He looks around, points to the sunny street outside, then shakes his head: “I know cities where you can find more theaters on every single block than there are in the whole of Oslo.” Mr. McCall, artistic director and founder of the independent theater group ‘Ensemble Free Theater Norway’ is one of the brave people making his living doing theater in Oslo. Born in California, having studied Acting at New York University and taught theater at Yale School of Drama, he has come a long way to the small community of Oslo. His goal was to raise awareness for the work of independent theater groups and actors, thus creating a sphere for those who passionately put all their efforts into the emergence of a new, varied cultural landscape in Scandinavia. Now after almost three years in Oslo–directing plays, teaching Norwegian acting students, and navigating the country´s infamous bureaucracy–he utters his personal verdict with a laugh: “It. Is. Tough. Shit.” He then makes a wide gesture with his hands: “Why are there are no playwriting classes in the universities of Norway? Why are there so few professional resources for the development of young, fresh work? Where is a thriving non-institutional scene of theater activity, separate from Nationaltheatret and the repertory of Ibsen?”
He raises his eyebrows, he asks, he wonders. Talking to Brendan McCall makes you realize the vastness of artistic opportunities in Norway, but at the same time the latent void of courage and innovation. It makes you wonder what conditions a country has to provide so that the arts can bloom and flourish. Working together with actors from all parts of the world, most recently in cooperation with the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago, McCall can’t help but comparing theater in the Windy City to that of the Norwegian capital: ”It´s not the fact that Chicago is three times the size of Oslo. It´s the theater community’s work ethic, their relationship to the work. Their dedication and energetic drive, even for very little money. That’s what makes the city so rich, culturally, nad why the theater there is booming. Chicago does more with less.” So are Norwegian art-lovers spoiled? Spoiled by the general wealth of their country and therefore not willing to work hard if the financial part of the deal is not perfectly convenient? Or are the artists rather the victims here? Struggling because of administration, the education, the lack of population density or just people’s indifferent attitude? “A little bit of everything, I would guess.”, McCall says. “There is so much financial support, so many grants, so much money flowing around. And yet the refrain seems to be that there are not enough opportunities to perform, not enough money to produce work. Are we truly using the money we do have properly? Or maybe we, as a community, are remaining complacent, getting a certain laziness because of this ‘everyone is the same´ mentality, that no one dares break out of.”
By saying that McCall is already hitting home. It might be this ‘all the same’ community that prevents many Norwegians to put themselves out there, to draw the attention to their individual work, to remain provocative, original and loud. Over here it all seems to develop in another pace, according to different rules which are alien to most of the foreigners. It is the tradition of Jente Loven, of uniformity and coherence that holds many back. It consequently is an enclosed culture, a slightly rule bound and exclusive system of norms and standards that makes it hard for newcomers to get involved.
In other spheres of life those might be agreeable character traits. It holds a community very tightly together, it enforces solidarity and modesty. Norwegians generally are not a stock of people bragging about their abilities.
Yet in the field of arts it might be necessary to overcome the fear to stand out among others from time to time. In the arts, they need sound and fury! Otherwise its participants tend to become silent, trapped and afraid to establish new ideas and concepts. People get too comfortable, the cultural landscape becomes homogeneous, deserted and the players become stuck: “It is the lack of competition, and lack of diversity”, proceeds McCall, “People are used to relying on a couple of traditional institutions, even though they are serving the greater community. New models have to be made.”
Yet no one expects them to break with those traditions even though such competition might be what helps to avoid stagnation. And what causes artists to work harder and actors to form their own groups. And what forces directors to look for new concepts, new questions and solutions to understand the society we are living in. Because isn’t that what theater is all about? A multimedia-based team play to process our surroundings and culture? Always a little bit on the toes, always reaching out more or less to the audience, hoping and trying to be the avant-garde?
Young work should be free from well-established giants, should be looking ahead towards new ideas, new participants: “There are 25 % immigrants in Oslo. It is a fascinating group and I would love to hear their voice,” proposes McCall, emphasizing only one of the opportunities Norway’s capital is offering its inhabitants. And yes, for god’s sake – we are talking about the capital here.
A capital with snowy mountains surrounded by woods, with beautiful architecture, with a rich harbor and an expansive variety of people living together. A delightful spot to be. A delightful spot to think. A place to interact with vital areas, with the possibility to communicate in different languages, to exchange and to interact. After all this is a young country and a young city at its dawn. Maybe we have to give it time. And give it the chance to change the old patterns and make use of the numerous possibilities. Then Oslo has the potential to become a vital place to work and create: “We have to remain curious. We always have to question, to raise awareness and to reflect on the culture we are living in”, concludes McCall. ”Diversity is a sign of health, and a healthy society embraces different points of view.”