So hey, I visited Reykjavik, Iceland, earlier this month (March 5-9) at the invitation of Lókal, a brand-new international theater festival. It was interesting. Farty-smelling water from sulphur. Wickedly expensive. Insular. Nordic. Beautiful people - if you like the translucent-skinned elvish type. Scary, depressing hard drinking on weekends. Local theater is both slick-Euro and about 15 years behind the avant-curve. Reykjavik is a small Scandy town with one main street full of overpriced boutique stores. Men who look like rugged, homicidal Vikings but turn out to be exceedingly polite. Four-dollar hot dogs with crumbled onion rings and three types of sauce…very popular. And delicious. Dank, cold, dark.
I was meant to observe and, if I wanted, report on the event. So Tom Sellar at Yale’s Theater magazine accepted a pitch. The article is now being polished by the good folk at Theater (on the stands this fall) to make me sound smart and clever. I thought I’d let Histriomastix readers check the first few paragraphs of raw copy. Much has already been cut & finessed.
AMONG THE GLOBAL VILLAGERS
Lókal: International Theatre Festival
Reykjavik, Iceland March 5–9, 2008
Primeval topography, serene people of elvish complexion, hot mineral springs bubbling up from the earth, mist-shrouded mountain across the bay…Lest the traveler to Iceland think he’s touched down in a Nordic nirvana, there is also a stink of brimstone. Since Reykjavik’s hydropower derives from a massive underground geothermal system that bores into the earth, traces of sulfur find their way into the plumbing. Your hot, post-flight shower smells like dead, fetid eggs. This noseful of flatulence may strike a newcomer as repulsive, then funny, finally part of the territory. Your hair and clothes acquire an infernal bouquet. Note, too, that putrefied shark is considered a delicacy there. So a question arises: Does the rottenness extend to the state of Icelandic theater?
This subarctic island nation measures 39,768 square miles (about the size of Virginia) of which a negligible percent is arable land. Vikings settled the volcano-formed, geyser-pocked outpost in the ninth century, commencing a long history of grinding poverty and subservience to the crowns of Norway and Denmark. During its early period, the age of settlement, Iceland was a sparsely populated speck whose fractious residents maintained order through the Althing, a tribal parliament where grievances could be aired and laws passed. The great sagas (Njál’s Saga, Eiríks Saga) emerged in this period, between the 12th and 13th centuries—prose epics full of blood feuds, mayhem and terse gallows humor. The Black Death came in the 1400s, decimating the population. From 1450 to about 1900, the land was in the grip of a “little ice age,” with low temperatures making life for the already impoverished inhabitants more difficult. In the middle of the 16th century, King Christian III of Denmark imposed Lutheranism on the country. The 18th century was a particularly torturous time, with plagues, volcanic eruptions and freezing temperatures. Even a century ago, Iceland was scarcely industrialized; two generations ago, families lived in peat huts. The 1801 census numbered 47,000. Today there are roughly 310,000 Icelanders, about the population as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Due to its strategic North Atlantic location, Iceland was occupied by Great Britain, then America, during World War II and the Cold War. The presence of a U.S. base (where the country’s international airport now stands) was a sore point for this historically exploited but defiant people. “It’s very strange, the country was completely split on the base,” recalled Iceland’s ex-President Vigdis Finnbogadottír, who held office from 1980 to 1996. Before that, she was a leading force in Iceland’s theater scene, director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company from 1972-80. “People complained when the Americans were here—then cried when they went away in 2006. Suddenly there was ghost town out there.”
Insular pride and isolated insecurity are two intertwined dynamics in Iceland’s history and, one could argue the national character and culture. About two-thirds of the population lives in and around Reykjavik, and it’s not hard to know everybody in your field, to become a medium-size fish in such a tiny pond. Vigdis (Icelanders address one another by first name) had no previous governing experience, except for running a theatre company. “I always tell people that when you run a theatre, you have to work with artists and audiences,” the former stateswoman said in an exclusive interview at her house. “You look at human behavior from every angle—love, jealousy, greed. What better preparation to lead a country?”
