Teater Momentum – the Danish company breaking all the rules
While at a show one night in Copenhagen, director Henrik Grimback found himself considering how tackling a trilogy of plays rather than a single one had its attractions since, as he puts it, “a director usually just goes from one production to the next, jumping from theatre to theatre”.
The Swedish director, who graduated from the Danish National School of Performing Arts, then began to wonder whether moulding a whole season into a single work of art might be even more rewarding than doing a mere three shows in a row.
Fast-forward to the present, to Teater Momentum in Odense, a 75-minute train ride west of the capital. Here, Grimback has packed no fewer than 18 shows into a season entitled The New Royal Danish Theatre. Cheekily, the director has lifted not only inspiration but his entire programme from the real Royal Danish Theatre’s 2016/17 season, recreating in exact sequence the Royal’s top-budget shows and permanent ensemble with a lowly regional spend and just four actors.
As Grimback points out, it is not an exact recreation. “It’s more like a parallel world where we make our own versions. The three full-scale shows in the Royal’s season are Shakespeare (Twelfth Night), the Danish Folk High School Songbook (Hojskolesangbogen) and Oedipus Rex/Antigone, so obtaining the performing rights was not an issue. For shows that we didn’t have the rights to, we’ve just taken the original title and created something from scratch.”
When Grimback was evolving his idea about doing a season, he was a regular audience member at the Royal, where his curiosity started a conversation about exactly what makes a ‘royal’ theatre a ‘national’ theatre. Somewhere along the line, it all morphed into the concept for The New Royal Danish Theatre.
A small theatre, Grimback reasoned, doing the exact same thing as the national stage and at the same time would by its very nature create something else. Can we make great art in such a small (and regional) environment, he asked, and what would it look like compared with the grand national version?
“In addition, you have a small theatre with small financial resources and small staff copying the Royal, which receives around half of all state funds for theatre. Herein lies, of course, a powerful political-arts commentary,” says Grimback.
“His proposal seemed impossible,” recalls Lasse Bo Handberg, chairman of the Momentum board and until recently a member of its artistic council.
“And it was cheeky. It tore the rug out from under us with its boldness. Henrik really challenged Momentum in its self-understanding. He challenged the familiar processes of how to produce a work. Of how long it takes to produce a work. And of what it takes before something can be named and categorised as theatre.”
The fact that Handberg was impressed is impressive in itself. After all, Momentum’s own boldness allows it to start each season afresh by hiring a new artistic director and company, then handing them a list of improbable tasks to help them create three new works. A fairly close UK equivalent is the People Show, which is rolling out show number 130 this year.
The originality in copying, says Handberg, was a deciding, if ironic, factor: “It is so embedded in our understanding of artistic direction that things must be original. But Henrik just disarmed us by saying ‘I will simply copy, without even necessarily knowing what’s coming up at the Royal.’
“From the beginning, the Momentum model has contained this playful dialectic between tasks and answers. The task Henrik set for himself was greater than anything we could come up with. And from that point it made sense to appoint a new artistic council to define the next 10 years. So we fired ourselves.”
Momentum occupies a special place in Denmark’s theatre landscape as a place to explore developing creativity in different and unpredictable ways. Inspiration comes from the way theatre puts things like artistic freedom and artistic integrity on pedestals, an act that can actually prove stifling.
“We challenge that,” says Handberg, “while at the same time we provide extensive freedom: the artistic leader can work without fear and without economic responsibility, because he or she is sure to be fired a few months later anyway. Within that perspective, I am pretty convinced that over the past decade the Momentum model has provided a unique space for the development of new talent.”
Teater Momentum in ten volumes
Each year, or ‘volume’, the theatre selects a new artistic director and team of actors, who are also given a list of objectives to fulfil. Henrik Grimback’s The New Royal Theatre is Volume 10.
