For this installment of the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast, featuring interviews with some of our finest artists working here in Iceland and on the international stage arts scene, Salka Guðmundsdóttir sat down with scenographer Brynja Björnsdóttir. Brynja has been a highly prolific scenographer for over a decade, working as part of the independent scene as well as for the larger theatre institutions. In the summer of 2023 she will represent Iceland at the Prague Quadrennial.
So Brynja, you were very involved in theatre as a child and teenager, attending drama groups and taking part in college theatre productions. At that age, most kids want to stand on stage rather than work behind the scenes, and a lot of college theatre people go on to audition for drama school. After college you went on to do a BA degree in Visual Arts from the Iceland University of the Arts and then your career as a scenographer actually began before you did a Master's degree in Scenography. When did you realize that you wanted to create visually for theatre?
When I was younger I was in theatre a lot but also visual arts. I've also been creative and I've always been creating, and the visual arts was more of a thing that I just did naturally. The theatre was something that I was learning and was interested in. What I really loved about theatre was the collaboration. Everybody wants to be on stage but that's because you have no idea about anything else that's going on. After my visual arts studies I wasn't even thinking about theatre, but after I graduated in 2008 I started working in the student theatre of the theatre department at the University of the Arts. Building sets, making props and stuff like that. So there it kind of came full circle for me. To be a visual artist but still be able to work in the theatre with a group, because I always missed that group dynamic.
And then you did a few productions before you went on to study as a scenographer.
Actually most scenographers in Iceland are mainly educated as visual artists, we don't have a school teaching scenography here. I started working with my friends on some productions and thought this would be an interesting thing to study. I found a really good programme.
Yes, you have an MA in Scenography from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London which you completed in 2013. Like I said, at that point you were already a working scenographer.
Yes, you were supposed to have some experience coming into this programme and I really loved that it was very open. The technical things, on the computer and all that – I knew those things and they weren't teaching that. We took Butoh classes, just to learn about the body on stage, and we were really expanding our way of working. We went intensely into the history of scenography. We had really interesting teachers who were also working as scenographers and visual artists. It really broadened my spectrum.
Did it change the ways in which you work, directly, or was it more of an artistic inspiration?
Inspiration, I would think. It opened me up as an artist, also living in London and going to museums and the theatre. One thing I really loved about Central is that they teach everything theatre-related here, they have so many great stages, they teach lighting, theory and practice, of course acting – and so I worked a lot with the theory and practice department and did some performances with them.
Since then, you have worked on a wide variety of productions. You've designed one person shows like Duncan McMillan's Every Brilliant Thing at the Reykjavík City Theatre, but also some larger-scale productions such as The House of Bernarda Alba and Death of a Salesman, and in fact you've worked on every stage at the Reykjavík City Theatre which has some very different spaces. Where do you find your starting point when you begin to imagine the visual world of a new production? Is it the same creative process whether you're doing a very intimate show like Club Romantica or taking to the big stage with Arthur Miller?
Of course it's always a dialogue with the director and their vision. For me, if there's a script I will read it and some visions will come to me. I read it over and over again and then I have some references that I start writing down and finding some inspirational photos. Then I talk to the director to see if we are kind of on the same page, and find out what kind of thread to follow. For Club Romantica, which is documentary theatre, we were also working on the script. I love this about the independent scene, where we're also doing the script all together – although Friðgeir [Einarsson, performer/creator] did most of it and Pétur [Ármannsson, director] – but it was still a collaboration. We have some themes there, we're kind of working with a 70s theme – theme, style, an atmosphere that we're trying to establish, because we don't know the whole story.
What about the other end of the spectrum, when you're working with a very established text – something like House of Bernarda Alba? There are expectations and traditions attached to that. How do you shake that off?
With House of Bernarda Alba and Death of a Salesman I worked with director Kristín Jóhannesdóttir and she is a brilliant visual artist as well. She has beautiful visions – she can see it all very visually, what she wants, and she has a very clear vision of the world that she works. Sometimes you work with a director who has a very clear vision and sometimes it's very open. If it's very open, you just open your heart up to the things that come up. Maybe it's something political happening in the world that you want to address – or like when we did Anatomy of a Suicide and I used references from my family, connected to my grandmother's history of mental illness, so trying to connect to it personally because that show as about mental illness and generational trauma.
Do you think about colour a lot?
Colour and lighting. If I have to stop being a scenographer I will be a lighting designer. I don't understand the technicalities so much but I know it's so important, so that's one of the first dialogues I want to have, with the lighting designer.
That's interesting, because my next question comes from seeing so many of your shows in this very strong dialogue with lighting. While some of your productions have been quite lo-fi, you have also used projection in memorable ways that seem to be directly in dialogue with lighting design. Are you generally a technically-minded scenographer? Do you find yourself drawn to projection or technically visual effects? Or is it just something that comes form the material?
