Saara Turunen’s rooms: making space for exploring social norms
A brand new theatre aesthetic, established under the leadership of Finnish author and theatre director Saara Turunen, complete with stage sets, lighting, costumes and sound design, has created a space for exploring social norms through humour. Turunen Company’s “rooms trilogy” comprises The Phantom of Normality, Medusa’s Room and, the latest and final addition, The Grapes of Reason. Here, Saara Turunen discusses the core life experiences and insights that lie behind her hugely successful theatre works in which the characters say little but reveal much.
Saara Turunen is one Finland’s most high-profile theatre makers internationally. She is particularly well known for the “rooms trilogy”, which she has both written and directed. The Grapes of Reason, the trilogy’s concluding instalment, opened at Helsinki’s Q-teatteri this September. This is now the third time a room has been erected on the Q-teatteri stage and populated by a group of characters who might not say much but nevertheless speak volumes about normality, social norms and the dominant role reason plays in our lives. Parts of the trilogy have also been seen on stage in Germany and Argentina, and a further premiere is due to take place in Belgium next year.
In this article, Saara Turunen discusses the background to her trilogy, how her stage aesthetic came together and where her plays have found their way to so far.
The first room: The Phantom of Normality (2016)
“I’d seen Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, and what had really caught my attention was the fragmentary structure that takes you from one scene to another, and it’s not the narrative that links them but the topic, which in Buñuel’s case was liberty. What I particularly liked was the way the film challenges the viewer to think for themselves about the connections between the individual scenes and the title. With some of them that connection is easy to see but with others it’s much harder. I also enjoyed the way Buñuel laughs at our bourgeois obsession with manners and what we consider to be “liberty”.
At the time, I’d just returned from spending quite a bit of time abroad, and I’d hit a crisis with my Finnish identity. Every time I returned home, I would go through a culture shock that was worse than the one I’d experienced on the way out. My Finnishness felt more like a punishment than anything else. So I wanted to create a theatre production that would be an exploration of Finnishness the way I saw it and experienced it; silent, subdued, stony-faced.
I was also fascinated by Buñuel’s use of structure. I didn’t want to do a story, what I was drawn to were these fragments, these brief flashes of everything I wanted to talk about, everything I wanted to share. All I was missing was my topic. I spent such a long time thinking about it. I needed something that would be both vast in scope and at the same time incredibly personal, and I had no idea where to find it. In the end, I stumbled across what ultimately came to be the topic completely by chance, when I took part in an international performance workshop where we were all expected to dance. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it, and it was embarrassing. So during a break, I wrote in my notebook: I want to be ordinary, just completely normal. I know there is no normal, it’s just a paradox, but even then, it would be easier than this. And that’s when I realised my topic would be normality. I decided to call the play The Phantom of Normality after Buñuel and set about putting it together.
What happened then was that the play went on to become really quite successful. It ran at Q-teatteri in Helsinki for two whole seasons, which amounts to more than 100 sold out shows. We also appeared at Tampere Theatre Festival and the play was directed by another theatre festival in Argentina. We received several other invitations from theatres abroad as well, but I didn’t have my own production set up at that point so I wasn’t in a position to respond. In the end, the entire stage set was scrapped, and that really upset me. It was the scrapping of the set that gave me the push to set up Turunen Company in 2018. The main purpose of the business is to respond to international queries. It was thanks to Turunen Company that The Phantom of Normality got another chance, and I was able to direct it at the Schauspielhaus Bochum in Germany. It’s now set to run there until summer 2023.”
The second room: Medusa’s Room (2019)
“The reason The Phantom of Normality was such a success was because audiences loved it but also because it was me discovering some things that really mattered to me. I liked the sense of calm that the extended running time brought to the production and how the scenes would build up gradually with the help of the music. Nothing was explained to death, people were left to draw their own conclusions. And it was this style of theatre I wanted to pursue further.
