Physical direction, working in a collective, and the form and content of emotions
A conversation between Anna Teuwen and Annika Tudeer about the past, present and future of Oblivia. Anna Teuwen is a dramaturg at Kampnagel in Hamburg, and a longstanding friend of Oblivia. Annika Tudeer is the founding member of Oblivia. The shortened version of this interview was published at Theater Bremen’s website in German before the premiere of Obsessions.
Anna Teuwen: Annika, a question first – You are developing the production “Obsessions” as part of the funding initiative NOperas! which supports new forms of opera. What can opera learn from Oblivia?
Annika Tudeer: That a working environment can be friendly, open and collaborative. To be brave and kind, and plunge into challenges like commissioning and supporting new works with contemporary music and quirky artists involved.
Anna: Oblivia has been around for 22 years now – you founded the group in 2000 in Helsinki with Timo Fredriksson. You became internationally known in 2008 with the trilogy “Entertainment Island”, which was partly created at PACT Zollverein and subsequently toured Europe-wide with great success. Tell us about the group’s beginnings – what happened up to that point, who was involved, how did Oblivia develop?
Annika: Oblivia was founded in 2000 during the year of culture in Helsinki when we were commissioned to do four performances in public spaces. We started out as a site-specific group of artists from different fields that I had invited to work with the theme of history and memory. Personally I wanted to distance myself from hierarchical ways of working that I previously experienced as a dancer, so it was also an experiment starting with the question: is it possible to work collectively, non-hierarchically, multi artistically and in a friendly way? Obviously it was very possible, because here we are 22 years later and the same working ethics that was stated during the first year are still part of our way of working and being together. Lightness, fun, laughter, friendliness, the process is seen in the result, focused energy = go where the fence is lowest (or choose your battles wisely), ambitious artistic goals, heterogeneity of the people involved.
During the first year we distilled into the core group of me, pianist Timo Fredriksson and Glasgow based dancer and choreographer Anna Kzystek that stayed together and developed Oblivia during 13 years. Anna brought in collaborative ways of working that were inspired by companies like Goat Island, Forced Entertainment, Jonathan Burrows and many more.
“We laughed a lot, were passionate about the work and became experts at standing still.”
Structure has always been inherent in our work: thematically and physically. Site specific was a way to work with existing spatial and architectural structures, but after three years we decided to continue the exploration in black boxes. For us the black box, or theater stage is a tool for highlighting the many layered physical spatial, visual and auditory multitudes that Oblivias work is, but we are still always working with the space.
During the first year in the black box 2003 we came up with a very organized way of working that is still in use, although today it is spread over several months over a year in contrast to the few weeks we used then. First a period of fun and freedom, improvisation and exploration of the theme. Then a longer period of structuring and last a period of running through and fine tuning. Today we also have a long period of exploration together with the whole artistic team at the beginning and during the process. Since we always start by selecting a big theme and developing the work from scratch the creation of a performance is a long process. Time is a tool as well as any other.
The trilogy Entertainment Island (2008-2010) was a milestone and our international breakthrough, it toured until Anna’s untimely accidental death in 2017. After 2009 German production houses and festivals have been involved in most of our productions: PACT Zollverein, FFT, Kampnagel, Theater Rampe, ECLAT festival and many more, now NOperas! with Theater Bremen and Wuppertal Oper.
The work was always minimalistic, many layered, physical, transgressing genres and subtle. In 2018 as we planned the coming production Verdrängen Verdrängen Verdrängen the idea of working with a composer was pushing through very strongly. I think it originated from the very musical structure of the performance Children and Other Radicals, feedback from composers that saw the performance and the fact that the Helsinki premier was at the National Opera. So the next step was naturally to work with a composer and premier at ECLAT, the new music festival in Stuttgart.
Since 2017 we have made three year strategies, a very recommendable strategy (excuse the pun) for achieving goals in unforeseen ways. In our latest strategy we state that we want to revolutionize music theater and Oblivia in music theater, which means that we want to challenge ourselves in this field. What all that entails is to be seen.
Anna: Some group members have been with you from the beginning and carry the Oblivia aesthetic and spirit, but new members have since brought their approaches as well.
