From July 8th through the 21st, I worked on an original musical theatre project titled “Deep 2.0” at Silence Residency in a small village called Kaukonen in Kittilä, in northern Finland. It was for the continuous development of “Deep- the musical,” a performance about the deep-sea creatures, which was premiered in Vapaan taiteen tila last year. Silence Residency is run by Silence Festival (Hiljaisuus festivaali), an annual multidisciplinary performing arts festival. This 2-week residency process culminated in a demo performance for the villagers on Saturday, July 20th.
The working group consisted of me as the project leader, Tanja Männistö, Georgie Goater, Maikki Palm and Elina Sarno (with her 10-month-old son).
A lot of things happened during the residency, and here are some of my highlights.
Quality of time and light
I’d never been to the region of Lapland during summertime. What does it feel like to live in a remote village where there is no dark night and only daylight all day?—I was curious.
When I arrived there, one of the first things I noticed was the quality of time. People tend to feel busy and tense mentally in the city and more relaxed and slower in the countryside. That was certainly the case in Kaukonen. Without any strict schedule to follow or any store to go to nearby, the villagers seem to own their time. No rush. Everyone moves leisurely and minds his or her own business in the formidable quietude of northern nature. Wild reindeers and rabbits paid frequent visits in the backyard of the house we were staying at. It’s just part of the everyday scenery in the village.
And the light. In sync with the languidness of time, the light felt soft and slow on my skin. It continued on and on, permeating the mind of the whole village and its air. This peculiar quality of light and the lack of darkness started to disorient me shortly after I arrived. Even though my bedroom had nice curtains to shut out the light during the night, my mind was feeling the impact in a subtle way; It was very hard to feel the passage of time since the shade of light never really changed throughout the day. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the early morning before everyone else in the house woke up. I would walk into the living room and sit by the window. Clear white light pierced through to embrace the table where I would work for an hour or so by myself. A sparrow would rest on the windowsill and watch me curiously. The quietest, most comforting time I had when I was there.
Putting together different pieces of a puzzle
In terms of the work we did during the residency, my primary responsibility as the leader was to create a dramaturgical and musical structure for the ideas and expressions generated by the working group members. I was also directing the show and performing in it, too. A lot of stuff to do, but it was my attempt to fuse the collaborative process and my artistic autonomy somehow.
As much as I was holding the big key to determine how the piece was formed, the artistic contributions of other members were also very crucial. Each of us had a different background in performing arts. Tanja has been working in youth theatre and is also a visual artist, Georgie and Maikki are well-versed in the contemporary dance field, and Elina has done a lot of puppetry and object theatre work. I wanted each one’s expertise to be integrated into the show as well as their ideas.
The way I approached the developmental process was somewhat like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no premeditated design. First, each one brings in her own story, idea, text, a movement phrase or whatever is related to the deep-sea creatures and the themes of the piece. The fragments of their artistic input become the unique pieces of a metaphysical puzzle. I look at the pieces and start putting them together in various ways to see if any image for a story appears. When it does, I compose music and lyrics to go with it. Then I propose the song to the working group, and we try to specify the theatrical language to best convey the story in relation to all the other pieces of the puzzle and the performing space. The process repeats itself until I could sense an overall dramaturgical arch.
(On the side note, it was a strange coincident that Maikki and Georgie took to actual jigsaw puzzle during the residency. When not in rehearsal, they would spend hours staring and putting together pieces on a table.. just like I was doing in my mind 😊 )
For the first week, there were only Maikki, Georgie and me. We focused mostly on movement and choreographic aspects of the show. What kind of physicality do deep sea creatures have? How can we express the quality of waves and the flow of water with the body? How does “depth,” “time” and “pressure” manifest in the body? etc. We would spend hours in the space to explore those questions. Simultaneously, I was composing songs and suggesting some theatre exercises and stories for Maikki and Georgie’s deep-sea creature characters. It was a demanding week, to say the least.
Tanja, Elina and Elina’s baby joined us for the second week. It was a tight schedule alright, and oh boy, it was even more demanding than the first week. They had only three and a half days to absorb all the work that had been done before they came, to make their own characters (in the case of Elina, to make puppets), and to learn the songs. And we got to rehearse the whole show only a few times before the demo. Concurrently we were also building the performing space and rigging and adjusting lights. Once again it was almost a miracle that we made it to the demo.
