For the fifth episode of the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast, featuring interviews with some of our most exciting performing arts professionals, Salka Guðmundsdóttir was joined by Greta Clough. Greta lives in the village of Hvammstangi, where she runs Northwest Iceland‘s only professional stage arts company, the award-winning puppetry and visual theatre company Handbendi. As the company‘s Artistic Director and Creative Producer, Greta is one of the artists who have made Iceland their home and brought new flavours to the local stage arts scene. Greta arrived in Iceland as an experienced puppeteer and director, including as Associate Artist at Little Angel Theatre in London.
Greta – how does a professional puppetry artist find a home for her art in a small Icelandic village? Tell us about your journey towards getting Handbendi up and running.
It‘s quite a long journey, really! For a bit of context, I grew up in southern Vermont in the United States, in a real genuine art town. This was a town of about the same size as Akureyri and we had three of the most influential puppetry theatre companies in America. Arts are the core of this town. My interest in puppetry arts started quite young because I was exposed to these things early on – not through my family, but because I ended up finding my way into amateur dramatics, as you do when you live in a small place. And through this I met a lot of interesting people who became my family, really. I would spend most of my time in and around the theatre there. One of those was called the Vermont Theatre Company and students from the high school would tour around to all the elementary schools in the state. This was the first step into working professionally in the performing arts. Through that, I met many puppeteers, and I started doing voiceovers for the National Marionette Theatre, which was a well-known puppetry organisation in the United States. I went to acting school in London and all throughout drama school I was always trying to put puppets into everything. I think the teachers wanted to murder me! Actually the head of my course said to me at one point: Puppetry is dead – nobody cares about puppetry, this is a dead art form. But then two years later, the National Theatre of England produced War Horse, which is the largest grossing show in the world, ever – a show where the main character is a horse puppet. So to that I say: Puppetry is dead, but long live puppetry.
I was working as an actor after drama school, got to work for BBC Radio, on television and in theatre, all the way from fringe up to the West End. But I started doing more and more children‘s theatre. I used to have quite a lot of energy and was very peppy in the morning so this worked out really well for me! Through that I began to have the opportunity to explore puppetry performance a lot more. There came a point in my performing career where I started thinking: why am I doing this for other people, why am I not making my own things? I was doing a lot of very commercial work on big productions. I have always felt more drawn to smaller stories, things that are more intimate. One of the most fulfilling days of my professional life was the day I fired my acting agent and went out on my own.
My acting career was going well, so it was a big leap. I wasn‘t sure what would happen but I knew that I was absolutely in love with this little theatre in North London called Little Angel Theatre, which was at the time known as the home of British puppetry. An opportunity came up to apply for an emerging artist programme called the Little Angels Firsts. I applied with the idea of adapting an Astrid Lindgren story, except because the Lindgren estate is notoriously difficult to get rights for, I found the original Swedish poem of Tomten and we created our own adaptation. This became the first puppetry production that I created from beginning to end. This launched everything. Off the back of Firsts, we toured that show endlessly, it feels like. From there, I was appointed Associate Artist. This opened up even more doors and I was able to explore my puppetry practice in a safe environment. I got to learn from puppetry greats and play with construction, the vocabulary of puppetry – why and how it expresses stories differently than other performing arts mediums. The artistic director at the time, Adam Bennett, really encouraged me to create another show but this time to make it 100% original. That is how Meadow came about, which I think is my all-time favourite show, it‘s so close to my heart. Meadow is an exploration of memories. When I was a kid I used to lay in the field across the street from my house. This became my whole world and I built up stories about it. When I was little I was really sensitive to the grass, I didn‘t want to hurt the grass in any way. I started thinking about, like, what would the grass remember? What stories would the grass tell? Through a couple of research and development periods, we began to build this very organic story about the animals that live within a meadow and the things that have happened there. It plays out as an elegy to a disappearing world. A few years later, I realised how important that kind of expression is to me artistically – looking at the small, disappearing things, the unnoticed.
Moving to a small village in Northwest Iceland doesn‘t feel odd to me. It doesn‘t feel like an artistic challenge, because of all these things that have contributed to my story. It just feels very natural to be in a farming community but working through art, to be looking at the little things that maybe in the larger worldview we forget. Being in Hvammstangi is what breathes a lot of life into the stories that I‘m trying to express.
