What is UK theatre like for non-Brits? What will it be like post-Brexit? Nick Awde meets Norwegian director Invi Brenna and Icelandic lighting designer Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson, both working in the UK, and asks: why?
Despite punching far above their weight in terms of culture (think Ibsen and Bjork), Norway and Iceland have small populations that aren’t always in a position to sustain training in the performing arts at higher levels – even if on the surface they seem to enjoy a thriving theatre system nationally.
It’s a situation that has brought Norwegian director Invi Brenna and Icelandic lighting designer Fridthjofur Thorsteinsson to our shores. Coming as they do from countries where English is widely spoken, along with a shared heritage, their experiences throw up a mirror to UK practice that is particularly relevant at the moment.
“Outside courses in acting and performance art, there are no vocational or higher education theatre studies available in Iceland,” says Thorsteinsson. “Some of the local lighting designers, as in most places, have undertaken formal education while others have learned on the job. There is no right or wrong way to study so long as it suits the individual.”
Training: BA (hons) Lighting Design, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (2009); master’s in Performance Design and Practice at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design (2013)
“For studying theatre directing in Norway, there was exactly one course: a BA at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts,” says Brenna. “The course does not run yearly, it is extremely limited – every four or five years it takes three students, out of nearly 100 applicants.
“Since 2013 it has taught nine directors – only one of them was a woman and there have been no women on the programme since 2015. So even if I had wanted to study directing in my home country, it is extremely unlikely I would have been able to.”
Brenna moved to the UK and the University of Kent in Canterbury (which brands itself as the UK’s European university), where she studied a BA in Drama and Theatre followed by a master’s in Theatre Directing. “I wrote my dissertation in part on theatre in translation, which Kent was perfect for.”
The way UK theatre is made fits her well. Practitioners on the continent, she finds, tend “to stick to their own job and role” and so often find working with their more flexible British counterparts to be a frustrating process.
“But for me, the all-hands-on-deck spirit, that kind of theatrical ‘make do and mend’ represents the kind of environment where I thrive and feel I can use my abilities to the fullest. Plus, these are the kind of people I want to work with. It makes for some amazing team moments.”
Thorsteinsson came to London to study a BA in Lighting Design at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and stayed in the city for a master’s in Performance Design and Practice at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design.
“When I started college [in Iceland] I looked into where to go next. First I found Central, then explored a range of other options, mainly in the UK and Nordic countries. Comparing and contrasting, I eventually made my choice.
“The Finnish Theatre Academy was a strong contender for a while, but the catch was that it was all in Finnish. I even began studying Finnish and then suddenly an overseas fee of £9,000 – this was 10 years ago – didn’t seem all that bad.”
So far, neither have had to address issues over their residential, study or work status – although clearly this is an area that could become complex. As citizens of Norway and Iceland they belong to EFTA (European Free Trade Association), which also includes Liechtenstein and Switzerland. All bar Switzerland are part of the European Economic Area and so enjoy the freedom of movement that is a part of the EEA’s Four Freedoms.
Training: BA Drama and Theatre (2015); master’s Theatre Directing (2016), both at University of Kent
Brenna has set up her career in the UK, which is where she runs her theatre company Fox and Orchid. “My past two shows were new translations and adaptations of two of Ibsen’s plays aimed at English-speaking and non-Scandinavian audiences. They would have been pointless in my native homeland.”
Likewise, most of Thorsteinsson’s work is in the UK – “so I can’t say it’s helped my career – it is my career”.Midnight, a new musical he lit, recently finished its run at the Union Theatre, and he is now going into production as an associate lighting designer on Hadestown at the National Theatre – “and after that the epitome of British society that is pantomime takes over”.
Both also work in education, and Thorsteinsson extends his skills as a theatre consultant to architects on new-builds and refurbishments. And though they agree it can be a tough industry for anyone, including UK nationals, it does bring its rewards.
“The UK has an incredibly large theatre scene, so there are plenty of opportunities for work,” says Thorsteinsson. “There are considerably more international opportunities and a much larger pool of collaborators. The competition is obviously to scale, but that only makes the work more exciting to tackle and the triumphs more triumphant.”
Brenna sees that diversity and multiculturalism as a convincing selling point that makes the UK a gathering ground for a variety of theatremakers and artists both from all kinds of backgrounds and from all over the world.
