"There are some marvellous venues in Denmark that are putting social issues at the forefront of their repertoire."
Danish-born actress Johanne Wang Holm
From the Fringes of the British and Danish Stage - Johanne Wang Holm
Danish-born actress Johanne Wang Holm has professional experience of the theatre world in both London and Copenhagen. Ahead of the premiere of her first English-language production, Whole In The Head, which poses questions about living with Alzheimer’s, the British Council spoke to her about training as an actress and working in fringe theatre in both Britain and Denmark.
Tell us about your time in London as a young actor?
I moved to London at the beginning of 2005 when I was 18 because I knew I wanted to study acting there. During the first few years I spent time auditioning for drama school, which itself was a learning experience. But after a number of failed attempts, I started looking for more things to do rather than just wait to hear whether or not I had a place. I did some pirate-radio, a TIE (Theatre in Education) tour in Wales and Lancashire, and started taking acting classes on the side. My teacher had studied at East 15, which is part of the University of Essex, and suggested I audition there. I applied for the Bachelor’s degree but was accepted on to the Masters programme. When I graduated in 2010, I worked consistently in fringe theatre for the first year. But because progressing from this type of acting proved difficult, I was forced to take part-time jobs in order to pay my rent. When the auditions started to dry up, my enthusiasm for applying started to fade. And while I’d started getting a few voice-over jobs, which paid well, the calls from my agent tended to be few and far between. As acting became more of a side-show, working to pay my bills became my priority. On top of all this, London was becoming more and more expensive, with friends were moving up or out. When my husband was offered the opportunity to transfer to Denmark with work in 2015, we moved. I miss London, but there is no denying that it’s a hard city to live in as an artist.
What did the London experience give you as an actress, writer and director?
I have always had very strong opinions, rightly or wrongly, about everything. My time at East 15 cemented a lot of those sentiments, especially those relating to work-ethics. My teacher always told me that “human is enough”, a statement that sounds a bit corny, but which helped me be more empathetic and sympathetic towards others and caring towards myself. This, in turn, helped me understand other people and write about their experiences objectively. Part of my training was devising and developing new work; it was drilled into us students that if we weren’t working, we needed to be creating our own art. To this day, I still wouldn’t call myself a writer though: I am an actor who happened to have written a play. Maybe, when I have written more plays, I’ll feel I have earned right to that new title.
What are the differences between staging a play in Denmark versus the UK?
I really couldn’t tell you; so much depends on the individual experience. When I tried to put on my play in London, it wasn’t a good time because I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Even though there are more places to stage a new production in London, from small fringe theatres to grand concert halls, I was working with a director who didn’t seem to understand the play and the subtle changes I wanted to make. The reaction led me to stop believing in my work, and reduced my desire to present the production to an audience. Since returning to Denmark, one reason I’ve been able to finish writing the play and think about putting it on is because I have less to do and in a more inspired state of mind. The theatre scene here is smaller and more tight-knit, which can be restrictive in some ways. But it also means that I’ve also met some amazing people in Copenhagen who have showed interest in the play. I feel much more motivated and energised than I did when I was a struggling actor in London.
How helpful is state funding for the arts in Denmark – especially for fringe theatre?
State funding is essential for the arts in Denmark, which overall is a positive thing. Even so, for every grant or fund there are thousands of applications. As a result, the amount that’s available to give out to artists is reducing. On the other hand, there are a lot of private funds that make a difference - if one is willing to put in the time and effort to apply. Because some of these have an annual deadline, one can wait for up to six months before a response is given. So in a way, one realises that, just as it is in the UK, being an artist of any type can be admin-rich and time poor!
Why did you decide to write a play about Alzheimer’s?
Whole in the Head was originally for my Masters dissertation whilst I was at university: I wrote a play about memory with two of my fellow students, Jon and John. We were captivated by a story that we found about a man who had lost his ability to reminiscence. When subsequent research disclosed that scientists believe that human memory has three parts, it appeared obvious that a play could and should be written that personified memories through characterisation. When we presented the play, the audience feedback was positive – but largely because the majority believed the play to be about Alzheimer’s. While the plan was always to make it into a full-length production, we all became too busy with life after graduation. But I always had the desire to return to the play and do something more with it. Thankfully, I was granted permission to persevere by my fellow collaborators. The subject of Alzheimer’s endured as a secondary theme, whereas the primary subject remained: what happens to people around a person when a piece of their memory disappears? In preparation, I read medical journals about dementia, and biographies written by either the patient or the partner of the patient. It was through research as well as personal experiences that, over the last eight years, Alzheimer’s has become the stronger leitmotif of the play, as much as how personal memories shape our relationships.
Is the Danish theatre scene interested in how theatre can deal with social issues?
Definitely, although doesn’t theatre always deal with social issues in one way or another? Aside from the large state theatres that tend to stage important, well-known plays aimed at the core theatre goers, there are some marvellous venues in Denmark that are putting social issues at the forefront of their repertoire. There are also growing numbers of companies that create smaller productions that tour the country and perform in a library, a care-home, or indeed anywhere that has space or can double as a stage. When I originally reached out to the Danish Alzheimer’s Union, they told me that there were two other smaller productions touring care homes, both of which dealt with the theme of Alzheimer’s.
Why is there an English-speaking theatre scene in Denmark?
English is taught in Danish schools from the first grade, and because English-language films are not dubbed, most Danes grow up with an admirable ability to speak and read the language. English does not seem like a foreign language to many, but almost on a par with Danish. There is also a growing community of expats in Denmark who want to watch productions in English. There are some fantastic English theatre companies in Denmark, a few of which have been producing exceptional work over the last twenty years. Personally, I would also like to tour my own play and do a dual production whereupon during one week the piece is shown in Danish, and the next in English.