In Meadow, that material that you worked with was in such close dialogue with the setting and the very concept of the show. I was reading up on what other people have said about the show and it has been described as dreamlike, as something entirely different from the loud and hyperactive productions that people sometimes seem to think are needed to capture young audiences‘ attention. One reviewer stated that it requires your gentle attention, unfolding its treasures shyly and quietly. I think these productions for young audiences are so important, not least in the digital age. It‘s a meeting between form and content – and that must be important for you when you‘re choosing to work with puppetry, where you have physical material that you work with on the stage.
Absolutely, and this was really key for me in learning about puppetry and practicing this art form – the understanding that the materials matter. You know, this is the dramaturgy, this is the work. Finding out what actually aids the storytelling. There’s a lot of people who can make absolutely gorgeous dolls to do things and they’re used very frequently in children’s productions but it doesn’t necessarily make it a puppetry production. It’s not that the puppetry is bad, it’s just not puppetry art. The dramaturgy of a puppet show is the core. You’re living in a land of metaphor and everything becomes part of that conversation. You can’t just pick up a random material, it has to be appropriate, so the design work is essential to the storywork.
I came across a blog post that you wrote some years ago. There’s this beautiful quote about puppetry there: “I always think the way that puppeteers first approach a puppet or object is uncannily similar to the way babies play. A baby sees a ball and they don’t think to themselves ‘a ball, it works best if I throw it’, they think, ‘what is this? What does it do? How does it feel? How does it taste? What happens if I throw it? Kick it? Roll it? Does it bounce? Can I squish it? What happens when it moves fast? Slow? How does it fall?’. This is very similar to the approach a puppeteer has to a new puppet. The pulling and prodding, the turning and twisting. The persistent need to discover everything it can do, and to approach the puppet without preconceptions”. This is very eye-opening to me, this element of discovery. This must be a big part of your R&D process and rehearsals.
Absolutely, it is a whole period of discovery. Especially if you’re doing object work, you have to rediscover everything. I think it’s very similar to – I'm not a dancer, but I feel a lot of complicité with dancers and the way they work in rediscovering the body. I had the pleasure of being taught by a wonderful puppetry artist called Rene Baker, and she’s an amazing object manipulator. One of the things that we work with is something called intrinsic movement, and controlled movement. Intrinsic movement is the way something moves without any interference – if you were to hold a piece of silk up and just let it be there, it will have a natural movement to it. You can have some outside stimulus, like maybe you shake your hand and it will move differently, or you blow on it, you can throw it or you can drop it, and it moves on its own. A large part of the early work with puppets and objects is discovering what those intrinsic movements are. What do you already have there? What’s a given? Then the awareness of how those different qualities impact the storytelling. On the other hand you have the controlled movement and these are things you are actively doing with the material. What does it look like if I pull it up very slowly? Or if I push it down – as opposed to dropping it. The play becomes about the interplay between intrinsic and controlled. This is where a lot of life and character comes from, because everything does actually have a character if you allow it to. This is not something I get to do very often in Iceland because there’s not a lot of very experienced puppeteers in the same area of training, although of course there are people doing beautiful work with puppets.
This is one of the more technical stage arts genres.
It can be very, very technical and it takes a lot of practice, although most puppeteers are actually self-trained. It’s very technical but it’s very much on you to discover your way in – to let this obsession grow within you. I could play with the movement on the wrist of a puppet for hours and I’d be the happiest person in the world!
I did want to ask you about working in such a small scene. Like you said, we do have some excellent puppet artists here in Iceland – Bernd Ogrodnik, Helga Arnalds and Sigríður Sunna come to mind – but it’s nonetheless a small scene in a small country. How do you manage to nurture your own art and your craft when you’re not exactly surrounded by people doing the same thing?
This is something that I ask myself a lot recently. I’m a little bit removed from the other artists because of where I am based and my own lifestyle choices here. I’m very fortunate in that I get to travel quite a lot with my work. I work abroad a lot and this gives me a fresh perspective frequently. I’m able to still play with people abroad and recently we’ve been developing more of a functioning company in terms of core artists that I enjoy working with here in Iceland. I hope that we’ll be able to work a lot more together. We’ve discovered a new way of working together that’s maybe less technical but definitely coming from the gut. I think the nurturing right now for me is actually about letting go and being open, because things do function differently here. It’s a very small nation and the stimulus is different, the artists are different, the expression is different, what audiences are interested in is different.
I also know that you’re very aware of what’s happening internationally, because Handbendi is not only a company that produces original shows and tours, you also run a high-quality international puppetry festival. Your programme has featured artists from Japan, Poland, Greece, Czechia and other countries.This festival is very much one of a kind here in Iceland. Why did you feel inspired to make such a big, complicated thing happen, and what has the festival meant so far?
HIP Fest is a lifelong dream for me. I absolutely love festival management. I feel like festivals are essential to the human experience. A puppetry festival is an opportunity for me to bring my favourite artists, artists that I find inspiring, innovative or just super effing fun to be around, to my home and to spend time together and share what we’re making. This actually is a way of keeping me fresh as well, bouncing off people, having the opportunity to have artistic dialogue and also to be able to share what the larger puppetry art form is. There are many things that puppetry does that are not commonly seen in Iceland, especially not outside of the city centre where there’s very little access to arts, especially performing arts. So for me it’s a way of communicating that with the people around me, sharing it with my community, inspiring people and also myself. When you live in a relative form of isolation it’s very easy to forget what is happening in the world around you, to get this sort of island mentality. Puppetry is a very anarchic art form. It is subversive, it is about saying the things that you are not allowed to say. When you’re bringing people from around the world to share this form, you’re really seeing what is at the heart of the culture, what people are feeling in these different cultures, what they’re struggling with, where their concerns are, where their joy is found. It comes out in this very innocent, playful form that can be engaged with on every level, whether you’re a little kid or a super serious adult like us, haha … There’s so many layers to it.
Speaking of remoteness and islands, what about the practical side of things, the logistics of getting artists and shows over to Hvammstangi, to Iceland – in terms of financial support etc., how has this worked out for you?
We were really lucky in our first year because we did it in 2020 in the middle of Covid – it was amazing that it was able to happen – I say we were really lucky because there was an extra kick of funding. The primary cost and the difficult part of HIP Fest is the logistics. It’s not just getting people on a plane with their luggage to Reykjavík, you have to allow for the travel from Reykjavík to the north. There’s a lot of shuttling people at different times so the logistics of it can get very complicated. It’s sometimes a challenge to programme because where we are based, the technical facilities are not necessarily state of the art, so we need shows that can be flexible – ideally can come just on an airplane as extra baggage. We have a wonderful professional sound engineer and technician in Hvammstangi, Silli, and he’s been training up local people for a long time so we have some great amateurs around who chip in. I also import a lighting designer from London, my colleague David Duffy, but essentially we’re a very small team of four to five people who organize this. On a big HIP Fest year we host 30-40 artists over a long weekend. It really does become a whole community effort. We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have the support of Hótel Laugarbakki, for example, and the local restaurant Sjávarborg that feeds everybody. Community members getting involved and doing the driving, taking people on tours and trips – at HIP Fest Mini last year, a couple of people were like: ‘we heard that there’s a place where we can go swimming in the ocean’ and somebody just happened to be in the auditorium and said: ‘oh, I can take you’. People come together in this really organic, beautiful way. For this short time, the village of Hvammstangi is just bursting with new life and very different people. Artists are kind of a different thing anyway, but puppetry artists are a whole new level of … I don’t want to say odd, but –! The nature of this art form is that it is for people who are a little bit different, you know! It’s a place where a lot of art forms meet. When I was growing up, my uncle always made food at carnivals and that’s where I spent a lot of my life, and I feel that a lot of puppetry artists fit in this world very well. These are people who like to travel, who travel cheap, who travel rough, who go for it. So you get this burst of very open, artistic people flooding into Hvammstangi, full of joy with all these dolls everywhere, and you mash it together with a community of primarily farmers. It’s just a beautiful collision. I think the first year, people were a little bit shocked, and now people really look forward to it.
