Are remakes the real deal?
Remakes could offer a sustainable, ethical and financially viable way to run international theatre productions. Saara Turunen’s Phantom of Normality, which received its world premiere in Finland, is transferring to Schauspielhaus Bochum, where it will be performed by a local German cast. The remake opens in September 2021.
Against the backdrop of the climate crisis, theatre makers are increasingly asking how best to deliver productions internationally. Single-show runs are considered problematic but tried-and-tested alternatives for running tours on a more sustainable basis are not yet available, unlike in the live music industry. A handful of logistically straightforward, smash-hit touring productions aside, what opportunities are there for theatre makers whose theatrical approach and on-stage aesthetic are altogether more resource-intensive?
The issue is an urgent one, given that it is increasingly rare for theatre professionals to be working within organisations where generous prop and set storage is readily available along with the kind of production muscle that’s needed to get the work back off the ground. Remakes represent one such opportunity.
Das Gespenst der Normalität, The Phantom of Normality
I am the managing director and producer at Turunen Company. Turunen Company was set up with the specific aim of bring director and playwright Saara Turunen’s work to the attention of international theatre audiences, prompted by the popularity of Turunen’s 2016 megahit The Phantom of Normality. The play attracted numerous expressions of interest from international producers, but due to a lack of resources, we were unable to meet that demand. Turunen Company was formally established in 2018, and The Phantom of Normality has now received its German premiere at the Schauspielhaus Bochum. Das Gespenst der Normalität is a remake of the original production that ran in Helsinki five years ago. In this instance, the term “remake” means that, in addition to the script, the production features the work of the set and costume designers attached to the original production. The cast and administrative staff are all German.
Alongside Saara Turunen, the creative team comprises set designer Milja Aho, sound designer Tuuli Kyttälä, costume designer Laura Haapakangas and choreographer Janina Rajakangas. The lighting, too, is based on the original design by Erno Aaltonen. The play has been translated into German by Stefan Moster.
Creating new practices – who pays who and for what exactly?
Remakes and other replicable and repeatable on-stage concepts are by no means a new invention. Musicals and operas have long been put on stage for the enjoyment of audiences the world over. But where Finnish contemporary drama is concerned, there is as yet no set of how-to’s to turn to if you’re looking to achieve something similar. So we set about creating our own. It’s not been an easy task for a small organisation like ours, but we’re proud to say that the effort we have put it has resulted in a succesful international collaboration.
Schauspielhaus Bochum is one of Germany’s many municipal theatres and a major producer of contemporary drama. Das Gespenst der Normalität now forms part of the theatre’s repertoire, and the theatre has acquired the rights to bring it back to its programme until summer 2023. Turunen Company retains a role as one of the producers, supported by our funders – Arts Promotion Centre Finland, Alfred Kordelin Foundation, Finnish Cultural Foundation, Goethe Institut Finnland and TINFO.
With less labour required to bring them to the stage, the lower costs associated with a remake could well turn out to be a crucial pull factor for productions of this kind.
The Finnish theatre designers involved in the project are employed directly by Turunen Company, and they are paid for their work in accordance with the relevant Finnish collective labour agreements and are also entitled to copyright fees.
There is currently no scale or other system available for calculating copyright fees in circumstances such as these in Finland. We consulted with the relevant Finnish trade unions and with TINFO’s international projects executive Jukka Hyde Hytti to find a formula that would be financially feasible and work for all parties, whilst also offering a template for other productions in the future. It was clear to us from the beginning that guidance needed to be put in place for this new way of working to allow everyone involved to look after their interests.
We strongly feel that remakes must not become a financially expedient and exploitative way for theatres to access drama, but it also makes sense for theatres to have the option of acquiring turnkey productions that have already premiered elsewhere and are ready to go on stage. With less labour required to bring them to the stage, the lower costs associated with a remake could well turn out to be a crucial pull factor for productions of this kind.
Scheduling and remote working
Discussions around the practicalities of bringing Das Gespenst der Normalität to the stage in Bochum first started back in early 2020. Schauspielhaus Bochum’s artistic director Johan Simons and dramaturge Jeroen Versteele’s working relationship with Saara Turunen dates back to 2012, when all three worked at the Münchner Kammerspiele together.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the plans for Das Gespenst der Normalität went on ice for a whole year. This hiatus was an opportunity for us at Turunen Company to seek additional Finnish funding for the project. Turunen Company is not self-funding, and we knew that additional support was needed for the collaboration and the concept to go ahead in a way that met the needs and expectations of all the parties involved.
Another consequence of the pandemic was that the theatre designers attached to the project have largely worked remotely. Milja Aho has managed the entire set building process from Finland. Before the production went into rehearsal in August 2021, the only member of the stage crew that had visited Germany was the costume designer’s assistant Liisa Pesonen who was needed for fittings. All in all, the rehearsals ran for one month. Saara Turunen, in her capacity as director, was present for the duration, while the design staff attended on an as-needed basis, the duration of their visits ranging from one to three weeks.
Pandemic or no pandemic, a design team working purely remotely is not a sensible or worthwhile option, but our experience has shown that there is more scope for successful off-site working than we’d previously thought. We hope that, when it comes to international theatre making, travel for travel’s sake will become a thing of the past and journeys will only be made where they are truly warranted.
Lessons learned and future perspectives
Besides learning that remote working can be done and discovering an unmet need for robust rights management practices, we also found that staging a remake can be a creatively and artistically satisfying process.
We hope that, when it comes to international theatre making, travel for travel’s sake will become a thing of the past and journeys will only be made where they are truly warranted.
The audiences in Bochum will experience a thoughtfully-constructed and finely-honed dramatic language that has been brought together with speed but not haste. Some minor adaptations have been made to the play to allow for a better fit with its new German context, but we have also viewed this as an opportunity to revisit it and introduce greater clarity and lucidity. Under the terms of our agreement, Schauspielhaus Bochum can choose to present the play on tour, and they can do so more sustainably than if a Finnish ensemble were to attempt the same. Nonetheless, this is an excellent opportunity to gain visibility for Finnish artists, for their work and their ideas, in Germany.
At Turunen Company, we view remakes, professionally tailored for specific language settings and carefully adapted for the receiving cultural context, as a valid and worthwhile approach to international theatre making. We are keen to continue to explore issues like conceptualisation, mobility and logistics and the process of bringing plays to audiences. We are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do so as part of TINFO’s LUO project.
By Heidi Backström
The translation of the article by Liisa Muinonen-Martin. Photo credit: Michael Saup