“I’m ready. I’m one thousand percent ready,” says Toralf Nilsson, and there is no doubt about it. He’s ready and he has been ready for quite a while; he hopes we are, too. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is full, and excitement is in the air. “A tribute to Elvis” is the name of the show, but it is not an ordinary show we’re about to see, this is the Glada Hudik Theater’s opening night and they’re giving only one performance.
Listen carefully because this is a story that must be told: If you thought heroic stories with happy endings belonged in fairy tales only, you haven’t met Pär, Toralf, Teresia, Mats and all the others that make the Glada Hudik Theater so special. And what a meeting it will be!
You don’t have to stand around while formal phrases hang in the air and blasé handshakes are being exchanged. You immediately become friends with these people, they hug you and say nice things to you, they don’t wait until they know you better. They are immediate and they are spontaneous—they’re genuinely great!
The Glada Hudik Theater, the brainchild of founder Pär Johansson, is comprised of a mix of mentally challenged people and people like you and me.
“It was difficult to warm people to the idea of having mentally retarded people on stage at first,” Pär says of the theater’s conception back in 1996. “People have so many preconceived opinions about what is good and not good for mentally challenged people. And the parents were afraid their children would, once again, be the laughing-stock. They asked: ‘Have they not suffered enough already?’ ‘What if they make fools of themselves on stage?’ But for years we’ve looked for a tool with which we can integrate everyone in society. And I believed theater could be such a tool.”
Pär Johansson had dreamed of becoming a soccer pro and play in Milan, Italy. Instead he found himself chopping wood on a hill with a group of people society seemed to have little or no use for. And in retrospect, he says, he is happy things turned out that way.
One day, when they were in a bus coming home from a class where they were learning to tie their shoelaces, Pär asked the bus driver to stop.
“I asked them to show me how to tie their shoes, but none of them knew how to. This shoe-tying project had been going on for eight years, and yet nobody had learned to tie their shoes. I told the bus driver to take us to the nearest shoe store where I bought shoes with Velcro for the entire group. Instead of focusing energy on something these people will never be able to do, it’s better to focus on something they actually can do.”
Like theater, for instance. Though many were against it, Pär pursued his theater project, and to call it a success is an understatement. The Glada Hudik Theater has changed his life, it has changed the lives of the mentally challenged people involved, it has changed the lives of the “normal” people involved, it has changed the entire community. Today, the city of Hudik (which has approximately 15,000 inhabitants) is famous most for the Glada Hudik Theater. Take Toralf, who plays Elvis in the show, for instance. He says he loves being on stage.
“It feels great being on stage. And I am not nervous, not at all. At first I was, though, and I wanted to go off the stage. But I was stubborn and I thought ‘I’m here to stay.’ I have wonderful friends and everybody is doing a great job. Theater is great because it has given me such a nice sense of myself. I am not afraid to make a mistake, because it is OK to make a mistake, people like you anyway.”
It is, he says, Pär who has taught him this.
“Pär makes us all believe in ourselves,” he says.
But perhaps they have taught each other the path to success? Pär’s reasoning goes like this: If you find something you have in common with other people, that will lead to communication and communication will lead to understanding, and once you understand each other you won’t be biased anymore. Theater is the common ground here.
“Look,” he says, “we’re unpretentious, we’re honest and we live in the here and now. We’re living proof that you don’t need to be perfect. Society’s greatest concern should be to find a place for everyone, imagine what a rich world that would lead to!”
Passion and enthusiasm are other keywords that easily rub off unto others. Theresia Widarsson became involved with the theater five years ago. A singer of amazing talent, Theresia hid in a bathroom the first day and refused to join the others. Her schizophrenia and slight retardation made it impossible for her to participate. Tonight, five years later, she shines on stage singing “In the ghetto” with Toralf as Elvis.
“We’ve performed at Skansen in Stockholm and I sang at the Eurovision Song Contest,” Theresia says. “The greatest thing with being on stage is the response you get from the audience. It’s wonderful when you’ve worked so hard against all odds and then they love you for what you do.”
The idea to the latest project, “A tribute to Elvis”, came when Pär received a book about the King for Christmas. Elvis Presley in his youth was also seen as an oddball and an outsider, somebody who differed from the rest. He listened to gospel music, wore strange clothes and moved in a new way. He was also a free man, a survivor, a hero against all odds. In short he was the kind of person that the people at Glada Hudik could relate to.
“Perhaps you wonder how I got the part as Elvis?” Toralf asks, eager to tell me. He pauses slightly for effect. “Because I am handsome and sexy and sing well in English!”
“You really are sexy,” says Theresia, nodding.
“Yes, yes, I know,” says Toralf.
The Glada Hudik Theater came to New York for a few days only, during which they enjoyed sightseeing and shopping and seeing “The Lion King” on Broadway. Toralf also took the opportunity to get engaged.
“My girlfriend is a wonderful girl, we got together eight months ago. I’m going to propose to her in the park here in New York, I brought a ring.”
Isn’t that amazing, I say, to be in New York and play Elvis on stage and to get engaged.
“Yes, it’s unbelievable,” he says. “Unbelievable.”
The bus is leaving Manhattan the day after the big performance at BAM and the entire ensemble is tired but happy. They are returning to Hudiksvall with wonderful memories of wonderful moments. I ask Pär what his hopes are.
“Of course I hope we’ve lit a fire here in New York, too, that what we’re doing can create hope. Our group’s work can be said to be innovative from a variety of perspectives. While by no means the only one, it is by far the most successful example of an effective collaboration between two separate worlds. We know nothing is impossible when people are given the chance to develop and grow, something demonstrated every day through the work of the Glada Hudik Theater. We want to show people that it’s better to be really good at one thing than not so good at ten.”
For more info, see www.gladahudikteatern.se, www.gladahudik.se