Also, Elina had her baby who needed her constant attention. We decided that the baby would be a part of the show somehow since Elina couldn’t really leave his side at any moment. Then the baby became another piece of the puzzle on a whole new level to me. Along with the lack of time, the baby was something that was outside of my control. I had to adjust to and adapt what was there and available to make the most of it for the story.
But in the end, those pieces that were relatively unpredictable made the final image of the puzzle more unique and special than I could ever imagine.
Demo and birthday party of the Ojanperäs
One big element at the residency was the interaction with the villagers. We were very lucky to be staying at a beautiful house managed by one of them, the Ojanperä family. The Ojanperäs has been a kind supporter of the Silence festival and its activities for many years. They not only provide accommodations for the visiting artists, but also are genuinely curious about and willing to get to know the artists and their works. Throughout our stay, they helped us with transportation to the city, baked delicious pastries for us, fixed our car, gave the baby feeding chair and bed for Elina’s baby, let us use their sauna and grill freely, etc. Some of us became quite close to the family and got involved in their personal lives as well.
One day I found out that the last Saturday of our residency period would coincide with the birthday party for two of the Ojanperä family members. So, it was no brainer for me to decide that we should do a demo performance on that day, not only to show our work to the villagers but also to express gratitude for their incredible generosity and support. Once the demo date and time were set, all my focus went to putting together a good show.
The pressure and workload were real and challenging, as I mentioned in the previous section. But I was aware and weirdly excited that it was just a part of my creative process. I only learn from it.
The big pay-off came on the day of the demo. The Ojanperäs brought a group of kids and adults who were attending the birthday party after the demo. Also, thanks to my working group members’ consistent interaction with the villagers and advertising in person and on social media, the audience turnout was amazing. We got the full house. The demo itself went well as well. The kids in the audience were very engaged in what was happening in front of their eyes. They laughed and screamed throughout the show… so much so that it was hard for me to hear myself singing sometimes. The adults seemed more subdued compared to the kids, but no body left in the middle of it. So, I gathered that they were also interested in what we performed.
As the director, I saw a lot of things for which I would have liked more time to develop in the demo. But making a show for the audience helped me see where it needs more work and how we can proceed from now on. Meeting the audience with the work was also a part of the creative process, a very important one in my opinion.
After the demo, some of us joined the birthday celebration with the Ojanperäs. Later in the day I heard that one of the family members said, “Your demo was the biggest birthday gift!” I took a sigh of relief and felt the meaning of what we had accomplished during the residency.
Inspiration from Reidar Särestöniemi
In the midst of the intensive work schedule, some of us took one afternoon off to visit Särestöniemi Museum. I didn’t know anything about the artist Reidar Särestöniemi (1925–1981) before the visit. I was pleasantly surprised once I stepped into the estate of the museum. It was filled with his colorful, vibrant, and yet gentle art encased in beautiful wooden houses and in harmony with the surrounding nature. It was a wholesome, warm experience of getting to know the artist not only through his art works but also through his living space and the nature to which he was deeply connected. Smelling the aroma of the wood, feeling the soft air on the skin, seeing the colors of his painting reaching out to us, listening to the flow of the river nearby, and tasting the history etched in the space.. I was quite inspired and replenished.
His art didn’t directly influence our work, aesthetically speaking. However, his life and attitude towards art definitely helped me regroup mine. One of his quotes resonated with me especially:
”Maalauksissani on vain minä itse. Niissä on minun onneni ja tuskani, minun täyttymätön kaipuuni, koko minun elämäni.”
(In my paintings are only me. In them are my happiness, my pain, my unfulfilled longing, and my whole life.)
Before finishing this essay, I would like to thank my working group for their work, patience and creativity. It’s obvious, but I need to reiterate; I could not have done this without you all. I always learn a tremendous amount about collaboration and myself as an artist in working with you. Thank you!
Last but not least, my deepest gratitude goes to the staff at Silence Festival, especially the managing director Joonas Martikainen who arranged the practicality of the residency for us in a very humane, considerate way. We felt immediately at home when he welcomed us at the train station and drove us around Rovaniemi and Kittilä to give a personalized tour of the area. We had a very special experience thanks to you.
Till next time!