Hanna Helavuori*

The Anthropocene has been defined as the present geological epoch, in which the earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity are being slowly disrupted by human intervention. Climate change and other environmental crises affect the area of our thinking, observation, knowledge and subjectivity. What is the role and potential of the writing and making performances in the era of the eco-crisis?

Many Finnish performing artists feel like they’re living in a reality (the world, or its prevailing social or economic systems) where purchasing power is the yardstick for citizenship, and where consumerism has usurped the role of religion. At the same time, the Earth has exceeded its carrying capacity and teeters on the brink of ecological and social disaster. An ever-increasing proportion of the excluded precariat is ever easier swept along by populism, racism and xenophobia.

Through their art, Finnish theatre artists present alternative views on what kind of world we’d all like to live in. They present works critical of the idea of continual growth, new models of action, and methods of working, all of which are marked with an awareness of what it means to live in a world of scant resources, dwindling energy and decreasing material possessions. This is what is happening outside the traditional institutionalized (city) theatres.

Making theatre and being an artist are being reconceptionalized. This discussion is strongly linked with the idea of artivism, which many artists consider a new genre of socially critical art. At the same time, we’re considering the balance between art, activism and politics. New interdisciplinary approaches to performance share characteristics from activism, installations, interventions, communal art and performance. 

The one thing these free companies and collectives have in common is their hybridity, whether in the sense of borderline, third space, transitional space or liminality. Current research into migrant groups talks about diaspora identity; people migrating from one country to another shape and reshape their identity as necessary. In the framework of art, diaspora identity might mean focusing the gaze outside the national boundaries: what could be “another” way of being Finnish, seeing the Other or defining one´s sexuality or sexual identity. This kind of diaspora identity, which is reflected in the work of the expanding group of freelance performing arts professionals in Finland and in their hybrid culture, emphasizes the fact that identities are not consistent.

These hybrid operators create free zones for thought and action. The new type of theatre collectives are democratic, with the aim of facilitating open dialogue and participatory decision-making. They stand opposed to the logic of productivity. It is impossible to carry through long-term processes within the confines of repertory theatre, as they simply do not have the time and financial resources for it. Many groups and productions organize their work around working groups. Whether based on the text, the space, the concept or a working group, the main point is for the groups to be able to choose their working methods freely.

Posthuman Perspectives, Compassion

The contemporary theatre performances reflect upon the question of the “posthuman” condition and scrutinize what human beings are in relation to other living creatures. Posthuman drama and theatre represent a new kind of sensitivity and strategy to respond to the ethical and political challenge that we encounter in the middle of the eco-catastrophe, climate change and the mass extinction of the species.

Car Park, a participatory performance by Other Spaces where the audience is turned into cars. Photo: Paula Tella

Director and dramaturge Tuija Kokkonen, the current professor of artistic research at the Theatre Academy of the University of Arts, Helsinki, is one of the early pioneers of ecological theatre and posthumanist thinking in the field of performing arts. She has investigated our relationship to the non-human through a performance event. Her doctoral artistic research project (entitled “The Potential Nature of Performance: The Relationship to the Non-Human in the Performance Event from the Perspective of Duration and Potentiality”) articulated her concerns. Her work has been influential.

Ecological concerns can be seen in the performances of a collective called Other Spaces (the convenor of which is Esa Kirkkopelto). The performances take the form of collective physical exercises, in which the audience is invited to take part. In Great Barrier Reef, adult and child participants of all ages come together to form a living and constantly changing human coral reef.

The Legend of the Tiny Bone, 2016 version by the group Third Space.
Photo: Robert Seger

Third Space is a multi-arts group with the emphasis on dialogue and cooperation between art and science. Their artistic research processes are long, including several phases which are communicated to the audience. The Legend of the Tiny Bone examines the history of humanity as a species, the value of human life and the relationship between human and non-human entities. Its starting point is a tiny spinal bone which, according to Jewish and Arabic myths, contains the coded riddle of the human self. We have the possibility to fight against and resist the anthropological machine (Agamben) which creates exclusion.

Many performances can be characterized by such notions as “being with” (Jean-Luc Nancy) or “co-existence” (Timothy Morton).The performances attempt to reflect co-existence in practice, which also means the practical applicationof ecological thinking. The common denominator of many performances is compassion. Compassion and ethical political considerations are present in the experimental performances of Reality Research Centre. In Plato´s Republic, participants were invited to create a just and good state by preparing tasks in the durational process.

Reality Research Centre, Plato’s Republic. Photo: Public domain (web)

There is, in contemporary Finnish performance, a notable movement from text-based dramaturgical work towards collective dramaturgical work and collective authorship. There are many groups, including WAUHAUS, Oblivia, Vibes and Blaue Frau, which share these working ideals.