This brings me to the question of Eyrarrósin, because Handbendi was a very worthy recipient of Eyrarrósin in 2021. Eyrarrósin is an award for outstanding cultural projects in the rural areas of Iceland, a collaboration between the Reykjavík Arts Festival, The Regional Development Institute and Icelandair. The committee cited the quality of your artistic work, the diverse nature of your activities in Hvammstangi, but also your dedication to community outreach. Can you tell us more about your dialogue with your local community?
Community has always been really important to me. When I was doing my master’s degree, I studied a lot about rural rejuvenation, in particularly culture-led rural rejuvenation. Hvammstangi has a lot of the key elements required for that. You need some science going on – we have the Icelandic Seal Centre there so we have marine researchers present, a very high level of education. You need farming, and you need some sort of culture engagement. These three things create a hub of opportunity. Moving to Hvammstangi, the goal was already to engage the community in arts and culture. I had been visiting this area for a long time because my partner grew up near there. I always felt there was something unique about it. The goal was always to try this big social experiment, if you will, and see what bringing some high-quality dedicated art, that is resident there and is proud to be there – how this would change the community. It’s very difficult to change adults’ opinions about things, but the opportunity exists for working with young people. So this started almost immediately when we got there. To begin with it was just workshops and things like that, but it builds quite quickly. We started a summer youth theatre and this had never existed in the region before, probably just because the people who would do this weren’t living there. As we know, in a small community it’s all about who lives there, who’s willing to provide something. We started engaging with the summer youth programme, we started working with Leikflokkur Húnaþings vestra which does wonderful amateur work. Then two years ago we bought a space and I think this is the key. One of the biggest barriers to working in performing arts is access to a space to work. We were lucky enough to be able to purchase a space in an industrial estate on the edge of Hvammstangi and we converted it into a theatre space. Once this opened we were able to start a programme called Listaklasi æskunnar - a youth arts cluster. It’s an open free space where young people can gather to create their own art projects, whether they want to play with theatre, music or visual arts. Through that programme we bring in other professionals to work with them as well. We had kids doing a long-term course learning to make their own comic books and picture books, so they went from the idea stage all the way through to dummy models and getting them published if they want to. So it’s creating opportunities to have dialogue with other people who are interested in the same things as you – which maybe doesn’t sound unusual in the context of an urban environment, or even small communities in larger countries, but in the context of rural Iceland, this is actually something that is not often provided. And you can tell when it is not provided because when you do travel to those areas, there is a natural suspicion of anything that is a bit unusual, rather than a willingness to accept a. I’ve noticed this shift quite dramatically in the years since we’ve been in Hvammstangi. I don’t think this is entirely just Handbendi’s work, there’s a number of factors, a number of people who are actively trying to improve their area. The way that the young people react now to things and the way that they are engaging with world issues, with issues within their own immediate community, with arts and culture – and the craving for more of this stuff is very visible. I think this comes from having the simple opportunity to engage, to not feel like you’re strange just because you’re interested in something else, and to understand that there are many, many, many people in this world and they are all interested in different things. Whatever it is that you’re einterested in, there is someone else who is also interested. It’s hard to be different in a small community because you rely on each other a lot and it’s very easy to be ostracized for small things. And so a lot of the work within the community is about saying: ‘everybody’s different – it's cool’. A lot of our original youth theatre kids are young adults now and I see them out in the world doing amazing things, being very vocal and supportive and inspiring young people. I think it’s working – I hope it’s working. I know it from experience because if I hadn’t met those people I would not be who I am. I would not have had the experiences I’ve had, I would not have the outlook on the world that I have, if I hadn’t met people who also inspired this in me.
This kind of work obviously requires support, structure and continuity. When I first became aware of your work in Iceland it was due to you being vocal about the need for further recognition and support for rural arts. Here in Iceland, we tend to be extremely focused on the Reykjavík area. Those of us who live in the city are often shamefully unaware of what’s going on in other parts of the country. What can be done? What kind of structures or support systems do we need for this rejuvenation in a wider context?
