Them stones that them builders refuse, shall always be the head corner stones. Bob Marley
I think corner stones are people, not places; instincts rather than institutions. Sometimes this knowledge comes to us only when the people or their actions are not there anymore. Sometimes we find our places because we are needed; some- times because we need them ourselves.
Concrete tangible work, be it a performance, talk, work demonstration, the makings of an article, the preparation of a volume of The Open Page, or a workshop, has been and still is the weight that anchors me within The Magdalena Project.
While I am trying to write this I am away. It helps me to be away. Shift the angle. Get closer from a distance. Away defines home, home defines away. I am in a little fishing village, Los Abrigos, in the south of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. I have two tasks: to write a script and to write a first draft of this article that will find its way eventually into a book, the book that will mark the first twenty-five years of The Magdalena Project’s existence.
One of the things that I repeatedly fail to manage to explain to my friends and family is the profound feeling of rest, lack of stress, of being at ease that I experience is it possible to convey the weight, the impact, and the legacy of our journey from 1986 to today?
Who can sail without wind? Who can row without oars? Who can leave their friend Without shedding tears?
I can sail without wind, I can row without oars, I cannot leave my friend Without shedding tears.
Old Nordic folk song
A book called My Greedy Heart was published recently in Norway. It is a book in which Hege Duckert, the author, looks at what Karen Blixen, Simone de Beauvoir, Billie Holiday and Frida Kahlo carried as luggage, both literally and metaphori- cally. Billie Holiday sang a song about travelling light, something that could not be said of Karen Blixen who brought shiploads of possessions to Africa. She insi- sted upon taking her crystal glasses both to and from Africa, “My Africa” as she called it.
As Hege Duckert writes about these four extraordinary women, she realises that there is a fifth woman on the journey. She says, “I am the fifth woman”. Who is always with us? Whilst reading it, I become the sixth woman, and the thought that this can just continue (the seventh, the eighth) is releasing and rewarding. We can all come on board; we are all there! And what is our cargo?
The Magdalena Boat has been sailing for more than twenty-five years to many ports around the world; including ports that were not anticipated. Meetings, festi- vals, journals, books, symposia and seminars, films and photographs are the means by which the Magdalena navigates to the ports where she anchors.
I like to think of the different Magdalena Projects as small boats: boats with yellow, red and green lanterns, which navigate on all the seas; boats that you can find in Singapore, Colombia, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Wales, Spain, Argentina. As we navigate in our small vessels, distances are covered; ports are visited and revisited: the United States, Brazil, Italy, CubaÖ The crew changes, but there are always some more experienced members on board. We have sailed many of the same distances, and yet we all remember them differently.
Elin Lindberg, Anne Erichsen and I are embarking on the journey from our little town, Porsgrunn, and Grenland Friteater, our small, but, to us, signifi- cant theatre group, to go to Cardiff, in Wales (not England), to take part in Magdalena ’86. We are to perform The Miserables, a musical show with costumes reminiscent of The Blues Brothers. I am also to premiere a solo performance based on Sylvia Plath’s last poems, which is called The Stars Are No Nearer.
While we are at the train station someone takes a photograph of us, probably one of the boys seeing us off. We are standing in front of a big sign saying Porsgrunn and pretending to be pissing on the name. We are also pretending to be boys, so we imitate the male way of pissing, standing with a slightly bent back. We are parodying the front cover of a rock album. We do not know that, in fact, members from one cultural global village are going to another.
I am eight months pregnant with Anna Andrea, and I can show off a big ‘male’ beer belly on stage whilst performing the musical show. We are very excited to be going to Wales, but we hide it as well as we can behind our no- nonsense attitude. Tobias, my two-year old son, is at home with his father. I will be sending him small packets of raisins by post. He is very fond of raisins. On the bottom of the small packets it says: “Help yourself!”
I come to a passage in Duckert’s book where Virginia Woolf’s demand for five hundred pounds and a room of one’s own is mentioned and, as it turns out, this is an essential point to which the author returns repeatedly. All these coincidences: I am reading this book because my mother-in-law, who is a writer, and was a recog- nised feminist in the 1970s, once wrote a famous book, called The Greedy Heart. Inspired by this title and the period, Hege Duckert wrote her own book, and called it My Greedy Heart. Because she partly inspired it, my mother-in-law was sent a copy, and she gave it to me to take on my travels. Inside it I re-discovered Virginia Woolf. This book is a Pandora’s Box, every new opening reveals another: the power of association and imagination!
When Anne-Sophie Erichsen and I were searching for a title for The Magdalena Project that we wanted to make in Norway, as a continuation of and reaction to the 1986 Festival in Cardiff, a book from an overcrowded shelf fell on me as I was writing. The title hit me on the head. It was Virginia Woolf‘s A Room of One’s Own.
Some years ago, Leiken Vik, a visual artist who took part in A Room of One’s Own Festival in Porsgrunn in 1989, gave me a special book for Christmas. It was a facsimile of a library copy of A Room of One’s Own, in which the annotations made by the hundreds of women who had borrowed the book and written in the margins, over and under the lines, sometimes even commenting upon what an earlier reader had written, were published. We had Virginia Woolf’s original words on her room of her own, and a palimpsest of the layers of all the other women on top. I like to think that is what we do in the Magdalena: we participate in a special kind of marathon, as we once called a long work session, where each director continued by building on the work proposed by the previous directors. There is a ripple effect in what we do, see, read, and hear, and it manifests itself in the Project in multiple eddies.
In 1997 when Jill Greenhalgh came to see our performance during the Porsgrunn International Theatre Festival she gave me a book. “You might like this,” she said, “It’s really a kind of manual.” (I also think of journeys in The Magdalena Project as the makings of a manual.) I still have Jill’s book: it is Richard Schechner’s Introduction to Performance Studies. It contains some photographs of a performance by Suzanne Lacy, called Whisper, The Waves, The Wind and it was two of these photographs that inspired us to make a performance, realised in 2005, the first year we made our multicultural project Sense of Place in Porsgrunn.
We got to know the women at the community centre, which is located in a beautiful old building that used to be a dairy, called the Dairy Castle. We christened the women “the princesses”. Those we first encountered were lace makers. One of them belonged to a guild of lace makers that also had members in Denmark, and she told us the history of lace, how at times it was as rare and as valuable as pepper, silk or gold. She explained that there were lace makers in guilds all over Europe. We were also introduced to the technique, and saw the time consuming, delicate results: products that would be too expensive for any one of us to buy, were they to be priced at their real worth.
Inspired by Suzanne Lacy, courtesy of Jill’s gift, we decided to make a little performance with the old women. We covered the whole area in front of the building in sand, as if it were a kind of beach, or place of leisure. We put white cloths on the tables. The women wore new costumes made of wool, linen or silk, all with their best blouses, decorated with lace that they had made them- selves, and their finest jewellery and summer hats.
