Camilla Gürtler, Artistic Director, Cut the Cord. Photo (C) Fay Summerfield.

"The interest from UK theatres and request for plays or Nordic contacts has been fantastic – I definitely feel there has been a shift and a window opened into the rich world of Nordic plays."

Camilla Gürtler, Artistic Director of Cut the Cord Theatre

The New Nordics Festival aims to bring contemporary Nordic plays and culture to new audiences in the UK, as well as building up exchanges for artists from across these countries. We go behind the scenes of this exciting initiative with Camilla Gürtler, Artistic Director of Cut the Cord Theatre. 

 What was your aim in founding the New Nordics Festival?

With Cut the Cord we had been focusing on promoting Nordic plays through our own productions, and I was struck by the resonance the plays had with our audiences, especially emerging theatre-makers who found the form and new perspectives thought-provoking and refreshing. The popularity of almost all aspects of Nordic culture but theatre has been striking the last couple of years, particularly following Nordic Matters at Southbank Centre in 2017. So I started thinking of reasons why we don’t see many contemporary Nordic plays on the British stages – and it struck me that making international work in the UK in general is a complicated process and not very straight forward. For some artists they didn’t know where to look for these plays, how to get the funding, or how to build their international network – and so I was determined this process could be demystified amongst emerging artists to evoke some change, hopefully feeding into the more mainstream stages eventually. So the festival was really born out of two needs: One, to make contemporary Nordic plays and culture more known in the UK and try to impact what international works and regions are being produced here. And two, make the process of working internationally more about skills-exchange for emerging artists and help them form these networks and experiences with the Nordic countries as well as giving them some new tools and perspectives for theatre-making.

The aim was to bring contemporary Nordic voices to the UK in a way that supports exchange and more long-term collaborations between British and Nordic artists.

New Nordics Festival is all about exchanges between the UK and the Nordics. What are the mutual benefits for artists and countries involved?

For artists, international exchanges bring the opportunity to learn and experience how they do things in other places in the world, giving us new perspectives on what we think we know. It makes you more empathetic, and I think it makes theatre more relevant and universal – looking out and having a dialogue with other cultures and people who might be from different backgrounds and experiences really breaks down the barriers and makes artists more open. For artists engaging with the Nordic countries, the project has also given them an insight into different work structures and how the culture and landscape affects the way artists make work.

A project like this strengthens the cultural relationship between the countries involved, and with New Nordics Festival it has connected artists, organisations and funders with their counterparts in the other countries, and that has been really fascinating to facilitate. The UK is being promoted by the artists involved in each of the Nordic countries and have their own artists go through a skills-exchange programme, giving them new tools for future work. The Nordic countries are promoted in the UK, both in terms of their plays and theatre industry, but also culturally. And of course, with the Nordic collaboration, projects like this strengthens the relationship between the Nordic countries as well. So I’d say there are benefits both culturally and politically for all countries, and for the individual artists involved and how international and collaborative we are.

Can you give an example of some of the collaborations that have developed through these exchanges?

It has been moving seeing how the UK directors and Nordic playwrights connected and how some have continued to exchange ideas, advice and in some cases friendship. The festival also became a meeting point for Nordic organisations, now all being part of a project involving the UK and British theatre industry. This has led onto some of our upcoming collaborations, involving all countries and partners again. We have also facilitated connection within the Nordic countries and promoted the artists involved both ways, and keeping the conversation going during these strange corona-times.

A notable and very exciting collaboration also happened with Kansallisteatteri (The Finnish National Theatre) where they used our recording of the Finnish play Garage by their artistic director Mika Myllyaho and featured it on their podcast. This promoted our work, the festival and our fantastic director Lucy Dawkins and actors Michael Jenn and Duncan Duff, who actually met online every week during lockdown to continue their work on the play – so that was a lovely and unexpected development. We hope many more of these will take place once it is safe to do so.

The interest from UK theatres and request for plays or Nordic contacts has also been fantastic – I definitely feel there has been a shift and a window opened into the rich world of Nordic plays.

Can you tell us about any other projects you are currently working on?

We have actually been very busy! Quite quickly into lockdown we launched Connecting Beyond Borders, which is an international umbrella programme with a couple of different project strands. The programme was a response to Covid-19 with a mission to rethink how we reach artists across the world and promote international skills-exchange when we physically couldn’t meet. The aim of the programme is to connect artists from the UK with artists around the world through a series of online engagements – and we really threw everything we could at it!

The programme includes podcasts on international theatre (with interviews with many of our favourite Nordic artists), workshops by international companies and artists, articles on international minority voices, and our project Plays by Post.

