Theatre and Research Journey to Helsinki, May 2009

Mikko-Olavi Seppälä with our students
Alyson Fortner, Kati Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Richardson, and Melissa Macedo (from left to right) at a Helsinki dinner with theatre scholar Mikko-Olavi Seppälä

Early in the spring semester of 2009, Mellon Fellow and Assistant Professor Hana Worthen received a Mellon grant to facilitate a trip to Finland, a lively and informal way of introducing four Barnard students—Kati Fitzgerald '10, Alyson Fortner '11, Melissa Macedo '10, and Elizabeth Richardson '11—to her research and orientation to theatre and performance studies and, equally as important, introducing her to our students' ideas, energies, and commitments. Committed to the sense that artistic creation happens in a network of aesthetic, social, historical, and economic relations, Worthen is particularly drawn to the ways theatre is involved in making and mediating the ideologies of its surrounding culture: "As a theatre/performance scholar, I ask what performance claims for or conceals from me, how it shapes my (and my contemporaries') sense of social and artistic potentiality; these were questions I hoped to open to our consideration."

Over the course of the spring semester, the group met together, and with Lasse Suominen and Aili Flint of the Columbia University Finnish Program, to orient themselves to Finnish language and culture, before spending five rich days in Helsinki. There, the group saw two productions directed by one of Europe's most intriguing directors, Kristian Smeds, at the Finnish National Theatre, The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas) and God is Beauty (Jumala on kauneus), as well as Pekka Milonoff's Kalavale at the KOM Theatre—all productions critically targeting dilemmas of Finnish society. The Unknown Soldier breaks with the still-influential myth of postwar Finnish national identity, while Kalavale stages the corruption of humanity by commercially-driven media, taking the form of a TV reality show. As Melissa Macedo suggests, the productions dramatized both a different approach to making theatre, and a different sense of how theatre figures in Finnish social and public life: "The most striking thing I noticed about the theatre [in Finland] was the generous attentiveness the audience gave to the performers"; "The performers were able to engage in a dialogue with the audience that felt personal and relevant. This mutual respect made the theatre space safer to take risks, be political and challenge the audience in a way that I have yet to see in any theatre in the U.S."

The group was able to explore this wider theatrical context in several ways, as well. The stage productions were framed by meetings with University of Helsinki and Tampere students and faculty, with the directors and researchers of the Theatre Information Centre and Theatre Archive, and with professionals from the KOM Theatre. And, of course, everyone was able to spend some time visiting other artistic and cultural sites in Helsinki-the Suomenlinna fortress; Ateneum, the national gallery; Kiasma, the museum of modern art.

Our special thanks to Professor Hanna Korsberg and Essi Syrén of the Theatre Research Department of the University of Helsinki, to the Finnish Theatre Information Centre and its director Riitta Seppälä, to the Theatre Museum in Helsinki and its director Hanna-Leena Helavuori and the researcher Pälvi Laine, to researchers Outi Lahtinen, Mikko-Olavi Seppälä, and Linnea Stara, and to the KOM Theatre, especially Aleksi Milonoff, for all their assistance and their very warm reception during our stay in Helsinki.

President Halonen with our students
Three months later, our students meet the president of Finland outside the opening of the "100 Years of Women's Voices and Action in Finland" exhibition at Columbia University. From left: Melissa Macedo, Alyson Fortner, Kati Fitzgerald, President Halonen, and Elizabeth Richardson.



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