Thinking with the body
Elli Salo is an artist with many strings to her bow. Playwright, writer, author of radio plays, translator, teacher. In recent years, you would be just as likely to hear her plays in Finnish and international theatres as you would be to hear them in libraries, museums and on the radio – or even in nature reserves in Lapland. This year, Elli became a resident playwright at the Finnish National Theatre.
TINFO spoke with Elli about her artistic methods; the relationship between choreography and playwriting; her project with Ukrainian playwrights; and her artistic work about unspoken historical traumas.
Alexandra Dunaeva: Can you please tell me how you got into your profession? After gaining a degree in Slavic languages and literature from the University of Helsinki, why did you decide to embark on a second university education as a playwright?
Elli Salo: The change in my career was connected to a particular incident. After graduating from the University, I worked at the National Library and was utterly content with my life. But one day the Director came over to me and said: “Elli, I’ve got some wonderful news. We’re going to offer you a permanent position and now you can work at the Library for the rest of your days!”
For the rest of my days!
Those words hit me hard. I was in my twenties, and I began to seriously think about what I actually wanted to do with my life. That’s when I fully considered how much I love to write, and that I have a love of language – the wild, anarchic nature of language. I applied to the Theatre Academy – which was the only place in Finland at the time which taught creating writing. I got in. At the Academy, I fitted in and I loved absolutely everything about my studies. It gave me exactly the sensation of being alive that I’d been searching for. That was how I started to become immersed in the playwriting profession.
Alexandra: Which ideas shaped you professionally? And who are the people behind those ideas?
Elli: When I was studying, one of my professors at the Academy was Katariina Numminen. As a director and playwright, she was busy rethinking the very concept of dramaturgy. Inspired by her, I understood that the world is saturated with dramaturgy and we just need techniques to extract it, to make it visible.
That’s why, as a playwright, you can go into theatres, but not only – also into museums, be on the radio or go into open fields – you’ll find something important to do, everywhere. Katariina significantly influenced me, turning me towards dramaturgical thinking, towards a reflection of the structures of dramatic texts. For example, I can begin my writing process from a dramaturgical question – a formal problem. Other people who were very important for me as mentors and teachers were the dramaturg and theoretician Juha-Pekka Hotinen and the playwright and pedagogue Seppo Parkkinen, whose ideas, needless to say, revolutionised my conception of theatre.
Right now, my writing is defined – to a very significant extent – by the work of choreographers. I have been fortunate enough to collaborate in recent years as a dramaturg with, for example, Jenni-Elina von Bagh, Sara Gurevitsch and Auri Ahola. This work has inspired me – in how I write my own plays too. Although I can’t directly bring the forms of expression inherent in choreography into my texts, I can make a “translation”. The search for “languages” for this act of translation has become, for me, an intoxicating adventure.
I try to write... I’m not sure how to describe it.... from the body, not from my rational mind.
For example, Sara Gurevitsch is conducting research on minor gestures in dance performance, and I have also become interested in exploring minimal bodily changes through my texts, immersing myself into the micro-world of the body’s daily existence. I began including thinking with the body into my texts and studying my own physicality as part of the writing process. For instance, when I assemble materials for the radio or texts from an interview, I select fragments which give me an affective reaction. I don’t give much thought to exposition, but as a general rule, the resulting text contains all the necessary information. Moreover, this approach reveals deeper layers. I try to write... I’m not sure how to describe it.... from the body, not from my rational mind.
The very fact that I don’t have a deep theoretical understanding of contemporary dance is what gives me, I think, the freedom to play – I borrow whichever ideas/movements/forms appeal to me, and naively play with them like a child. This playing transforms (“translates”) into a poetic matter, inherent in my texts.
Contemporary choreographers have also inspired me by their fluid use of narrative techniques and strategies. Because of my interactions with them, it has become completely clear to me that the text shouldn’t be weighed down and overloaded with meaning. I feel pleased when I manage to make an airy, light text, which offers room for the actor’s body, allowing the actor to live and breathe inside it.
Alexandra: My understanding is that Finnish theatre is very oriented toward text. What’s more, texts that are mainly Finnish-language. So, you’re speaking about a departure into something like postdramatic theatre, where the text is one of many components of the scenic action – and far from the main component.
Elli: As a playwright, of course the focus for me is on the text. It’s interesting to think about texts, to work with them, to cultivate them into productions. It’s important that the methods change – not only WHAT is written in the play, but also HOW it is done. And those changes are happening! For example, young authors are turning up with multilingual performances and plays. It makes me so happy! In the Theatre Academy (Uniarts), there was a new play recently which used Finnish, English and Thai. I hope these texts will go into theatres and other major institutions.
The question of language in Finland is very painful, but we have to understand that our language is evolving, and it is essential to hear this different Finnish. On Yle, the national radio, they only interview speakers of the idealised Finnish. That feels deeply unjust to me. Institutions, like Yle, are precisely the ones creating a culture in which we don’t hear the diversity of linguistic backgrounds in Finland.
To be able to write texts, while sitting under bombs – that says a lot.
Alexandra: We can say that you’re now one of the ambassadors of Ukrainian culture in Finland. You took part in a joint project, as a playwright, of creating a documentary play, “The building shook”1, scripted from the diaries of Ukrainian and Russian authors chronicling the first days of the war, which was later turned into a documentary radio play by Yle2. You translate texts from Ukrainian and Russian into Finnish. Tell me more about the Ukrainian projects and how those writers are managing now.
Elli: I’m in constant touch with the authors whose texts were included in the play. For example, Oleg Mikhailov. He recently sent me a new play.
It broke my heart.
How to explain...