A previous town mayor, now retired, but still a significant person in voluntary work in the community, was butler for the evening, and served the old women sherry, port, or whatever else they fancied. They were seated, relaxed, looking at their work exhibited all around them. They listened to a voice relating the history of lace, including a story about a man of their acquaintance who learned lacework in order to be able to make lace cuffs for the folk costume that his daughter wore on her Confirmation Day. They sat there proudly, on show, being admired for their age, their work, their hands, their wrinkles and smiles. And finally, Vincent Audat, Brigitte Cirla’s partner and colleague from Voix Polyphoniques in Marseille, France, came and sang for them and for us all.
On a long bus journey, on a train or an overnight plane ride, it is a luxury to both know and experience that for a certain period of time I can just sit there, in a place where I cannot receive a telephone call. Nobody will come and ask me to do anything. I will be in one spot for a long time, seated comfortably, warm and safe. I can write there, as I do now, or re-arrange, clear up, sort out my things, look-over my papers, read. All the things that I have brought with me can be ordered. My world feels small and manageable; a mobile home of my own.
Whilst rummaging through my ‘mobile home’ I go through some old receipts that I need to give to our accountant, and find two entrance tickets for the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. They are more than a year old so I will not be reimbursed for them. I should have thrown them away a long time ago. In truth, I have often looked at them, as I go through my travel bags frequently. I have thought more than once that I should throw them away, and I never do. They seem to want something; they are speaking to me from the other side of the world, from the beautiful, bustling city of Hanoi, where people say: “We drive on the right side, but we are not fanatical about it”. To cross the street in Hanoi is an experi- ence you will never forget; always presuming you have survived it.
My husband, Lars Vik, and I are there representing Grenland Friteater. We are to give two different workshops and afterwards present two performances. This is in collaboration with the Norwegian and Vietnamese governments, and we are a small piece in a big puzzle. We work at the Academy of Film and Theatre with first and second year students. The Academy is old and their teaching manuals have not changed in a long time. Now the students wish to learn more about other ways of making film, making theatre.
The experience from the Performing Words workshop, an initiative of The Magdalena Project that Gilly Adams and I created together, is useful and stays with me in the week we teach at the Academy. The natural ability to be multi- talented is something I encounter the world over. It used to be a case of being good at one thing. Now young people have no objection to being director, playwright, actor or costume maker simultaneously. They are not afraid that having many talents might diminish each talent.
So the Hanoi students think nothing of having writing exercises one day, directing themselves the next, improvising on the third. They are eager to learn, and appear to believe that everything is useful to them. They are very polite, they like to giggle, and are looking forward to taking us to that very Vietnamese tradi- tion, the Karaoke Bar, on the last night. But before that, every day is work.
The two flimsy paper entrance tickets to The Vietnamese Women’s Museum won’t go away. They are insisting on something. What is it?
The Museum and its contents perplexed and surprised me, and made me feel astonished, ashamed and thoughtful. Of course I knew about women soldiers. I thought I knew a lot about the Vietnam War. Our generation is marked by it; the deep impact it made on our lives, values, ethics and work will remain with us forever. Even if, worryingly, many of the Marxist/Leninists are now holding (so- called) high-ranking social positions. Perhaps that says more about society than about them?
One of the things I realised again in Vietnam is that what one, two, five, seven, or two hundred thousand people do matters. As I walked around, looking at the photographs on display, including some of highly decorated women soldiers, posthu- mous praise for those who died, the decorations and glory of those who survived, I found a section of photographs covering foreign aid and solidarity movements, with pictures of rallies, demonstrations, collections and fundraising, from us to them. I saw women workers from Bulgaria sending 60,000 blankets to keep the women soldiers warm. I saw a photograph taken in Oslo, showing members of the Women’s Front who had collected money and warm clothes to send. Probably for the first time in my life I saw the whole situation from the perspective of the recipients. I learnt that it is only we in the West who call this the Vietnam War; in Vietnam it is called the American War. There, in this Museum, I saw us, I saw myself, as the Vietnamese view us. I felt ashamed because, I suppose, I realised that there are always people on the receiving end – real, alive, like us. They are we. We are they. Why is this so easy and comfortable to forget? Why is it possible to avoid telling the story, avoid responding, avoid taking responsibility?
Not all women have the means to send 60,000 blankets, but most women have the means to send one. What am I getting at here? Perhaps a quote from a friend who said: “People should be rewarded, if only for trying”? To help, to change, to do a little is so much better than doing nothing.
Guttorm Guttormsen, a composer with whom we often work, has a favourite expression – feeling. He says that you know when the work has feeling. When the feeling is there you know it is there. It enters. It has a life of its own. It‘s got the flow, a nice flow. It goes with the flow. There are so many expressions to describe this; it is what I try to find in my theatre work, a return to the old ritual of late summer nights, of spontaneous meetings between family, friends, young and old, in a performance where there are only participants. When the gathering is directing itself, there is no right or wrong; it makes its own path.
To understand, to come close to this mysterious, simple way of interacting, of being, that is almost impossible to recreate on stage, has been a guiding star for my work. To find, to re-experience in theatre, this flow, this feeling, the party that directs its own comings and goings, eating, drinking, laughing and crying: perhaps on a Saturday night, where eating and drinking somehow happen without anyone deciding when or how; where, while you sense that you are all there together, you are also so involved in talking to your next door neighbour at the table that you do not really observe the whole room.
We frame things and we are framed. We remember things for a reason, and we re-remember too. For many years this feeling, the it, the flow, the little trance, was a dream that we wanted to make happen in our ensemble performances, but never quite achieved. The unique joy when it (almost) worked, when the performance performed itself and the angels came down, was rarely sufficient compensation for enduring the total misery when no one, or everyone, directed the performance only for it to fall flat, dead to the ground.
Who would not give everything for the flow? When everything goes right, when one thing just follows another! The flow of always being many; the flow of being in a group where tasks have to be done all the time; the beauty of the flow when your hands are deft and you are not delaying the conveyor belt, or the bucket line, or the handing out of bricks; when it goes by itself, when it goes without saying.
It has taken me much of my life to understand that most things are connected, and that my work is to find and/or make the connections. I left my working class town to go out into the big wide world to search for work and connections, expe- riences of a different kind, a kind that I could not as yet identify. I did not know what I would want to do, where I would wish to belong, I just knew what I did not want to do. This via negativa involves a long process of uncertainty. But it is also a rebus, a quiz, a quest, and I learnt a lot as I went along.
There is richness in recognising patterns, similarities, parallels: that the system of jazz composition helps guide your use of personal scores in performance, helps you as actor be your own dramaturge from within; that Wyatt’s paintings help you remember and hold a stillness, once captured in a portrait of a young worker, now being recreated in a scene in performance. That the task of cleaning the stairs gives you time to solve a problem in the making of a performance. You keep the flow because your hands instinctively carry out work that is familiar to them: comple- mentary actions – moving away from the problem to find the solution. The answer is often not within the difficult scene, it is revealed afterwards. Or if I change the way I view it. The flow, the feeling, the it; movement, pulse: the it has to be alive.
