2018-08-06

Authors

Tan Shuo
played piano in her childhood and youth years. She studied English and journalism at the Hunan Normal University as well as Arts Management at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. She works as a journalist and in the field of content marketing in the international performing arts, with a focus on the promotion of foreign artists and their tours.
Independent theatres

Theatre Får302 - the Smallest Intimate Stage of Copenhagen

Compared to the large public institutions, small theatres have to fight for their survival time and again. But this independence also allows freedom to experiment, whether in terms of artistic formats and themes or cultural management. The Theatre Får302 in Copenhagen has been doing this very successfully for over 30 years and has repeatedly attracted national attention.
It broke away from the flock,
And bumped into nine actors.
It gazed in wonder,
While standing in the way they were heading for.
 
It is also androgynous,
Kindly informed the shepherd,
And the 302nd of the herd was it called.
 
What an absurd creature, they thought,
Just like those in their plays,
With a sense of humor, and a blend of intrigue,
For the meanings of this meaningless world...
 
In the summer of 1987,
It broke away from the flock,
And became the name of their theatre.
 
1
 
It is a gift Charlotte Elizabeth Munksgaard recalls her memories of the year 2001. Her voice, a typical mezzo, is soothing and warm.
 
In 2001 fourteen years after they founded Theatre Får302 (Sheep 302 in English), Charlotte Elizabeth and her eight fellows were standing at a career crossroads: Lars Brygmann was rising to stardom after being cast in a number of films. Louise Søeborg Ohlsen had devoted more of his time to educational work. Methe Bendix aspired to childrens theater. Charlotte Bostrup was planning for a new feature film and had staked her future on being a director
 
 
Picture: Charlotte Elizabeth Munksgaard. © Tan Shuo
 
The ensemble of nine was formed on more than just colleagueship. Dating back to the 1980s, they had been classmates and spent four years together (some of them five years) studying Stanislavskis method with Galina Brenaa, then a Russian theatre director in Denmark. Soon after, the group of nine started their own ensemble and created a theatre experiment in front of six audiences, disregarding all the tough disciplines their teacher had imposed, and turning themselves extremely wild like an explosion of what had been kept inside.
 
In other words, the nine co-founders of Theatre Får302 saw each other growing up as true actor, and to a large extent, it was their fellowship and shared belief in acting that had bound them for over a decade after graduation. They enjoyed working in solidarity in spite of low funding that threatened their existence.
 
 
Picture: The nine co-founders of Theatre Får302 are Michel Castenholt, Lars Brygmann, Niels Vendius, Jesper Hildebrandt, Charlotte Bostrup, Tine Brix Davidsen, Louise Søeborg Ohlsen, Methe Bendix, Charlotte Elizabeth Munksgaard. © Tan Shuo
 
We cannot afford more people on the stage than four. Thats usually the limit, tells Charlotte Elizabeth, and even today, their stringent financial circumstances have yet to be improved. Cast members are still required to take on multiple roles whenever necessary. And sometimes just simply by putting on a pair of glasses, we turn into another character.
 
It sounds funny though, the reality behind was far less than contented. From the beginning years, every member of the ensemble had to rely on other jobs to maintain livelihoods, including Charlotte Elizabeth, who also accepted roles in films and TV series. I earn much more money in film and television (than in theatre), she tells, but for film, you have so little rehearsal time unless you are the main role... What I like about theatre is that we can rehearse together. There is so much togetherness finding something and developing together.
 
The spirit of togetherness or solidarity was their cherished value, but it started to wane in the 1990s as most of them developed broader interests in other kinds of work they held in this field. And by early 2001, the burden of the responsibilities for their own Sheep had become a hindrance to going on to big careers. Theatre Får302 was facing closure.
 
While her fully-fledged fellows were launching themselves into the outer world, Charlotte Elizabeth dug her heels in. I still felt we had to hold on to this pearl. It is a gift we have this little theatre in the middle of Copenhagen. I didnt want to give it up.
 
 
Picture: Theatre Får302 is located in the area of Nyhavn (New Port), one of the top tourist attractions in Copenhagen. © Tan Shuo
 
She might have regretted seeing others leaving one by one and might have had second thoughts afterward, but she also remembered how happy they were when running a charity auction at the Louisiana Museum for their newly-born Sheep, and how serious they were when placing all the money they earned into a box so as to pay off a two-room apartment as their base for rehearsal, which became the permanent venue of Theatre Får302 in the late 1990s. Despite three decades have passed, she is still proud of their teamwork in the opening season to promote the ads space of their program brochure. We went out into the streets and knocked upon the doors of different shopsWe asked if they wanted to advertise in our program, says Charlotte Elizabeth, Also, by making phone calls. It was utterly a fight for survival, for they, as an actors theatre ensemble, would never have a chance to be subsidized unless they could offer something significant on the stage.
 
