Sugar Sugar

Is it a bird, a plane, a theatre or a club? What exactly is happening at the new Sugar Factory? [A follow-up story from two years later can also be read below.]

By Steve Korver, 07-04-2005, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly



“How often will I have to sit down and shut up?”

This was the first question I asked Jacek Rajewski (aka DJ Polack), a typical Polish cowboy poet type who — in the name of full disclosure —  also happens to belong to that elite army of men I most like to bear hug. He’s also one of the prime movers behind the Nachttheater Sugar Factory, which opened over four nights this past week in a happy chaos of theatre, music, art, and dance. Hell, they even had some poetry.

Ah sweet poetry… If only it had the power to leap from the page and literally slap a cream pie in your face. But meanwhile theatre remains the art form best suited to real-time interaction between performer and audience. But for that to happen the performers have to interact with or at least engage the audience. If they don’t, the audience fall asleep or — in this our famously big-mouthed city — they just start yacking or dropping commentaar. So the downside of theatre — as philistines like myself see it anyway — is that when you’re in one you often have to sit down and shut up.

“Oh there’ll definitely be times when you’ll have to sit down and shut up,” Rajewski replied. The way he looked at me — deep into my restless, feckless soul — when he said this suggested that this was a good time to do so.

‘Actually sitting and theatre have never been traditionally tied to each other,’ he continued. ‘In the 18th century, the famed Gran Teatro La Fenice had standing room only. People drank, talked and mingled through the night and only quietened down slightly for the performance itself. And in 20th century Paris they had vaudeville (a beautiful word that translates as “voices of the city”), where you most definitely heard the voices of the audience even during the shows.’

Theatres in the past were generally social venues too, he tells me. People went to theatre in those days for the same reasons people go to clubs today: to meet people, to be seen, to exchange gossip — and maybe get sucked into the performance. The modern post-Warhol conception of theatre comes closer to the older tradition of theatre, Rajewski believes, because it is based on the idea of the ‘happening’, a form flexible enough to involve all the arts. This will be the basis of the Sugar Factory’s programming, he said.

‘You could also call what we are after a “total event”,’ he continued. ‘This suggests something that’s been more engineered, rather than spontaneously performed. But we see both approaches as fighting the gravity of over-thinking. We want action. We have no deep philosophy. We just want to create contexts where there’s as little divide between artists and public as possible. We want to generate new approaches to night culture. If they prove successful, they can be worked out more commercially elsewhere.’

The Sugar Factory, Rajewski said, is ‘a laboratory where different variables can be brought together to see what happens.’ He admitted, and indeed insisted that the idea wasn’t, properly speaking, especially new. But Amsterdam ought to take some aspects of its historical legacy more seriously, he argued. Certainly, spontaneous events were a feature of the city’s cultural life in the 1960s, when the Provos carefully orchestrated mind games meant to provoke the Man and in turn invented happenings that became so important to hippy culture. Their ‘White Constable Plan’ envisioned white-clad cops equipped with lighters for joint-smokers, chickens for the hungry, and oranges for the thirsty. Now that’s what I call sheer interactive genius!

Rajewski attributes the apparent lack of interest of such aspects of the city’s history to a general trend in contemporary Western society where there’s been a tendency to smashing the past and building everything anew. ‘In Central Europe, there’s much more a history of respecting your elders,’ he said. ‘Older generations of performers are still listened too and not cast aside as old-fashioned.’

(Central Europe, in case you have not been updated yet, refers to those new EU countries formerly known as East Europe. It’s also interesting to note that while people regard Warhol as quintessentially American, he was in fact a Slovak. A gay Slovak. A gay Slovak who went to America and interacted big time…)

The people behind Sugar Factory are not all gay Slovaks and Polish cowboys. They cover a whole range of backgrounds, ages and urges. Rajewski and the other three co-owners — finance guy Peter de Goede, technical dude Jan van Ommen and production manager Jez Cox — all have impeccable credentials in both the theatre and club worlds. Mira Driessen, of the global arts network Stichting MAF (Miraculous Art Freaks), who is also the person behind clubnight H*RT, will be the Factory’s external programmer.

“Every night should feel like a festival, an ongoing celebration, an art carnival, an indoor street party,’ said Rajewski, getting down to some specifics. ‘It should be Museumnacht every nacht…. And yes, of course we want to organize our own festival, so that we can take our approach back onto the streets. But we’d also like to develop partnerships with, for example, the Holland Festival, working with De Balie, Stadsschouwburg, Paradiso and Melkweg.’