Last summer Leonard Cohen came to Norway to give a concert on green fields right by the sea, not far from where I live. This place is usually empty, save for a few walkers or picnickers. Now it had a Woodstock-like momentum, as it was crowded with people, gates, television towers, huge tents for food and drink, rows and rows of portable toilets, the national press, and queues looking like giant serpents crawling to get in. All sold out.
First the warm-up band, then the Cohen band, then the man himself: this tiny little man, coming on stage, bowing to the audience, thanking us for coming to see him, thanking us for the weather, thanking the Norwegian people for always buying more records than anyone else. The famous Marianne is present too, the “So Long Marianne”. She is an old woman now, and Cohen greets her as well.
He sings, he sings, he sings. I am so worried that this old man, this old, grey haired man, will forget his lines, but I need not worry. This man has the feeling, the it, the flow, in the gentlest way. He has many thousands of people listening to his stories, the stories he thinks need to be told. In the end he sings: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And the old man dances like a young calf on and off the stage endlessly taking applause, waving his hat in the air. Seventy in his hair and seventeen in his legs!
To pay my way to travel around the world I worked in a cancer hospital. It was at a time when I too had very restless legs. My ward was the gynaecological ward. There were two types of work: being a nursing assistant or being a carer on the nightshift. The latter meant sitting in a room with the very sick and dying from sunset to sunrise. The patients varied in age from five to seventy-five, but many girls were my age, early twenties, so we became friends. I lived in a commune near the hospital, and sometimes the girls’ mothers would come and ask if I could take the girls home with me, for a change of scene. Most of them were bald, since they had lost their hair as a result of the treatment. Some had ugly, ill-fitting wigs, but most of the young girls only covered their heads with a scarf. One particular girl, Lise, made me paint her bald head in bright colours. All of them died.
The first performance I directed at the theatre was about dying, about wake traditions in Norway, before hospitals, funeral homes, so-called welfare, took the rituals and ownership of our own grief away from us. In many ways the wake could be described as a long good-bye party, where family and friends took care to stay with the dead. From the moment of death until they were six feet under, they were never left alone. The party would be just as much for the living as for the dead, of course. There would always be lighted candles; there would be reading, praying, singing, card games and dances. There is a famous painting of a wake, where the dancing became so animated, that the open coffin had to be stowed away, to give the dancers more room. Now that these rituals have become so neglected, the desire for an alternative is once again making people reclaim the authority, and perhaps the need, to say their own farewells, to stage their own farewell parties. Fare well.
Many of us seek together. We are the flock, the pack, the group, the gang, the project. There is a natural inclination to be many. Is this more of a female thing? Why do we insist on the round, the circle, the tree planting, and the rituals?
There has to be a need. But the nature of this need is crucial; it must be something in which we believe. As Jill says: “You must really need to do it, other- wise don’t!”
It was within The Magdalena Project that I came upon the term “community theatre” for the first time. I did not like it, so I excluded it from my sphere of inte- rest. In Grenland Friteater we had discussed whether we were making political theatre. Before I joined, it had seemed necessary to make a distinction between political theatre, meaning theatre that dealt with contemporary issues, and ‘other’ theatre. Of course we thought our theatre was political, as almost every act can be, but we did not want to call our work political. Biased as I was, I thought of community theatre as amateur, made for social or health reasons. I could not see that it had anything to do with me.
During Transit 6 in 2009, we went out into the garden behind Odin Teatret into a tent, where the older women from the Brazilian company Casa das Fases were presenting their miniature performances, one to one. You waited outside until you were given permission to enter; you went into a small, dark room; there was a blank window in front of you; you waited there alone for something to happen, to take place, on this occasion, just for you. The light came on; there is a kind of two- way mirror; a woman was holding up her little doll; she was talking to you about life and loss. She made you cry. And, remembering my own ignorance of many years ago, I asked myself once again where did all these rules come from? And to what purpose?
At the very end of a Transit festival a long time ago, some of us had to clean the old garage where we ate and had parties because we had been naughty. Of all strange constellations, somehow Maria Canepa, her husband Juan Cuevas, Torgeir Wethal and Alan Brunton, Anders Restad and I found ourselves sitting at a table, having a cold beer and playing a silly little game called Pompel and Pilt. (Pompel and Pilt are two characters from the world of marionettes, from an early, rather scary Norwegian television show for children.) On this occasion the players of our game came from all over the world, and were of all ages. In the nicest possible way, Maria was the star of that Transit. She was almost eighty, and very curious about new things, new adventures in general. And if this were a film, maybe a small video that could be posted on YouTube, I would like to project for you: Maria Canepa’s vivid face as she tried to get the knack of this game played with fingers and fists; Alan and Torgeir talking and drinking beer; Anders talking in Spanish to Maria; all of us giggling, smiling, having a good time; the cleaning team, the garage sweepers. Those were the days.
Through The Magdalena Project and our various encounters, I have been able to observe, discuss and understand projects realised by other women, whether Kordula Lobeck with her Unter Wasser Fliegen, Brigitte Cirla’s Children’s Opera, or Brigitte Kaquet’s Voix de Femmes Festival. However, sometimes it feels as though, if you are not actually present, you cannot see. When I am present, I can make the links between the old lace makers in Porsgrunn and the old ladies in the Asilo San Vicente de Paul, next door to Roxana Pineda’s theatre group in Santa Clara, Cuba, where Roxana has organised several Magdalena Festivals, and where she and I, with our groups, have realised Sense of Place, or CaminArte, together. I am also one of the weavers, one of those who make connections. I help to tie knots in the net.
The Music Aid concert presented a woman who had received one warm blanket, who had been on the receiving end. She had not been the victim of that pervasive negative thinking, “it’s pointless, there are so many, we cannot help them all”. She was one of the ones who were helped. She grew up, got a grant, and became a lawyer. She went from being the epitome of the starving African child, waiting for the approaching vulture, to being a safe, happy, well- dressed, affluent lawyer in England. A sunshine story? Yes, of course, but who is against the sun shining? The crack? That’s how the light gets in!
As I read about Karen Blixen now, I acknowledge the enormous difference between her life in Africa in the 1920s and 1930s and our lives now. And yet, there are similar challenges and dilemmas, and the craving for a room and a life of one’s own still resonates. Karen Blixen’s Africa, Frida Kahlo’s revolution, Billie Holiday’s fur coat, Simone de Beauvoir’s ring, Virginia Woolf’s room – these all remain important struggles and deserve not to be forgotten, no matter how diffe- rent they appear in class, culture, politics and time.