Thanks to a couple of shoe shops, wineries, cafés, and aptly, an insecticide company, the very first play of Theatre Får302 a revival of Steven Berkoffs modern adaptation of Kafkas Metamorphosis was staged.
 
 
Picture: Steven Berkoffs Metamorphosis (1988) was the first production of Theatre Får302.
 
Dealing with a family story, Metamorphosis was considered one of the most acclaimed plays written by the English playwright and actor. Though Berkoff himself was not engaged in the production of Theatre Får302, the rendition by the ensemble of nine in the spring of 1988 in Copenhagen did make an impact on Danish theatre. Positive reviews from the critics drew the attention of the Danish Arts Council, and since then, Theatre Får302 has become eligible to apply for financial support from the state.
 
2
 
Charlotte Elizabeth chose to stay in 2001, but she knew that she alone could not steer the theatre back on track. Nor would she want anybody else other than actors to retain control over the stage.
 
And as what she kept reminding herself, In school, my teacher always told me it (acting) is not about how I felt, but how the person I was playing how did she feel and what did I make her do. So, that was what we looked for. That was the reason why Theatre Får302 was born the real life on stage.
 
In this sense, the theatre was not only a space to release their creative energies, but a commitment to developing what they had been trained, and a tribute to their Russian teacher and her high demand which gave them a rounded foundation for a career in theatre.
 
Being faithful to Stanislavskis method, the ensemble of nine had pushed against the traditions in the realm of the absurd, setting up a distinct, if not unique, profile in Danish theatre a profile which began to take shape in Metamorphosis, and was firmly established in the mid-1990s after a cycle of plays scripted by the New York-based Nicky Silver and the English playwright Nick Darke.
 
Throughout the first ten years, almost all of their productions had a family context in common, particularly, family in destructive crisis, like the brutish children committing parricide in Night of the Assassins (Mordernes mat, 1992), the middle-aged couple struggling in their child-free marriage in The Dead Monkey (Den døde abe, 1995), the parents and the son depraved after a plane crash in Fat Men in Skirts (Tykke mænd i kjoler, 1995), and the twin siblings being reunited in a quandary over the decisions on their lives in Raised in Captivity (Tvillingetvist, 1996), to name only a few.
 
 
Picture: A review of Fat Men in Skirts titled Far-out (Langt ude). © Tan Shuo
 
Family is important everywhere I think. The surface is how people try to make their family look right and happy, but what is the truth? What is the lie about it? Charlotte Elizabeth says, to her, making arts can be likened to archeology a process of digging for the truth. What you always see is the surface on people, on situations, on all the results, but when you turn to look at yourself, you try to understand what lies beneath.
 
Incest, cannibalism, adultery, murderThe extremely abhorrent scenes one could (or could not) refer to a family relationship were thus laid bare. Coated with black humor, they thrilled the audience while exhilarating them, and ultimately posed deep existential questions from which the stories originated.
 
How do you survive? Why are you here? What do you want from life? What is important to you? It is so important to keep curiosity and keep asking the questions about life, about yourself, like going through the layers, Charlotte Elizabeth explains, because I believe very deeply that the more layers you take off, the more universal it will become, as we are one big human being.
 
 
Picture: Most of the productions by Theatre Får302 in the 1990s were family stories. © Tan Shuo
 
On 31 May 1997, Days on Top (Dage på Toppen), a play commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the theatre, was premiered and recognized as an exemplary work in the era of Danish drama breakthrough. I like it (Theatre Får302). And it is very important that we have this kind of small theatres in addition to bigger and also to more conventional ones, comments Birgitte Hesselaa, a renowned dramaturg and theatre critic in Denmark, Being so small, they have a larger extent of freedom. They dont need to think of selling many tickets, so they have the freedom to make experiments. But still, as they are also subsided, they have to live up to certain economic standards. As to Theatre Får302, it has a kind of fan group of people who like them, people who follow them, which is important. There are not so many small theatres, but they are very important in the whole picture.
 
In this regard Charlotte Elizabeth also admits their selfishness, i.e., to make the arts of their own instead of catering to the tastes of the audience. And whats worth noting, all of their productions were close-ended and limited to a running period of three or four weeks, only except for the highly-acclaimed ones, which may be either revived or sold to other theatres as guest productions but usually for once only.
 
To stage two times is ok, but three times no We dont think much about what we can sell, but about what is more artistically interesting for ourselves, Charlotte Elizabeth stresses the principle.
 
In 2001, she chose to stay. And the cardinal principle, the valued solidarity, the sense of black humor, the theatrical absurdity, the authenticity in acting, and whats more important, the actors dominant power in creation, were all passed onto a newly-formed ensemble later that year actress Birgitte Prins and actor Pauli Ryberg joined the artistic board, which saved Theatre Får302 from closing down. While the stay of Charlotte Elizabeth, in certain ways, helped maintain its consistency.
 
