Cuts to arts funding have hit all of Europe, resulting in theatres sticking with ‘safe’ work. Nick Awde meets Swedish director Henrik Grimbäck who is fighting to keep new and experimental theatre alive in Sweden and Denmark
As the EU continues to push for unity through culture, cuts to the arts haven’t stopped sweeping the continent, driven more often than not by the elections of right-wing populist governments. Even nations hailed as models of sustainable state and municipal funding such as the Nordics, Netherlands and Belgium have found themselves disrupting supply lines to their own culture and arts – and putting the theatre landscape present and future under threat.
“You can already see the effect in the repertoire of the programming of the large theatres – it’s safer, fewer risks,” says Swedish director Henrik Grimbäck. “There are more shows that aren’t directly theatre but, for example, of the ‘now we’re doing this movie in a theatre’ format.”
Predictably, adds Grimbäck, theatres are also ramping up those trusty old chestnuts: the classics. “That’s a sad situation for me particularly because I’m on the experimental side of it. Both as viewer and creator it’s always more interesting when people try new things. How will we get a new Shakespeare if we only play Shakespeare?”
As someone who divides his work between Sweden and Denmark, Grimbäck has a ringside view of the process. His home in Malmö is just over the straits from Copenhagen – those who have seen scandi-noir TV show The Bridge will recognise his commute. In recent years he’s made a stir with the Martyr Museum, which set historic heroes such as Joan of Arc alongside perpetrators of contemporary terrorist attacks, and the New Royal Theatre season at Denmark’s Teater Momentum, which cheekily (but seriously) mirrored the season announced by Copenhagen’s national Royal Danish Theatre.
Like most practitioners in the Nordics, Grimbäck works – and was trained – in an ecosystem based on the expectation of short and long-term funding at all levels. That system is no longer taken for granted, despite government-level declarations that Nordic arts are the envy of the world in policy and practice.
Today’s mix of right-wing conservatism and populism in Sweden and Denmark has merely added to a decade of chipping away at the arts. Denmark has borne the main brunt with organisations on their knees and ticket prices rising – even the Royal Danish has seen its budget slashed repeatedly. Recent elections have brought back more left-leaning, socially conscious coalitions but it will take time for them to unpick the damage.
Confusingly, cuts in Denmark have coincided with decentralisation: moving things from the cultural centre Copenhagen to other parts of the country. It’s not a bad idea, but because many theatres are still in the most densely populated areas, practitioners struggle to find jobs elsewhere.
In 2016, the board of Momentum Theatre in Odense, Denmark, invited Henrik Grimbäck to create a year-long season. Even for an innovative theatre such as Momentum his proposal – The New Royal Danish Theatre – was bold. The Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen is the country’s national theatre. Grimbäck recreated in exact sequence its 2016-17 season. With a lowly regional spend and four actors he created 18 shows across a range of genres: stripped down versions of classics such as Twelfth Night and Oedipus Rex/Antigone for which the rights weren’t an issue, while for shows he didn’t have the rights to, he took the title and created something from scratch. At first the Royal Danish was unsure, but it warmed to the idea and now works with Grimbäck, who has directed readings of Glitch and Hold Da Kæft Lars for the theatre.
At the same time, the government has decimated the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (the DR, equivalent to the BBC). Condemned as a “revenge attack on democracy”, the move has led to hundreds of job losses, channel and station closures and a 20% cut in budget. The DR became especially vulnerable to the government after the elimination of the TV and radio licence fee.
“There’s the particular feeling that they’re trying to cut off the avant garde,” observes Grimbäck, “that they hope we produce more heritage-style pieces celebrating the smaller cities and towns or music-hall traditions. Of course, I have nothing against that, but when you make only one thing it’s bad for any art form.”
Grimbäck and his peers don’t take their funded status for granted and they are more than able to work within constricted budgets. And yet they don’t expect to become a class of community volunteers. Or do they?