I am also reminded of my mother, my aunts and my grandmothers. Karen Blixen moved back to her mother’s house when she was forty-six. My colleagues speak passionately about the women who went before us, and although I want my life to be what it is now, and have worked for my life to be what it is now, and although The Magdalena Project is also my Project, my School, my Epicurean Garden, nevertheless I do not want to abandon memory, and I thank all the women who have made my own life richer, stronger, funnier. I want to shout back to them, “It was not for nothing”. I, we, owe that to you! I am a Magdalena, I am a Martha, I am like Walt Whitman, who said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contain multitudes!”
Since we started making The Open Page we have collected many stories between its covers. Our first enduring commitment was and is to leaving traces behind. Women are not at the top of statistics within the arts, and certainly not for writing about their craft. We wanted to write ourselves, and we wanted, more than anything, to encourage other practitioners to express themselves through words. Karen Blixen said that she would rather have a reality to take care of than to be obliged to invent one. I prefer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ title Live to Tell.
I believe now that the decision to organise A Room of One’s Own in Porsgrunn in 1989 was a strong reaction against what I would then have called wasting time, in the sense that we had not had directors to organise and shape the material created and offered by the actors in Cardiff at Magdalena ’86. I also see A Room of One’s Own as the beginning of my work as a director and as someone who can take care of others. The decision to be part of The Open Page‘s editorial board was more considered and mature, but I would not have been without the experience gained from A Room of One’s Own. It was an important step towards realising that room, and towards greater autonomy.
At the time when Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book Women Who Run with Wolves became very popular, and was much discussed, I remember that we, the women in the theatre, were very busy with work, small children, frequently doing two or three jobs at once. We longed for more time to read. We invented an alternative title for the book, an alternative that helped us gain perspective and acknowledged the fact that some of us called ourselves doers, since much of what we are comes from what we do, actual and concrete. So we gave ourselves the title: Women Who Run with Plastic Bags.
It was funny and refreshing, and a very accurate description of what we did and perceived ourselves doing, as we ran back from the shops with toilet paper, nappies, potatoes, carrots, fish pudding and perhaps a newspaper that there would not be time to read, never mind the luxury of being able to read a whole book. It was not then just a matter of the book, the performance, the film. It was the situation and the constellation of people. Who with whom? When, and how? The timing, or lack of it.
There were four directors for A Room of One’s Own, and the plan was to work with our actors for a month and present the work publicly at the end. The four were: Jill Greenhalgh, assisted by Julia Varley; Beatriz Camargo; Magdalena Pietruska; and me. When I sit and read my note books from that time, I revisit a very young director who is searching for working methods, and an even younger woman, who is looking for poems and fragments of texts to give the actors as a starting point for improvisation. I was also collaborating with the writer Kjersti Wold.
One starting point was a poem by Delmira Augustini:
I sink into a rare luminous blindness A star, almost a soul, shadows my life Clinging to me like a gilded butterfly; Or am I absorbed in its disk of light?
I do not know
Rare blindness darkening my world Starry soul with which I rise and fall; Give me your light and hide the world from me.
Underneath this in the journal I have written: “This woman died when she was twenty-eight years old. She could not write any more after she got married. She was murdered by her own husband. After he killed her, he killed himself.” Twenty- one years later I am wondering why I chose that text. Why all this sadness, misery and pain?
In 1986, I presented a solo performance based on five poems by Sylvia Plath. I came to them via a Norwegian poet, who had translated them for a special edition of a literary magazine. He wrote an archaic version of modern Norwegian, which is the written form often used for dialect talkers like me. His way of using language led me to Sylvia Plath and when Jill invited us to Magdalena ’86, we brought that performance in English and came into a larger literary world, getting to know a lot of other artists who worked with poems, including the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Then I discovered Delmira Augustini’s poem in an anthology of women’s poetry, which made me think how sad it was that she did not have access to something like The Magdalena Project in her day. Because what we come to understand from reading what other women have written, for example, when we read such poetry collections, is how many of them were confronted with similar objectives, tasks and challenges. They often lived on the same planet, at the same time, but as far as we know, were not connected. How I wish that they could have networked with each other. But maybe isolation also acted as an inspiration? In finding this book of women poets, it was not only their poetry about which I could learn, but also how they lived in very different circumstances.
The book My Greedy Heart, which puts four seemingly very different artists together between the same covers, manages to identify their common issues. Perhaps that is speculation or fantasy, but it is interesting and good writing, and makes me think of Magdalena events. When I look at the photographs of hundreds of women, at gatherings, during the opening round, at the closing round, at work- shops, at performances, at celebratory parties, more than anything I see the bodies, the beauty in the concentration. Concentration is beauty, I think. We started with a lot of anger and crying; now we laugh a lot although there is still much anger as the mill of time turns slowly. Much will be left undone when we die, but no one will be able to say that we did not have a go at changing things. We will also get points for trying!
Would I choose Delmira Augustini’s poem as a starting point for an impro- visation today, as I did in Porsgrunn in 1989? Does it matter? I only know that I will never forget actor Line Wyller’s voice as she whispered, sang and silently cried those painful words; the drama in poetry, the sculptural landscape of poems. Having experienced that is an integral and important part of me. I like to try to be friends with what I have lived and done even if what happened is no longer so significant. ‘Mistakes’ from which I have learned are integral parts of me. Scars, tattoos, grey hair, and recent signs of gravity are important too: the mappings of a life, our lives.
In the same way that my parents thought it was important that we knew about their experiences during the Second World War, their journey from being poor to being better off, from always renting or living at someone else’s mercy to buil- ding their own home, I want my daughter to know about finding a room, work, a life of one’s own. I want her to understand my travels. I want her to think about her luggage. And the need we share for a mobile room each. I want her to trust that there is a boat lying in the port, The Magdalena Boat, and that it will set sail tonight. This boat always needs new and willing hands.
For working class women the issue of being a worker was often more important than gender. What you did was often also more important than what you said. That’s spiteful, we might hear, or he/she is all talk! Words that were not followed or preceded by actions were not valued much.
To be able to enter into reciprocal continuity with a theatre group, with The Magdalena Project, allows the possibility for continuing a conversation, a debate, a work. It is a privilege, a luxury, a holiday. The importance of being known, mirrored, of giving and receiving, through being together, through performances. To be able to be of use, to be able to facilitate, invite, organise, make things happen. As Atka Ambrova said, during the original 1986 Cardiff Meeting: “We must to make something”. I agree. We must. There is much dignity in honest work.
At Grenland Friteater we made a photographic installation called “Worn Hands” with large-scale photographs of retired workers’ hands, taken in their homes. In an accompanying interview, one of the older ladies remarks: “Yes, sometimes, when I went to a dinner party, I was conscious of my working hands, of them not being beautiful enough, but I remembered the saying that if you find yourself in company with people who find your hands ugly, you are in bad company”.
