The Need To Develop A New Kind Of Nordic
Photo Credit: Senay Berhe. Retusch: Johanna Kallin
“We should not only ask different people with different social and ethnic backgrounds to share their own lives as part of a discriminated minority, but to organise, lead, choose and make decisions. Change should start with decisions"
Change is coming and the awareness is growing. Slowly. Recent movements like Black Lives Matter show a willingness and desire for change, and amazing and inspiring work is happening around the Nordic countries. But there is still a long way to go. The Nordic countries are often presumed to be predominantly white, and yet the diversity within each nation is growing day by day, and rich multicultural societies are developing as a result. But how is this diversity being represented on the stage? Which narratives are being told and which audiences do the venues reach out to? How balanced is the representation of people with different ethnic backgrounds within theatre in the Nordic region?
Here at Cut the Cord, we wanted to shine a light on some of the inspiring companies and artists from the Nordic countries that are working hard to change how diverse voices are represented on our stages. As part of our new series focusing on underrepresented voices in the Nordic countries, we have been talking to Josette Bushell-Mingo, Artistic Architect of National Black Theatre Sweden & Cliff A. Moustache, Artistic Director of Nordic Black Theatre in Norway. From Finland we have been talking to actor, dancer and live art maker Geoffrey Erista & actor and director David Kozma from European Theatre Collective. We wanted to know more about their work, about the progress that is being made in Nordic theatre and the changes that still need to happen.
Tell us a bit about your work - what would you say is the focus of your company?
JOSETTE: The National Black Theatre of Sweden is a platform for performing great plays from the African continent and diaspora. We work in four ways:
NBTS Classic – producing and performing classic plays – often translated into Swedish.
NBTS Generate – creating spaces for Afro-Nordic writers to write, with mentorship and meetings to help the writer’s voice develop.
NBTS+ working with local communities, arts associations, and theatre organisations that complement our work on celebrating, strengthening and developing black excellence - commissioned works, theatre workshops or young people’s work, based in Sweden.
NBTS International – working with international arts organisations – Nordic and from the African continent – festivals, collaborations.
We are an Afro-Swedish, multi-ethnic administrative team, and all of our acting ensembles, writers, and most of our international partners are of African descent.
CLIFF: We [Nordic Black Theatre] started off as a pilot project back in 1992 because we had a vision of how society should be. We wanted to explore how it could be developed for people who had recently arrived in the country and for kids born here from different backgrounds. With Nordic Black Theatre we expanded the scope of the art being made in Norway. We think that theatre should be a place where people can experience difference and be made to think differently, really differently. It should be somewhere they can just come and feel at home. A place where they can dream, or they can get mad and watch narratives and music that they have never experienced before. So, we also do slam events, gigs, classical music concerts, jazz, and children's theatre. We present a lot of things.
DAVID: In a nutshell, our company [European Theatre Collective] focuses on how to make the Finnish theatre field more inclusive not only for the artists and cultural workers, but also for the audience. Over the years, Finland has gained a culturally rich minority, with people from different backgrounds arriving from all around the world. This minority is very rarely represented on stage, and if it is presented, it’s shown only from the perspective of the majority in a very cliché way (eg. a person of foreign background will be the aggressor or the victim in the story). So, starting from this reality, we decided to stage stories of people with international backgrounds in a series of performances called Invisible Finland.
GEOFFREY: As a performer I work in theatre, dance, moving pictures and in installation art. I’m passionate about space-based performances, documentaries and the politics of art. I’m interested in exploring socially relevant topics in my work, as well as ways to build diversity in art. I think that it’s important that art shows and points out what people have forgotten. In 2019, my thesis performance "N.E.G.R.O. - Nhaga & Erista Growing 'n Reaching Out" was presented at Tampere Theatre Festival. N.E.G.R.O. is a physical exploration of blackness. It merges monologue with physical theatre, dance, and video art. The performance tells what it is like to grow up as a person of colour in Finnish society, where prejudices, categorising and xenophobia are part of everyday life. The piece deals with skin colour, gender, and power structures from a perspective of the other. N.E.G.R.O. explores blackness on a white stage. The piece exposes the prevailing norms and makes the white gaze visible by turning viewer's attention to it.