The new collectives create transformative encounters and transformative, collective subjectivities. The “works” are no longer clearly defined performances tied to a specific space and time, but, rather, resemble happenings, encounters, lectures or city walks.

The Political Basis, the Wounds of the Past, the Work of the Neoliberal Era

Finland celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence in 2017. In 2018, the theatre looked to the scars of the past (the 1917 civil war), often with a critical gaze from the micro perspective of the victims (“the Reds,” who lost the war and whose dreams were crushed). In many performances, the protagonists were young women who joined the Red Guard. The hidden and muted history was put on stage. KOM Theatre´s Blood Roses (based on Anneli Kanto´s novel, directed by Lauri Maijala) is aware of the tradition of political theatre, but does not remain within it. The musical and physical performance becomes like a Requiem with scenography, resembling Russian constructivist scenography.

Niko Saarela (left) and Juho Milonoff in Okko Leo’s Eat Me: Punk Tragedy at KOM Theatre, in 2018. Photo: Patrik Pesonius

Much of contemporary, politically engaged Finnish performance is concerned with the crisis of the welfare state, and with debating and questioning the legitimacy of government policy. In Finland, the arts, as well as discourse and rhetoric around arts policy, have also been partially “captured” by economists and marketers. The vast majority of theatres are repertory theatres with a permanent ensemble. As a labour-intensive sector, the theatre is a major employer. However, a clear shift in artistic work can be seen. Theatres are searching for cost savings and flexibility. The state-subsidized structure offers a decreasing number of permanent artistic contracts and guest positions. There has been a significant increase in the number of freelancers in recent years.

As a result of the fiscal and managerial crisis, the working conditions of performing arts professionals have become radically more unequal. There are and (will be in the future) more and more have-nots, self-employed people on low incomes and jugglers of short-term projects. The polarization creates a “class society of the theatre,” where there are theatre professionals with permanent contracts and a steady income, who are relatively well-off, in contrast with a theatre precariat marked by “financial, social, existential insecurity,” who are engaged in flexible forms of labour; such as freelancing, short term contracts, internships and solo self-employment. The field of art will see a larger number of those falling through the cracks: low-income, self-employed entrepreneurs, juggling a fragmented palette of hybrid professions.

Performances show concern about the impact of changes in our working lives. Several plays and performances deal with global capitalism and neo-liberal values.

Okko Leo´s plays The Field, Orchestra and Eat Me: A Punk Tragedy form a trilogy that depicts how different structures of power and repression infiltrate human relationships, language and, even, the body. The dramas depict anonymous and faceless oppression. The lives of the protagonists have descended into a verbal game where the only point of reference for reality is to count the days. The titular orchestra of the second play was, previously, about solidarity. Now, the band members can only create a pitifully momentary, utopian illusion. People no longer have ideology, there are no parties or movements to articulate or politicize their situation.

Eat Me is a punk-tragedy set in a hamburger restaurant, where the power struggle takes places between two workers. The powerlessness and exclusion create hatred and absolute indifference. Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” is nowhere to be seen. Unlike in Michael Cross’s 2016 film Second Nature, there is no intervening power that changes the brutal direction of history. There is not even the despair of hope here.

Source: Public domain (web)

Juha Jokela´s trilogy Performance Economy shows the mechanisms, and the performativity, of party and municipal politics. In this world, business consultants are selling their brand concepts, the community is inventing their Story, and the private radio station faces pressure to change to become more dynamic. Quality and professionalism no longer have any value. The worldview has become darker. In the conclusion of the play, reality becomes surrealistic; the journalists find themselves on an ice floe.

Finland School of Contemporary Drama and Performance—Made by Women

Although one cannot, of course, talk about a uniform movement among Finnish women dramatists (they do not constitute a homogeneous aesthetic bloc), there are, nevertheless, some commonalities. Many women playwrights in Finland share: an awareness of language as a material; the writers’ desire to explore the possibilities of drama; and a distancing from the realist tradition. Additionally, the writing is against the Aristotelian power machine in drama. Many plays question the assumptions of a binary gender system. Gender is transgressive and identities are fluid.

The works of E. L. Karhu, Pipsa Lonka, Saara Turunen and Milja Sarkola shape the DNA of the Finnish drama. Their strategies—each of which is different—are connected with drama as material. Some sort of new materialism or material dramaturgy is involved. The plays dismantle their own essence and do not agree to “look out to reality,” or, if they do it, they make it aware of their own fictive nature and performance. The plays exceed their own representational character. We could, in this connection, talk about postfeminist sensitivity and critical consciousness towards media and other representations of women and power structures.