One important aspect of The Magdalena Project is the possibility of showing and sharing work. And to have a professional setting where that exchange can take place; a setting that is much more than the typical slick event where you arrive, perform and leave, often perhaps better paid in cash terms, but so poorly in other currency. The extraordinary currency that we operate within the Project is for me a symbol of the parallel world that we have created, almost underground, or when travelling, being on the way from one place to another. My mother-in-law once called me the ever wandering, restless gypsy. Others also wonder, asking me why I travel so often, so much, so far away. My next-door neighbour always greets me with, “Are you home?” No one understands that it is not just my work but also, more importantly, something I like, something that makes me reflect. I often travel when I am at home, and I am often at home when I travel.
I have been with The Magdalena Project since its beginning in 1983. I have also been a member of the Norwegian theatre group, Grenland Friteater, since 1981. It was as a member of Grenland Friteater that I participated in the festival Il Segreto di Alice at Lago Bracciano, a festival to which Jill Greenhalgh, then working with Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, Julia Varley from Odin Teatret, and Brigitte Cirla with her baby boy Pablo, also came. This was what I call the begin- ning of The Magdalena Project, and as I say in my most recent performance, My Life as a Man, two important seeds were planted there: one with beer and wine at a white Formica table by the lake, when Jill said, “I want to take all the women from their groups and make them work together! They are so strong!” and Julia responded, “You do realise that that will only meanÖ trouble?” and the other seed at the old school, where we slept and made love – and children.
Within The Magdalena Project I have had the opportunity to embark upon many new challenges. Within this network, created to give us women more space, more work, I found more space, more work. It was The Magdalena Project that gave me the strength to start directing. It was within The Magdalena Project that Anne-Sophie Erichsen and I reflected upon the important feedback we were given when we worked as teachers and discovered that we had tools with which we could work, brought from home. Over the years I have also been able to open up and facilitate work for others, to pass knowledge on. Within The Open Page, the theatre journal that came out of The Magdalena Project, the main aim has been to create writing opportunities, in order to leave traces of our work behind. I found my own “open pages”, and left traces behind, as have hundreds of other women artists.
The dignity to be found in work, in becoming autonomous in our own work has, I think, motivated us to make and keep The Magdalena Project as our common ground, as a room of our own.
How sad to leave this world without having made an imprint.
I reflect on the difference between one of Milan Kundera’s characters, who wanted to be immortal, and some of the women in my village who did not have any work, paid or unpaid, that gave them identity or status after their children left home.
I am grateful to come from a family where it was not necessary to ask the work question; it was as though you did not exist if you did not work. I think that is also why it was so painful to see someone becoming redundant with its attendant loss of credibility. In the Magdalena we have always insisted upon the craft of theatre, our work, as the centre point of our activities.
How did we influence the Project, and how did the Project influence us? How certainly alongside the establishment, the mainstream; if not a guerrilla, certainly a kind of gorilla activity.
And I know that there are endless inequalities to fight, and we do fight them, but with our own logic, in our time, our rhythm, with our patterns and standards. I value the Epicurean quality within The Magdalena Project, the notion of being in the Garden of Philosophers and being gardeners at the same time, of practice and thought. I think well when my hands get dirty and are occupied with a task.
I do not remember an exact time, sentence or date as the beginning of Magdalena Norway. Rather I remember a growing desire to do something more, something different. Occasionally Julia, or Jill, suggested that perhaps there could be another gathering or festival in Norway. When Grethe Knudsen, a former activist and also our theatre’s general administrator, spoke about her experiences with Latin American Groups in Norway; when she herself started to travel with us on tours to Latin America; when I heard about her travels as a volunteer in the Chiapas region; all this combined with our renewed connections with Patricia Ariza and Corporaci‰n Colombiana de Teatro (CCT) in Bogot”, and Lucy Bola‚os and Pilar Restrepo in Cali. Through the experience of Magdalena Pacifica in Cali and Mujeres en Escena in Bogot”, we discussed the possibility of making another kind of Magdalena organisation, which would have more to do with work for solidarity and peace, a kind of community theatre: to use theatre skills to help build self-esteem or the possibility of speaking and acting about the experience of being a displaced person struggling to survive alone in a country split by civil war. This felt more important to us than creating yet another festival in Norway, perhaps also because many of the artists within the network have already presented themselves and their work at PIT, Grenland Friteater’s annual interna- tional theatre festival in Porsgrunn. The recent urban development project, Sense of Place, has also given us opportunities to invite colleagues and partners from the network. Thus, our methods and whereabouts changed, and we met within and without The Magdalena Project and created work occasions for each other. We also made what we called a Magdalena Corner in our International Theatre Festival. So, to put it another way, (and with Atka’s words: “But, we must to make something” ringing in my ears again), I chose to do what I wanted, not what I thought I ought to do and Magdalena Norway came into being.
It has now existed for six years, involves twelve theatre groups in different Colombian towns and has also created new meeting places for the women who participate. The leaders of the different groups are professional colleagues, and we meet and collaborate in the festivals created by Patricia Ariza and the CCT. Every year they create a new performance, and present it both in their local surroundings and at their festivals. Their work is documented in books and films, and they also participate in huge political demonstrations, such as Dfla de No Violencia, or the 1st of May or the 8th of March.
A workshop with thirty-three people at the Corporaci‰n Colombiana de Teatro, in Patricia Ariza’s organisation: laughter is the dominant emotion and cascades through the room, tears run down cheeks, backs are patted, grand- mothers watch their grandchildren laughing, laughing, laughing. But there is a whole generation missing. The children are rolling around on the floor, then making grand entrances as clowns, with stage names, red noses, hats and appro- priate gestures: applause from the others; laughter, laughter. And I am the one crying.
The Performing Words workshop examined the language of the body, the body of the voice, the voice of the body, and words, to be written and used, by the owner of the words, or given to someone else, or to the whole group. My colleague, Gilly Adams, often proposed an imaginary place to stimulate words and make a context for the action. I usually guided the physical work, from the training sessions to the shaping of a personal score. Generally we worked in a theatre space or in a big studio.
Performing Words was first organised during Raw Visions in Swansea in 1997, then followed by two consecutive sessions at an isolated hotel in Rhayader in Mid Wales. In 2003 Gilly and I found ourselves in Manila in The Philippines, where we were navigating an ocean of foreign theatre methods, foreign languages and unknown histories. I think it is fair to say that we were strongly conscious of being a minority and outside our normal habitat.
The festival and conference were called “She Images – Women Re-Imagining the World”. We had been invited to lead a long residential workshop in Singapore, organised by Verena Tay and Audrey Wong of Magdalena Singapore. The material from this workshop was to be presented in Magdalena Australia a month later. So, since we were planning to be in this part of the world and The Philippines were not far away, we made contact with Lea Espallardo and she invited my perfor- mance Blue Is the Smoke of War, and our workshop and a lecture, all contributions to the Mekong Project, of which the Festival was a part. There were only four women from the West there: one Chinese Australian, one Scottish Australian, one from Wales, one Norwegian. We were easy to spot in the company of the other artists who came from Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and India.