“The UK has room for everything – although you have to fight for it. It’s a small island, after all. The generational divide is much smaller and easier to overcome compared to everywhere else I’ve been. In general, the UK’s arts culture feels quite egalitarian to me – but this might be because everyone has impostor syndrome or because we’re all in the gutter together.”
However, working overseas usually means the support network of family, friends and peers is distant, and self-sufficiency is imperative from the get-go. The added effort required to building and maintaining a network, which is an essential agenda for all freelances, has an extra work layer, namely engaging with and understanding local culture.
Despite their near native linguistic competence, practitioners from the Nordic countries, Netherlands and Flemish Belgium often find coming to the UK arts industry with English as a second language difficult. Perhaps surprisingly, Brenna says this is more noticeable with younger practitioners and less the case around people with more experience.
“With every theatre company or arts grouping I play a game of ‘Are there any ESL [English as a second language] immigrants around?’, and if yes, ‘Is there a woman?’ The answer is depressingly often at least one ‘no’ and as a result I, and all my colleagues in a similar position, have tales of being misunderstood and generally assumed to be less competent.
“This could be because Brits generally only speak the one language fluently and don’t realise how hard it is to blend in with the native speakers. But should we honestly be required to in order to be taken seriously?”
1. Read Kate Fox’s book Watching the English.
2. See a variety of performances in as many different places as possible, and watch the audience as much as you watch the show.
3. Be open to doing things you wouldn’t normally consider to be ‘your job’.
4. Learn how to do risk assessments. Be 10 times as paranoid as you think necessary when writing them. Technicians and insurance people will love you for it.
5. Odds are, nobody cares what you did before you came to the UK. This sounds disheartening, as all your hard work and experience doesn’t count, but see it as a blessing – you get to reinvent yourself.
1. Hurdle number one is to get a bank account. You may find yourself stuck in the loop of not being able to get a house/flat/room rental sorted without one, while not being able to get an account without providing a rental agreement.
2. To work as a foreigner in the UK you need to get a national insurance number. Book an appointment at your nearest Job Centre. Once that’s through, sign up as self-employed with HMRC – and sit the introductory course in self-assessments (tax returns for freelancers) that they offer.
3. Find industry bodies (association/society/club/Facebook groups) in your profession and go to events and get-togethers. You need to know people and hear them speak to learn ‘colloquialisms’. That’s English for lingo/slang/industry speak. It helps you think you’re blending in, but you never will.
4. When speaking to Brits, second-guess everything they say. Second-guessing is a very British thing to do. Nowadays I find I get more confused if people actually say what they mean than not.
5. Go to see all the shows you can. Stay in Edinburgh for at least one complete Festival Fringe. Sign up for all student ticket schemes if you’re a student and go see shows you wouldn’t otherwise. Theatre, opera, dance – everything.
One area where the UK gets foreigners scratching their heads is the lack of funding compared to most European countries. The momentum inherent in such a huge industry is a major factor towards filling in any cracks in the face of austerity, but another dip in our slow-bleed economy can only bode ill.
Part of the remedy is the strength that comes from a diverse industry – and new blood and influences from overseas have always been a driving force in British theatre, be it Hamlet, Soyinka or The Jungle. Today is no exception and even though we can only guess how many foreign nationals are working in the UK’s performing arts, their presence and contribution is the sign of a healthy, forward-looking, inclusive landscape.
And the creativity works both ways. Brenna, for example, regularly looks for projects to link up with back home, especially in terms of her Ibsen translation project. Likewise Thorsteinsson says: “I have one to two shows every year back home, which quenches my thirst for theatre in my mother tongue.”
The question of status casts a shadow that wasn’t there when either decided to begin careers in the UK. “At present, in the wake of Brexit, it is completely uncertain what is required for me to gain leave to remain,” observes Thorsteinsson. “Rights for EEA citizens are being negotiated separately from the EU. Which in itself proves that being outside the EU is not very streamlined, even for those within a European community.”
“As a European-but-not-in-the-EU Norwegian,” says Brenna, “the current political climate is an odd one to navigate. But for all its challenges, the UK is stuck with me and I feel more welcome here than I ever did where I come from.”