Annika: We want to work with the same people as long as possible, and we often invite guest artists for specific projects. We have a basis for how we work, and everyone who joins brings in new ways of working and thinking. The work changes and yet it has its own aesthetic and humor. There is an Oblivia way that is recognisable and consistent. The work and the joy of creating together connects us. It is a very deep and committed process. The collective way of working makes it possible to achieve a very different result from if we would have one director. My job as an artistic director is to enable, to make it possible to do the work, find partners and contextes, organize the surrounding structures so we can create a performance.
Today we are eight people in Oblivia, with seven in the artistic team. Meri Ekola light designer and technical director (joined 2009), Tua Helve costume design (joined 2015), Yiran Zhao, composer (joined 2019), Anna-Maija Terävä performer and dramaturg (joined 2014), Alice Ferl, performer and dramaturg (joined 2017), Timo Fredriksson performer and musician (2000), me performer and artistic director, and Jenny Nordlund production manager (joined 2017). Around us we have a network consisting of a photographer, documenter, pr-team etc. In the last years we have been part of an international mentoring program that has led us to develop Oblivia internally so that all of us eight are more involved in the work of the whole organization. We have regular meetings, working groups and do a check in routine in the beginning of the meetings and the rehearsals. This strengthens the understanding and empathy of each other and therefore strengthens the group. Communication is the keyword. I am convinced that strengthening the organization and communicating better has made it possible for us to take this big leap into music theater.
Anna: “Entertainment Island” set standards: the trilogy – sometimes programmed in one evening for binge-watching fans – thrilled the international dance and theater world with its distinctive and incomparable aesthetics, unusual humor and movement vocabulary, concrete and abstract at the same time, comedically playful and at the same time reductive-discursive, very accessible and also very presuppositional. Actually an essence of Oblivia, brand-building, so to speak. “Entertainment Island” was about entertainment culture, and thus of course self-reflexive. What interested you about it?
Annika: Entertainment was something that we had very little professional experience of, being these highly experimental avant garde artists, but something that we had plenty of knowledge of being consumers of entertainment and living in a society that is immersed in entertainment. The trilogy came about because we wanted to look at entertainment from three different viewpoints going from the industry of entertainment to private entertainment. A thematic distillation process and a very funny 2,5 hrs performance.
Anna: Your next big project was again serialized and even comprised five parts: MOPMA – Museum of Postmodern Art, from 2012-2016. Recognizable: the (self-)reflection of your own position on the art market, based on slight megalomania with integrated direct ironization of the same. What specifically did you deal with, how did these parts develop?
“Megalomania is inherent in Oblivia. We are big and small at the same time.”
Annika: To make a series of five performances was a very long time span. We wanted to look at the art world in the same way that we looked at entertainment, but I have to admit that in the end it felt too close to the bone. The world was changing in 2012. Populism and nationalism became stronger forces and art and structures for art became under threat in many countries. It did not feel like such a great idea in the end to criticize the structures of the art world. Instead the structures needed all the support they could get. Structures that we also depended on. It was a struggle to keep up the spirit for five years and we broke with long standing members in the process.
Anna: In my perception, the MOPMA series was a bit more presuppositional, sort of an Oblivia-for-advanced program. Would you subscribe to that?
Annika: At least way back then, but today I think that they would have been perceived differently. Aesthetically the three first parts were stunning. But surely the works were more abstract and in one way more autobiographical. They reflected at the same time the development of the company as the themes they were dealing with. Themes that were not so clearly defined as earlier and later. I think that after Entertainment Island we were a little tired of a steadfast theme and wanted to embrace something more abstract.
In 2016 we did the Rave, a durational live stream performance where we are dancing away in a white space for 2,5 hours. It was streamed across the globe and has lately also been screened as an independent video work. It was a performance that would not need to tour physically.
Anna: From this point of artistic and content-related examination, it seemed difficult to continue consistently; how did you proceed from there? In the meantime, it is considered your trademark to deal with great themes of humanity with minimalist means. You turned back to concrete themes, private and political at the same time. What were the next important projects and themes that you would see as important steps on your way?
Annika: You are right, after MOPMA we were drained, but we were lucky and got commissions that guided the themes and forms of the performances in the coming years and soon again we were happily working with themes. We like to plan well ahead, hence the longer series of works, but sometimes it is good not to plan too carefully and see what comes up. Usually something happens and one thing leads to another. Nature Theater of Oblivia premiered in 2017 in Theater Rampe with the theme of nature and technology, Children and Other Radicals premiered at Kampnagel and was a work with groups of children about financial structures. These works together with Light & Easy (2019) about loss, grief and lightness laid the ground for the move towards music theater that happened in 2019 with Verdrängen Verdrängen Verdrängen and the collaboration with composer Yiran Zhao who is now part of Oblivia’s artistic team.