Today, Iceland is a nation in transition. It sits at a tectonic crossroads, where the European and North American plates grind against each other (producing the occasional volcanic eruption and making Iceland a geological hot spot). Likewise, the county is navigating its way between European and American influences. Presently, it is undeniably modern European, with close ties to Scandinavia and Germany. But globalization and the enduring appeal of American pop culture means that Reykjavik is no longer a quaint, hardscrabble town but a burgeoning, eco-sensitive, hip and highly commercial tourist destination. On weekends, its young residents pour onto the street and pack into bars in frightening displays of binge drinking after a week of hard work. Everyone speaks English, since so few visitors have mastered the ancient Viking tongue that natives speak. It’s the most sophisticated hamlet you’ll ever visit.
So the country is stable, affluent and educated. There is a healthy theatergoing culture, but a self-sustaining experimental scene still needs to be nurtured. Iceland has not produced its Robert Wilson, its Wooster Group, its equivalent of Off-Off Broadway, or even its own exportable mainstream playwrights. Its productions hardly ever make it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Le Festival d’Avignon.
“Throughout the centuries, there were always influences from abroad which reached Iceland,” Vigdis said. “We’re this steppingstone between Europe and North America. We’re very isolated, but all the international streams in art, literature and theater came across the Atlantic. We have had baroque, realism, Sturm und Drang. We had it all. This is a nation of words, of language. Language is a free material with which to create.”
The newest attempt to synchronize Iceland with the world cultural clock is Lokál, the country’s first international theatre festival, which programs homegrown work alongside artists from the United States and France. This small but plucky annual event is the creation of managing director Ragnhei∂ur Skúladóttir, head of the theatre department at Iceland Academy of the Arts. Along with her partner, the playwright Bjarni Jónsson and Gu∂rún Jóhanna Gu∂mundsdóttir, Ragnhei∂ur curated the festival with artistic director Elena Krüskemper (managing director of Germany’s Bonn Biennale). In a shrewd media move, the organizers of Lokál invited four American critics (Helen Shaw, Alexis Soloski Mark Blankenship and me) and one from Germany (Jan Oberländer) to observe.
The lineup consisted of seven shows over five days. From New York came writer-director Richard Maxwell’s Ode to the Man Who Kneels and Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s No Dice; France’s Vivarium Studio presented its low-key environmental piece L’effet de Serge; Reykjavik offered three productions—Ba∂stofan (The Communal Living Room) at the National Theatre, Othello, Desdemona and Iago, and Hér og nú (Here and Now). Lastly, there was a performance by dance-theater soloist Erna Ómarsdóttir, The Talking Tree. (Ómarsdóttir is Icelandic but based in Belgium.) In addition to the performances, there was a Saturday-afternoon presentation of works-in-progress by students at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. These snippets were some of the most inspiring moments of the festival. Young students variously explored solo interactive theater, environmental happening-type performance and multimedia.
“Those students who participated are ecstatic about their experience, this being a totally unique opportunity to tap into the international scene,” Ragnhei∂ur reported a few days later. “Some of them are already talking about going to Hamburg this summer to follow up on the work of Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Vivarium Studio.” She is clearly trying to influence a new generation of young theater makers by exposing them to Western avant-garde aesthetics and theory.
“We believe that theatre—global though it may be—is essentially a local event,” Ragnhei∂ur explained. “And the concept for Lókal was born because we were curious about how theatre in other places of the world was dealing with modern life. Being an island in the Atlantic and having a history of connecting America and Europe, we believe Iceland is a very good meeting place. Here one will find a natural mixture of European and American influences. But our theatre has had little or no experience with the independent theatre scene in America, or in Europe. Reykjavík is a small but vibrant city, where you can easily focus on six or seven productions during a long weekend. Once you’re here—as an artist, journalist or a theatregoer—you will automatically be a part of the festival and the community. So Lókal is about connecting locals with locals, whether they come from Paris, New York or Reykjavík.”