I think it comes from me as a visual artist. When I was in school I mostly did video art and photography. I'm not a painter or sculptor. I have always been interested in using video art in theatre because it's a bit like lighting, you can't really see it – if you start seeing the light and seeing the set then something is wrong. You should just feel it and it should be part of the whole experience of the performance. I actually wrote my MA thesis on video projection in theatre and how we could make memories appear on stage. I don't know the answer yet, but that was my question ...
Sometimes we see projection used quite badly.
yes, if you notice it then it becomes too much, because it is a whole different medium. But if it's used as lighting – I remember when we did Dennis Kelly's After the End in Tjarnarbíó, I used projection of light, of leaves, just a rustling of trees. You couldn't see it but there's just something in the movement. You have to feel it, you can't see it as an audience. Sense, not see.
What's your favourite space to work in here in Iceland?
I'm just a fan of them all. There are good things and bad things about all the spaces. The one production you're working on at that time, that's your favourite space, at least for me.
Well, this is a big question but what, to you, is scenography all about? What's the core of what you do as a performance designer?
I'm a visual dramaturg – it's visual dramaturgy. What is this show about, whose world is this – if we have three characters on stage, whose world is it? How do the actors feel on stage, are they walking on glass, are they walking on cotton, the form they are walking on, is it steep? All these things help to enhance what the director wants to get out of the story or represent.
What about the relationship with the actors? You're part of the creative team that sets the tone. Do you ever have actors that kind of rebel against whatever you're doing so you have to try and convince them?
Of course, it's all a dialogue. I sometimes also work as a costume designer and it can be difficult when the ego of the actors is getting in the way and they want to look good on stage, even though their character is not supposed to. But like with everything, it's just a conversation. That's what makes it so fun. Of course, no-one wants to be walking on glass but you have to convince them – well, I've never done that, but we'll see.
For the smaller stages, even in the institutions that we have here, such as the City Theatre and the National Theatre, you very often have the same person doing the stage and the costumes. Do you see this as two different things or something that happens side by side? Do you have a preference?
I think for the bigger productions you always have to have two people, and I like having another person with me because I never work with my colleagues – I'm the only designer on the team – so I like having a costume designer as well. Having said that, I also love doing costumes. If I would talk to the lighting designer first, then the second one is the costume designer because this of course has to be the same world.
Speaking of collaboration, in the context of your artistic work so far, one thing we have to mention is that you've been a part of the group 16 Lovers, which has been active for quite a long time now. Can you tell us a bit about this group, what sort of performances you've created together and what your role has been with them?
It was created by a couple of my friends from the theory and practice department here in the University of the Arts, and some actors. They created this group to make something fun and along the way they gathered more and more people. We're not sixteen yet, but we are, I think, eleven. We have people from theory and practice, we have a poet, a dancer, a musician, a composer ... and me, as a visual artist and scenographer. But my favourite thing is that when we – we did a show a couple of years ago called Search for the Meaning of Life, and there the poet and the dancer went out and got the costumes, so we all just collaborate and do all the things together, which is a fun way to challenge yourself. We don't have one director and we all perform. That's a bit of a challenge – even though I started out there, I have forgotten that muscle. But we all perform, we all do the set, which makes for a good dynamic.
It's a bit hard to define what the group is doing but there's usually some sort of audience involvement ...
Yes, the first show was called IKEA Trips, this was after the collapse in Iceland and you could take a trip to different countries but stay in the same space. Then the second one was called The Nigerian Scam and that was about the collapse and corruption in Iceland, in conversation with Nigerian scammers who were trying to survive something way worse. And then we did Spectacle of the Year, where we did a survey in Iceland and asked people what they wanted to see on stage. We had researched the guests so when they came we were like: yes, you are a woman with a college education so this is what you will see – and then they could see all these small shows. Talking about spaces, that was one of my favourite spaces but it was just an office building. The last one was Search for the Meaning of Life. We spy a lot on people so there's a lot of work before people come, and the difference between 2012, when we did it for the first time, and 2018 – no-one was surprised in 2018. We handed them a picture of themselves and everything, we had been spying on them, and nobody cared. But in 2012 people were like: where did you find these pictures, where did you find these things?
You toured with IKEA Trips – ?
Yes, we went to the Faroe Islands for the Nordic Stage Arts Days. We put up the IKEA Trips Travel Agency there. That was really interesting, it's good to go out in the bigger world.
You have toured with some of your other productions. You've taken productions to and from Akureyri, for example, and you recently travelled with the children's play Fog to the Faroe Islands. What is it like to tour as a scenographer? Is there room for artistic expression in the touring process which must be quite consumed by practical considerations and planning?
I actually did a big tour this fall taking Fog to the Faroe Islands and then Club Romantica to Gdansk in Poland. It was very different because one of them we performed in the Nordic House in the Faroe Islands, which is not a theatre so more difficult technically speaking. It helps sometimes to have this background in the technical side of things, when you're touring spaces that aren't really theatres. It's just about thinking on your feet – oh, we can't do this, how are we going to change it? It is artistic and also practical thinking, you have to be flexible and solution-oriented.
