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Wheat swaying across the video screen — On visuality in Finnish theatre

Reija Hirvikoski

Email correspondence over artist’s work in the theatre; personal opinions and professional perspectives exchanged between scenographer and the curator of Finnish national exhibition in PQ11 Reija Hirvikoski and theatre director Mikko Roiha.

Helsinki, 13 Feb 2011

Hi Mikko! Greetings from Helsinki to Berlin!

When I think about how long we’ve known each other, I always go back to the year 2000, when we were both at the Oulu City Theatre as visiting artists, you on the small stage as director and me attacking stage and costume design on the large stage. My 9- and 10-year-old sons were with me there in Oulu for a time. At home we had been reading Philip Ridley’s Dakota, which you were directing there. One of the boys heard this and asked you the most fundamental question you can ask a director: “Have you read the book?” I was pretty amused by how I thought my son had hit the mark, since over the years I’ve seen plenty of directors show up for rehearsal without having done their “homework.” Without really even having read the play, not to mention solid, cooperative preparation and pre-work. This is unfortunately and sadly evident in the aesthetics of the Finnish theatre and their development, or actually, their lack of it. The theatre of our large, established houses is not, generally speaking, very visual — visual in terms of visual action and content. To this day, performances continue to be based solely on acting the text of the play into visibility, not on the team’s or director’s concept of the theme being performed or how it touches them on a personal level. The theatre is a language of its own, and building the language of a performance inevitably takes time and resources; it definitely does not happen by itself or by chance.

Where did this notion that has taken root in Finland come from, that the text is the “bible” of a theatrical performance? Why does the text need to be “realised” the way the author has written it? Why can’t it simply serve as a starting point? Why is it that theatre directors are equipped with such little visual imagination? I consider the scenography of these kinds of performances “living room sets” or “kitchen sets”. They strive for some sort of realistic space, maybe that precise living room, and the audience knows they’re looking at false so-called real space — at constructed walls, at facades. To me, this means the performance has not been thought through in advance far enough and deep enough. And in the end, the border to, for instance, the world constructed by German designer Anna Viebrock, whom I greatly admire, is extremely narrow. Maybe it’s a question of stylisation being taken sufficiently far?

Re: Berlin, 13 Feb 2010

Hi Reija!

I remember you from even earlier: we met for the first time at a scenography critique seminar. I was participating as a visiting student from the cinema arts department, where I was studying directing and screenwriting (few people remember that I have been working with “fake papers” for my entire career). Even back then, we were reflecting on these same themes. But something must have changed since then, and it has: the scenographers from a generation younger than myself act, compose, direct. There aren’t any strict borders between job descriptions anymore. I personally don’t believe in the “let the cobbler stick to his shoes” type of thinking. Perhaps because I’m interested in stage design myself, and because I’ve done it too. If you’re interested in something, for instance directing, then go for it. Experience will show whether anything will come of it. But we definitely won’t gain anything by defining who’s allowed to play in whose playground.

Your son’s question about reading the text hit the nail on the head. To be more precise: the most important job of the director and the scenographer is to discover what can be read from the text and to rewrite it into theatre. This entire generation does not take the traditions of the theatre, the stage, or the text as given. The theatre as a place, as an artistic genre, and as form of communication must be reinvented and recreated anew every time.

A couple of years ago I organised a week-long “Discovering Berlin” session for the scenography students from the Aalto University, School of Art and Design. They were given a task: to see the place as it is, to see it objectively as a realistic milieu. Then they were supposed to describe it and write it out as a scenography. The images of those who managed to complete the assignment were pretty good: a play from antiquity taking place in a metro station. The history of the place is double exposed against the contents of the play, engages in a dialogue with it.

It’s my understanding that specifically Anna Viebrock starts from here. In a way, she transfers the real place into the fictional framework of theatre. In the end, there is not much “artistness” in her thinking about the stage, and that’s precisely what makes her an outstanding scenographer: an ability to see place without major interpretation. The place itself is an interpretation.

This can also be accomplished the opposite way: by dismantling the theatre. At the moment, I (like many others) am interested in removing aesthetics. In other words, the problem lies not so much in creating worlds but in that, since aesthetics are created in any event (because the viewer automatically reads the marks placed on the stage), it’s important that theatre “an sich” does not come to the artist as a given.

Theatre is a very corporal undertaking. The body cannot exist at the playful levels of consciousness; first it must exist in extremely concrete time and space. I understand, however, your anxiety regarding kitchen sets: for me their problem lies not in realism but in naturalism. As if living rooms would spring from the mental/bodily experience of the living room as a place. I share your experience in that scenography seems to have become more two-dimensional. There is no space external to the stage for people to enter, in other words the reality of the performance ends as if at the studio walls. You can do things this way, too, but then it becomes an assertion of a worldview.

