Interview with playwright Salka Guðmundsdóttir

31. Jan 2013


A brand new theatre play, Breaker, written by the young Icelandic playwright Salka Guðmundsdóttir is premiering this month at Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia. Performing Arts Iceland caught Salka in between acts to ask her about her new piece which is translated and directed by the Scottish director Graeme Maley.

You are premiering you latest work Breaker in few days. Can you tell us more about it?

Breaker is a play for two actors based on a shorter one-act play called And the Children Never Looked Back, which was performed at Oran Mor in Glasgow last autumn. Caught up in nostalgia and myths, Daniel comes to the remote island where his grandmother grew up, seeking answers and closure but finds local teacher Sunna battling her own darkness following a horrific series of events in the community. The play deals with the encounter between these two characters and their versions of reality which clashes again and again.

So, what is the inspiration behind the play?

The inspiration came from various sources. I'm very preoccupied with the idea of the island in a bigger context - an isolated location cut off both physically and mentally - and island mentality, which is perhaps not surprising for an Icelandic playwright. In my first play, Mizzle Rock (Súldarsker), I used the grotesque and a tragicomic approach to deal with the idea of an isolated community as well as the preconceptions of outsiders. I wanted to explore this idea from a whole different angle and also challenge myself as a playwright by writing a very text-based, intense encounter where you've stripped everything down to its essence. There were also a number of events that inspired me to write this play, including a spate of teenage suicides in my own neighborhood when I was in primary school, which was never properly talked about in school so it became this myth, this mystery.

What about ideology? Are you approaching your subject with a certain ideology?

Ideologically speaking I try to approach everything I write from a human angle; that is: people are fundamentally complex and vulnerable, and all characters deserve to be three-dimensional.

Does your work Breaker reflect a certain reality or society?

The play's setting is deliberately non-specific; we use both Scottish and Icelandic names and Graeme Maley has done amazing things with the language, using rich and dynamic Scots for Daniel's character. The descriptions of the island reflect both Daniel's romantically tinged notions of the place and the somewhat harsher reality. I hope the non-specific setting can help emphasize the universal themes.

Was Breaker written with the intention of premiering it abroad and/or is it written with a certain staging in mind? How did director Graeme Maley come into the picture? Have you worked together before?

Originally, Graeme approached me because of his keen interest in working with new Icelandic playwriting. He had heard about Mizzle Rock and wanted to see if we could work together. We decided to send a draft of mine to Oran Mor in Glasgow, where Graeme has worked several times before, and ended up doing And the Childen Never Looked Back in September as part of the fantastic A Play, a Pie and a Pint programme which is a lunchtime theatre event. Obviously, once you've seen your play on stage you find plenty of things that you want to fix, change, push and pull, so I jumped on the chance to develop that play further and, in essence, turn it into a brand new play.

Why did the play end up being premiered at a festival in Australia?

Graeme had some Australian contacts that had been encouraging him to bring a production over for the festival. He'd taken The Deep by Jon Atli Jonasson to a festival in Tasmania with great success. We decided to go for it - it's not every day you get the opportunity to take a production as far as Australia.

You recently graduated as a playwright and you have achieved much in a short span of time. What kind of attitude or mentality do you think is necessary to have such a success?

To some extent I think I've been lucky. There aren't that many young people in Iceland doing the exact same thing I'm doing - writing plays, as opposed to devising or making performance art. Playwriting is a somewhat under-appreciated art form over here, at least at the moment. So when I came along and wrote a decent first play, it felt like there was a gap to be filled and I was lucky enough to fill that gap and tickle people's interest. But I think you also need to be willing to work very hard, to listen to other people's advice and remember that theatre is never just one element; it's what happens when you come together with a group of other artists. You don't just write a script and hand it in and go away. There's always a danger of being too defensive of your own contribution and saying 'no' to the others; on the other hand you also have to believe in your own approach and know when to stand your ground. It's a balancing act and it's tricky, but I think it will get easier with time. I'm also lucky in that I have a pretty broad experience of theatre; I've performed and I've directed and I know how to appreciate all these different disciplines and how they mix to make something fantastic. In that sense, I think I probably entered the theatre with a bit more certainty and a more relaxed attitude than many writers who cross over to theatre from writing fiction, for example.

Last question! Do you consider your work to be more internationalized than the works of other Icelandic playwrights and therefore have better advantage on international level and/or does it all come down to the right marketing techniques and business relations?

Well, I studied in the UK so I have a strong connection with Welsh and Scottish theatre people and writers, as well as the experience of writing in English. This has definitely helped me. I've always hoped I could maintain this connection and work overseas, also because I think it broadens your horizon which helps you as a writer and artist, so to have these opportunities is absolutely fantastic and I hope things continue to grow. Last summer, Mizzle Rock was produced at the wonderful Festival for European Playwriting at Husets Teater in Copenhagen under Jens August Wille's direction and that was a big turning point for me because I realized that a play I had previously thought was quite local and maybe not very translatable actually worked in a completely different context, independent of the original production. That was a massive eye-opener and encouraged me to try and get more opportunities abroad.

Do you have good advice for theatre makers trying to work across country borders?

Try and make connections, find interesting artists that you'd like to work with and get in touch with them to see if you can find a mutual starting point. On a practical note, consider getting an agent to represent you. Also remember to check out what's going on elsewhere, read, listen, watch, discuss - this might sound very basic but I think all too frequently we forget about this and get caught up in our own wee bubble.

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