Interviewed by Randy Gener
Born in 1969, Mattias Andersson – playwright, director and artistic director of Backa Teater of Göteborg (Sweden) – trained as an actor at the Göteborg Academy of Music and Drama. Between 1990 and 1993, he was an actor at Backa Teater, which is part of Göteborg City Theatre in Göteborg (Sweden’s second city). He started as a playwright and director as well in 1993.
Presently, Andersson is the artistic director of Backa Teater, which is part of Göteborg City Theatre in Göteborg (Sweden’s second city). Backa Teater was formed in 1978 with Eva Bergman, a director, and Ulf Dohlsten, an actor, as artistic directors. Alexander Öberg, director, was the artistic leader for Backa Theatre from 2000 to 2006. The performances at Backa Theatre are geared toward theatre for children and young people. In 1997 Backa Theatre was the first theatre to be promoted as a national stage for children’s theatre for three years by the Swedish government. The group has also been invited to several festivals all over the world. At Backa, Andersson has specialized in creating and staging theatrical projects grounded in sociological research methods. Examples include The Mental States of Gothenburg, about the lives and dreams of young people; The Gangs of Gothenburg, based largely on interviews with Göteborg’s criminal elements; and an adaptation of Crime and Punishment (part of a three-play project involving the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel), in which Andersson placed the Russian novel in modern times and in a setting that could just as easily have been Göteborg as St. Petersburg.
Andersson’s own plays include In a Dark and Northern Place; Sex, Drugs and Violence; Outside My Window; The Government Still Yearning Towards Something Beyond the Mountains; The Invisible Man Returns; Dom; K + M + R + L; St. John; and Beyond is the Sea. These and other plays have been performed at venues such as Stockholm City Theatre, the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm, Göteborg City Theatre, Malmö Dramatic Theatre and in countries including Norway, Poland, Denmark, Germany, Romania and Serbia. He was nominated for the Nordic Playwrights’ Prize in 2006 and won the Ibsen Prize in 2007. He won the Expressen theatrical award in 2007 for his production of Crime and Punishment, received the Swedish Theatre Critic’s Award in 2007, and was nominated for the Dagens Nyheter cultural award.
1. In your country or city, is there any major issue (for example, a contemporary social problem) that artists have failed or neglected to address on stage? Why? Is it because of censorship, or a blind spot in the community’s collective perception of the world? A community’s consciously or unconsciously turning a blind eye?
I wouldn’t say that there is a certain issue that’s taboo or too sensitive to discuss within the Swedish cultural life. But there are of course subjects that are dealt with in a stereotypical, shallow or unspecific way, mainly because the originators lack firsthand experience of the environments and problems they try to describe. It’s also connected to the homogeneity in class background, ethnicity, and etc, among the Swedish theatre makers.
In what ways is the theatre situation in Gothenburg the same or different from Stockholm’s? Would the audiences from abroad recognize the similarities and differences?
Since Gothenburg is more of an industrial town and has more of a working-class character, I would say that you have to work much harder for the audience to come at all to the theaters. The number of people who go to the theatre just because it’s a part of their social rituals is much bigger in Stockholm, so in Gothenburg you really must try to find subjects and a form of theatre that would attract people with not-so-much-of-an-idea of what theatre is about. This really attracts me, because I therefore have to stretch myself to get the right ideas for my performances and also to aesthetically try to find a scenic form that is provocative, attractive, surprising, involving and emotional but which does not refer to other theatre performances. I think and hope that audiences from abroad can recognize this.
2. What, if anything, is difficult for you in communicating with the director? Why? How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production? Have you directed yourself, and if so, does that make communication easier?
Most of the time I direct my own pieces. And I used to say that what I cannot solve as a playwright I solve as a director, and what I cannot solve as a director I try to solve as a playwright.
Let me be more specific. Why do you continue to do works using the interview process (Gangs of Goteburg, Mental States of Goteburg and Crime and Punishment)? What do you get from the interview process that would be different from a purely fictional play?
The clash between the documentary and the fictional interests me a great lot. To bring in documentary interviews in an art form that in itself never can be documentary (in a way that, for instance, film can because of its representing and reproducing character). The theatre as an art form is also always bound in time and space—meaning the specific age and specific place or town or society in which a specific performance is taking place. I have, in the last years, taken a great interest in the part of the audience and its relation to the piece. In this process I have learnt that using documentary material or interviews from the actual place where the audience is living, adds even more charge to the scenic experience and creates a greater involvement in the piece. Even in the cases where the starting point was a classic, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky´s Crime and Punishment, I added parts based on documentary material from the reality of young people’s lives in the Gothenburg of today.
3. In your creative process, which bit do you enjoy least? Why? How do you tackle it?
The first week of rehearsal with the actors. I just sit there and wait them out, trying not to impose my ideas of the different scenes too strongly on them. I want them to get more familiar and comfortable with the material, so I try not to say too much, and not to push them too hard into any certain aesthetic direction. Which actually is quite boring for me.
But on the other hand it’s also quite interesting and inspiring to just sit there and observe them in their first sensitive steps and moves.
The way to tackle this period is to create a climate where all the participants of the projects really feel emotionally and intellectually involved in what we are going to tell the audience. And for me—at this point, I have worked for so much longer a period of time with the material than the actors—I try to be open for all the new perspectives that now come in and, hopefully, I get surprised by some new angle I haven’t yet explored.
4. During your career, have you received a particularly insightful piece of criticism? When was that? Do you remember it well enough to quote? What was so important about it?
Criticism is very important for our art form to be taken seriously in the cultural debate and to preserve its possibility to speak about contemporary issues in a complex and profound way. The kind of criticism that makes you the happiest isn’t primarily the one that praises what you do but the one that has understood and then describes what you’ve been trying to stage. It’s about the linguistic formulations of the critic that somehow corresponds to the tone or color of the performance.
I’ve received some of those, even if I can’t quote any of them now.
As a psychological mechanism, criticism is, of course, a very sensitive issue. You give your life for something for maybe more than a year, and the very day after you’ve showed it to an audience for the first time—the première—you’re supposed to open the newspaper and receive the judgment on whether it worked out or not. There is an immense vulnerability. Quite a long time has to pass after the première before you as an originator can perceive the larger patterns in how your piece was actually understood—as well as how your performance was actually received.
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. He recently debuted a photographic installation-art exhibition, In the Garden of One World, at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria and is the author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays. He is the 2009 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States for his essays in American Theatremagazine, published by Theatre Communications Group, where is the senior editor. He was named Journalist of the Year 2010 by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association