Verdrängen Verdrängen Verdrängen started the series of music theater works on politics and emotions. The idea behind this series that is continuing with Obsessions and the next work Pleasure that premieres at Theater Rampe in the beginning of 2023 is that emotions are found both in the content and the form. Music theater is filled with emotions, and our time and political culture is working on a very intense and emotional level with the instant clicks culture as well as with populism and nationalism that works very strongly and cynically on an emotive level. The intensity and velocity of our times makes it sometimes hard to find time and space for reflection and thinking, to be human and meet each other. In art we can do this.
Because we were so geared to form and minimalism, the idea of emotions were not included in our work until recently. This is an important development. Today I could not imagine working without including emotions. There are so many ways of working with emotions. It has not only to be conflicts and dramatic outbursts, but it has to do a lot with reflection, self reflection and communication. Our emotions guide us a lot, and by learning to communicate better we become also better at dealing with emotions, our own and others. We have always been a group that have hated conflicts. We have gone to great lengths to avoid conflicts, which has at times eventually led to even bigger conflicts. Suppression (verdrängen) is not always a good tactic. However we also have something that we call “the skill of being silent”. That means that everything has not to be dealt with all the time. Sometimes it is good to say nothing. Sometimes it is very good to state your feelings very clearly.
Safe and clear structures are a condition for freedom in the artistic process. Freedom of the mind and the imagination is inherent in our work which is also transmitted to the audience whom we invite to be part of this play with images, ideas and associations in the framework of the performance. We trust entirely in the intelligence of the audience and we have developed a way of being together with the audience in the span of the performance.
Anna: You impressed me very much a few years ago: you had asked your fans and companions for feedback and analysis. You wanted to find out what Oblivia is for us outsiders, a very exciting and also courageous approach. What was the trigger for this, and what did it tell you? What did it do to you? What did you guys find out?
Annika: The impetus was to explore Oblivia from different viewpoints during our Together project. The Together project was a sub-project that was underlying our activities 2017-2021 and looked into how Oblivia works, how Oblivias is in the world, how we work together, share the work and grow. We were very touched by the very precise and generous thoughts and insights that we received from friends and companions. We felt that we have a meaning and existence in the world, something you sometimes forget when you are stuck far north buried deep in the work. We also said that this is for our private development. It was a joyful way of opening a communication channel and getting a perspective of how we can be perceived from “the outside”.
In 2020 when we turned 20 years we started this blog where we along our own submissions also invited guests to reflect on Oblivia. We had different sections: flashbacks with photos from the past, videos on different topics that related to collectivity in Oblivia, writings and podcasts. In the blog we developed a way of writing together – an Oblivia mosaic where everybody submits their thoughts (coming to think of it would have been a great way of making this interview, but it usually needs a little more time…). At the moment besides the theme, politics, emotions and music theater, our current project Obsession is strongly present in the monthly blog.
Anna: Throughout all the productions you have used and developed a certain technique, which you have also taught in workshops, and through which it also made sense to develop two productions with children – because this technique can be applied so well to different projects. This is the “Do what you saw” technique, can you briefly explain what it’s all about?
We developed the Do what you saw method in 2008 and have used it since to devise material for the performances. It is also a fun workshop. You take your big theme, write free associations around it, share them. Then you improvise a 3-4 minute solo prototype and then each of us takes turns to do a copy of that, which means that we try to copy what we saw as well as we can. A copy of the copy ensues like in chinese whisper. At the end of the day we have a lot of material that we improvise with in a big impro. The big impro is a good way for trying out the material in different constellations. We also have a practice that we call Share. There each take some time to develop a sequence or a way of moving and share it, teaching each other how it is done. As you see we have an internal vocabulary.
Anna: Since you’ve moved towards music theater performance with your last two projects “Verdrängen, Verdrängen, Verdrängen” and “Obsessions”, you’ve expanded the “Do what you saw” technique with the “Do what you hear” technique. How does that work?
