The Leids Cabaret Festival is cancelled, but is there really too little cabaret talent?


25-year-old Tim Fransen wins the Leids Cabaret Festival in 2014.Image Leiden Cabaret Festival

During the Christmas weekend, the remarkable news came out that the Leids Cabaret Festival of 2023 will be canceled due to a lack of quality among the participants. In an explanation on the website, the organization wrote that the decision was made ‘with pain in our hearts’, but that this year there was a lack of suitable participants with ‘potential’ for a professional future. It was written about the causes: ‘We don’t want to blame corona for everything. The zeitgeist is also changing.’ The message raised the necessary questions: is there currently too little cabaret talent in the Netherlands? Or are there perhaps too many festivals?

Helga Voets, director of Bunker Theaterzaken, the agency that organizes the festival, looks back on the decision she made with co-organizer Geert Vriend. Voets: ‘We looked at all applications with all the love in the world, just like in previous years. But most of them were still too young to participate in a national cabaret festival.’ In its history, ‘Leids’ has produced great cabaret names, but Voets emphasizes that not everyone has to become a new Micha Wertheim or Tim Fransen. ‘We want participants to feel safe, they have to try things out and have fun. You never know how careers will develop after the festival.’

But due to the nature of the festival, the connection with a professional future does play a role. Voets: ‘The LCF is the only cabaret festival organized by a cabaret agency. We are busy all year round with cabaret and guiding professional comedians. We know what it takes to conquer a place on the Dutch stages and to keep you going. Our approach has therefore always been: we don’t see the festival as an end in itself, but in the context of the entire theater field.’

‘Leids’ has three rounds: a first selection in December, in which potential participants submit a video audition themselves. This is followed in January by a round with short performances in a Leiden grand café. This in turn leads to two preliminary rounds, the semi-final and the final in the Leidse Schouwburg, at the beginning of February. Already at the round with the video auditions, it was decided not to continue this year. Voets: ‘After we had looked at the first 38 registrations – normally we end up around 50 – several times, we came to the astonishing conclusion that the festival is an environment for these people that they are not ready for yet.’

It is unique, because never before has the festival been canceled due to the lack of suitable candidates. Firstly, Voets sees an effect of the corona crisis and the theaters that were closed for a long time: ‘That is the primary explanation of what is going on. People haven’t been able to test their material for two years and thus muster up the courage to participate in a festival.’ With their remark that ‘the zeitgeist is changing’, the organizers are referring to various developments within the theater world and society. Voets: ‘This is too big a subject for now. We’re going to take a little more time to think about the relevance and future of a festival like ours. A reality check in these changing times.’

The Netherlands has four major annual cabaret festivals: Cameretten, the Groninger Studenten Cabaret Festival, the Leids Cabaret Festival and the Amsterdams Kleinkunst Festival. All four of these festivals also have a finalist tour, with the three finalists visiting theaters throughout the country. Since last year, a talent show has been added to television: in I’m going broke! a talent trajectory was completed by BNNVara that has many similarities with a cabaret festival, but now with cameras. Also the three finalists of I’m going broke! go on a finalist tour, starting January 12.

Until 2021, the Leids Cabaret Festival was organized in collaboration with BNNVara, but due to the announcement of I’m going broke! that collaboration was broken by Bunker Theaterzaken. Voets: ‘Apart from the substantive objections, which we immediately made known to them when the program was still being developed, we had serious objections to the timing. In all the corona misery, in which all cabaret festivals had to survive with art and flying, how can you compete with these festivals from a public broadcaster – and our long-standing partner?’

However, Voets does not believe that I’m going broke! contributed to the cancellation of her festival. ‘It is rather the other way around: the TV program confirmed our idea that it works better for young talent to ‘grow up’ without cameras. Not to make a TV out of it. I don’t know if we fish in the same pond. What we do know is that all three finalists of I’m going broke! were previously finalists or won prizes at the Leids Cabaret Festival. BNNVara has now discovered the same talent twice. So we see it as a repetition rather than something new.’

Do the other cabaret festivals also have to contend with too few suitable registrations? Director Daniël van Veen of the Amsterdams Kleinkunst Festival does not recognize this: ‘I was surprised by the news that there is a lack of talent. At the Amsterdams Kleinkunst Festival we had a record number of 66 registrations this year, while we receive around 35 registrations in other years. There are many people from vocational training, such as the King’s Theater Academy in Den Bosch. The level is very high. Perhaps a factor is that people choose us because we have a longer development path. If you register with the AKF, your program doesn’t have to be finished yet, you can still develop it completely during the try-outs, masterclasses and coaching that we offer.’

They also look in at Camerette, despite a critical review de Volkskrant, satisfied back at the festival last November. Artistic director Eveline Mol: ‘We thought the level was very high this year. At Cameretten we had just as many registrations this fall as usual. With the semi-finalists who dropped out just before the final, we could even have put together a final.’

Nor is Helga Voets of the opinion that there is too little cabaret talent: ‘We run a cabaret agency packed with talent. So I certainly don’t think there is too little cabaret talent, otherwise I would have had to run another company. But it would also be strange if you discovered twelve super talents in the Netherlands every year. So if a festival is canceled for once, a man is not immediately overboard.’

History full of great cabaret names

The Leids Cabaret Festival was (co-)founded in 1978 by Harry Kies (1953-2020), then a student at Leiden University. Kies would later become one of the great impresarios of the Netherlands. Many of the winners of the festival were included in the stable of Harry Kies Theaterprodukties, which has been called Bunker Theaterzaken since 2011. This agency represents former winners such as Lebbis & Jansen, Micha Wertheim, Tim Fransen and Lisa Ostermann. Since 1978, the festival has been canceled twice: in 1980 (due to an organizational problem) and in 2021 (due to the corona crisis). The 2023 edition will now be added.

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