So speaking of travelling, you were chosen to represent Iceland at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space which will be held in June this summer. This is a major event in the world of scenography and the quadrennial has been taking place every four years since 1967. Iceland has participated since 1987 so this will be our tenth time sending a representative to Prague. Since you still have several months to go until the quadrennial [when interviewed in early spring 2023] I assume that your work is still in the planning stages – but can you tell us a bit about what you're hoping to work towards?
It jumps off another thing that I'm doing. We're doing a show on the big stage in the National Theatre this spring that's called Congratulations on Being Human. It's by dancer Sigríður Soffía Níelsdóttir and about her experience of surviving breast cancer. In Prague it will be an independent art piece but related to some of the ideas we're working on in the other show. I want it to be immersive because I will have performers there, Sigríður Soffía will be there performing – and hopefully audience participation as well. People can try out the installation. It's very well planned and I've been meeting with Eva Signý Berger who was our last representative and Rebekka Ingimundardóttir who has also represented Iceland. They are coming with me as well and they have good connections in Czechia.
What are your hopes for Prague, how do you hope to use this opportunity?
I'm just so excited. I would have gone anyway, just as a fan. I'm just so excited to see all the work. I wanted to go last time because Eva was there but I was pregnant at the time.
And if we stay on the international questions a while longer, do you normally have the chance to follow what's going on with scenography in a wider context? Are there any particular designers whose work you try to see or are you always looking to discover something new?
It's kind of strange but I don't really like looking at a lot of other people's designs. I much prefer visual arts and going to museums to see visual art shows. I don't want to see something, think it's brilliant, then forget it and do it myself. When I'm teaching at the University of the Arts I try to show them the newest things and I'm really a fan of one German designer called Katrin Brack.
Does teaching inspire your own work?
Yes, so much. I love teaching. It's good to connect to the grassroots, remember where you came from. I learn a lot from teaching.
You already mentioned museums and visual arts. What about other sources of inspiration? Can you get inspiration for performance design from non-visual forms of art?
In the gym, or walking, meditating – maybe just listening to some pop music and running on a treadmill – sometimes that helps. I love reading and I visualize all kinds of things doing that, but I also studied film after my BA studies in Fine Art. I haven't done any film – I've done short films and advertising, but it's a whole different medium and people who work in scenography in movies are not in the theatre and vice versa, in Iceland at least. I usually work with abstract things, but there's not much room for that in movies.
Which is interesting, because it didn't necessarily have to be like that. In the 1920s, for example, there was a lot of abstraction in movies.
Exactly, but I also like the hyper-realistic thing. I did this masterclass that was more for movie set design and there was a props woman telling us that after she has dressed the set, everything is ready, she does something called the sprinkle of life and that's just like, this bowl with some keys in it and some coins, a note saying CALL MOM. You have to believe that somebody lives there.
Do you think we're ever going to see naturalism in the theatre again? Are we ever going to return to living room sets?
I hope so. I was teaching younger kids and they always wanted to have a turning stage – like, this is the living room and then it turns and it's the doctor's office, and then it turns and it's the sea. I was trying to help them see that this isn't very realistic, you're probably not going to have a turning stage with seven sets, but I also love that idea. I want to do that one day. Have seven elaborate sets and make the stage turn and turn and turn.
Whose work here in Iceland has grabbed your interest recently?
There are two answers. It's the same as before, with the stages – the one that I'm working with now is always the one that interests me. I'm working with choreographer and dancer Sigríður Soffía and she is just such a versatile artist and designer. She has designed firework shows, you can grow your own fireworks with flowers, she's making cocktails from the flowers, involving that with dancing – so she inspires me as an artist and a human being. I also love what's happening in the theatre now with all the people who hadn't been working, had been retired for some time. They're coming on stage, like in Marat/Sade at the Reykjavík Cty Theatre, where the youngest actor is 71. Just to see all these people on stage, all this knowledge. Because we are so few or under-funded, I don't know what it is, we kind of cut the ties with experience and everything that has happened. And also the roots – the grassroots and the oldest. So the top of the tree and the roots. I love both of these.
If I could grant you one wish on behalf of the performing arts in Iceland, what would you change, what would you wish for and why do you think that would make a difference?
I think we need more houses, more theatre spaces, for people to try things out. We have the two big houses and also Tjarnarbíó for the independent scene, and Akureyri, but we need a house where you can come in with no money. I have this dream that I will win the lottery and buy this small house and have a rehearsal studio and a little stage, just to try out things. If it's a tree and we just have the bark – we're not watering the roots enough and we're not taking care of the leaves, the older branches that have been there for a long time and know a lot of things – we cut them both and we're just kind of a log, logging along. I think we need to connect to the older generation as well as the younger ones –you don't stop being an artist even though you turn sixty. I remember my friend was at the City Theatre and there was a group of six year olds looking at the theatre with their school and he looked over the group and said: Oh, look, somewhere in this group is the coming theatre director who will fire us all.