The whole conference took place in a hotel not far from the American Embassy in Manila. I mention this, as it was dangerous to cross the road because of spontaneous demonstrations for and against American internal and foreign poli- tics.
The Philippines Educational Theatre Association (PETA) is sponsored by many high-ranking, multi-national companies like the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Perhaps as a consequence, the structure of lectures, giving papers, being introduced, etc. had a protocol and a formality around it, which was certainly not everyday practice for either Gilly or me. If you were invited to submit a paper you were supposed to send it to the chairwoman in advance to be published and distributed amongst the conference participants.
In the twenty-five years I have known her, Gilly has never written down a complete speech. She works differently. She writes down in a little book, her little words, keywords that she once in a while looks down to find, because usually she has all her words, in the right order, in her head; a capacity I admire and have been trying to emulate. So when she was asked about her academic credentials, and the submission of her papers, she looked a little bemused.
When Gilly and I are together, I am usually the one from the woods and Gilly the one from the city. But here I think we both felt rather overwhelmed by the protocols and formality of academia. We were simply unused to this, nor had we foreseen it, so we were impressed upon arrival to receive a book presenting the participants and the project and to discover that a film was being made whilst the conference took place.
Differences in structures aside, when it was our turn to introduce The Magdalena Project, we insisted upon changing the seating from the formality of having two hundred white chairs in ten even rows facing the speaker, into a circle, where women from all the different countries could sit together, and we could all see each other. We created another order of things, another way of being together. Later on, when we went to start our workshop, it turned out that the big spacious rooms were for the lectures, whereas the workshop spaces were ordinary hotel rooms. I still have the image of conducting a workshop for thirty women from fifteen countries sitting on the floor of room 407, without an interpreter; a warm, smiling, wondering group of women, dressed in their best national costumes, singing, reciting poems, writing about themselves, reading fresh text out loud, only a few of us understanding the literal meaning of the words, but most of us under- standing the intention, the will, the need.
This chance encounter with PETA, made possible just because we happened to be close, close being another nine hours plane ride from Singapore, also allowed me to present Blue Is the Smoke of War, an intimate performance designed to be played indoors for a small audience. Imagine my astonishment when the techni- cian took me to see the venue. Outdoors, in the ruins of an old fortress, were the remains of a peculiar stage, the front end of which, where the audience would normally sit, was only three metres wide, while to right and left was a large area with two hundred and fifty chairs lined up in fifteen rows on each side. It resem- bled a catwalk!
This was a real challenge because I began in the character of an old warrior reciting ancient Chinese poetry, sitting, almost immobile, on a wooden stool. In this situation, if this old warrior wanted to find someone to whom to address his words and sentiments he had to look right or left. He also had to find a way to project his voice to reach an audience of five hundred without the use of amplifica- tion. He had to be his own amplifier. When you must, you must; and my thoughts went back to what we were taught when we worked with Swedish director, Ingemar Lindh. He told us that no matter how devoid of energy we thought we were, we had an extra reservoir that we could use when there was a special need. We could force ourselves to go further, push further, and we would open that extra reservoir of strength. He told us about the woman who lifted a two hundred kilo car because her son was trapped underneath one of the wheels. Normally she would have been able to lift perhaps eighty kilos, but desperation more than doubled her powers. When something extraordinary happens, we can do extraordinary things!
It was also extraordinary to witness the Cambodian dancer and storyteller, Em Theay, a woman in her sixties, dancing the national dances of Cambodia, and telling us about The Killing Fields, and how she survived them. To be a teacher or an intellectual was dangerous during the government of the Khmer Rouge, and she had to keep her work secret. After peace came, she was able to resume teaching. On a journey to Cambodia later, I was lucky enough to see her perform again in the ruins of Angkor Wat. We also managed to publish an article about her work and extraordinary life in The Open Page. She still uses the ruins of an old theatre in Phnom Penh to rehearse. The roof is gone; the garden is taking over what was previously interior. There Em Theay practises every day; a historical garden we might say.
One of the organisers of the Cali International Festival asks me if I can do a television interview. I say yes, and we agree that she will pick me up. The studio is at a public university, half an hour’s ride away. We chat about this and that on the way there and sit for some time waiting for our turn. It transpires that there has been a mistake and we have to go home again, mission interrupted. My companion is a little flustered because of the mix up. I’m a bit tired and geared up because I have other things I need to do; quite normal so to speak.
Getting into the car again, we start to talk about the university. She tells me that sometimes it is closed down, because of what the police call riots, or guerrilla activity. The students are also sometimes locked inside the university because of a general curfew. What, in many countries, is called normal student protest is a crime against the State in others. Her children had been students there, which had pleased her because it is a good university, but the delays in education as a consequence of the shutdown were severe, and she has had to move them to a sounder and safer place.
It grows dark quickly, as it does in Colombia, and we fall silent for a while. I ask where she lives, if she is alone orÖ She says she lives with a sculptor who is very fond of jazz, and she tells me about the jazz festival that they organise once a year. Suddenly we are back to politics and war.
She tells me that for some time she had been looking at her address book, lying on a little table by the phone, meaning to make a new one, since water had got spilled on it and many of the pages had become blurred. She and her husband agreed that they would sit down together and make a new telephone directory. They went alphabetically and began to cry. They had had the book for twenty years or so, and more than twenty of the names in the directory belonged to friends who had been killed in the Colombian civil war. Their names would not be found in the new book.
Keeping the old book means that they are still with us somehow, and they must always be with us. How can we carry the weight? How can we write history? And yet we are history.
The first workshop that I took part in at Grenland Friteater was led by Ingemar Lindh and was called “Stepping Stones”. I am still walking on them: jumping, skidding off, occasionally also placing my feet solidly on the surface of big round stones, in balance.
I say that I have three families, at least: my biological one, that of my group and that of The Magdalena Project. Over the years they have all come closer, know of and about each other, take part in and engage with each other, but I also acknowledge that occasionally I leave one of these families to find, or be, with the others, and now they are merging more and more into, into what? One huge extended family. What we in Norway would call an Italian family, a bit big, a bit wild, but always there for you. At least that is what we like to think. Of my own biological family my little brother says: “Do not worry; we are wild, but kind.”
At some point knowledge that is apparently particular to one of my families, or knowledge that belongs to some of the craft skills we have acquired through our many years of performances, workshops, talks, conversations or debate, whether in public or in smaller gatherings, become compatible, and we realise, no, we under- stand and feel that they come from the same root: our one tree, being us, ourselves. But when we perform or give workshops we talk more than one language. We are to be heard, seen, smelled; there are many languages or portholes of information that we give out simultaneously, whether consciously or not; whereas now, as I write, it is only the words that speak. And, of course, we know about subtext, and the text between, over, around and under, and, yet, writing is different. I am looking at my screen in this moment; one day perhaps, there will be a “you”, looking at a screen reading these words, or they will have found their way onto paper. But that is very far from the here and now and once only of the performance or meeting. We cannot enter the same river twice, as the philosopher said.
