The Need For A Proud Global Network
- Ulricha Johnson
“It should be just as common to discuss LGBTQIA+ challenges as gender equality.”
LGBTQIA+ representation is undoubtedly growing. From Pride festivals, congresses and networks, to exhibitions, theatre companies and solo performances – we see progressive work happening around us and a growing awareness and willingness for change. And yet some would argue that more needs to be done. It’s easy to assume that the Nordic countries, with their highly regarded welfare system and strong performance on international happiness indices, offer everyone equal opportunities. But how is this reflected in the representation of LGBTQIA+ within theatre in the Nordic region? What changes are Nordic artists hoping to see in the future, and could a solution be a global artistic network?
At Cut the Cord we were curious about LGBTQIA+ representation in the different Nordic countries and the inspiring companies and artists creating change. As part of our new article series focusing on minority voices in the Nordic countries, we have been talking to performer and choreographer Magnus Myhr and multi-disciplinary artist Corentin JPM Leven from Norway, and Ulricha Johnson (Scensverige, Swedish ITI, Proud Performing Arts) from Sweden. We also spoke to director Lars Werner Thomsen (Glad Teater) and Jeremy Thomas-Poulsen (House of International Theatre), two Danes who are working together on a collaboration for World Pride in Copenhagen 2021.
Tell us a bit about your work - what would you say your company focuses on?
ULRICHA: As a national member organisation that is also part of the International Theatre Institute, our focus is to highlight art that is being created, be a hub for inspiration, experience, visibility, collaborations and solidarity, and empower, encourage and elevate performing arts and artists that have an LGBTQ+ focus or perspective.
MAGNUS: My first project was about childhood dreams, my second on how to transcend or tackle the shame I felt for being feminine. My work revolves around identity, desire and sexuality, intertwining body, sound and light/space into one expression. I try to use the poetics of the body to invite the audience to broaden their understanding of gender and difference.
JEREMY: The House of International Theatre has collaborated extensively with organisations in Copenhagen, Hamburg and Malmø over the last 5 years. We’re now in partnership with Lars to create a platform at Pride. They don’t have a theatre festival themselves, so we suggested bringing together both Danish and international shows and collaborators to create a platform for this.
LARS: It’s also about giving a platform to queer artists, who are based in parts of the world where they can’t be queer artists. With the benefits of World Pride, and the more tolerant attitude in Denmark, comes a responsibility. We can’t just enjoy these things ourselves, we have to share it with others who can’t.
CORENTIN: Recently we premiered our performance “+-“, which is a theatre/dance piece about HIV and its modern-day implications. To define the work is difficult, but I would say that a strong focus of ours is to always start from an individual experience and then connect this to wider issues facing the queer community. I would say “community” is an important word in the work we create, and something we value in the queer community as a whole. We believe in challenging entitlement and preventing our stories from being appropriated.
How would you describe LGBTQIA+ representation within theatre in your country?
CORENTIN: LGBTQIA+ artists are very well represented, and yet we are reaching a new phase. The scene is facing a need to reinvent itself; I would say that in general the term Queer has gained a significant commercial factor. The line between the queer community and allies of the queer community has gotten blurry, which is problematic in many ways. It’s hard to see our stories commercialised, and it’s difficult to be creative in a place where those stories and that culture is misused, appropriated or looked upon as entertainment. Looking more specifically into the arts, a new wave of queer aesthetics seems to have emerged in the last few years.
MAGNUS: I think we are way behind [in Norway]. In all the big theatres it still is the stereotypical heteronormative narratives and Western stories that dominate. In the dance community, gender, sexuality and identity are often on display and up for discussion - and for that I am grateful. But we have a long way to go, especially in terms of representing trans lives and stories, and BIPOC stories and themes.
ULRICHA: A current issue is the question of who is allowed to play which roles. Many would probably argue that anyone can, of course, play anything because theatre is just about imagining being someone else. But what happens when heterosexual cis men are allowed to play everything from homosexuals to trans women, while actors who de facto belong to these groups do not get any roles at all, and definitely not roles as heterosexual cis people?
What’s positive is that there are now more actors and artists out of the closet, and we discuss and strive for representation and visibility. Suddenly, we see trans characters in popular films and on dance and performance stages. We would say that the conventional theatre genre is a bit behind, but is trying to catch up, especially regarding queer people of colour.
LARS: [In Denmark] I think that there is room, a desire and a will for it. But sometimes things are a bit off, and that can be problematic. The theatre company Hils Din Mor have marked themselves as being a pure queer theatre - and they’ve received a lot of funding and won prizes.
JEREMY: But on the other hand, there’s not really that many groups other than Hils Din Mor - and not really that many other openly queer Artistic Directors in Denmark.
What changes have you seen over the last few years and what work is still to be done to make Nordic theatre more representative?
JEREMY: Most LGBTQ+ shows are homosexual-male orientated. There are barely any productions that explore lesbian or trans narratives. It’s about representation. What are the new issues in the LGBTQ+ environment? There are a lot of new concepts that we haven’t even discussed yet, that need space, and that you could make amazing theatre about. But it’s lacking the next step.
ULRICHA: The lesbian director and artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington DC, Molly Smith, captured her experience after visiting the Swedish Performing Arts Biennial in 2019: “Sweden is far ahead in equality but behind in diversity.” It was interesting to see our field through her eyes. I think the awareness around diversity is growing very fast, and there are a lot of organisations and theatres who are pushing for this.
CORENTIN: Alternative queer voices and concepts have flourished. A lot of independent projects are appearing and enduring, not only in theatre but also in club culture and galleries. In general, the Queer movement is slowly becoming more political again, various concepts have emerged exploring different elements of queerness, from its utopic values to societal functions.
MAGNUS: Lately, there has been a new level of awareness and acquisition of knowledge in theatre in Norway. That is good, but it takes time to break new ground. A lot of it is due to the system of education. When I graduated from Oslo National Academy of the Arts, I was told to act more masculine to get jobs. If that is what we are told and shamed for in our formative years, change will take a long time. Luckily, I now know that my old school has changed, and I hope the focus on anti-racism and a more open and generous perspective on gender will spread more quickly.
What does your company do to promote LGBTQIA+ voices and raise awareness within your audience?
MAGNUS: We simply try to make work that is both inviting and challenging, urging the audience to get lost and experience the euphoria of how complex and beautiful gender and sexuality are.
ULRICHA: We create an open call every year, and are always on the lookout for interesting persons to speak in seminars, to run a workshop, to suggest a collaboration with one of our members etc. In all our marketing we highlight Proud Performing Arts as one of our key activities. We talk about it at every international conference to spread the word, and as often as possible we arrange a talk on the subject. We decided immediately that this is no longer a project, this is a long-term investment. It should be just as common to discuss LGBTQIA+ challenges as gender equality.
CORENTIN: We try to be available by inviting various organisations to present or discuss topics, to give away flyers, condoms and lubricants, or to demystify and lower the threshold for STD check-ups, etc. I would say the company puts a lot of attention into including our audience in important topics outside the black box. We believe theatres are good platforms to share, educate, learn from and converse with, our audience.
LARS: I have a dream that our projects don’t just take place in Pride week but are spread out through the whole season across the country. That our projects create debates in schools and culture centres, as well as sharing experiences with other festivals.
How does this compare to what you see in theatre in other Nordic countries and in the rest of the world?
ULRICHA: It is easy to believe that we in the Nordic countries have come equally far with the LGBTQIA + issues. But we see a big difference between the countries in how we talk about this and how we use linguistic names on non-binary pronouns and who are portrayed on stage. But countries are starting to get closer to each other in co-operative projects, as we have several Nordic grants that stimulate this.
LARS: There’s been big problems on the Faroe Islands about the queer environment. It’s been a big topic in terms of rights. But there are a lot of things happening in Germany, the UK and the US - even though they still have their own problems of course.
JEREMY: There are big discussions happening in the States, which also leads to creating theatre. We don’t have that discussion in Denmark. Almost every big city in Europe has an international queer festival. Denmark doesn’t have that. So that’s why it’s important for us to make events with Pride, so we can get the discussion started. It’s like a first push.
MAGNUS: I feel I am in no position to compare, but I am in awe of so much of the work that is happening in the Nordic countries. There are so many brilliant artists making important work these days! So, I am very happy for all curators that put art on stage that is dealing with LGBTQIA+ issues and themes. But of course - we want and need more, more, more.
CORENTIN: In general, I think we are learning to face some emerging ideologies based on hatred and heterosexist views. The fight hasn’t changed much, but the way these views are exposed in public and social media makes us see how much these views get to be heard. It feels like it is time to stand our ground again. I don’t feel entitled to evaluate how other Nordic countries tackle this challenge, but I appreciate and support all the positive movements that are currently happening. Keep it queer!
What hopes do you have for the future?
MAGNUS: I hope for more trust in our leaders, and more aware and solid leaders. I don’t think you can be a good leader without trust, so I am trying my best to trust democracy these days. And of course, I hope we can meet and gather on a larger scale in the theatre soon. We need those spaces where we can put away our phones and just exist and breathe together.
LARS: My hope is that this can be a way of creating a platform, which can then spread wide. That we secure a foundation for some methods to be tested, and also secure a way to create some contacts, so it can gain more of a life afterwards.
JEREMY: I would like to see a Denmark which is more open, with a greater focus on LGBTQIA+ and stronger international networks.
CORENTIN: I hope that our perception of queer expands in a more inclusive direction and that we put focus on international matters, giving a voice to all these Queer minorities. More social rights, less discrimination, a stronger platform for LGBTIQ Arts in Norway: in general I think it is about time for us to unite a little more and share our experiences and support each other. I really hope we will get some sort of platform for us all to share and update each other on all that happens around the country. From theatre, to dance, lectures, club-events, readings, events…
ULRICHA: For queer performing arts and performers to be a natural part of the repertoire; not just white, gay men, but other voices and perspectives. You cannot be what you cannot see. We need to work together to lower the resistance to differences, so that young people and young artists can feel that they are part of it all just the way they are.
