Ceyda Berk-Söderblom

Linguistic coexistence on stage

Ceyda Berk-Söderblom wants to emphasize the potential that theatres have for improving cultural plurality on stage.

How could Finnish theatre become both multilingual and multicultural? This sort of multilingualism would mean that there would be people working within the theatre whose native language is something other than Finnish, Swedish, or Sámi. Sámi isn’t even currently heard at all in our theatres. Multilingualism and multiplicity would mean that the subject matters would be available in other languages as well. Our Swedish theatres are currently at the frontlines of this linguistic accessibility. They have the capacity to provide audiences with real-time subtitles in Finnish or English – meaning they already view language as either an obstacle or an opportunity.

The Ministry of Education and Culture’s open think tank gives people the opportunity to influence and bring forth their own visions and suggestions regarding how multiplicity could be advanced within the field of art and culture. This think tank is open until May 31st, 2020. One of the organizations partaking in this development is Globe Art Point. We reached out to their chair of the board, Ceyda Berk-Söderblom, for some insights. We were especially interested in what diversity and particularly multilingualism could mean within our theatres.

Why does our theatre tend to ‘Other’ those whose native language is not Finnish or Swedish?

Ceyda Berk-Söderblom: ‘Othering people’, or ‘exclusion’ in general, is a fundamental challenge faced by many culturally pluralistic societies. In order to understand the reasons behind it we must emphasize a number of factors.

First, we need to talk about the nature of theatre as an art form which uses linguistic expression and that has a tendency to use the language of the people employed within an organization- which frequently ends up being the local language. Second, we need to think about its role within societal structures. In Finland, like in so many other countries, the theatre has played a crucial role in constructing a national identity while holding language as a totem.

The third factor I would like to highlight is the structure of the Finnish funding system and the lack of space within it for the empowerment of multilingual or non-linguistic practices. Fourth, and maybe the most fundamental factor is education. Do the existing educational institutions support an ecosystem that accommodates inclusive practices? The fifth factor is the audience, which I believe is never actively brought into the discussions. Do theatres represent all of our communities on the stage, in their workforce and in content? Whose stories are being told? Who tells those stories? Society rapidly evolves; do theatres stay relevant and are they equipped to invest in and to reproduce positive role models for youngsters and children?

All of the aforementioned factors lead to the sixth one that we need to consider in depth and detail: leadership and power held by the gatekeepers. Do we accommodate multi-voiced, diverse workers and decision-makers within the theatres? Are leaders bold enough to step out of their comfort zones, and to take actions that might lead to the loss of some of their existing audiences?

Today any theatre that decides to exercise an inclusive approach needs to invest a substantial amount of resources to the practice of inclusivity and to be held accountable for its practices.

How could a theatre and an operational culture which utilizes and is considerate of various linguistic and cultural resources in addition to being genuinely multilingual and multicultural, come to life?

We all know that the audience profile is drastically changing; and thus, for structural reasons the theatres, too, need to change. This would be the right time to come up with exact short and long-term strategies to create a theatre field that prioritizes representation and relevance within the next 10 years.

These strategies should cover all the different factors we discussed - starting with education and ending with funding which includes both state and municipal subsidies. Incentives should be provided; i.e. if a theatre commits to these goals, they should get better financing. The Ministry of Education and Culture, and cultural departments of cities have a decisive mandate to empower relevant partners and to start a dialogue that includes crucial players, experts with diverse backgrounds, and organizations specialised on diversity and inclusion such as Globe Art Point.

Finnish theatre has much to learn from the wide range of perspectives available within the foreign-born community of artists and makers.

Due to the current funding structure, theatres, like other public-funded arts institutions, have to operate within strict restrictions even when they want to make a change. This completes a vicious circle that must be broken. The makers should push the boundaries of the structure to get a response that meets their needs.

What do you think about professional acting training aimed towards immigrants? Could this be a potential option?

In Finland, a country of education, training gives credibility. At the same time, validation only through Finnish education could intensify professional segregation, and create cliques that alienate people who have not gone through the same school system. We need to understand that immigrants are not a homogenous group with the same backgrounds and needs. We are talking about individual beings with different competencies, educational, and cultural backgrounds.

A proper solution would be to initiate international classes, groups, and programmes within existing theatre academies - not outside of them - where local and foreign-born makers get to exchange knowledge and learn from each other. Frankly speaking, Finnish theatre has much to learn from the wide range of perspectives available within the foreign-born community of artists and makers.

How do you think COVID-19 will impact theatre? Could theatre function as a potential counterforce towards a neo-nationalistic turn? Or would it not be precisely these transnational movements and daily translanguaging occurrences which would alter these operational cultures or is this happening too slowly?

These are very important questions and it is hard to briefly and fully reply to them. COVID-19 has hit the art field and all of its components on a global scale, and of course, theatres were not an exception. On the other hand, we have realised the vulnerability of the art field, art makers, especially freelancers and small independent cultural operators. The first reaction from the theatre-makers was to go back to their audience and to reinvent the audience-maker bond on various digital platforms.

The theatres have a lot to say about how to love a country

So, the content makers - theatres -, and receivers – the audience – are the inseparable sides of the same coin. I really hope that our updated connection would lead us to a more transparent dialogue about change; and what we have recently been experiencing would be read by theatres as a reminder of their responsibility for pioneering the change, for becoming the North star of all humanistic values that we embrace in Finland.

Why wouldn’t there be an agenda to redefine the Finnish identity into something more inclusive and based on values shared by all members of society regardless of their ethnic background? The theatres have a lot to say about how to love a country, how to contribute to its future and how to build a welcoming society that is not trapped in narrow-minded nationalistic ideas.


Ceyda Berk-Söderblom spoke to Hanna Helavuori, TINFO’s director

Ceyda Berk-Söderblom is an independent cultural entrepreneur, manager, curator and festival programmer based in Helsinki.  With more than 18 years of experience, she has worked as the programmer of international festivals with close ties to the world-known institutions, orchestras, artists, and ensembles. In Helsinki, she has started an entrepreneurial career, and founded MiklagårdArts in September 2015. MiklagårdArts is an innovative platform, facilitator and connector for promoting transnational collaborations between Finland and the dynamic art scenes around the world. She has curated programmes internationally, including artistic events celebrating diplomatic relations between countries. She holds a "Bene Merito" honorary distinction from the Ministry of International Affairs of the Republic of Poland. Ceyda is the chairperson of  Globe Art Point (GAP)  where she served as a board member between 2017 and 2019.

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