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Creative collaboration


Finnish director Maya Tøngeberg-Grischin talks about her roots, theatre in Finland and her Indian experience.

There are always four different ways of working with theatre. I don't do them at the same time, but they inspire each other.

Teaching physical theatre: Maya uses elements from India too. Photo: K.K. Gopalakrishnan

TO Prof. Maya Tøngeberg-Grischin, Director, Physical Theatre Department of Swedish Polytechnic of Finland, India is her second home. Since 1980, she makes regular trips to India, especially to Kerala, "to learn more and to get inspired and re-charged".

Maya is from Switzerland, but "in 1970, I moved to Sweden with my husband (a Swedish arts academic). In 1976, I moved to Germany where I worked as director at the municipal theatre of Essen. Later in 1982, I shifted to Finland to teach at the theatre academy and to direct plays in various theatres, both Swedish and Finnish speaking ones, and at present I live in Vaasa, Finland."


Maya was initiated to the world of theatre by her parents at the age of four. She trained in classical ballet and German Expressive Dance. "I was fascinated by mime, pantomime and masks right from my childhood." After her diploma course from Mime and Physical Theatre School of Jacques Lecoq in Paris in 1967, she started as a solo clown and mime performer. She toured extensively in Europe and other countries.

Later she studied directing under the renowned Romanian director, Radu Penciulescu in Stockholm, and started professional direction in 1976. She has so far directed more then 150 plays that include physical theatre, mime, dance theatre and opera in Sweden, Finland, Germany and India. In 1986, she directed and presented a performance of "Sakuntala" in Finland. Currently she is the head lecturer at the department of theatre and drama at the Swedish Polytechnic in Vasa, Finland, teaching both physical theatre and mime.

"A Kabuki performance in 1965 at Paris and a Kathakali performance some years later exposed me to Asian theatre. In fact these aesthetic shocks forced me to strive for a theatre, which is physical, non-realistic, colourful, stylised and theatrical," says Maya. "In my life, there are always four different ways of working with theatre. I don't do them at the same time, but they inspire each other. It's all the same but seen from different angles."

On her maiden visit to India in 1980, "I did a course in Indian theatre culture under Prof. Suresh Awasti. But I wanted to study Kathakali with Krishnan Namboodiri, whom I met at a seminar in Sweden. On my first day in Kerala, I got acquainted with late thespian Prof. G. Sankara Pillai at the School of Drama and started studying Kathakali. From Kathakali and its paraphernalia, my 25-year journey went through Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam and finally landed me in the art of Koodiyattam." This experience, she says, "has inspired my entire theatre life. Stylisation, Pakarnattom (an actor acting as different characters), the scientific use of hand gestures and facial expression, netrabhinaya (acting with the eyes), costumes, rhythm... and above all the acting methodology of Usha Nangiar, one of the best I have ever seen on stage, were the inspiration behind my work."

Maya's assessment of Indian theatre after 25 years of study is "Indian actors have more vibration and energy compared to European and American actors in general, but they lack technique in several aspects." Looking back at her experience as a theatre director, she says, "In most cases, I have been able to give something to the actors and the audience and got something in exchange. For me it is a matter of creative collaboration and reciprocal vibration."

As a theatre activist in Finland, Maya was the first to use multi-cultural materials and non-Finnish culture and techniques. "In small and provincial theatres, this was not always an easy job during the 1980s. Often, older and male actors had and still have difficulties understanding behaviour patterns outside their own macho-culture. I always prefer to work with young actors. While working with professional companies, I have to train the actors first as they are not exposed to physical precision at the theatre academies and often have an underdeveloped sense of rhythm. Above all, as a foreigner in Finland, I had to face the envy of less successful Finish directors. But, the situation has changed after Finland became a member of the European Union."

People's attitude

What about the people's attitude to theatre, as an art, as a recreation and as a serious academic topic? "In Finland, as elsewhere, theatre is mostly pastime. The audience wants entertainment. During their struggle for independence, theatre enjoyed an important place in their socio-cultural life and for the education of the mass. There are still many amateur groups and a large number of amateur summer theatres. All this blocks the way of the professional artists and artistic theatre. Physical theatre is not yet well known in Finland. In France, Italy, Germany and even Sweden, physical theatre has better exposure. Deep academic interest in theatre is almost absent in Finland."

Maya also feels that the concept of physical theatre "is at the very base of Indian traditional theatre and nowhere stronger than in India, China and Japan. Modern theatre tries to break the links with tradition and often forgets the achievements of the classical theatre throughout the centuries. Contemporary theatre in India often tries to re-invent the theatre, which is a highly developed form. But it must study the conventions and not copy the classical art forms."

What does she think about contemporary Indian theatre? "In India, it is yet to achieve a professional status. Classical theatre forms have their institutions, their gurus and are studied seriously. Modern theatre has only an amateur status — any one can stand on stage and act. A professional training school would raise the status of contemporary theatre in India. When the time is ripe, I am sure contemporary theatre will have its breakthrough," says Maya.

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