Staging the Nordic Imaginary
An Interview with Chicago based Akvavit Theatre. During rehearsals for MISHAP! (Bjarni Jonsson - Review of "Mishap"), the latest production by Chicago’s Akvavit Theatre, I had the opportunity to speak with the director (and producing artistic director for Akvavit), Chad Eric Bergman, about the significance of this piece in relation to those they have produced from the other Nordic countries. I was curious to hear about the ways in which Icelandic drama might differ from that of Norway and Sweden – what political realities or forms of expression, if any, are unique to these countries or playwrights? And just as importantly, what can be considered characteristic of Nordic drama as set against theatre from other regions?

MISHAP! also marks the first time the group has brought almost all of its members together on a single production (sans Andy Quijano, who is, incidentally, studying in Iceland), all of them fulfilling dual roles as crew and cast – making it a key showcase piece in the repertoire of this 3-year old theatre company. So, in celebration of their recent success, take a listen to some of the very talented members of Akvavit Theatre on what’s involved in bringing the Nordic to America.

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Chad: “One thing that we have discovered is that there is a Nordic sensibility, but that each country has a different take on what that aesthetic sensibility is. We have begun to think along the lines of geography and space as we articulate the difference. On an artistic level, I have been heavily influenced by the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and the concept of negative space in art history. This concept of negative space is actually how I begin to articulate what Nordic theatre is to people outside of the Nordic realm. Words matter to people of the Nordic region because of silence. Small movement matters on a glacier because the glacier is actually moving even slower. These contrasts really matter in a place/space where the absence of something actually creates its existence.”

What would you say are some of the differences in emphasis on this geographic sensibility between the playwrights that Akvavit has produced?
Chad: “Astrid Saalbach (Red and Green, Denmark): Challenging the Nordic sense of being the world’s conscience. (Something the US thinks of itself).
Leaa Klemola (Kokkola, Finland): Understanding community in an unsentimental way.
Jon Fosse (Gjenganger, Norway): Poetically capturing the inner voice of loneliness.
Sofia Fredén (They Died Where They Lied, Sweden): Examining what it means to be “Swedish” when immigrants are being more “Swedish” than the Swedes.
Bjarni Jónsson (MISHAP!, Iceland): Looking at identity and authenticity through the strange genre of reality TV.
Looking at the vastness and organic nature of Gjenganger against the intimacy of MISHAP! you begin to see how the space of where we produce helps us understand the nature of the play that we produce. For Kokkola, I needed to see the mystery of the Northern Lights on stage as this fractured community shimmers in a similar way against the ice of reality. For Gjenganger, I needed to create the world of a Norwegian fjord on stage. For They Died Where They Lied, I wanted to contrast the urge to get back to nature with the artificiality of an IKEA world. For MISHAP!, I saw the shattered crack of ice/drywall against the roots and branches of trees. Similar images, one breaks while the other extends.
I think this play has a lot of similarities to Nordic Brechtian-influenced political drama. We talked a lot in rehearsal about how Europeans continued Brecht while Americans entertained it as a fad. I actually think of all of our plays, this might be the one that is closest to our American audiences. Regarding the politics of MISHAP!, who among us doesn’t carry a balance on our credit card, use television/media to inform our standard of living and especially those who live in Chicago, the ever looming threat of a teacher’s strike.”
I also spoke with a few of the cast members, who also, like many of Akvavit’s company members, share some Nordic ancestry.

How would you say these characters, or others you’ve portrayed for Akvavit, seem to express or comment upon Nordic identity?
Bergen: “In my experience, the Nordic sentiment is much, much quieter than the American sentiment, but not any less interesting. It's subtle, but all of the raw emotion is just below the surface. This show really speaks to that for me. There is always subtext with any role/performance you take part in, but this piece seems super subtextual.”
Brea: “Brynja keeps things (for as long as she can) beneath the surface. She is more passive-aggressive than forthright with her feelings for most of the play, which is very Nordic.”
Kirstin: “Although this piece has a political agenda, I'm not sure it's as strong as the agenda in our first piece, Red and Green. The Danes have what seems to be a very strong political agenda (nearly every play I've read is soaked in political material)...and that piece in particular is what drew me to Akvavit. It is so inspiring to come into rehearsals knowing we all understand this Nordic aesthetic and are passionate about bringing these unique stories to life in America. It's a different environment to work in - when you know everyone and how they work and what they bring... we're able to take things a step further and get there quicker than we did in Red and Green, where we were all still getting to know each other and the Nordic style of theatre. With every show I've done, I feel like I've uncovered more about my Nordic roots, more about this aesthetic and way of being... and it's a place where I love to exist.”

What are some of the more challenging or rewarding aspects of these roles?
Bergen: “I definitely think that Johanna is the hardest character I've played in the three Akvavit shows I've acted in, largely because she's a woman who has lost a child. There are still parts in my acting process where my body shuts down when I imagine the grief and devastation that must accompany losing a child. Tapping that grief (in whatever form it manifests in my body) has been hard, but a challenge that I think is worth taking.”
Brea: “Working on Brynja was unique because she is performing, but not in a traditional play-within-a-play sense. Especially at the beginning of the play, she has a carefully constructed personality she puts on for the "camera" that is not a character, but that she believes presents the best, most competent and attractive parts of herself. Of course as the play progresses we start to see that she is not as confident or competent or even necessarily as kind as her onscreen persona (and as she would like herself to be). She has been a blast to work on, but it has been challenging!
As for how she relates to my other characters I've played with Akvavit - I played a character in Red and Green who was a strong woman, and a leader in her field while still feeling insecure and unsure of herself beneath the surface, like Brynja in a way. She too went through a disillusionment, where she came to feel she had realized something true about what she was doing that others were ignoring (I'm referring to Brynja's "We're all assholes" scene.) However, Brynja is more socially savvy, and a more skilled manipulator - she is able to draw Sven back in to her and gain sympathy, where my character in Red and Green waged war on the people in her life. That manipulative work in a relationship was actually present in my other role for Akvavit, which was in Kokkola, although she was much more extreme.

I have found at Akvavit that the depth and variety of roles for women is really wonderful. In the plays we have produced - and in plays from the Nordic countries in general, based on what I've read as literary manager - the women are written very strongly. When I say "strongly" I don't mean that they are all "strong women" but that they are strong characters: interesting, unusual, flawed and deep. All of the best characters I have worked on have been with Akvavit.”

Someone mentioned that it seemed like everyone in this group is family. Collectively, the amount of talent is truly impressive. You have very short rehearsal periods and are so well organized!
Brea: “Working with Akvavit has been very challenging - we choose challenging scripts, which have the added complication of being translated, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard. We are able to work together quickly and comfortably - we have learned to trust each other and lean on each other both on and off stage. We have grown a lot also as an organization, finding how we can work best off stage and behind the scenes to make a strong organization for producing. For all the same reasons, it is immensely rewarding and educational. I learn more about other cultures, theatre, media and design working on our shows (and working to choose our shows) than I have on any others since I left college. I believe very strongly that theatre should be challenging and eye opening for the artists involved and the audiences, and that is the kind of work Akvavit does. It's why I joined the company, and I've never regretted my decision!”

Enjoy Some Akvavit Today!
There’s still time to catch MISHAP! at the Side Project Theater in Chicago Check performances before the play ends on March 23. Failing that, fear not – follow their Facebook for updates on what’s in the works.

Chicago can sit tight in anticipation of further innovations in staging and narration from Chad Eric Bergman, who will be giving us the first-ever English translation of Lucas Svensson’s De Frusna På Torget (1982), a comedy that will be just as much of a treat for cinephiles: The Frozen on the Square will follow the existential ruminations of four of the “extras” in Ingmar Bergman’s classic Fanny and Alexander (1982) as they deal with what it means to live in the imaginary world of film. (And for Chad Eric Bergman, this includes the meaning of his missed encounter – by 5 minutes, what a mishap! – with Ingmar himself (no relation), with whom his friends had set up a meeting at Stockholm’s Dramaten.)

Shannon Foskett
Chicago, IL