rails), a Dutch adaptation of Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at
Pope Lick Creek, is more like a pop concert than a traditional play. In 2012 she
directed the first ever theatre marathon for young audiences. Mehmet De Veroveraar
(Mehmet the Conqueror) by Ad de Bont is a historical epic that touches on the topical
yet timeless theme of the meeting of East and West. Liesbeth Coltof staged this
large-scale site-specific work in three parts, each with its own set, and incorporating
a meal. In 2013 Mehmet De Veroveraar won the Netherlands’ top young people’s
theatre award, the Gouden Krekel for most impressive production. In 2014 she gets a
very special international recognition: on may 27 on the world congress of ASSITEJ
in Warsaw, she is awarded with the Honorary President Award, for her outstanding
work and the way she inspired others in the Netherlands and abroad.
In addition to her work for the Toneelmakerij, Liesbeth has directed classical pieces
at the Schauspielhaus Dortmund, including Virginia Woolf and Death of a Salesman.
In Dusseldorf she directed “ the boy with the suitcase” a performance about refugees.
For this performance she was awarded with the prestigious Faust, the annual theatre
prize in Germany. She is a teacher on several theatre school and universities, and
gives workshops and seminars.
In 2018 she resigns as Artistic Director from the Toneelmakerij to become a free
lance theatre director in the Netherlands and abroad. Her ‘fare-well’ production ‘De
Krijtkring’ (The Caucasian Chalk Circle of Bertolt Brecht) combined contemporary
music and theatre and was a great success. She was awarded with the Amsterdam
Prize of the Art, The City Token of Amsterdam and the yearly prize from the united
city theaters in the Netherlands for her whole career. On top of that his Majesty the
King appointed her as Knight of the Dutch Lion, one of the highest awards in the
At this moment, next to working on different theatre productions in the Netherlands
and abroad, mostly in the field of the theatre for an adult audience, she initiates the
international arts project 10CHILDREN to give the children all over the world who live
under the most difficult circumstances a voice and a face. This project takes place in
10 different countries and ends with a festival in 2023 in New York.
Cobie de Vos