How would you describe diversity / diverse representation within theatre in your country?
CLIFF: I think if we look at Norway today, slowly, we can see more inclusion. The National Theatre have started to take on actors from different backgrounds. Twenty years ago that wouldn’t have happened. Making change in Norway, as a multicultural society, is not just about political slogans, but also about acting as a multicultural society, where everyone is able to be part of every societal development, including art and theatre. I’m not saying we've been perfect, but slowly you can see that this type of work is moving more and more into the mainstream theatres. It brings a new kind of audience to the theatre, because they feel that there's somebody “like me” on stage, who wasn’t up there before. So theatres gain more as well, because they're getting new audiences coming to see work, which 20 years ago wasn't relevant to them.
GEOFFREY: In Finland, the live performance art scene is very white. I don't really see any other skin colours. Not in the working field or in the performing art schools. Most of the time the narrative is told from the white straight male perspective. I think that’s a pretty narrow view of the world and does not correspond to reality. Society is getting more multicultural year by year, but this is not represented on the stage.
DAVID: Diversity or diverse representation within theatre in Finland is pretty much in its infancy. There are no programmes that take into consideration the diversity of the society. People with diverse backgrounds are most likely to be working in low-level positions and outside of any decision-making in the cultural institutions. As a positive aspect, I must mention that there are more and more artists or cultural workers with diverse backgrounds who are born here and studied here. The amount of talented, diverse artists and cultural workers is increasing all the time. That means that more and more groups are presenting qualitative works to the audience, meaning the old structures can’t ignore the fact that Finland is a diverse country which lacks representation within theatre.
What changes have you seen over the last few years and what work is still to be done to make Nordic theatre more diverse?
JOSETTE: I have seen Afro-Nordic artists taking more space. During recent events like Black Lives Matter, I have seen a consciousness and resistance from black artists and organisations, stating clearly that we are in a racist structure. Our work is of value. We are proud of our history. We will not accept murder and oppression any longer.
And in the same breath, there is work that is still to be done, such as a better arts infrastructure to sustain African artists and companies over years, not just months. There also needs to be better education in schools, arts schools and arts funding organisations about black art, history, legacy, and value.
DAVID: The biggest change I see is that the power structure has acknowledged the issue of non-representation of diversity, but there is a big distance between acknowledgement and action.
Positively, there is a realisation that diversity in culture is not represented in Finnish theatre. We need to start creating programmes and encourage theatres and groups to include diversity in their projects. Finland has everything it needs to become an inclusive country where diversity is a positive, and not a problem. The only issue is that the gatekeepers are keeping the field as monocultural as possible.
GEOFFREY: In order for someone to be heard, someone else must be quiet and listen. Human beings have two ears and one mouth for a reason. We should listen more. I believe that change will only begin when privileged people want an art scene that may not mirror them exclusively.
CLIFF: Art is political. Politics is about making a change. I think we've all been looking at what's going on in the world and we've been saying that we need a change.
The Norwegian National Academy came to me, because they are changing. They are getting students from different backgrounds. Ten years ago that didn’t happen. I think there is a greater cultural and political understanding now. We can see that, slowly, developments are being made. We can see that, slowly, an awareness is coming.
Norwegian theatres used to be mostly governed and directed by men. I think that speaks for itself. Today, there are more women in those roles, and I think they look at things in different ways, because they understand the struggle that occurred in order for them to be in the position they are in today. They are aware that they also have to make sure that other under-represented people have the chance to be there too. So, I think that the shift has come because of changes of leadership.
What does your company do to promote diversity and reach a more diverse audience?
DAVID: We are a small company with no space and staff. What we do is create diverse content which is accessible for everyone. In our productions you’ll see creatives of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and our projects are sometimes performed in Finnish, sometimes in English and sometimes in many different languages. At the moment, we are working with Metamorfoosi theatre on a three-year project in which we investigate the possibility of creating a new space for diversity within the performing arts. There are many examples to follow, but the main question is how to reimagine these examples within the local context. For that, the only way is an honest dialogue between creatives and the communities.
