Former Classmates as Directors

 AkseJuhana

Akse Pettersson (left) and Juhana von Bagh (right) in sunny Tallinn. Picture: JHH

When theater directors Juhana von Bagh (b. 1981) and Akse Pettersson (b. 1984) sit around the same table and talk about theater, the interviewer has a full job trying to keep up with the conversation. These two men know each other well enough to finish each other’s sentences.

Both of them studied directing at Theatre Academy Helsinki, and they have been active at the Helsinki Student Theatre, the place where many Finnish theater professionals have taken the first steps on their careers. Petterson and von Bagh actively participate in the social discussion around theater arts and their current position in Finland.

We are sitting at a cafeteria on a ship that operates regularly between Finland and Estonia, talking about the outlook of exporting performances and expertise from Finland. However, we soon find ourselves discussing the sales and marketing trends of theater. Is it dangerous to transgress the border between art and entertainment? What attracts audiences today? Because these questions are more relevant than the interviewer’s original question, let’s focus on them first. There is no denying that without an audience, theatrical performances are so short-lived that no one has time to notice them outside Finland.

So, what sells and which themes touch the critical masses these days? The directors discuss the form and content of art in relation to external expectations. In their works, they try to create spaces where interesting artistic expression and content could unite in a form that speaks to people and has marketing potential.

Both directors have noticed a certain external pressure, especially when we start talking about directing for major stages. There is always a big financial risk involved. Should we have famous actors and authors on board? Should we do a classic Chekhov play or focus on our own thing? We move on to discussing performances and plays, and their relationship to works and authors.

“After the premier of Kaspar Hauser (at the Q-teatteri in 2014), I was asked for a copy of the original script. I said, there is no text in the traditional sense of the word. There is just a pile of material which we worked on as a team on stage,” Akse Pettersson says when describing the creative process behind one of the most hyped plays of last season. Nearly all the members of the Kaspar Hauser company were artists in their thirties who listened to their own voice and brought it on stage as such during the process.

Von Bagh says he liked the way video art was rooted in the legacy of visual arts in Petterson’s Kaspar. “Certain ‘painterly’ elements combined with audiovisual design gave the performance a strong three-dimensional aura,” he describes.

Petterson says he will continue the cooperation with Ville Seppänen (video and stage designer) and Kasperi Laine (sound designer and composer), which they started in Kaspar Hauser. They are working on a piece that will be performed on the main stage of Svenska Teatern (the Swedish theater in Helsinki). However, Petterson does not reveal much about the show yet. “It will be a version of the Titanic,” he says.

Before his studies at Theatre Academy Helsinki, Juhana von Bagh studied theater research at the University of Helsinki and drama at the Beckett Centre at Trinity College, Dublin. In addition to Ireland, his works abroad include directing at the Living Theatre in New York, as part of the Brooklyn College collaborative production. “In Ireland, theater is defined by canonical playwrights on one hand and by an American, almost commercial approach that is closer to the television on the other,” von Bagh says.

We move on to discussing classics, a topic that can also be approached as a question on gender. Could we say that doing heroic plays such as Shakespearean kings plays and Tuntematon sotilas — a Finnish masculine war novel that has spawned several adaptations on stage and film — is a male rite? Why do we see it like that? How do today’s directors fare with grand, national narratives of war heroes and with their authors? Can they relate to them?

Last year, von Bagh directed a radio drama of Tuntematon sotilas for Yle’s Radio 1 channel. “The drama portrayed war and the price children pay for the broken minds of men from the point of view of women,” von Bagh says. The radio play received lots of attention and gave rise to discussions, and it won the prestigious Koura prize. “We really wanted to take a stand on the myth of the Finnish hero and the myth of Finland,” he continues.

Could the stories of Teemu Selänne — the Finnish ice hockey legend — or Tony Halme (RIP) — show wrestler and member of parliament—be the next success stories of Finnish theater? And would these narratives offer anything besides the clichés found in typical masculine projects? Can today’s authors “skip” the classics or are they expected to take a stand on them? Or does the younger generation of theater professionals find their themes, metaphors, fundamental questions and statements elsewhere?

“In Finland, one cannot escape the tradition or the iconic classics,” von Bagh says pensively. “But the idea of directing a ‘modern interpretation’ of a classic is, by definition, a peculiar one. What else could the perspective of a contemporary director be like besides modern,” Pettersson wonders. “Then again, an old piece cannot be modernized simply by using cell phones as props or adding a few references to social media. Modern interpretations are essentially about seeing our own times in a new light.”

Marketing is something the younger generation of artists is comfortable with and willing to talk about. In today’s fragmented society, we have to re-define what sharing or having something in common means. How a performance sells is linked to how accessible it is. Nobody wants to make art for an empty house. The history of the Finnish theater is peculiar in that we do not have a tradition of classic court theater here. Popular theater has always attracted audiences with its themes and contents that can also be artistic. It is possible to draw lines between art and entertainment.

“But what is it that makes something into a phenomenon?” the directors ask, almost in unison. One never knows until the show is on, it is impossible to tell beforehand. Sometimes, criticism plays a major role in the reception. “Nowadays, also the media are a venue,” Petterson concludes.

Where are these thoughtful directors headed to next? Von Bagh will teach at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts for two weeks in November. Petterson is also drawn towards the Norwegian theater. Last spring, he directed a play at the Von Krahl Theatre in Tallinn, Estonia. “Cultural differences might be a bit smaller there,” he says. As a director, he is a firm believer in devising methods, but he does not criticize the methods he saw in Estonia, either.

We are almost there. The glass office buildings and medieval churches of Tallinn spread before our eyes through the window. Our next destination is the Estonian Theatre Festival Draama 2015.

Jukka Hyde Hytti

the writer is the Executive Producer of International Projects at TINFO – Theatre Info Finland