Plays by Post is coming to its end now, but for 12 weeks 50 UK participants have received a published international play every fortnight, followed by an online workshop on the theatre and culture of the play’s country of origin, finishing with a Q&A panel discussion with the playwright, translator and director of the UK production. We have visited Denmark, France, Israel, Uruguay, Chile and Germany and been challenged in our views on theatre – why we make, how we make it, and what we make – and it has brought a big group together during isolation. It has been a wonderful window into 6 different countries’ theatre styles, artists and cultures, and we are working towards expanding the idea for our future work.

 With Connecting Beyond Borders we’ve wanted to strengthen international relationships, collaborations and awareness at a time where we can feel the most isolated – and it has definitely given us hope in an otherwise dark time, opened our minds and ways we will be working and collaborating in the future.

A lot of your work has been done online, how have you adapted to this new way of working? What has been most surprising?

Covid-19 threw us into deep waters as the lockdown of the UK happened the day before the opening of New Nordics Festival, and so we were thrown into the unknown at a time where we were supposed to finish our biggest project to date and go into a development process of our new strategy. Instead, we decided to throw it all on its head and question how we can do what we do best, with our mission and experience in international skills-exchange, and move everything online.

The first step was to ensure the festival still had the intended impact and reach as we had hoped – we made a large “library” of material available to our audience, including interviews with the directors and playwrights, workshops on theatre in each of the Nordic countries, as well as sharing the designs for the plays. We also shared some extracts of rehearsals and notes on the process to invite people into the world of the festival, to hopefully give them a taste of the richness of these plays and the exchange, and sharing the huge amount of work our team and partners had put into it. We have never shared our process so extensively online, but it has felt a lot more open and collaborative making it all available to everyone – and so we are planning on taking this style of working and sharing into our future projects.

 Then came the realisation we needed to reinvent ourselves to survive as an organisation, and so we created Connecting Beyond Borders as a way to keep everyone connected across borders, to keep our minds open and prove that we can still explore and play even through a screen. It has been a challenge as theatre might not be in its natural element online – we very quickly decided against creating new shows at this point in time because of this. Instead we wanted to explore how we can connect with people far away from us, through Zoom (we are all Zoom experts by now!). It almost became a game of utilising what Zoom can do to optimise how we interact and connect. We’ve used it for workshops, presentations, votes and polls, and we’ve connected established playwrights, translators and directors with emerging artists through webinars and Q&As. Our online projects have actually made our work more accessible, open and impactful by using the tools we have in this crisis to reach out. We’ve connected with sign language interpreters, foreign language interpreters and even live auto captions! This small but important shift and step towards making work that’s more inclusive is something that has shifted how we view our events and engagements, and I’m so grateful for that. The wake-up call of working with artists who don’t speak English and arranging interpreters for them reinforced that we need to look out into the world and embrace the many languages and cultures in their original form, and that there are still many ways we need to shift how we view accessibility.

We also started a podcast, something we had never even thought of before, looking at demystifying how we make international theatre and collaborations – so in the midst of the crisis, the uncertainty and despair, we have found a way to reach a completely new audience, across regions and borders, and that feels really uplifting.

It has been a surprise how it’s shifted how we do things as a company – we have learnt we can move a lot faster on ideas, and that you don’t have to bury that great new idea in the drawer until it’s “the right time”. It’s never the right time – and sometimes jumping and doing something new and unknown can make your practice even more creative. I definitely think we have grown more as an organisation and become a bit more confident and daring in what we do.

Can you recommend three artists from Denmark that we should check out?

I’d recommend engaging with Teater Grob in Copenhagen – they focus on contemporary Danish plays but also have an international focus, so we’ve been following their work for a while.

We’ve worked with playwright Vivian Nielsen during New Nordics Festival, and we love how playful and experimental her writing is, with a very strong socio-political drive.

Director Anna Malzer is the youngest ever artistic director in Denmark, who took over Mungo Park last year, and she is currently revisioning what the theatre aims to do and how you get young audiences to go to the theatre.

And I’d look at director Tue Biering’s work with Fix&Foxy – his work is visual, explosive and very form-breaking, and the way the company envisions new concepts and ways of touring internationally is really fascinating.

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Image design by Sofi Lee-Henson

The team behind the New Nordics Festival. From left to right: Anna Himali Howard, Lucie Dawkins, Jack Nurse, Camilla Gürtler, Charlotte Brown, Niall McKeever, Eleanor Chadwick, Janisè Sadik and Roberta Zuric). Picture by Fay Summerfield.  
The Ambassadors of the Nordics countries were present at the launch of New Nordics Festival 2020. From left to right: Torbjörn Sohlström (Sweden), Wegger Chr. Strømmen (Norway), Markku Keinänen (Finland), Camilla Gürtler, Lars Thuesen (Denmark), Stefán Haukur Jóhannesson (Iceland) and Áki Johansen (Faroe Islands)  Picture by Fay Summerfield.

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