I think that we have things pretty good in Finland, there are a lot of talented people, but what we are missing is concepts. Few scenographers dare to trust that the actor will fill the space/image, often the stage designers want to cover their backs and that’s why they express too much. It’s not just that “less is more”, but that when we get caught up in the process, adjustments aren’t made to the original plan without major justification. In the Finnish tradition of the theatre, the keyword is process, everything is all done together. It was interesting hearing Salli Kari, a gifted scenographer student on exchange in Berlin, say that in Germany the scenographer is considered completely separate from the director. That this may give the director a spike of adrenaline, that my direction has to be better than the stage design.

I’m personally not interested in criticising directors or scenographers. Identity and its strengths or weaknesses cannot really be settled at the level of the trade union. In other words, if scenographers continue to believe they are subservient to un-visual directors, then all we can say is, start teaching them. That means sitting in rehearsals and forcing the director to see. The theme will work within us, no matter how we try to control it, it will come out whatever path it sees fit. And it’s pretty rare that it does so without a struggle.

Re: Helsinki, 12 March 2011

Hi Mikko! Artistic worries seem minor when compared to the current turmoil in Japan. Powerless is man in “all of his wisdom” against the forces of nature.

I absolutely agree with you that it’s amazingly fantastic that times are changing! What I thought and mean is evidently difficult to express in words. I didn’t mean to say that scenographers are subservient to directors or directors predominate over scenographers — but that often when I watch a performance, I wonder why the director has agreed to accept some “pitfall” as the so-called scenography or spatial solution. It’s all the same whether the team has discussed the matter for hours beforehand or if the decision was made in the so-called hierarchical, old way — the stage designer making decisions in his/her own studio and bringing it to the director, “You just direct for this scale model, I’m going to start working on my next production”. Since the director is, after all, the person who has final say — as the supervisor of the work — regarding the space in which the action of the play takes place, why has he/she approved an artistically stillborn solution?

When I talk about visuality of action, I mean the stagification that takes place specifically through the necessary corporality of the actor. The actor must also understand that they are part of the visual world of the performance. I specifically believe that people, with all of their personal gifts or strengths, are part of this process. I absolutely am an aesthetic person. But there are many types of aestheticisms, and real rules do not even exist when it comes to the aesthetics of the stage. It’s interesting why one thing works and another one doesn’t. When I look at the scenography of the German designer Johannes Schütz, I can’t really believe that they have been designed separately from the director (for instance, Jürgen Gosch), without a common vision. To me, it is not a different thing to be an independent, strong artist and still capable of cooperation — even as someone who participates in processes.

What exactly do you mean by conceptualism in this context? Do you feel it’s a good or bad thing that original plans are not adjusted without major justification?

Spatial, embodied experience is a good expression for a concept. As you say, there are talented people in Finland. For instance, an astounding spatial sensibility is created in the scene from the National Theatre’s Under the North Star 2011 (Väinö Linna — Mika Myllyaho and Saana Lavaste, premiere 17 Feb 11) where the tenant farmer Jussi climbs up a hugely tall ladder to view a projected, moving, stage-wide close-up of a wheat field — in an otherwise pretty bare stage. Because the shot of the field is so broad and projected light and Jussi are up so high, the viewer experiences the landscape as extremely open and infinite. The magic of the stage is created simply, in a modern way, even naturalistically, but at the same time abstractly.

Another excellent example of spatial as well as narrative experience is definitely Leea Klemola’s direction New Karleby at the Tampere Theatre (premiere 25 Feb 11). A breath-taking world of its own! The visuality is based on almost completely naturalistic places, but the absurdity of the text and then the spunk and madness of the direction and the acting, which is supremely corporal, belong seamlessly to that world. The performance also features ingenious lighting design (Raimo Salmi). Narrow strips of light, dark landscapes, and precise spots. In its own way, the lighting design supports precisely the realistic/naturalistic elements of the set by cropping them from the image, but the viewer knows and senses they exist. Talk about an image of Finland!

Learn to direct yourself. Yes, it has crossed my mind. I’ve designed costumes without training in the field, after all. Why did you start designing stages yourself, by the way?

Re: Berlin, Minna Canth day 19 Mar 2011

Just returned from Finland, luckily it’s sunny here at home; spring is on its way. Hi Reija!

Basically Schütz and Gosch repeated the same concept from one project to the next. For me, the box that made frequent appearance on stage means a metaphor for Western culture and human being. When Gosch fell ill and knew he was going to die, all that remained of the box was the back wall. There was nothing else left. In the work that ended up being their last, Roland Schimmelpfenning’s variant of the ancient Greek play Idomeneus, the lights go down at the end, but the actors’ forms glow as negatives against the retina for a long time. Due to their lack of external action, Gosch’s performances demand much of the audience, but they leave a trace and a spatial experience. This is precisely what I mean by concept-centred: that the design has been extremely carefully considered, that there is a clear direction that is being striven for. Then the performances breathe new life not only into the stage but to the auditorium as well. By stripping away, it begins to grow inwards. And the audience recognises the style and can immediately read the meanings of the solutions involved in this new thing.