Volume 1 (2007-8)
Artistic director: Moqi Simon Trolin
Themes: Solidarity, Momentum and fear
Volume 2 (2008-9)
Artistic director: Kamilla Bach Mortensen
Themes: Friendship, forbidden love and a play written by a foreigner not living in Denmark
Volume 3 (2009-10)
Artistic director: Daniel Rylander
Theme: The darker side of family
Volume 4 (2010/2011)
Artistic director: Anne Zacho Sogaard
Themes: The fears of children and young people; musical based on stories from Odense’s pubs
Volume 5 (2011-12)
Artistic directors: Caroline McSweeny, Jens August Wille
Themes: ‘Silent road movie’, breakdowns in society, a 20-word play and 10 episodes based on a novel
Volume 6 (2012-13)
Artistic director: Lydia Bunk
Themes: Outsiders, a concert based on the beat generation and a mash-up of three Ibsen plays
Volume 7 (2013-14)
Artistic director: Rasmus Ask
Themes: Movies and how people act under pressure; Christmas zombie show and a sci-fi play that took the audience into space
Volume 8 (2014-15)
Artistic director: Erik Pold
Theme: Trade – including Super Market, a site-specific play in three locations in Odense about failure, and a docudrama about child soldiers, blood diamonds and prostitution
Volume 9 (2015-16)
Artistic director: Jacob Stage
Theme: Writer and poet Lone Horslev and her caustic pen
That model involves combining the best of the one-night stand and the long-term relationship. “There is an exciting energy in the first year for a new artistic leader,” explains Handberg. “But then he or she often, over several seasons, starts to work and think more strategically and so patterns start to show. But with the Momentum model, we try to ‘pick the flower’, so to speak, of this incredible energy from that first year.”
A prime example of this sort of innovative energy is Med Sne (With Snow), for which Grimback and one of his actors went to see the Royal’s version as soon as it opened and then wrote a summary of it. “The actor’s task was to do a mime of the summary,” says Grimback, “and the audience had to guess the word. We went through the whole summary word for word.”
Another show, Peddersen and Findus, is based on a series of children’s books about a man and his cat, which in Grimback’s version becomes simple storytelling. “Except we looked at the characters and asked, ‘What if they’re in a sadistic relationship with each other instead of the loving one in the original? And how would a bad relationship between a man and his talking cat go?’ ”
Wary at first, the Royal has since declared itself happy with this bizarre and unexpected partnership. At least the artistic side of the theatre thinks it’s a fun idea, Grimback confesses. “Their PR department hated it because it received hundreds of calls from the public asking if the theatre has moved – and if they have to order tickets in another town. I’m quite sorry for that.”
As Handberg has pointed out, the 18 plays have emerged fully fledged with almost no time for preparation. “If I were doing the same thing at the Royal, it certainly wouldn’t be the same,” says Grimback. “All their directors get four years’ development while I’m making it up as I go along. Certainly that gives The New Royal Danish Theatre a different feel – it has a more lively and fresh quality and is less thought through. So you give some and you get some.”
While the Royal has a permanent ensemble of about 20 with a budget to hire more performers, even for the 14th show, Twelfth Night, Grimback has only four actors on stage – Nanna Cecilie Bang, Katrine Leth Nielsen, Nicklas Soderberg Lundstrom and Tobias Shaw Petersen – because that’s as many as the budget will allow.
But, Grimback points out: “When you put things on stage they become important, and if you work on them for four hours they’re as important as if you’ve been working on them for four weeks.”
Momentum has always drawn audiences, but the theatre can’t say for certain if its model has generated any wider measurable impact.“We have never operated without that model to compare,” says Handberg. “But we know there is a lot of interest at the meta-level: ‘Who is the new director?’ and ‘Will he or she make it?’ and ‘How will he or she cope with the tasks?’
“Particularly in Henrik’s season it has been interesting from the outset as to whether he’d be able to make it. The comparison with the Royal has generated extra attention too. These are the PR pros. The PR cons are that the theatre risks losing its audience each year if the audience becomes attached to a specific artistic director and his or her work/style.”
What’s next? “After we complete the season with show No 18, Stellar Family, we’ll go to CPH Stage in June – it’s Denmark’s main theatre festival (in Copenhagen). We’re actually performing at the Royal on their small stage, where we’ll be recreating their whole next season in a single show,” says Grimback, clearly appreciating the irony.
Profile: Teater Momentum
Artistic director (2016-17): Henrik Grimback
Theatre manager: Marianne Klint
Board chairman: Lasse Bo Handberg
Location: Odense, Denmark
Theatre space: Black box, usually 133 seats.
Number of productions (2016-17): Three major, 15 smaller plus two co-productions
Audience figures: 10,347 (2014-15); 17,348 (2015-16)
Staff: Five permanent staff, two season hired staff in administration/technical, plus one student; Nine new artistic staff every season
Turnover (2015-2016): DKK 6.4 million (£735,000)
Funders: Municipality of Odense and the state of Denmark – culture in Denmark is mostly state-funded and only a small proportion is raised by box office
Key contacts: Marianne Klint (production) email@example.com Mira Erik (press) firstname.lastname@example.org