I remember Oleg telling me, in the early summer, that he couldn’t write because of the war and he didn’t know if he’d ever get back to playwriting. And suddenly he sends a new play. There’s a lot of pain in it – but also a lot of hope. To be able to write texts, while sitting under bombs – that says a lot. And the text itself is wonderful! When I read it, I thought – the terrible things a person experiences in real life, but then finds the inner strength to turn them into fiction. (Editor note: Elli begins to cry.) A year ago this play couldn’t have existed, it wouldn’t even have been possible to imagine it. How much has happened during that time! The fact that we live in the era of online-diaries, brings the war monstrously close. So then Oleg sends a message: “Yesterday, they didn’t drop any bombs on us – let’s hope we’ll have another quiet one tonight.” “Yes,” I reply, “I hope so too.” But ten minutes later, I find out that they’ve started bombing again.
Through a few short texts, the war creeps under your skin.
But I’m grateful that I have these people in my life now, I have a connection to these horrific events because it completely changes your perspective. I began to see the war differently – and my own life too for that matter.
It seems to me that playwrights and writers are experts of perception.
What’s very valuable, for me, is that we managed to collect many details of the everyday lives of Ukrainians, in this play. Many audiences watching “The building shook” at the theatre also said that they were very touched precisely by how much people’s normal lives had changed. Through the “details of life” so cruelly shredded by the war, we come closer to understanding our shared, human misfortune. It’s the things you won’t read in the newspaper or see on TV – only art can give you that. It seems to me that playwrights and writers are experts of perception.
They can truly be guides making revelations, to show the many sides of war in its details, and to allow you to feel it in your own body. That’s why it’s so important that these texts by Ukrainian authors should be heard in Finnish. It’s even more valuable now, than in the spring of 2022, because people in Finland have begun to get used to it, to adapt, to get tired of news about the war. But we don’t have the right to stop talking about the war because our silence normalises it.
Alexandra: Can you tell me what it means to be resident at the Finnish National theatre? And what you’re working on now, during your residency?
Elli: This autumn I was invited to become a writer in residence at the Finnish National theatre. We call it a homewriter. The residency involves being given a working space at the theatre for a period of ten years. During that time, I can write a few things which will then be staged at the theatre. What I choose to write about – that’s left to my discretion. Of course, an opportunity like this comes up extremely rarely and I consider it to be a great privilege. The residency gives so much freedom, and also quite a lot of time to focus on what’s important to me right now. My notion of time has changed – I’ve become a lot calmer since I began working as a resident.
I’m also part of a team of playwrights whose task is to develop the National Theatre’s repertoire. That’s an area of work which I find very interesting too. I hope I can find new texts to propose for the theatre’s programme, as well as introducing young playwrights and other theatre artists to the Theatre.
I feel that there’s a zone of oppressive silence around this theme in Finland.
My first big project on the residency will be a play dedicated to Finns who disappeared in the Soviet Union, during Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. Working with historians, I’m studying the letters and personal documents of these people. Many of them died in the GULAG camps. I feel that there’s a zone of oppressive silence around this theme in Finland. There’s been a reluctance to speak about it, for a long time, to avoid ruining relations with our “big neighbour” – first the USSR and then Russia. These people’s letters were seized by Finnish authorities at the border and transferred to an archive. Basically, I’m looking through one of these archives at the moment. Another reason why this theme was taboo is that the majority of the disappeared emigrants were communists, “reds” who lost in the civil war in 1918 and were seeking refuge in the Soviet Republics.
There’s a feeling of shame that many people feel towards these people, because they were trying to save themselves, to flee the repressions which awaited them in the motherland. The civil war was so terrible, so much blood was shed, that people still remember it to this day. Each family knows whether their ancestors were “whites” or “reds”. I believe that we haven’t managed to heal this historical wound even today.
But now, as lots of new archival materials are appearing on this subject, I hope we will find the courage to speak about it. It’s important also because the pain and uncertainty of those who remained here – who never found out the fate of their loved ones – is still very much alive. For those who were left waiting for letters from the USSR, the details of the fate of their fleeing relatives should bring them peace.
By the way, the Finns who became refugees in the USSR, they also wrote in their letters about everyday life, about profound personal worries, the insignificant details of daily life – as it might appear to us from the outside. It’s very connected to what we’re reading from Ukraine now, also speaking to survive, although the contexts are, of course, different. I don’t yet know what conclusion to make from that, but it’s an observation which I’ve noted for myself.
Alexandra: Collaborations with institutions often turn out to be tense for contemporary artists. They critique the institution and fight against the powers-that-be in the institution. Are you at all conflicted about being taken under the wing of the largest theatre in the country?
Elli: I’ve always felt that it’s better to go inside institutions and work within them, and transform them, rather than wage war against them. I understand there are times when fighting becomes inevitable and I watch the people who are capable of decisive action, of open protest, with great admiration. When that happens, I feel nothing but fear, and when I am afraid I can’t think or act. Dialogue and co-operation – that’s my talent. I believe more in soft power.
The interview was conducted by Alexandra Dunaeva in September, 2022.
Translation from Russian into English by: Noah Birksted-Breen. Photo by: Jonne Sippola
“The building shook” is a documentary play, scripted by Elli on the basis of letters, diary recordings and monologues by Ukrainian writers, written in February-March 2022. Texts were gathered by: Elli Salo, John Freedman, Anna Sidorova, Anastasia Trizna and Alexandra Dunaeva. The version presented on the stages of Finnish theatres, as part of the Worldwide Ukrainian readings (a project lead by John Freedman), included texts by Oleg Mikhailov, Olya Grebennik, Julia Gonchar, Oksana Savchenko, Lena Liagushonkova, Liudmila Timoshenko, and Andrij Bondarenko.
Radio play “The building shook”: https://areena.yle.fi/podcastit/1-62390154