CLIFF: I really can, with all my heart, say that we have one of the most multicultural theatre audiences in Norway. Next year, we're doing a play based on Dr. Martin Luther King in the Opera House - it’s a play about why the younger generation are now questioning Martin Luther King. 90% of the actors are people who were either not born in this country, or people who were born in this country but have a different cultural background. The usual audience that we would expect to see at the opera are not an audience that our actors have experienced before.
JOSETTE: We have, as stated, an ambitious programme of work that keeps us in contact with the artists, the funders and our Nordic and international arts community. As part of our outreach, we work with communities outside the centre of Stockholm. They often have extraordinary talent, courage and creativity, it’s just about releasing that within them. We keep our ticket prices low and make sure we have connected with as many black and other grassroots communities here in Stockholm.
How does this compare to what you see in theatre in the other Nordic countries? In the rest of the world?
JOSETTE: I cannot comment on other Nordic regions, but when I have travelled and visited places (Norway most recently), and I have been in contact with Nordic artists – the work is rich, diverse, beautifully crafted and articulate. There is often a sense of isolation as a black Finnish or Norwegian or Danish artist – race politics and racism is still a struggle. Around the world – depending on where you are – there are better or worse spaces for black artists. The US, which of course has an extraordinarily rich yet brutal history concerning African people, continues to produce an amazing and jaw-dropping breadth of work.
CLIFF: Recently, the National Theatre of Finland has decided to broaden their audiences and find new ways of making Nordic theatre relatable to people with different approaches and tastes. We’ve opened a dialogue with them to ask: ”How do we relate to each other? How can we meet and merge together, so that we can develop a new kind of Nordic?”
There is also a very good and constructive dialogue going on between the US, Russia, and Finland. We met with artists from these countries before COVID to talk about what we produce and how we can invite them to Finland, to present some work and do workshops.
GEOFFREY: Finnish mainstream theatre primarily serves white audiences. Non-white people are still not regarded as “ordinary” citizens. In Finland, we are still a long way from colour-blind casting. Casting directors should not think of ethnicity first when casting someone for a role. Stories can be told and non-white people can appear in them, even if the subject of the story is not representation or otherness.
DAVID: We try to learn from other successful models in order to create a more inclusive operational model. At the moment, we are working on creating a network of post migrant theatres in the Nordic countries where we want to learn and empower each other, in order to create a more inclusive theatre field in the area.
What hopes do you have for the future?
DAVID: Hope is something that never dies. I hope the future will bring an established venue for diverse representation in Finland and that that venue will establish different networks inside and outside the country.
JOSETTE: That NBTS goes from strength to strength and is able to collaborate with others so they too can grow. That a global archive of plays is created, and that structures that recognise our work are developed. That all funders recognise the power of the arts. There are thousands of great stories waiting to be told that will sustain us, confirm who we are, and inspire other communities. This is a great hope for the future.
GEOFFREY: I hope and I believe that Finland will become more diverse during my career. Hope is a strong force. I believe that dreaming is an integral part of an artist’s work. I hope things change. I don't think they will change as fast as I'd like them to, but I think they're going to change.
I would like to see representations that reflect society as it is. Finland is not a monochromatic, mono-religious or monocultural homogeneous country - and that must also be shown on stage.
We should not only ask different people with different social and ethnic backgrounds to share their own lives as part of a discriminated minority, but to organise, lead, choose and make decisions. Change should start with decisions.
CLIFF: That we have good and constructive dialogues, and we give space and room to each other. That we listen to each other. We have to be very good listeners to be able to work together on productions. If we have this sort of Nordic perspective for tomorrow, I think we'll be able to do a lot of work in the future. I'm very positive about it, because I can feel it has an urgency. There is a great sense of community going on between countries, especially between Norway, Sweden and Finland. I think the only thing that we have to be careful about and very aware of, is that the work has to last. We have to look back and see we were doing the work for the coming generations. If this is the intention, if this is what our objectives are, then I think I'm positive for the future.
How can others learn from your work, both within your country and internationally?
