Theatre as a Way of Life, Wordlessness, Dyslexia & Why We Need New Stories

Eva Andrea Ter Avest Dahm. You’ll be damned trying to pronounce the name and lucky to get it right, unless you are of Dutch origin.

But what if you did not try. What if you visualized the name. What character can you make out from the letters you see. Any scents? Colours? Ideas?

I tried this exercise and, I felt, coming to me of the name was a certain whisky like strength (very present but at the same time subtle), the colour ocean blue, the scent of soil and the idea that her story is one that should be told.

I remember, telling a friend, who is a genial photographer and producer, that she needs to meet Andrea, the dramatist, working on a very interesting project. Once again, it was just a feeling that they should meet. She asked, “What’s her second name?” and what did I answer … “I can’t say it but I can show it to you and you can decide how to say it.” She did not say it. She simply read it and nodded = wordlessness.

Only after having this interview with Andrea, did I realize I was in part living in the manner she had described and that was what made life easier to navigate, to sometimes tolerate, to celebrate and to love. The same for the contrary- when I did not live in this manner, everything was too tasking to bear.

I need to start with what, to me, is the most fascinating way to. Andrea, blond hair, blue eyes, was born in Nigeria, where she lived to age 5. A place that so many years later was to be the source of what will be her first feature film. Nigeria to her is a country with “a fire always somewhere in the air” that holds a melody of talk and laughter- a space she felt at home in.

Her world view is coiled in what she calls wordlessness. She grew up as a dyslexic, and only recently discovered that her first born son was of the same ‘language’.

“Wordlessness is the word that occupies my thinking quite a lot at the moment, and I think it is a gift that makes us stronger in all the languages that do not use words: body language, spiritual connections … To come out of the world of words gives us a strong observance of all those other energies that are communicated or around us – in a room, around a person, a social gathering, an intention behind an email…  those things.”

According to Andrea, people, more so Europeans (with permission to generalize) are losing that ‘lack of focus’ which helps us identify the very thing we are seeking. “You do not need to focus on a star to see its shape, or focus on spotting a rhino to find it,” she explains, making reference to the book by Martha Becks, Finding Your Way in a New Wide World. We live by a check list which we are trying to tick off; always rushing somewhere but forgetting the journey and the smiles along the way – the real ‘soul contacts’ that make you change direction, or travel together or enjoy the journey in a much deeper way.

I asked her if she felt Dutch and if the Dutch felt she was Dutch. Having not lived in the Netherlands since 1999, she has often wondered, when attending cultural gatherings, such as the Sinterklaas / Dutch Christmas, here in Nairobi, what should make her Dutch. At this point we shift to comparing the traits we often come across in a group of people. Dutch are considered easy going, social and free, yet very direct which can be perceived as rude. Quite contrary to the English way, which she experienced while trying to survive as an actress in London for a period of 5 years. “I like that sense of being able to disagree with friends and having fiery discussions, and even though I learnt the English way of using flowery words while cutting a knife in someone’s happiness and turning it round, I never grew to like it.”

Andrea started her theatre journey at age 7. Once again, it was the wordlessness aspects of it, the storytelling magic. Her first play was the classic story of The Little Prince.

“Theatre, it’s my language,” of which she says, “we all need a cathedral to reflect, dream, deal with anxieties together.”  This could be theatre or churches, communities- that place where you can celebrate the journey of life, source the strength, by meeting others, to make tough decisions or feeling lighter and euphoric when “meeting the good” and sharing those moments in spaces we trust.

She then worked on several plays in the Netherlands, leading to her first TV role at age 18, in turn introducing her to the method that will be used in her upcoming  feature film ASHE. The method entails whispering to actors the goal in the scene rather than providing them with a script. The actor improvises until they grow into that role.

Her journey has had tremendous synergy, that the Directing Assistant, Eugenie Jansen, in Andrea’s first film by Ruud Schuitenmaker (don’t pronounce it just visualize it), the father of that method, will be working with her on her feature film, which she hopes he will live to see. The film ASHE is based on the Osun Grove, a UNESCO heritage site in Osogbo, Nigeria, created by the Austrian artist, Susanne Wenger. “I think she was far ahead of her time in following an inner (spiritually guided) compass independent of what society or parents or friends ‘demanded or expected’. It is a deep and personal journey, a jump in the deep waters; it’s energizing, enriching and extremely exciting.”

