(published in scenekunst.no, oct -17)

To Hanne Tømta, manager of Nationaltheatret in Oslo
This Saturday the head of communication at Nationaltheatret published a quote on her public Facebook feed, where a critic of Aftenposten is making the following in-depth analyzis of my and the theatre's work: “Theatre is not only for those who enjoy difficult literature (...) or Swedish directors with long beard and introvert ideas. Theatre is also for all of those who like to see drama live. And most of us do.” Her own comment was “brilliant text” and “feeling optimistic”.
The quote is published the day after the theatre's manager and her directorate, in silence and without dialogue with anyone in the artistic team, has decided to cut the production Double Feature from the program with half of the performances left. As for now this post on Facebook is, as far as I know, the only comment the theatre has done in relation to the decision. Both the closure and Nationaltheatret's communication strategy raise questions that reach far beyond this individual case. I therefore have formulated my thoughts in an open letter to the theatre's manager Hanne Tømta.

* * *

Dear Hanne
Immediately after I got to know of your decision to cut Double Feature from the repertoir I wrote you an email. Since you haven't answered I am writing this as an open letter; the matters we discuss simply have become too important to get buried in the silence of your mailbox.
Afterwards the theatre's head of communication has tried to claim that her intention with the quote from Aftenposten was to point at the diversity of Nationaltheatret, and that she and the theatre are very proud of Double Feature. This of course is a paradox. To cut half of the performances is not a way to express pride over a production, and to do it in silence in order to avoid public discussion is not a gesture that emphasizes diversity. That is the act of an institution that neither understands its public task nor its own operation, that lacks basic knowledge in mediation of artistic work, and also lacks in self esteem since they deep inside understand their right to exist as based on ticket sales. When we who create and produce theatre ourselves are not able to define and communicate autonomous quality criteria we place ourselves in a movement leading straight into reactive opportunism, which is the opposite of the public task of a functional institution.

The silence around the decision is nothing new. During the workingprocess you have consequently avoided to answer when I have tried to plan the work, you haven't devoted one minute to discuss what production it is that we are doing together, what the work contains or what thematic it addresses. We actually haven't had one single talk since you a couple of years ago asked me to do the production. Once we got started in the theatre the work was supported by a number of amazing individual efforts, but this happened as a result of their personal engagement, not because of but inspite of your organisation. I mention this here since I consider the absence of the institution in the process to be the most fundamental reason for how things have played out. Individual aesthetic spectacles can communicate themselves as isolated events, that is their nature. But reflection and dialogue conditions contextualisation, continuity and mediation, and thus demands that the institution engages itself precisely as institution. My critique therefore should not be misunderstood as a complaint about the conservative characteristics of the instituion. Quite the opposite, my concern is the fact that Nationaltheatret doesn't function as an institution.

The basic idea that I and the theatre agreed on was a production that would problematize notions of national identity, and what it in that context means to be a national theatre. Because of this Nationaltheatret's way of completely ignoring any attempt to dialogue around the work has been especially hard to understand. I have spent one year trying to initiate discussions on various initiative to build context and a referential framework for the production; we have offered to program seminary series, collaborations with Oslo National Academy of the Arts and the university etc. During this time you haven't given any response what so ever to my proposals, and you also haven't communicated any other form of strategy of communication. If you didn't have any interest to participate in this conversation, then why did Nationaltheatret at all want to produce the project?

You are the leader and representative of Nationaltheatret. My role as team leader builds on that you use your authority to delegate your mandate to me. Not on any occassion during the process have you as manager of the theatre done anything to give me or the production any mandate whatsoever, nor have you communicated to the theatre in what way you find the production to be an important part of the theatre's operations. The only time you showed up was for the first dress rehearsal where you, without any dialogue with anyone involved, presented your analyzises of how we should improve a work that you haven't got the first idea or knowledge about. How did you imagine that would play out?

Double Feature has been well received, and also created questions and bewilderment. This is the way it should be. When you now chose to cut the production from your repertoir you don't do so with artistic arguments, but because you can not sell enough tickets (I think, you still haven't contacted me). You take the decision behind closed doors, and you execute the decision fast enough to make sure that none of us involved have the possibility to mobilise the audience that you claim does not exist. The performance would have needed to sell around 1200 tickets to reach good statistic figures. Do you really mean that the audience missing, in order for Nationaltheatrets box office statistics to look satisfying, do not exist? Of course they do, you just don't know how to reach them. Therefore it is even more incomprehensible that you think you can afford to ingore all our proposals for how to build a context and dialogue that reaches beyond the theatre's traditional target groups.

It is in this perspective that the quote from Aftenposten should be understood. To shut down a performance on the ground that the theatre hasn't managed to engage in its thematics and referential frame is a stupid waste and irresponsible in itself. To at the same time enthusiastically confirm a culture journalism based on polemic oppositions between difficult literature, intellectual work and the taste of “ordinary people” is affirming a prejudicious populism that we in the contemporary social climate need to join forces to resist and counteract, not emphasize.

The public discourse is in rapid transformation, and today we find ourselves in a world expecting univocal statements and strong experiences without demand on nuances, reflection or analyzis. To find strategies enabling the theatre to keep claiming the complexity and versatility of the world in this landscape is a huge challenge. Nationaltheatret is one of the few institutions that still has the privilege to work with very generous public funding. To chose to meet challenges by sticking your head in the sand, to avoid the feeling of shortcoming by gradually avoiding to confront yourself with the challenge, is not only a flagrant waste of public resources. It is also politically dangerous and means that you shy away from the very heart of the public task motivating the resources Nationaltheatret is working with. This, if for no other reason, is why the discontinuation of Double Feature is deeply regrettable.

Anders Paulin

original text: