ago Holstebro, a tiny town in the western corner of Denmark, was a dispirited
and dying place. It had 35,000 inhabitants and absolutely nothing about
its architecture, history or environs to brag about. The technological
and agricultural changes sweeping Denmark had hit hard: mechanization
and marketing cooperatives had ended Hosltebros role as a market
town and left it facing a dreary future of unemployment and depopulation.
The city council decided that only a drastic change of life could lead
to economic recovery. The politicians embarked on a remarkable course
of action which not only saved Holstebro but turned it into a boom town.
This wasnt achieved by conventional methods. No attempt was made
to attract new enterprises by offering tax reliefs or rebates, or by building
factories or malls. Instead Holstebro fought back by launching a rapid
and ambitious cultural revolution, like that of an Italian Renaissance
city-state, where the rise of bourgeois economics was accompanied by dreams
of artistic splendor. The standard-bearer of the revolution was the Odin
Theatre, a 350-seater planned as an avant-garde laboratory
where unconventional, cutting-edge drama would be developed and produced.
Under the leadership of a young, audacious Italian, Eugenie Barba, a disciple
of such modernists as Grotowski, Brook and Chaikin, the Odin quickly achieved
fame on the continent as the place to go for provocative theatre. Audiences
traveled to Holstebro in such numbers that the theatre was not only credited
with having put the town on the map but turning its troubles around.
When I pitched the Holstebro story to a British theatre magazine the resulting
assignment brought me there for a long weekend. When I checked into a
hotel, the desk clerk, noting my nationality, asked me what I thought
of the then-current bombing of Belgrade by NATO and predominately American
Its perfectly understandable, I said. The U.S.
air force has been in desperate need of target practice for some time
Mistake. Not only was it a stupid joke, it was taken seriously. By the
time I had showered, changed and begun to walk to the Odin Theater, the
word on the street was that an Ugly American had come to town. I got cold,
hostile stares from everyone I encountered, even at the Odin where I learned,
much to my dismay, that the theatre would be dark for the weekend, the
director and most of the company having taken off for Copenhagen to take
part in an anti-war demonstration. The box office person refused to allow
me to enter the theatre, fobbing me off with a brochure describing some
of the plays that had been performed there lately.
Back to the center of town I went, for a closer look at Denmarks
cultural miracle. Holstebro was pleasant-looking and built
on a human scale: no high-rises or heavy industry. Most structures had
been given a facelift; traffic was banned; streets were strewn with flags
and flowers. There was a Giacometti sculpture in the town square, not
far from a music hall where Tampa Red would be giving a blues concert
that night. When I inquired after a ticket, I was told the recital was
We rarely have empty seats for our concerts, the clerk said.
Holstebro is packed to the brim with tourists on weekends.
What had helped Holstebros revitalization is that Denmark is a planned
state whose high taxes provide amble revenue for social tinkering. Still,
the town had gambled on culture being the answer to its problemsand
had come up a winner. As the mayor, Knud Nielsen, said proudly, We
have no unemployment now. Our population is growing at 2 ½ per
cent a year. The towns image is good, and pubs, shops and inns keep
Nielson credited the Odin Theatre with having led Holstebros renaissance.
Barbas work attracted the top critics in Denmark. They were
followed by critics from the rest of Europe. We couldnt have purchased
such media coverage. Theatrelovers responded to the attention and began
attending performances on a regular basis. Many fell in love with Holstebro
itself and recommended it to their friends, who began to spend their holidays
here. Soon we found ourselves enjoying an affluence and popularity we
had never imagined possible.
Nielsen suddenly interrupted his peroration to offer me a drinkand
to ask me a blunt question: Just what in hell are you Americans
doing in Serbia? Do you really think you can bring the civil war to an
end by killing innocent civilians?
This time I played it smart. I bit my tongue until it bled.