Rajewski said that the Sugar Factory had particularly strong bonds with the Melkweg already. ‘Which is beautiful, since we were actually connected by a direct tunnel in the time when they were a milk factory and we were a sugar factory…”

It was time to ask the inevitable question that Rajewski will undoubtedly be asked a lot in the next while. At the Roxy — that legendary club that lit a lot of fires before burning to the ground (literally)–there was often no line between the freaks who were performing and the freaks who were merely attending. This was part of its charm.

“Um, since Sugar Factory will have a lot of DJs, and your whole approach seems at least somewhat “clubby”, are you out to be the new Roxy?”

“Well, we have hired a lot of Roxy bartenders,’ Rajewski replied. ‘But every club that’s opened or changed in the last years has hyped itself as the new Roxy and failed, so we’re not even going there. But I do see a vague kinship with the Roxy in its first couple of years, when it was less a club and more a “salon of the arts”. There’s a hole in the city. All the places where dance culture was brought to the next level — the Roxy, Mazzo, IT, squats like Silo and Vrieshuis — have closed. In dance culture today, there are mostly only predictable parties and lots of hangovers. We still want to take things to the next level.’

Rajewski said he wanted to see dance culture, street culture and festival culture all interacting at the same occasions, and even on the same nights.

‘We regard DJ and dance culture simply as culture. We see them as heritages to build on, just as we can build on cabaret, experimental theatre or any other podium art. Meanwhile the government still regards DJs as just a part of horeca — which is to say, as background entertainment for drinking…”

Rajewski trailed off as he recalled the hassles involved in setting up a new theatre in this city. The former Amuse Theatre had a ‘cultural’ rather than a horeca designation, and they had to prove that they weren’t planning to open just another club. Support from the Nachtwacht (the politically active collective of DJs, club owners and promoters who were elected as Amsterdam’s ‘night mayors’ on a platform bent on slowing the city’s perceived process of vertrutting or frumpification) and some hip and committed politicians — ‘yes, they do exist’ — helped to move things along.

Now all the hurdles have finally been jumped. “All the ingredients are there, now it’s just time for action,” said Rajewksi, bouncing back from his flashback to the bureaucrats who had made his life hell in the last months.

And boy, there were lots of activated variables to witness during the Sugar Factory’s first four opening nights. It begins with on the architectural level: the elevated walkway that surrounds the main stage allows visitors to see and be seen. The first month-long art exhibition, “In the Beginning” features work by ten artists and covers the range from the front-and-centre-stage B&W photography of Jolanda Kempers to the video work of Duro Tomatoo. (Be warned: the latter features a dancing dick made of a skinned rabbit that may inspire some visitors’ stomach contents to get interactive with a toilet bowl.)

Mutant cabaret and sick clowning came courtesy of Ewan Cameron. Professional freak Ana Montana performed her brand of deeply odd but always engaging burlesque. Young scratching maestros C’Mon & Kipsky wowed the crowd with their band. Mzzz Erin Tasmania fronted the soul band Juice Box and collaborated with the Jazz Juice DJ collective, proving her ability to sing and her lightning tongue’s talent for interacting with a crowd, which that evening was populated with many Club Vegas regulars and happy transvestites. And dancer Paul Selwyn Norton had no problem transfixing the crowd for 45 minutes with his fast and furious choreography and blunted beats.

Any of the inevitable opening night blips went by largely unnoticed in the chaos of creativity. “It’s theatre and it works!” Rajewski enthused when I caught up with him later in the weekend. And put it this way: it may not be a club, but the place will certainly keep people dancing until 5 every morning.

A lot of old Roxy regulars were at the opening, which may answer the question I’d posed to Rajewski earlier. A friend who used to hang out there way more than I ever did, pointed out a lady in the crowd wearing a rather exotic outfit.

“She had a bit of a reputation,’ he told me. ‘She used to come off the stage at the Roxy, grab a guy and drag him backstage and fuck them.’

Maybe, just maybe, the good times are back. So tune in, drop in and get all interactive with your ass.


After two years of jumping higher than their ass, Sugar Factory is on the map.

By Steve Korver, 29-03-2007, Amsterdam Weekly.

