Go Deeper

Coffee or Tea: Interview with Norway’s Jo Strømgren about The Society

Posted August 13th, 2013

“Instead of starting with politics itself, I start with a teabag.”

Jo Strømgren looks out a window.

Jo Strømgren looks out a window.

In a European society dedicated to coffee, the shocking discovery of a used teabag threatens to tear the coffee drinkers’ world asunder. Civility turns to conspiracy and fear: how far will they go in order to bring this evil act to justice? Norway’s Jo Strømgren returns to the Fringe Festival with The Society, performed by Norway’s pre-eminent company of contemporary physical theater and dance, the aptly named Jo Strømgren Kompani (previous Festival shows: The European Lesson [2008], The Convent [2006]). Performed in a nonsensical language, The Society takes an absurd, yet all too relatable, look at our turbulent times, when the average citizen is ever more tempted to accept torture, the suppression of minorities, and other violent means to restore order. We caught up with the loquacious theater-maker to get some behind-the-scenes info on the show.

FringeArts: Why is the show called The Society?

Jo Strømgren: The Society is a dry title, and as a title it refers to nothing more than a closed group of people. Which later in the show will be emphasized by the difference between “us and them” when the members of the society are forced to relate themselves to the world outside. I like dry concrete titles in general, since they are sometimes so naïve that they almost become abstract. Almost as in “This is not a pipe” and there is a picture of a pipe. Who was that? Magritte?

FringeArts: What inspired the show? Do you remember where you were?

Coffee cups in The Society, photo by Knut Bry.

Coffee cups in The Society, photo by Knut Bry.

Jo Strømgren: The incident which inspired me was the image I got one day, when trying to find the least common denominator for describing the East and the West—and started thinking about tea and coffee. (UK is an exception here.) They could possibly become symbols of something larger. And then I imagined this hopelessly conservative French society of coffee drinkers suddenly finding a used teabag . . . with subsequent shock. From there on the snowball started rolling. I like these naïve, almost stupid images to start with, as in being a potential for saying something understandable about the complex world. Instead of starting with politics itself, I start with a teabag.

FringeArts: What is the setting of The Society and how does it appeal to your imagination?

Jo Strømgren: Once choosing a setting that is highly fictional, and somewhat exaggerated, the freedom to play with theatrical elements is broader. And we can highlight things as symbols in a different way than a realistic play allows us to. The main symbol in the show—a used teabag—becomes something extremely important when the room is just one big manifestation of COFFEE.

FringeArts: What’s the process of creating a work like this?

Jo Strømgren: As in all JSK [Jo Strømgren Kompani] performances, I find the storyboard deep down in a full ashtray late at night. Not in the library or in brainstorm meetings. My inner movie theater is triggered by nicotine and caffeine, my two and only drugs. So the daytime process is to start rehearsing the opening scene and build the piece chronologically until the end scene. There is very little improvisation and experimentation, nor discussions about theoretical issues like form and style and dramaturgy and blablabla. It is mainly a race with time to fill the canvas with those images. But, as always, pictures in the mind never look the same in real life, so adjustments are being made all the way. And this is where the actors provide the creativity. Any suggestion or solution they come up with which is better than my ideas or visions are bought and included. So one can say the process is strict on one level, but loose on another.

FringeArts: How did you first come about using nonsensical language and what drew you to it? What are some of the tricks to making it engaging?

Jo Strømgren: The question of nonsensical language would take hours to answer. It may seem simple as we perform it, but after having used and researched it during, I don’t know, perhaps fifteen productions so far, each time with a different approach to broaden a “method,” and also having exposed the results in a myriad of countries, regions, and cultures, the whole subject of how nonsensical language communicates is quite overwhelming. It can of course be used everywhere as a technique, but getting the point across and avoiding confusion is how I measure my competence in the field. Some results work better than others, of course, but in total, yes I’m simply overwhelmed by the potential. Used the right way, it can be more efficient than understandable words. But building a dialogue in gibberish requires new rules. It has taken time to understand these.