There is a knowledge deeply rooted in the body’s own memory and sensory system; a physical intelligence that can be called upon, that can answer, solve, or counter-propose when a question or discourse is raised. This intelligence might also oppose/object to the spoken language as it is based on another system of thin- king/analysing/feeling. Sometimes I do not know where you start and I end or the other way around. Within ongoing discussions, talks and everyday life, within my own group, within The Magdalena Project, we have the benefits of familiarity.
But I do know that it matters what we do, who we are, and where. When once again being confronted by the tremendously complex situation in Colombia, it is easy to want to have nothing to do with it. It might seem totally ridiculous to give a little raggedy doll from Peru to Blanca Nieve, who has lost all her daughters, but when, despite her great loss, she insists upon a kind of normality, and acts accor- dingly, should we also not attempt to behave as normally as possible?
Travel also contains flow, a mobile room of one’s own, mobile homes of our own. And travel can happen in vessels with portholes or lanterns. The Magdalena Project is such a vessel. The Magdalena Project has enabled us to create a space, many spaces, where we can offer room and voice for the multitude of thoughts and actions created by female practitioners around the world, and the ripple effects of actually being present, meeting on ordinary and extraordinary days too, experiencing the lives of others, as well as transforming words and worlds into theatre, talks and topics into articles, themes and thoughts into performances, new work.
We want to leave traces behind for those who look for them, so we write. We write for our Vibekes, Lucianas, Laurenas and Paulas, our Ingrids and Annas, our Tobiases and JÈrgens, our Megs and Jessies… those who will survive us. I write because of my grandmother and mother: my grandmother the prolific letter writer, my mother the birthday and weddings songwriter. And they have passed on their craft to me.
At the end of a performance of No Doctor for the Dead at the Substation in Singapore, a young man remained in his seat. After a while I went over to him with a beer and we started to talk. He said that he had felt safe during the performance. “Safe?” I asked, confused. Yes, he was hiding from the authorities, as he was refusing to do military service. I was able to explain that the texts we use in the performance were written by a man who was imprisoned in Norway for his own refusal to do military service.
Back at our theatre we are transferring old video material to DVD and boxes of DVDs are coming back from the media shop and being put on shelves, archived according to which year the event or production took place.
I am up in the attic looking for some material for an article I am writing and find a DVD labelled Cardiff 1986, work demonstration, still pictures, etc. I take it back to my own room. The work demonstration turns out to be the premi⁄re of a solo performance, the still pictures are of Netta Plotsky’s outdoor workshop in Cardiff, but at the end there is some footage of our Miserables performance and an interview with Elin, Anne and me in the bar of Chapter Arts Centre where we performed. My jaw drops as I look. It is twenty-five years ago!
I keep the whole thing to myself, but one evening, on a rare occasion when Anne and I are out having a beer together, I tell her about watching it, and she is curious too. It is some days after the 8th of March, and we have been discussing a number of things, including the need for solidarity with other women, and a perspective upon that elusive thing called career. This has happened because, for the first time in our 8th of March celebrations here in Porsgrunn, the notion of a career, of individual achievement, was raised. There were a number of speeches, but each woman spoke about herself.
We were there to collect money for our Colombian project but had no oppor- tunity to speak. The crowd was informed about our work in a rather superficial way, we thought, but nevertheless, in the break we collected money: enough money for all the theatre groups in Colombia to afford an extra activity or expense. This was the beginning of a conversation between Anne-Sophie and me, the discussion of a familiar topic: that it is more fun and worthwhile to do something for others, and we wondered if we should organise an alternative 8th of March next year where we might emphasise the need for work and actions of solidarity.
My daughter and her friend talk about the stress that young people experience today in having to decide on a career while they are very young. Just hearing that word “career” astonishes me. We have never used it. The other thought or memory that occurs to me is the difficulty that I had in finding myself, or what I might call my true self, speaking now of the professional aspect of my life.
At a certain point, I felt exhausted by having been obliged to try so many things, so many methods, only to discover the hard way, that they were not my way: that “I did it my way” was a false refrain, a wish, an easy way out, a long detour towards something that was there all the time, but not seen, not trans- formed, not kneaded into anything like a vocation or work.
When I think back to the beginnings of The Magdalena Project I have mixed emotions. As happens so often, it is clear that I did not know what I was doing or why. At that time I had not developed the knowledge, the accumulation of infor- mation, experience, that I call intuition now. Intuition is something I have come to trust more and more the older I get, the more I work: intuition and gut feeling. But this is now; it was different then.
I have mixed emotions too about the hardships we imposed on ourselves. It was such a task to invite, provide for, take care of so many visiting artists whilst simultaneously trying to research, analyse, develop, and make ground breaking work. But we did it, and even though, as Jill has said, it left us mute and bewildered for years, it is something that has deeply affected my way of living, working, doing and thinking. And those other un-travelled roads, would they have been a better option? Not for me.
A Danish director at an old people’s home was fighting for a budget to give some of the dementia patients an adventure. She wanted to take them for a ride in a hot air balloon. To organise appropriate transport for wheelchair users, to have enough people to help them into the hot air balloon, and to accompany them, she needed 50,000 kroner. The town Mayor was very sceptical. He asked why on earth she wanted to waste so much money on something that the old people would not even remember. The director answered: because they will laugh and smile while they are up there!
As the character in my most recent performance My Life as a Man says: “It has taken me a great many years to come back to what I set out to search for”. Being in The Magdalena Project has helped me to stay with my group. Being in Grenland Friteater has helped me to stay with the Project, to be anchored in the makings of work and values, to have travelled from the island of suffering to the port of cele- bration.
To belong, to be part of a community, to fight loneliness and isolation, meaninglessness and superficiality: against all odds, trends and analysis we are what we are, we have what we have made. And we have made The Magdalena Project and kept it going for twenty-five years.
Isolation because of class, race or gender, culture, or the lack of it, is there, will probably always be there. We can fight it with our work, and by sharing work- places, opportunities and networks. “We must to make something!”
We are going to use the whole of Odin Teatret for staging small events. Julia and I are together. We choose a small claustrophobic changing room with a steel cabinet with two lockers. Julia is hiding in one of them. We have invited all the other participants to come into the room, to be given an identity and a password. I remember Eugenio Barba really liking our little masquerade, but the person who took it very seriously and went on to make a whole new ritual was Beatriz Camargo. She came into the room, I told her, after consulting with the Oracle in the Locker, that she was Earth, and that her secret word was Bread.
Next day she invited us into the garden outside the theatre. We had noticed delicious smells from the kitchen earlier. Beatriz was playing the flute up in a tree. There was a white grave next to the tree. She made us stand in a circle, and she came forward, starting to dig up the ground. A white bundle appeared. She asked some of us to uncover the bundle and we saw a curvy bread-puppet, a girl, with raisins for eyes, nose, mouth and bellybutton. We sat down in a circle and shared the bread, and the moment. And made history.