AmsterdamWeekly_Issue13_29MTwo years ago, the Sugar Factory opened as a new kind of club—mixing theatre, music, art and dance, while seeking to blur the lines between performers and audience. It was about delivering a ‘total event’ six nights a week. And it’s safe to say things have gone swimmingly: on any given night one may encounter live action painting, an anorexic Karen Carpenter tribute, a big band playing breakbeats, spoken-word ravers or a performance featuring Hitler kebab. Then there’s always old-fashioned ass-shaking after 11 p.m.

The club’s artistic director Jacek Rajewski—who could be described as a passionate Polish cowboy poet-type (yes, one of those)—set things up along with three partners. He had already been around block as both DJ and clubnight organiser for the 15 years he’d been the city—the perfect man to look both back and forward on amsterclubland.

‘So do you feel like Andy Warhol?’

‘No fucking way!’ answers Rajewski. (Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Andy suffering from RSI.) ‘I have no time to be a horecalcoholic. I spent the last two years in an office with colleagues focusing on the three P’s: programming, publicity and promotion. At the beginning, there was the discrepancy between the concept and the reality. Fixing the loose ends, dealing with the unknown factors and walking in the fog while taking the balloon of the concept back down to earth. It was a very stressful life. A chess game where you have a plan but then you had to save your rook’s ass. But it actually went much quicker than we thought. We are established. Two years ago we would book Ellen ten Damme and no one would come, but now we can do any programme on a Friday and everyone will come. Now we can catch up with ourselves and enjoy more than sweat for it.’

Sugar Factory seemed to arrive at the right time with the right concept. Along with Studio 80, 11 and Bitterzoet, Sugar Factory marked a point where clubs became more homey, less pretentious and even attractive to those kroeg-types who prefer their ceilings low and the option to have their geouwehoer uninterrupted in a quieter corner. ‘I think there was a point of general enlightenment a few years ago where clubs became more creatively inspired than criminally inspired,’ observes Rajewski. ‘Clubs in the Eighties and Nineties tended to be money machines treating their employees like shit and their public worse. Everyone was stoned… But I don’t think the city had anything to do with changing this with their clampdowns. It’s the public that gives it all the real twist. Today’s public is more social, and socially aware. They have different needs. They want their intelligence and their aesthetics triggered. They want to be part of an event. Not just getting drunk and stoned.

‘Of course they also have more money than ten years ago—ten euros is a lot for entry and that’s normal now. And they’re no longer persecuted for having money: before, Amsterdam had tons of squatters running around ready to call you “yuppie” if you enjoyed the finer things. Today clubbers don’t roll shag, they smoke cigarettes. It’s more metropolitan.’

So what has Rajewski learned the last two years? ‘You can’t jump higher than your ass,’ he laughs. ‘For me personally, it was how to go out there and stand up for your ideas. To talk, meet, create. A new way of thinking about what nightlife can be. About sticking to the core idea—that we are about culture and just not horeca baasjes out for money. We had to work to counteract the idea of the shady boss. I know some of my colleagues at other clubs are much more disillusioned about these prejudices. Bitter even.’

He then trails off while looking wistful: ‘Oh, and I learned how not to lose my cool…’

‘There’s still resistance to development inside the city government. But now there’s a much stronger front. Melkweg, Paradiso, Studio 80, Bitterzoet, nachtburgemeester Chiel van Zelst and many others are working more as a united front to inspire politicians to think differently. There’s great initiatives, like the Fringe Festival that seeks to bring underground theatre to mainstream locations, but on the local political level, we still need the big breakthrough. We are close to breakthrough on how culture is financed, different ways of getting money. A change of quality: instead of banning smoking—a dark medieval idea—we can think of new ventilation systems as Paul Hermanides is busy with.’

And how about the next two years? ‘Stay independent and artistic. Get finance for bigger projects. I also want to see more programming for youth—inspire them just as they are beginning to enjoy their first years of adulthood. And if I could be real ambitious, I want to see a new public square. Leidseplein seems like a lost cause with no vision but perhaps we can create a new square along Lijnbaansgracht connecting us to the soon-to-be-connected-anyway Melkweg and Stadsschouwburg. It would be a place for a street theatre festival, an alternative market…’

OK, it’s hard to imagine the police giving up their direct route to Leidseplein, but meanwhile at least trying to jump higher than one’s ass remains a great way to stay in shape.

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