“No. But that’s also a direction in which the arts have moved. I was an assistant director for two years at a large Swedish theatre where some of the time I was paid and some of it I wasn’t. So yes, of course it all comes down to money. But a lot of the discussion here seems to be about arts as an expense instead of an investment in creativity and in the ‘national health’. If we can’t experience work that we have not seen before, we can’t innovate. And that is true across the board, from arts to tech and medicine.”
Malmö has just slashed its municipal funding for a year at least and Grimbäck laments that people are still debating it rather than taking action. In Denmark, debate is harder because people in the arts who don’t live in Copenhagen stand to gain from decentralisation. “They are celebrating it of course because they get more money, so that’s more ambiguous.”
Grimbäck agrees that the current bloom of fringe festivals across the Nordics, helmed by Sweden, is related to the cuts. “If you move the bar down, that is, your city offers a lot of funding, then below that there’s still something even more obscure growing. But if you now raise the bar, with there’s less funding for fewer people, it won’t give you a bigger fringe but a fringe that is more mainstream.
“Just look at the Volksbühne [in Berlin] and the work it is doing – it’s on a grand scale but in many countries the art would be fringe. My own work has always been on the border, but I am afraid I will be on the wrong side in just a little while.”
Certainly his most recent critique of Danish society would never have come into being without funding. This year’s Anne og Empatikrisen (Anne and the Empathy Crisis) was funded by the Statens Kunstfond (Danish Arts Council) and the independent Bikubenfonden (Beehive Fund). Invited by scenographer Lea Burrows, Grimbäck and actor Morten Burian developed a series of plays that addressed the nation’s growing apathy using topics such as corruption in high places.
The shows took place in the foyer of the Østerbro Teater, Copenhagen’s second largest theatre. “We chose it because it’s a small space where the whole stage apparatus is not needed. You can make faster decisions and you can connect more directly with the audience, play theatre that they can’t get away from. Often you just sit in a dark room at a distance from the actors, but in the foyer they’re in front of you and talking to you and if you don’t respond they wait until you do.”
This sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing a real national theatre should be putting on. “It’s about the things that are currently important to the country, yes,” says Grimbäck, whose experience mirroring Denmark’s national theatre has given him ample material for the next step in his homeland. “In fact, I’ve just registered a new company and now own the trademark ‘The National Stage of Sweden’.”
He smiles at the thought. “I never believed it would get approved by the ministry, but it did. So I will do something with it. There’s relevance today in David standing up to Goliath, there’s still relevance in mirroring the national level of our theatre and saying each of us can have our own national stage.”
He is currently helping to set up of The Other National Theatre, a similar response to long-term cuts in the UK, based at the Alhambra in Morecambe, and he encourages other European countries to think of adopting the idea.
“If the cuts continue, then this is one of the ways forward to setting up a network all over Europe where we can exchange productions and ideas. If we all produce work that defies the cuts at every level, then we can invite each other all over Europe, creating and sharing more stage art that will inspire everyone.
“So maybe that’s the next step, to export the model to other countries and strengthen collaboration everywhere. To kick things off it’s starting in Britain. If the vision catches on, then maybe we can look forward to a complete set of Alternative National Theatres of Europe.”
Born: 1985, Eslöv, Sweden
Training: Stage direction at the Danish National School of Performing Arts (2016)
Career: Co-founder of the theatre art collective TOETT (2013); artistic director at Teater Momentum in Odense (2016-2017)
• Joey Chestnut (2013; European League of Institutes of the Arts festival NEU/NOW, 2015)
• Martyr Museum (2016; Nordwind festival, Berlin/Hamburg, 2017), The New Royal Danish Theatre season, Teater Momentum (2016-17)
• Fewer Emergencies, Danish School of Performing Arts (2018)
• Danish Arts Council Talent of the Year award (2016)
• City of Malmö Culture Award (2018)
Disclaimer: author Nick Awde is founder/director of The Other National Theatre.