People who receive community service after committing a crime can pick up rubbish on the street, remove graffiti from tunnels or maintain parks. But you can also end up at BonteHond in Almere, which has been the first theater company in the Netherlands to officially serve as a community service location for eighteen months. The tasks for inmates vary from cleaning to set building, attending rehearsals or even taking part in a performance.
At the moment, the company is busy rehearsing the performance Straf, in which, in addition to five professional actors, there is also someone who has performed community service for the company. The performance, which can be seen in June during the Oerol theater festival on Terschelling, focuses on the stories of community workers.
We see the players walking around the playing floor as a group of convicts, sometimes with garbage grabs and garbage bags. At other times they play the people in their environment, such as the supervisors at the community service center or people from their immediate environment. Almost the entire script is based on conversations between community workers and their supervisors, and on the experiences of the theater makers themselves. For example, there is a wry scene in which you see how a counselor systematically belittles one of the convicts in front of others. At another moment, the group of punished people suddenly turns threateningly against the audience: ,,It’s crazy that they leave you alone with us. After all, we are not sweethearts.” In a hushed monologue, one of the actors sums up the result of a day of picking up waste: “Thirteen plastic caps, three stirrers, seven people who looked away, two knots in my stomach.”
Also read this NRC review of Judith Faas’ previous performance at BonteHond
The idea arose when artistic director Judith Faas saw a group of youngsters poking waste on a beach a few years ago, she says. “It was a kind of reverse carnival parade, as they were displayed in those striking orange vests. A form of public shaming. I wondered: what’s on their minds? And do they also learn something from this?”
You receive community service for various offences: from minor violent offenses to a traffic violation or topping cannabis plants. The idea behind awarding community service is that the community worker gives something back to society and learns self-discipline. According to the probation service, this reduces the chance that someone will make another mistake. Community service is imposed for a maximum of 240 hours. For every two hours that is not carried out, is one day in prison.
Picking up trash is a form of public shaming
Faas: “When I started looking into it, I discovered that in principle anyone can come into contact with it. Lack of money often plays a role. If you, as a single young mother, want to give your child a present for a birthday and you have no money, I can understand that you will be encouraged to do something.” She used to do things she shouldn’t have done. “The fact that I was not caught at the time also has to do with the fact that as a blond, white girl you are less likely to be caught.”
Actor Dionisio Matias at a rehearsal of BonteHond. Photo Olivier Middendorp
In order to show the stories behind community service youngsters, she decided to make a performance about it. “But in order to do that well, I immediately knew that I wanted to make something not only about, but especially with, community workers.” The company applied to the Ministry of Justice to be designated as a community service location. The first convict, a boy of almost twenty years whose name is known to the editors, reported to the company at the end of last year. It was a success: after he had worked his mandatory hours, he voluntarily remained involved with the company to play in the performance.
No sex offenders
From the theater company, Daan de Lau is the contact person for the community service and the probation service. “We try to let the punished participate in the organization as much as possible. The punishment is not what he comes here to do, but that he must be here. So we don’t just come up with dirty jobs.” Apart from the fixed points of contact, no one at BonteHond knows for which offense someone has been convicted – unless the person tells it himself. However, the youth theater company has indicated to the probation service that they do not want to be assigned to convicted sex offenders or people who have committed a relatively serious offense. De Lau informs his colleagues broadly: „You don’t know who you will bring in, but you do know that there is a reason for it. So we emphasize: pay attention to where you put your phone or wallet today.”
The community worker calls the days that he had to work at BonteHond “bright spots” in his week. “Better a nice place than somewhere where there is a good chance that I will give up again halfway through. I know myself: if I have to do the same thing all day long, I tend to stop early.” He was immediately enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in a performance. “I am quite creative, I like attention.”
I’m pretty creative, love attention
Often there is also an injured party in a crime. It can therefore feel sour that a community worker has a fantastic time here, De Lau acknowledges. “We build a bond with him, but that sometimes feels uncomfortable.” Judith Faas sees no objection: “His punishment is that his freedom is limited by having to show up here. I don’t care if he likes it here, but the fact that this changes him is important to me. Society benefits more from not making a mistake than from having a bad time here.”
‘boys like me’
In order to be able to properly immerse themselves in the theme, the entire artistic team also did community service for a day at a location in Zeewolde. Actor Dionisio Matias (including GTST, Adam and EVA) had to gather nuts in the forest and chop wood: „I was quite nervous beforehand: will I meet really dangerous people there? Once I arrived I just started talking to everyone. Turned out to be a lot of nice people. Guys like me.” The community worker at BonteHond also recognizes this: “I also did community service in other places for this, and then I also had that prejudice: am I such a crook, do I hear here?” He himself is consciously reserved about it against his surroundings. “A lot of people around me don’t know that I did community service. People easily form an opinion about you, you are quickly seen as a danger to society.”
Faas hopes to break through that stigma. ‘We are you’ is a recurring sentence in the performance, which emphasizes that people with community service are often less distant from you than many people think. According to her, society is too geared up to distinguish between right and wrong. “Anyone who can’t keep up, ends up in another system and it’s hard to get out of that. Why can’t we openly go into the middle a little more often, so that you can look for both the safe area and the edges?”
She herself now also looks with less prejudice at a group of waste-picking young people in orange vests. “At the time I saw a group of prisoners, now I see different people, individual individuals, each with its own story.”
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A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 28, 2022