You asked why I started designing myself. Maybe because I’m not able to direct if the stage design is fundamentally wrong. I know my limits, what I’m capable of and what I’m not. Some scenographers have experienced me as overbearing, because it’s true that I’m not very interested in their “art”. If a scenographer tries to express too much, it can start to eat the performance. Many stage designs would be good if too much expression were removed from them. In this sense, I feel that the scenography needs to be left “incomplete”, because you have to leave an actor-sized gap in it. My most important colleague, the scenographer Annukka Pykäläinen, came up with ingenious ideas on the fly just by reading the cover of a play. I had told her what it was was about (she did read the text later). But maybe through this “laziness” with regard to reading, the idea was realised that you have to design the theme, not the play or its “surface”. I think this is the same thing you find lacking in directors.

The cooperation between director Leea Klemola and scenographer Erkki Saarainen is an excellent example of how realism appears idiosyncratic and absurd when twisted into a certain position. In the North Star, on the other hand, the experience of realism is created through mood. The enormous stalks of grain swaying on the video screen are, after all, real to Jussi Koskela, they’re where his bread comes from. That is why it’s not a question of stylistic orientation, let alone trends. You could do the most clichéd solution imaginable and with one tiny twist turn it into something modern. Everything is possible, there are no limits. That’s why I think that the artist has to start by limiting himself, throwing the extraneous ideas in trash right away and see if it’ll start emerging from those that remain.

Re: London, Tate Modern café, 24 March 2011

The sun is shining here, yesterday it was +17°C, still a little morning fog, the cherries are in bloom, the birds are nesting, and the Brits are discussing their 2011 budget. Hi Mikko!

I thought Idomenius was an amazing performance! Wonderful! One of the most touching theatre experiences. Well thought out, a simple but very demanding spatial solution that emphasised the work of the actors. German actors have an enviably refined capacity to handle text. It demands special understanding of an actor to act in a space where there is no support from illustrative, realistic elements — kitchen chairs and coffee cups. And not really even space — just a white wall at their backs and a cramped downstage. The white box is not a new idea, it’s true, but when it works as part of the whole — it’s always fresh and feeds the imagination. Great minimalisation!

Wonderful that you responded exactly the way you did. I believe that it’s possible to proceed conceptually in processes as well. For instance, when I’m doing performances with Kaisa Korhonen, she as a director formulates the theme or the starting point — why this certain text touches her as a person at this very moment — and always discusses it with me, asking my views, too. I always approach the theme through the performance space as well. I intuitively seek out the contact surface between the theme and the existing space and think about what kinds of changes it demands or what should be added to it to make the performance work. I also think about the director’s way of dealing with actors or characters. When I’m making scale models, I think more about the limits of the space in terms of the actor’s work than the final surface materials of the so-called set design. I resolve spatial points of departure, which we discuss broadly with Kaisa. Although I also think in colours, I don’t often colour the model into a complete miniature set, I want to leave myself things to resolve during the process. I don’t want to get locked into my thoughts. I often have a sense of what the right direction is. Inside the overall concept, it is absolutely possible to make changes that don’t have an effect inside the larger parameters. For instance, the placement of objects used on the stage can change continuously, as long as their spatial tension remains intense. When we did The Idiot at the City Theatre of Espoo — I resolved the progress of the space and the story with easily movable, transparent wall elements with doors in them that communicated with the spare, black, industrial space of the theatre and the play’s many scenes of action. The director and I played with the model in advance, going through the play once, a second time, and then moved the positioning of the walls once more. Then we started rehearsals and came up with yet another way of doing things. Because the philosophy of the moveable walls included the idea that it takes place according to the mental movements of the actor or the play’s character, we had one entire rehearsal where we moved the walls with the actors according to the story. This also convinced the actors were about the effect, and of the importance of the effect created by the movement. It became continuous, endless choreography with walls. We broke for the summer, and when we went through the text again — the position of the walls moved once more. We were wiser in terms of the functionality, effectiveness, and content of the story. I think this is possible, but it demands trust, respect, and active presence at rehearsals. When you’re in the middle of it, this type of conceptual process sucks up all your energy, and it demands openness. As a scenographer, I feel that I step pretty far into the so-called directing side with Kaisa.

You guessed right, I want to influence. And to get interactive feedback. To me that is the salt of my work. I’m not sure if I would want to resolve the entire thing entirely by myself and alone. My sons and I just had Sunday lunch at Chicester, on the English coast, at the house of my colleague, the British “superdame” Pamela Howard. Pamela has started a new, post-retirement life — now she’s directing around Europe. She is also designing everything herself with the help of her assistants. Pamela is thinking that maybe she should have started earlier.

I’m always on the side of the production as a whole — I don’t consider myself as having succeeded particularly well if, for instance, the reviews mention that wow, amazing stage design. On the other hand, a fine process and end result deserves a breakdown noting the analysed cooperation. But who does this work for others? And this work is truly difficult, true successes are few and far between. Luckily they exist!