How can others learn from your work, both within your country and internationally?
MAGNUS: I think we all have things to teach each other, but I really hope that my work can bring one, or more, nuances to the spectrum of what it is to be human. I want to create recognisable, but challenging movements, and positions, and new dimensions of love and acceptance.
LARS: I think we are good at creating a solid framework. We have the opportunities to do so. And the experience of working in chaos and creating a framework in which it doesn’t feel like chaos, but rather a structure you can feel safe within, so that there’s then the space to create chaos and art. That’s what I think we can bring to this.
ULRICHA: We are a non-profit organisation with ties to UNESCO. Our main funders for our LGBTQIA+ work are the Swedish Arts Council, the Swedish Institute, Swedish Embassies, the City of Stockholm and more. Feel free to use us as an example when you apply for funding, feel free to contact us for cooperation or just a talk.
Everyone wants to collaborate and exchange experiences; everyone is surprised there isn‘t already a global network.
CORENTIN: I don’t pretend to think I can teach anyone anything. We don’t need another preacher. I would rather look at my work as another voice in the movement. My work speaks for me, and I can only hope that it resonates. In general, I am very proud of our community, its nuances and the critical space in society it defends. I hope everyone will have space to exist freely, claim our identities proudly, and live our lives fearlessly.
Stay inclusive, make yourself heard.
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 LGBTQIA+ 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.
Magnus Myhr (b.1985) has performed in both dance and theatre productions since 2007. His own work is based on personal experience and the poetic power of the body. He aims to create performances that invite the audience to broaden their understanding of gender and difference. Among other things, he has produced and choreographed the solo performances I SAT ON A ROCK AND LOOKED OUT AT THE «OCEAN» (2014), GREEN (2016), IN THE DISTANCE, TROY (2018) and HEARTFELT (2020).
Ulricha Johnson is the Managing Director/CEO of the national members' organisation Swedish Performing Arts Coalition (SPAC). The SPAC festival The Performing Arts Biennale is the country's largest industry meeting, and Swedstage is an export festival to promote Swedish performing arts in the world. They are part of International Theatre Institute (ITI), engaged in the European Council, the Action Committee for Artists Rights, as well as the workgroup they initiated at the world congress 2017 – Proud Performing Arts LGBTQ+ Network and Workgroup. Johnson is openly gay and has been involved in bringing LGBTQ+ theatre into Stockholm Pride and other Swedish pride festivals for 12 years.
Johnson is a former actress and musical theatre performer, and has worked on several large institutions and independent theatres in Sweden, a world touring production by Robert Wilson, as well as parts in National Broadcast drama series. She is also one of the most experienced translators of musicals and opera into Swedish, with big productions of Into the Woods, Passion, Spring Awakening, Avenue Q, La Traviata and many more.
CORENTIN JPM LEVEN
Corentin JPM Leven is a multidisciplinary artist from France established in Oslo. His means of expression are performing arts, scenography and visual arts. As an artist, Leven focuses on various queer perspectives and domains such as queer stories, the queer/queered spaces and queer aesthetics. His work is rooted in the queer as a living community, its heritage and legacy. In 2020, Leven premiered his first solo performance. The work is an effort to understand and expose HIV as a diagnosis in modern times.
In 2019, Corentin JPM Leven received a year-long working grant from the Norwegian Board of Culture. Leven used this grant to deepen his understanding and practice of Queer Architecture in live arts.
Jeremy is a freelance stage director, with a Master of Fine Arts in Directing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Bachelor of Arts in Directing and Theatre Producing, and over 10 years professional directorial experience, working primarily in Copenhagen, Denmark.
As a collaborative leader, he has a strong sense for language and a passion for experimentation and new play development. His artistic work focuses on re-imagining text-based theatre through experimentation and new play development through a unique concept of creative co-creation. He also has a love for poetry and play development in the Spoken Word genre.
Jeremy is the founder and Artistic Director of the English-language theatre Down the Rabbit Hole and, thereby, Local Artistic Director for House of International Theatre. He is also Co-Artistic Director of Teater Ord/Blindt, a professional project-based theatre company, which specialises in developing new work combining performance and poetry.
LARS WERNER THOMSEN
Lars Werner Thomsen is a stage director and Artistic Director of Glad Teater in Denmark. Lars graduated from The Arts Educational Schools in London, drama and directing, and has a Diploma in Art and Culture from the Danish School of Performing Arts. In 2006, Lars, together with dramaturg and acting teacher Jesper Michelsen, founded Glad Teater with the aim of creating a professional base for Danish Inclusive Performing Arts with actors with disabilities. Glad Teater began as an acting education but in 2011 the theatre changed to an ensemble theatre, producing one or two performances per season. As a director, Lars Werner Thomsen has created and directed Glad Teater's performances, e.g. Your Eyes My Sight and VIVALDIS, and most recently, he has directed Pride Monologues during Copenhagen Pride 2020.