The first trigger was a show about amnesia, called The Arrival from 1998 I think. The characters of the show had no clue who they were, from where or of what language. In a desert setting, there was a bush on stage. One of the characters digested a leaf and was given the given the gift of speech, again. But without knowing which language to choose. So . . . this actor spoke for ten minutes almost, with a constant crossfade from language to language. I was mesmerized by the scene. For me it was just an impulse as a director, nothing genius about it at all. It was the actor who took the task so seriously that made the impact. From there on I started to research the matter further.

A most horrible discovery, photo by Knut Bry.

A most horrible discovery, photo by Knut Bry.

FringeArts: How did the particular language of The Society come about?

Jo Strømgren: Since the premiere of The Society was to be in Lebanon and onwards to Palestine and Jordan, the original idea was to use nonsensical Hebrew. A massive challenge, but I think it may have worked. However, we decided that the risk of such a linguistic experiment would be to high. And the topic could easily be interpreted as a comment on local circumstances. Choosing something larger—with Chinese, French and American English—came to be a good choice. Then the topic was the WORLD and not just the Middle East.

FringeArts: The Society has toured throughout the world. Do audiences differ in their reactions to it by country? Have you been surprised at all by audience reaction?

Jo Strømgren: On some levels, people react equally no matter where we perform. The clash of civilization issue is universal. And humor is humor. However, the elements of irony is received differently here and there. This is always tricky. But . . . the setting is in the middle of conservative Europe and therefore the viewpoint is deliberately chosen as conservative European. When the characters in the show are exposed to what appears to be a “Chinese infiltration,” they see anything Asian with prejudice and stereotype goggles. The only place we have had problems is actually in USA. Asian elements in the show have by some, perhaps many Americans, been seen as “racial content.” Which to us says more about American viewpoint than the show. So far, no Asians have uttered any comments about the matter. And for China, the show has received many invitations to perform in China itself. One can say that since our mockery of the Chinese is approved by the Chinese themselves, one should not make so much fuss about it. The Americans and the French are also mocked in the show, but that seems to be okay for American audiences. Every region has its taboos, and America with its dark history of discrimination is different than the rest of the world. One can say very little about Asians, Blacks, Jews and the mentally retarded in America. In principle it is good, but one should be careful with imposing moral codes when something comes from abroad.

FringeArts: Why do insular societies or groups continue to be of interest to you?

Jo Strømgren: Insular societies . . . hm . . . nice term. I will use it from now on. I like confined spaces and isolated groups very much yes. It is easier to detect and portray human behavior with such. As when Eve eats the apple in the Garden of Eden, it becomes a MAJOR sin. Two people, one apple, one rule. There is only one thing Eve shall not do. And she does it. It’s an earthquake of evil suddenly. John McClane can trash half of New York City but we sit there with a yawn. Whereas a bite of the apple makes us think about every evil action in the world during thousands of years. But the trick is typical for theater anyway, nothing special for me. The typical Norwegian drama is one sofa, man and woman, and perhaps a son who has died in a car crash before the show starts. And from there on the text delves into large matters of society and mankind. Perhaps the palette our company paints these places with is special to us. We never intend to be contemporary, nor historically correct. We try to make fake circumstances that only resemble the world we know. We have sometimes been compared to Samuel Beckett, and I understand why. I have probably been inspired by him. Not even close in originality and recognition of course, but the out of time universes he created are similar to ours.

FringeArts: From the viewpoint of a participating artist, what do you think makes for a successful performing arts festival?

Jo Strømgren: Impossible question. Every festival is different. Luckily. 
In one, you can watch an empty stage for two hours and afterwards discuss the event thoroughly with a panel of German dramaturges, and step into the daylight again with a flame on your head as if attending the Miracle of Pentecost. In another, you meet broad audiences and go to parties and get friends and see a lot of shows and get inspired (like Philly). And in between there is an endless festival variations of why and for who and with what agenda. But for me and us, I think meeting local audiences, not professionals but average people, is the most rewarding thrill.

Thanks Jo, looking forward to the show! Here’s a video teaser:

The Society

September 6, 7 + 8
Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine Street
Wheelchair accessible
–Josh McIlvain