I was taking a gender studies course at the time, which is where I came across the Medusa myth. I couldn’t get the story out my head, because what struck me was that the story isn’t actually really about Medusa herself at all, it’s mainly about the men who raped and killed her. What I wanted to do was create a play that would have Medusa herself front and centre. The title is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I was fascinated by her argument that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write and be a fully-fledged subject in her own right. It’s from such a long time ago but always relevant. Medusa’s Room is based on these same ideas. I decided to retain the one-room setting and the running time and the sparse dialogue. Music again plays a big role here.
My creative team stayed pretty much unchanged, we just brought on a new lighting designer and costume designer for Medusa’s Room. My set designer Milja Aho, sound designer Tuuli Kyttälä and choreographer Janina Rajakangas have all made a really significant contribution to the trilogy. They’ve been instrumental in creating our shared style of theatremaking. Ada Halonen is a lighting designer who joined us for Medusa’s Room, and we’ve continued working with her on the concluding part of the trilogy.
We’ve able to work with some of the same actors too. Ylermi Rajamaa has acted in all three instalments, and Elina Knihtilä and Katja Küttner in two. I’ve really enjoyed being able to get to know some of my colleagues on a deeper level, while also welcoming new faces with each of the productions.
Medusa’s Room’s entire run at Q-teatteri was completely sold out. We then got an invite to appear on the Finnish National Theatre’s main stage, and we were included in Tampere Theatre Festival’s main programme too. It also won the Lea Prize for best script, and Kajaani Theatre produced their own version of it.”
The third room: The Grapes of Reason (2022)
“I’d agreed with Q-teatteri that I would do the third and final instalment of the trilogy there. The plan was to continue with a similar aesthetic and work with some of the same creative team. This time, I wanted to explore the contradiction that’s inherent between reason and corporeality. I had already picked up this theme in my novel, but it bothered me that reason had this sort of upper hand in it. It was about how this neat and sensible way of life seems to preclude us from any sort of corporeality, while corporeality rules out the chance to lead a neat and sensible life in turn.
I knew I definitely wanted to continue analysing these notions of rationality on stage, because theatre is such an embodied art form. I then spent ages thinking about the title. I was reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath at the time, and the word “grapes” in it really spoke to me [the Finnish translation of the title uses the word “fruit”, not “grapes”]. It seemed to fit in with this idea of corporeality. So, while Steinbeck’s novel is a study of ecological exploitation and capitalism’s impact on human beings, I wanted to turn my attention to what we will have left if we exclude our embodied, material reality from our lives. And that’s how the play ended up being called The Grapes of Reason.
Like the two previous parts of the trilogy, The Grapes of Reason is a series of fragments and tableaux rather than an actual story. The music and the visual dimension play a key role in creating the imagery, and the dramatic language plays on this juxtaposition between control and abandon.
We’re due to take The Grapes of Reason to Belgium
in February 2023, and there are other international visits coming up too. It feels amazing to know that The Grapes of Reason will be afforded more than just a single run. My works might take place in the present moment, but they’re also timeless somehow and relevant and accessible regardless of culture or place. They also have relatively little dialogue in them which makes them well suited for international audiences. I’m thrilled at every opportunity to bring my plays back on stage, and I hope there will be many more.”
Text: Saara Turunen & Heidi Backström (Turunen Company), 29 September 2022
Translation by: Liisa Muinonen-Martin
The performance photos:
The Phantom of Normality (orig. Tavallisuuden aave) Premiered on 19 Feb 2016 at Q-teatteri in Helsinki The script and direction by Saara Turunen In the photo Antti-Heikkinen, Ylermi-Rajamaa, Pyry-Nikkilä and Laura-Birn Photo by Pate Pesonius
Medusa's Room (orig. Medusan huone) Premiered on 21 Feb 2019 at Q-teatteri, Helsinki The script and direction by Saara Turunen In the photo Elina-Knihtilä, Tommi-Korpela, Ylermi Rajamaa and Aksinja Lommi Photo by Aino Nieminen
The Grapes of Reason (orig. Järjen hedelmät) by Saara Turunen Premiered on 21 Sep 2022 at Q-teatteri In the photo Ylermi Rajamaa, Anssi Niemi, Katja Küttner, Pirkko Hamalainen and Kreeta Salminen Photo by Pate Pesonius