And while people are ticking check lists, Andrea is appreciating that African theatre tradition is not a separation of storytelling, history and entertainment but all entwined, giving a more active role to the audience. To her, as a modern day griot/travelling storyteller, those traditions embody holistic storytelling.

Even as a dramatist, Andrea has never thought of herself as a writer. Her Danish husband reads through everything she writes, and she prefers to think of her scripts as an invitation to play. “You know Shakespeare wrote his name in 33 different ways,” she says. Black and white, 2D, does not resonate with her. Then came the opportunity to do her feature film in 3D and this changed everything. She felt she was finding her tribe and her language.

“The brain of dyslexic people finds it hard to see the world in 2D, our brains are more spatial, more attuned to the signals presented in a 3D world, be it sounds, birds, change in energy, body language etc.”

She coincidentally came across a book by Ronald D. Davis, The Gift of Dyslexia, which made her consciously aware of her special traits and her son’s way of seeing life, “My son can have a travelling perception, a centre of consciousness that might change place, travel outside his head. He thinks in 3D and constructs his experience with pleasure in wood. He reads quite badly and he can be lost in a painting, where I have to carefully call him back.” Andrea explains how this is a gift, in that they can see the world in a way that the 2D wordy world can not. She encourages others to learn from the dyslexic instead of trying to make them fit into the world of words.


All this comes to the fact that the world is in desperate need of new stories; fewer films but more depth – both in picture and in theme.

“The movie business has become an iceberg salad; a tasteless copy of itself, a machine with formulas of empty stories that do not enrich or bring us anything new,” she explains, in hope that people will dive deep to tell the stories only they can and want to tell.

Ironically, a few hours before this interview, I had literally quoted Roland Barthes to another friend, in a moment of feeling that emptiness in our stories.

“The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions—these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”

For Andrea, the new stories need to motivate us to navigate in this world of chaos on the way to a new consciousness; stories that help us find our authenticity, as only then can we contribute to healing the world- as unique individuals.

We can learn from Andrea, that slowing down and considering each moment in our life as our work can bring us closer to attaining this goal.

In Her Own Words

“ I see all the time not ‘working’ as very productive for my work. It has been a confidence issue to accept that for me a walk in the forest is work as this is where I get the ideas – receive them. In the afternoons, and while cooking and putting my three children to bed, I am not actively ‘working’, but all sorts of things sort themselves, unconsciously, while my hands are busy with practical things; when I return to the technical work in the evenings I am mega productive. Even driving in the car is amazing for sorting characters’ journeys and ideas. I always carry a notebook, or my telephone has quite good notes that end up in my work. Finally, it has been freeing to have 5 years to develop a feature film, instead of the 5 plays a year at the theatre. Now, I am finding my dream team of producers, the world and travel is concentrated in visiting the first Africa Hub at the Berlinale, or the 3D Booster in Belgium … all the other time I am the spine of this family breathing the daily rhythms of not so very small children any more.”

Some of Eva Andrea’s Ter Avest Dahm Other Works Include:
  • Westgate Woman- a play she developed with the writers collective she founded – Turaco Tree Writers, which will premiere at the Story Moja Festival in Nairobi this September (2017);
  • The Hijab Monologues where she interviewed over 100 women on their likes and dislikes of wearing the hijab. In this project she enjoyed getting to know women who held perspectives other than the western feminist views that she does not feel at home with, for the reason that they have become a way of judging women by their ability to be a man/ encompass the qualities of men.

*The first ever 3D film that Andrea watched was The Film for Pina Baush, renowned dancer and choreographer. She drew her inspiration for ASHE from this in sensing that 3D was necessary to tell more of the worldlessness, depict the surrounding and Susanne’s artwork better, to add texture and to show her journey in another dimension.

*ASHE is an African philosophical concept of life force, through which the Yoruba of Nigeria conceive the power to make things happen and to create change. They also say it as a greeting or blessing at the end of an interaction or email.

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