Annika: Do what you hear is a translation process that we developed with Yiran Zhao in 2019 when we first met in Stuttgart in Theater Rampe. Yiran plays and we do what we heard and vice versa. Then we can ping pong these impacts. Yiran plays we do, Yiran responds with what she saw etc. We included lights as well, and light was responding to the music, or to the movement and we or the music responded to lights. This was groundbreaking for our collaborative process, light and sound as integral parts of the development. This leads to the sound and light moments that you can see in both Verdrängen and Obsessions.
Anna: Obsessions are the emotions that your current work is about. Which and whose obsessions are you about?
Annika: It is a journey through obsessions from different perspectives, starting from ancient Rome, power, dictatorship, then stripping down to social obsessions, ongoing dancing and talking and at the end we end up in a post obsessive distilled state. The intense and obsessive times we are living is slowly changing and we give a view on a possible abstract outcome towards the end. This all is seen in the incredible music by Yiran, the lights by Meri and the costumes by Tua. it is quite a trip that works on many levels simultaneously.
Anna: How does obsession in music theater / performance art relate to that in politics?
Annika: Obsession in an artwork reflects the time that we are living in. But generally speaking structures for art are depending on politics and obsessive behavior in politics can have an influence on the structures for art. The same amount of obsessed intensity is being found in theaters as in politics. They are only acting out very differently. If a politician would be obsessed with creating structures for contemporary music theater and operas Germany would have several of its opera houses reserved for that, or at least some of the stages of these houses. Obsessions and drives can create change.
Anna: “Obsessions” is your biggest production so far – besides you and Timo, two ensemble members of Theater Bremen as well as three singers and six musicians are involved. This is a completely new structure, how do you work together? Can you imagine leaving the collective structure behind doing directing in the future?
Annika: The collective can very well be the director and dramaturg as in Obsessions. To work in an institution has demanded a totally new way of scheduling and organising the work. Now composition, light and costume designs had to be handed in well in advance. This meant that also the performance had to get its structure well ahead so that Yiran, Tua and Meri could do their work. For 1,5 years the whole artistic team has been working on Obsessions mainly in zoom because of the pandemic. We have created dramaturgy and content as well as rehearsed in zoom. Zoom has opened up new possibilities for us to work and keep in touch since we live in different cities and countries.
In the six weeks here in Bremen preceding the premier we have worked with the music, and the pre devised structure and content of the performance, as well as on togetherness and a friendly, safe and collaborative working atmosphere. There has been space for inputs from everyone. Our team here in Bremen is amazing, supportive, inventive, open and a lot of fun.
I can imagine that we could make a work where Oblivia is solely director in our own Oblivian way where we all would be part of the process. The work would be as now, well pre planned and prepared but there would be no performers from the group on stage. Which would be a challenge, because we also need to embody the work in order to understand it. Personally I think through doing. In Obsessions both Anna-Maija and Alice that are acting as dramaturgs have been physically devising the work in rehearsals even if they are not on stage this time. Dramaturgy in Oblivia means to physically co-create the work. Timo and I have been acting like messengers from the whole group transmitting the collectively devised performance to the group of singers and actors. I guess that directing in Oblivia would include partaking physically in the scenic actions in the beginning. The meeting of the Oblivia bodies on stage with the different physicalities of actors, singers and musicians would then not be there. Collectivity can exist in so many ways, but the main thing is to keep the communication open within the working group and the artistic team.
Anna: You have often done the last projects in cooperation with German institutions, but you are still rooted in Finland as well and show your work regularly. What characterizes the cross-national collaboration? Are there differences in the reception?
Annika: There are so many more people living in Germany, so the scene and the audience is so much bigger. In the beginning as we started to show work in Germany we felt understood. It is a very open, intellectual and curious environment. The alumnis from Giessen became true soulmates and we soon connected to the Freie Szene. There is something in our work: perhaps the humor, the embodiment of philosophical questions that resonates with the German audiences and we feel at home. We have been well supported and embraced and felt warmly welcome in an array of venues and institutions.The cross national collaborations gives so much more to a work: knowledge, inspiration, view points from so many different schools and cultures. This heterogeneity is part of Oblivia.
In the past years we have been coached by Elena Polzer from the Berlin based production office ehrliches arbeit about collective work which was essential for our development. There is a huge knowledge of working collectively in Germany that we are happy to tap into.