3
 
Pauli Ryberg lay on the bed in his pajamas, staring in the mirror ahead. Director Kamilla Mortensen knew he had late-stage cancer and caringly installed a big mirror as part of the set at one end of the bed, so the audiences could see him from the reflection, in case he had to fulfill the performance in a lying position.
 
It was a scene from Sympathy for the Devil (Sympati For Djævelen), a new production of Theatre Får302 in the autumn of 2014 just months after Pauli was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And by then, he had been receiving chemotherapy. Nevertheless, he still tried hard to be the same as a healthy person on stage.
 
Sympathy for the Devil was Paulis exclusive show. Lucas Svensson, author of the monologue, suggested him play the sole role as Gustaf Gründgens one of the most influential figures in German theater in the 20th century and best remembered for his role as Mephisto in Faust.
 
 
Picture: Pauli Ryberg as Gustaf Gründgens in Sympathy for the Devil. © Thomas Cato
 
Pauli saw it a real honor and promptly agreed after reading the text, which depicts the final hours of Gründgens in a hot hotel room in Manila in 1963 and his contentious argument about his collaboration with the Nazi regime as an artist.
 
Pauli as Gründgens lay on the bed alone, with a vial of sleeping pills in his hand... He was physically fatigued after one and a half hours of performance. The chemotherapy pump, which delivered drugs into his bloodstream, was working in his trousers pocket. He could not live without it anymore.
 
And, he could not live without theatre, either. It was the passion for theatre that took him from Nakskov in Lolland to Odense Theater, and finally to the stage of Copenhagen. Since he became a member of Theatre Får302, he had taken the roles of over twenty plays.
 
Paulis memory flashed back. He remembered the first few years in the 2000s, when he, Charlotte Elizabeth Munksgaard and Birgitte Prins, aka the ensemble of three different energies, explored the themes of the fringe areas of Denmark (e.g. Dear God, Do Not Let Me Die on a Toilet / Kære Gud lad mig ikke dø på et lokum, 2004) as well as the rural-urban divide (e.g. Dreaming about the Good Life / Drømmen om det gode liv, 2005), and Paulis background as a son of Lolland was a rich source of inspiration. Though less experimental and more realistic compared to the family dramas in the 1990s, all these plays had been revived in later years.
 
While The Sunfish (Klumpfisken, 2008), a love story between a marine biologist from Copenhagen and a fisherman from Hirtshals, won the best little performance of Reumert Prize in 2009, the ensemble of Theatre Får302 had been thinking to develop new directions. From the year 2010, they began to take a broader view and strengthen the ties with other theatres and artists from the Nordic region.
 
Pauli made eye contact with the audience in the mirror. He was so thankful for their coming to see the show, and he was so eager to let everyone know that the theatre was making impressive strides still. Sympathy for the Devil was revived in April 2016, and earlier that year, Pauli, Charlotte Elizabeth and Birgitte had accomplished Flowers, Feathers, Fishes & Snow (Sne, Blomster, Fjer & Fisk, 2016), a devised theatre production which marked a new breakthrough in their art.
 
 
Picture: Birgitte Prins, Pauli Ryberg and Charlotte Elizabeth Munksgaard in Flowers, Feathers, Fishes & Snow (Sne, Blomster, Fjer & Fisk, 2016), a devised theatre production which hit new heights. © Thomas Cato
 
As Charlotte Elizabeth puts it, We are more and more interested in body on stage how to express by our body instead of by words. We are going to the performance direction a little bit, rather than following written plays. Hence we can use our intuition and our heart more, questioning and showing different angles of the human conditions, and at the same time trying to avoid the cliché by going beneath it. Audiences can also relate to the questions, and what is very important, they dont have to feel alone dont have to hide.
 
We dont want to provoke audiences, adds Birgitte, but want them to be together and brace them.
 
But Pauli could not see Sheep grow any more. He passed away in the evening of 10 September 2017, and by noon the next day, almost all the major media in Denmark reported the news. I think Pauli really live for the theatre, Director Kamilla Mortensen comments, He knew he was going to die of this cancer, but he just insisted on working I think it kept him alive longer than the prognosis was. Paulis death is a significant loss to Danish theatre.
 
And, undoubtedly, it is also a great loss to Theatre Får302. Birgitte, who joined the ensemble with Pauli in 2001, believes it was their three different characters that helped maintain the theatres experimental tendencies at least in the last decade, but now she and Charlotte Elizabeth have to outsource new actors for each of their production.
 
I miss Pauli so badly, very badly, Charlotte Elizabeth sighs. If Pauli were alive, he would be 60 years old, just as she is. I dont know if we will close the theatre in 10 years when I am 70. Who knows? Who will take over the theatre? What will happen then? That will also be interesting.
 
 
Picture: A scene from A House on Sand and Hope (Et hus på sand og håb, 2017), a commissioned work for the 30th anniversary of Theatre Får302. © Thomas Cato
 
The article was fulfilled with support from Danish Arts Foundation and Theatre Får302.