In an early Magdalena meeting in Cardiff, a woman artist making a speech about classical theatre proclaimed that there had been no important roles for women. My friend and colleague, Magdalena Pietruska, jumped up from her seat and began a harangue which included asking, “And what do you call the female roles in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen?” It was an awkward, but important moment. It created a rupture in the meeting, but the learning that stayed with me from that day is that we should never, ever forget those who went before us; that we should not be ignorant of history, of the times and the women who have gone before and paved the way for us. We are standing on their shoulders; whether those of Rosa Luxembourg or my grandmother working at the dairy; the women pioneers of The Salvation Army or the match-stick workers fighting for an eight hour working day. They all paved our way.
I finally found the shampoo and conditioner I needed to wash my hair before the performance. I had also managed to convince the man at the Internet cafe to print a copy of my script, even though the memory stick was infected with a virus. I balanced the little computer in one hand and the bag from the chemist’s in the other. I crossed the road at the crossing. I remember a springy feeling in my legs; I was happy and glad to go back to the hotel to sort out my things before going to the theatre.
I went into slow motion. In the middle of the first lane, only some metres from the pavement I stopped in mid-step. A powerful, thundering sound was coming slowly to my attention, or rather was coming slowly at me, penetra- ting my hearing and understanding: I saw a car sliding towards me broad side on. The driver had unnaturally big eyes, eyes that immediately reminded me of the actor Marty Feldman, so popular in a television serial called Gun Smoke, and these eyes were looking at me as if there were something strange about me too. The car appeared to move simultaneously slowly and very fast. The wheels were locked; it was in a skid. Very gradually I understood that the strange thundering silence came from the car. That it was heading towards me.
I could not, or would not move. Frozen on the spot, I looked at the car, at the driver. Holding both my computer and the bag with shampoo and conditioner high in the air, as if water was coming towards me, and I did not want my things to get wet. I was wading in the water.
Everything became still, so still. As if far away, I saw the man from the chemist’s, the very one who had sold me the shampoo and conditioner. He was proud of our bargain. The items he had sold me were not fancy little things, but two rather sturdy bottles, one white, one green, with enough inside them to keep my hair clean for a long time. He looked at me across what seemed like an ocean, but was only the street. He looked worried! I looked at the driver, and heard myself saying to him: “But really! You cannot do this! You cannot possibly do this!” And I spoke to him in English, in a voice I did not recognise as my own. My legs started to give way under me, and I staggered to the pave- ment and leaned against a tree, bending over and clutching my computer and the little plastic bag. The car drove off with the shop owner screaming at the driver, the cars behind him already queued up, honking their horns, shouting from the windows. I disappeared into a soft haze, where the sun was shining brightly. And I thought the leaves of the tree were exceptionally green and vibrant. I thought that I had never really seen a leaf on a tree before. A warm hand touched my shoulder. It was the shop owner who guided me back to his shop and said something in Brazilian to the other customers, something about the American lady, and some impulse deep inside me wanted to explain that I was Norwegian. The man sat me down in a chair and from somewhere came a glass of cold water. I shook. Tears rolled down my cheeks even though I was not aware that I was crying.
I wanted to explain that I was part of an important theatre festival, that I had work to do, that the others were waiting for me, that I needed to be somewhere, that I belonged somewhere, had a context. I was not alone and did not usually walk out into the streets like this. But anyway, what kind of driver would want to run me down when I was safely positioned on zebra stripes, the stripes that are meant to protect us. But nothing came out, not even that I was not American, which had become absurdly important. I did not want to leave my life with someone thinking that I was an American lady. I was me – Geddy – part of The Magdalena Project, part of the festival arranged by Marisa Naspolini in Florian‰polis. I also wanted to describe all the work that she had done just to bring us to Brazil.
And now I wonder why it was so important to explain that I was Norwegian, despite all the bad things like, for example, speaking a language very few under- stand, even those who live in our country, or being a shamefully rich nation that does not share within or without. Still I am, and want to be Norwegian. But I was speechless. I could only bow my head in thanks to the shop owner and face the street again. I looked up and down the street in amazement and, after some time, finally managed to cross.
I had completely forgotten where I was. I had thought I was home in Norway, where no one tries to run you over when you are on a zebra crossing. For one second I had taken it for granted that I was safe, when I was actually one metre from serious injury. Mercifully not a hair on my head was damaged, but what happened was so conspicuously, brutally and concretely close, that there was no way to pretend that death had not been near. Death was very near.
Deep inside me was a shout, silent like the sound of the car, as if packed in cotton: I want to live! A silly discussion I had had with my husband suddenly popped into my head. We had been bickering about how to spend our rather short holiday, and I thought, I do not want him to win the argument! If I die, he will be right!
Everything seemed important and extraordinarily full of purpose: to sit on a chair with a glass of water; to walk in the sun; to perform that evening; to be part of something; to belong; to have a structure within which to place yourself and your work.
I grew up in a big family that belonged to a community, a class, a struggle, at a time when the majority of the working class still held a dream. Today most of the working class is occupied with consumption. They are literally having their mouths silenced, stuffed with money, to keep them from making demands. In fact, what they are demanding now is to pay less tax so they can consume more, eat more, and read less. This is a sad, sad story, but it is not going to silence us all.
I feel that nowadays there is an expectation that people like me, who grew up with that working class dream, should abandon it and accept that that struggle has been in vain. Apparently it is necessary to grow up and understand that each one is for herself! I am not sure if I either want or can forget, and carry on regardless.
I would never have been able to get into theatre if I had applied as an indivi- dual to a theatre school. With my short body, my mountain dialect and working class origin? Not that that was what I wanted anyway; I wanted to belong. When I began, the collective was more important to me than the profession. I am lucky to belong to a big biological family, to the family that is my theatre group, and to the family of The Magdalena Project, to have all these contexts as important places to work. In 1986, at the beginning of the Magdalena, we positioned ourselves in uncomfor- table places, in cold places. An old potato factory in Cardiff in Wales was the start of our belonging to each other. By singing of lives that survived only on potatoes, of lives lost for lack of potatoes, we exist. Making new stories that need to be told, with new characters making their own paths because, “we must to do something”. I feel strengthened by The Magdalena Project’s ability to hold on to the dream, to believe in parallel languages and an alternative currency.
When I started at Grenland Friteater, the company consisted of one girl and four boys. The girl, Eva Danielsen, came from the west of Norway like me. She became my first role model. Once, after a long rehearsal session, Tor Arne, the director, said: “Eva often disagrees with my proposals. But she responds with inven- tive counterproposals.” Smart girl! Something to keep in our minds (and our feet) as time goes on. After all twenty-five years is only the beginning!