Princess Hamlet (2017), a collaboration between Aura of Puppets and Turku City Theatre. Photo: Public domain (web)

In Princess Hamlet (2017), Karhu portrays existential loneliness and themes of betrayal, love and friendship in such a way that existential questions are present, and not only in relation to the old, classic male-centred narratives of “holy madman” characters. This overwrite of Shakespeare´s text creates images which force the theatre to solve the riddles of the text. Bread Line Ballad explores the themes of poverty, class difference, autonomy and subjugation through food, gorging and absurd humour.

Saara Turunen’s play The Phantom of Normality is about Finnishness and normality, about Us and Them. The play draws inspiration from Luis Buñuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), which examines freedom through partially intermeshing scenes.

Saara Turunen’s play The Phantom of Normality. Source:Public domain (web)

Pipsa Lonka´s play Second Nature (Viirus Theatre, 2018) scrutinizes what human beings are in relation to other living creatures. It represents a new kind of sensitivity and a strategy to respond to the ethical and political challenges of ecocrisis. The play deconstructs human-centred thinking and the thinking and life modes that put men at the top of the hierarchy. What happens when the gaze is directed in the opposite direction and when a human being becomes the object of an animal gaze? The drama’s playback aesthetics emphasize the alienation of human beings.

Pipsa Lonka´s play Second Nature, Viirus Theatre 2018. Source: Public domain (web)

Many female theatre makers use autobiography to create bold performances, in which the theatre becomes a site of resistance and intervention. These embodied experiences reshape and remove shame. Common to these performances by Noora Dadu (My Palestine, Failure) or Emilia Kokko (Genderfuck: Gender Poetics, Fragile Structures) are fragility, incompleteness and a conscious exposing and exploration of failures.

Economic Austerity—Theatre in Infarction? Disruption?

There is, in the twenty-first-century Finnish theatre landscape, a notable lack of foreign classics. Is it an unconscious protest against the directors´ theatre with its constant new interpretations? Is it a reflection of the incapability, impotence, powerlessness or fear of the directors? Is it a symptom of the burgeoning invasion of commercial theatre as entertainment? Who is afraid of classics? Who is afraid of directing, challenging new plays? Who is afraid of directing/managing theatres? Who is afraid of artistic theatre? Does it still exist?

At repertory theatres, fewer risks are taken in artistic planning and repertory, more small-scale productions are staged, less commissioning of plays from Finnish playwrights takes place, collaboration is more frequent. Institutional theatres are forced to fight over audiences. In the repertories of the largest theatres, there has been a growth of the prominence of musical theatre (including, it must be said, on a positive note, homegrown works) and other primarily entertaining (Anglo-American) productions. Do we suffer from city theatre infarction? A stagnation? Ageing audiences? Declining audience figures? A legitimation crisis? A blockage? A disruption?

The domestic Finnish musical theatre scene is very much alive and thriving. Musical theatre is much more than just culinary shows from Broadway or the West End. Brecht’s political musical theatre rules. One can, for example, encounter an in-your-face documentary cabaret opera on Finnish energy policy. The musical theatre  might deal with European populist politics in relation to the global refugee crisis (Musta Saara-Black Sara/Saint Sara, Pirkko Saisio libretto, directed by Laura Jäntti, musical composition by Jussi Tuurna) or bring to the stage the work of Touko Valio Laaksonen (also known as Tom of Finland), the homosexual illustrator who brought homoeroticism into his illustrations and conquered the world (librettist Tuomas Parkkinen, composed by Jussi Vahvaselkä and Jori Sjöroos).

Musical theatre has also given life to the young women in Red Guards during the civil war, as in Tytöt 1918 (The Girls 1918), based on the novel Blood Roses by Kanto (libretto and direction Sirkku Peltola, lyrics Heikki Salo, musical composition Eeva Kontu). Children´s musical theatre can be full of nonsense and playful anarchism, as in Laura Ruohonen´s Yökyöpelit or Tippukivitapaus (with the characters of Erika Kallasmaa and music by Anna-Mari Kähärä). 


*Hanna Helavuori is the director of Theatre Info Finland TINFO (the National Centre of the ITI). She has written and edited books on Finnish theatre, articles on the changes of authorships in Finnish theatre, on gendered structures in the sector and emancipatory potential of performing arts companies. She lectures at Theatre Academy/ University of the Arts, Helsinki and Tampere University (Degree Programme in Theatre Arts).

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Contemporary Finnish Theatre: Disruption and Expanding Fields
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