This is a huge question … We need policy that is not city-centric and I think this is one of the great challenges that Iceland is faced with – realizing that it is larger than the south. It’s such a small community and I don’t mean it in a negative way but as an opportunity for growth. The rural parts of Iceland have been let down dramatically, for decades. There is not any significant amount of regional funding. Also remember that you don’t have audience numbers, it’s not like you’re going to make your money back on ticket sales in a village of 500 people. But policy can’t always be driven by the financial viability of something. This is about social engagement, as well as just bringing some happiness. We are allowed to bring joy into this world without it being something that will make profit. If you look at something like our production Heimferð, we did 137 performances but there’s only eight people in each performance. That’s not financially viable, this can’t exist without funding, but the story that is being told in that is absolutely essential to where we are right now. Well, I don’t want to give too much away about the show in case anybody gets the opportunity to see it, but you know, art isn’t about money. At the same time we have to make sure that people who are working within this sector are being paid, because it’s more than a full-time job, it’s an insane amount of work that you do. Sometimes it’s very disheartening when you realize that the teenager washing dishes is making more money than you.
I think sometimes the dialogue can be swayed by the idea that, first of all, nobody in the countryside is interested in culture so why should we go there, why should we fund it? The other misconception is that the local funding will take care of that – but I want you to think about how little tax income there is from a village of 500 people, and where the other important community interests are, which is a lot of infrastructure that is not being provided. The roads are not being maintained, street lights are not being maintained, hot water is not being maintained. There are essential things concerning communities in rural Iceland which are not being addressed. And then to say: ‘oh, you put your own money into culture then as well’, I think that’s kind of bullshit. Vocal support is great but it still doesn’t pay for things to happen. There are many levels of concerns and many levels of infrastructure that have failed, so I don’t know at what level we start addressing culture in the countryside. There are some excellent programmes that are working, like List fyrir alla, which is wonderful in the way that it makes sure that children all over the country have access to different kinds of culture. This is wonderful on paper, but in reality it stops schools and providers from booking independent artists who are not on a list from the programme. So you’re addressing one problem but creating a whole other one. We’re in a situation now where the only touring that independent companies can do that are not part of List fyrir alla is through kindergartens. People don’t want to pay for it, rightfully so because they’re going to get a free show through Þjóðleikhúsið - who should of course be doing that, since they’re the National Theatre. I am aware that I’m talking about this in the context of Iceland, it is a small island and it’s very easy to ruffle feathers. I don’t mean it that way, I mean that we can work together to address these issues but we need to be able to have a conversation about it.
I tend to wrap up the episode by asking people if they had one wish granted for the performing arts scene in Iceland – what would you do if you could make one change that you really think would benefit the scene or any part of the scene?
My wish is that as a scene we would think more about the longevity of our projects and consider that from the very beginning. Not just making a short run at Tjarnarbíó - which also means that we need more venues. There needs to be opportunity for people to share their work more frequently and in a variety of spaces that are suited to the work that they are creating, where people can fail miraculously. You can’t learn, you can’t grow as artists if you can’t fail and it’s hard to fail in a small community. We have to also have the ability to create shows that can travel, whether that is travelling abroad or travelling within the country. This knowledge, which does exist here – there are many artists who have this knowledge base of how to create work that is tourable – this needs to grow within the general mentality of performing artists . It doesn’t mean every show has to be tourable. But if we’re thinking about things having a longer shelf life, that’s where it’s got to be. There’s a very finite audience in Iceland. And it’s an amazing opportunity to be working and collaborating with other companies abroad, because not only is your world perspective opening up, your artistic expression is opening up. There’s opportunity to make this your genuine full-time job and I feel very privileged in that this is what I do. That would not be possible without the international component to the work. There are so many wonderful Icelandic artists who have studied abroad, who have returned home, who have all these great perspectives, these great skills and ideas. I’d love to see a system that opened up more opportunities for people to create.
Maybe the outward-looking part is one of the hopes that we have for the Performing Arts Centre. We’re going to have more consistent policy on this – how to enable people to get their work out there and reach further.
Yes, and this has to come down from the funding bodies. Somehow we need to adjust our focus. In this last funding cycle there was quite a lot of large shows funded. It’s cool to fund large shows as well, but it made me die a little inside to think about all the smaller artists who would take a fraction of the funding to share something really special.