CLIFF: In Norway, I think there is a dialogue now between the big institutions and the schools. We told them how we work with text and how we do auditions. They listen to us now. I think there are people governing the institutions now who have struggled themselves, and they are there to make changes. I think that as long as they have the same desire to make change, then we can absolutely share tools together. We don't want them to work exactly like us, but we can share our tools and experiences so that they can get along and do the work they set up to do in a sense. And I think it's more open today than it has been previously and that's really good.
GEOFFREY: My work examines racialized bodies and black masculinity, it is deeply
personal, and I think it exposes the set of attitudes we need to change to rid ourselves of the global stranglehold of white gaze.
JOSETTE: I think it is more what we can learn from each other. Maybe one thing is that we have asked several of our main stages if we can be resident with them. This is a way to keep autonomy, pool resources and show our work in spaces meant only for ‘them’, but showing these are our spaces too – and they are empty without our stories.
DAVID: We learn from others all the time. I don’t know if we are at a stage to teach others, but we try to follow these rules:
Be interested in the individual, not in their background.
Bring this very moment onto the stage, not the past.
Don’t force a character to represent a nation.
Hire the artist, not their history.
Give work to as many people as possible.
Language is a tool, so why not be multilingual.
Theatre is a live act, telling the story of people who are alive.
Our new In Focus series highlights important voices and movements happening in the Nordic countries from artists and companies creating positive examples for change. We hope this article has inspired you to research their work and look for more diverse stories in theatre. If you have similar work, companies, and artists you’d like to share with us, let us know, we’d love to keep learning.
Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE is a Swedish-based English theatre actress and director of African descent, who was born in London and has been living and working in Sweden for many years. She is currently the Artistic Architect for The National Black Theatre of Sweden. NBTS is part of a long history of Afro Swedish artists and presence within Swedish history. A history that is often erased or unrecognised. NBTS was created to give a consistent platform to African and Afro-Swedish plays, stories and African descent artists.
NBTS creates work, invites co-production, presents international African work and develops stage performances and offers traineeship in Afro Swedish producers, directors and designers.
CLIFF A. MOUSTACHE
Director & Artistic Director of Nordic Black Theatre in Norway. Nordic Black Theatre was founded in 1992 together with Administration Director Jarl Solberg. Nordic Black Theatre run a two-year education theatre project for young people between 18-24 called NordicBlackXpress, which is an inclusive theatre school for diverse actors/actresses. Cliff was nominated for the Hedda Award, awarded the Oslo City Culture prize in 1997, and the Oslo City Culture prize in 2018 by the Mayor of Oslo. He was nominated for “Tippenprisen" in 2020.
David Kozma is a Romania-Hungarian actor and theatre director. He graduated in 2001 from Babes-Bolyai drama department. In Romania, he worked as a permanent actor in the Andrei Muresanu Theatre and in the Figura Studio Theatre, as well as performing on television. After moving to Finland in 2006, he has performed at Ryhmäteatteri and in TV series and films. His upcoming production of The Cleaners will be premiering in winter 2020. As an actor, his latest work has been on television with the series Cargo, and with Karkurit, which will be premiering in 2021. He established European Theatre Collective in 2007 and the R.E.A.D. Reading European Drama festival in 2014. David Kozma is a board member of the Finnish Actors’ Union, and Mad House Helsinki.
Geoffrey Erista is an actor, dancer and live art maker of Sudanese-Ugandan descent based in Helsinki, Finland. In the spring of 2020, he received an MA in Acting from University of Arts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy. Before studying at Helsinki Theatre Academy, he worked on his acting skills in amateur theatres such as Kellariteatteri and Ylioppilasteatteri. There, he worked with theatre directors like Ossi Koskelainen and Akse Pettersson, among others. He has been performing in contemporary dance productions of Zodiak – Center for New Dance, in dance pieces choreographed by Anna Maria Häkkinen, Sonya Lindfors and Mikko Makkonen.
As a performer, he has been most influenced by the teachings of Mikhail Chekhov, Jerzy Grotowski and Tadashi Suzuki. As a theatre-maker, he is inspired by a deep desire to build mirrors, for himself and people like him. Build mirrors, so that people like him would see themselves reflected back and look at their reflection with pride and joy.
Photo credit: Laura Malmivaara