“Writing texts for the stage” Published as afterword to “Falling Apples” 2016, translated by Neil Howard.
Mater Nexus by Lene Therese Teigen
Theatretext and theatre production by Lene Therese Teigen, written in 2002, Yearbook of the Playwrighters Ass.
One day my tutor told me that I could not structure my film as I had done. That I hadn’t understood one thing about dramatic structure. At that time I studied film- and TV-directing. I had taken theatre science for one and a half years and literature for a year, and was now studying my last year to become a bachelor. Earlier I had both been playing and producing theatre, and I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of dramas in general. But meeting with the world of film and television I learnt my lesson: You had to follow the rules.
I did know that you have to accept certain rules in order to be part of a community. That I tried to teach my little daughter every day. But at the same time I wanted to raise her to become an independent and thinking human being who was able to evaluate a situation and act out of her own believes.
Just a few months later I got an artist’s grant for a shortfilm-script, and was able to produce it. I made my film “Reel”, a poetic black/white film about women in different ages, which got a lot of attention when it was shown at different filmfestivals around the world. At the womens’ film festival in Paris in 1992 it was the only nordic shortfilm which was accepted to the main program of the festival. But I did not get any more grants to make films in Norway. Was there something wrong with my choices of themes? The form? The structure?
Early winter 1998 I was invited to a seminar at the Open Theatre in my hometown Oslo, Norway, about the lack of good parts for female actors in the theatre. I agreed that the topic was worth attention, but I did not feel I should solve the problem. But the fact that a number of female actors also were invited made me keen on going. Maybe it would initiate some kind of collaboration? I was not disappointed. The actors’ thoughts of what parts they wanted to play, and what they said about themselves and the lives they led, inspired me, also the fact that there was a connection between who they were in reality and what they wanted to play.
During the two days of the seminar, I realized I wanted to write a large-scale play and take responsibility for developing the project on my own. After some years working as a dramaturg/text consultant, and collaborating with other people on different manuscipt-projects, I felt it was time. I needed to find the energy which emerges when everything is at stake.
Several times I had moved through topics like mother-child, love, eldering, families breaking up, illness and death; always concidering that the relation to time and the idea of form was as important as the thematic elements. I created nine characters and made an outline of the main structure before our next meeting. The characters’ stories were supposed to have equal emphasis in the text. I wanted their stories to come to the surface in a parallell structure, weaving together their experiences, confrontations, joys, longings and sorrows into an entirety which meant more than each story in itself.
Now I wanted to write a text without thinking how hard it would be to get it into production! My aim was to make something which a lot of people would get an interest for, but at the same time give formal challenges to the people who was to work with it, and hopefully also to the audience. The text was going to lean on different theatrical conventions, and I wanted the transformations from one sequence to the next to give meaning in such a way that the formal complexity in whole also would tell a story.
My tutor in the film-directing class had both provoked me and made me curious. What actually was dramatic structure? I started to do research for a master combining knowledge of dramatic structure in film, television and theatre. At the same time I made shortfilm and theatre; wrote drama and prose. Among other things I studied Aristotle, “The Beverly Hills Structure”, Lessing, spiral-dramaturgy and epic structure. I learned about cabaret-dramaturgy, dreamplay-technique, postmodern dramaturgical theories and theories on meta-drama and fictional layers. I realized that there were few common references across the medial borders concerning if and how different dramaturgical terms were used.
Also, I realized that different dramatic structures expressed different views of life, on what is true and what is false. At the same time I became aware that girls and boys play different games and also focus on different parts of an experience when they tell it as a story. The girls could have more focus on seeing themselves as part of a group, while the boys rather would focus on themselves, for instance on the top of a mountain or in the leading canoo. I reflected upon the fact that even if there is a big majority of women being consumers of culture in Norway, the producers of culture are mainly men. It became clear to me that womens’ need to express themselves, believe in their versions of a story, their fields of interest, changed and had been changing because of the strong male influence concerning choices of themes and ways of telling stories.
My writing was about longing, hope and disappointment in relation to life passing and death coming. The themes and my ways of dealing with them as philosophical problems, influenced me when I tried to find the form which in the best way could contribute to the total artistic expression. Through my studies I understood how form and content was intervened, that my choices of form in a performance also would tell who I was and reveal my own relationship to my stories.
Halldis Hoaas, dramaturgist and head of the Norwegian Theatre Academy, writes this in the programme of Mater Nexus:
“On one level one can say that the text questions the role of the modern woman, the demand for success in lovelife and worklife, in being a mother and caretaker, demands which often seem impossible to combine. And in the center of the text is the one thing which part woman from man: The woman who gives birth to the child. The child – or the absence of the child – is a key element when women themselves define if they have succeeded with their lives or not.
In this perspective Mater Nexus is a womans’ play in many ways – but foremost it is a play on a profoundly human level dealing with life and death, life that passes through us with the choices we make, with time that passes, with incidents which affects, with people we attach to. We see our own death, or what is said to be the worst: The death of ones own child. Womans’ play? Alright, but first and foremost a play about the human condition in the world we have created and which shape us. […] By working in the tension between strong aesthetic formal demands and confronting rough emotional life, she mirrors the modernity we are a part of, our unsecure path between chaos and control.”<
Meeting the group of actors again and listen to all the reaction to the ideas which were to become Mater Nexus, was very inspiring. Being only women probably made the talk less formal and the room more intimate, and the sardonic humour was very present! Through the meeting with the actors my themes expanded and startet to live – with colourful differences we were a big group with various experiences on motherhood, lovelife, careerchoices, on illness and death. Without having expressed a goal, nor a hidden dream, it became evident that Mater Nexus should be a play with only female characters. I don’t know if any established theatre-institution would have bought the play, because I never gave them the chance.
I was afraid of what would happen with the text, maybe someone would demand more focus on one main character, more classical tensions, or just get it to “work” as other plays. I wished to keep control of the whole project, and became my own producer, with my own company “House of Stories”.
In the course of years I have gone through several projects from text to final production so I was sure I could take responsibility for the directing myself. I knew I wouldn’t get the chance to direct Mater Nexus for one of the big theatres in Oslo, because I had worked in different medias and never done directing for the big theatres. Also all statistic material revealed that as a woman my chances of getting to direct Mater Nexus inside an institution was almost nil.
Ida Lou Larsen, reviewing Mater Nexus for Nationen, 1st of february 2001, writes this, among other things:
“The mother-child relationship, and maybe especially the mother-daughter relationship, is one of the most important themes in Mater Nexus, and I experienced Lene Therese Teigens text and theatrical language as the profoundly most feminist I have ever seen on stage. Without hesitation she sets focus on a lot of the problems and dilemmas of the contemporary woman, like the conflict between professional life and maternal life, between taking power and taking care, between self-realization and self-knowledge. And she does so in a nuanced and unprejudiced way.
Even if she reveals Ingrid as a bit of an evil, selfsentered and domineering woman, her daughter Alina is not solely a victim of her mothers’ betrayal, she is hard, relentless and – she too- selfsentered and domineering in her own way. This is only one example, but it goes for all the other characters as well; they are ambiguous and complex, self-contradictory and dubious, and Mater Nexus therefore becomes something of the most correct and striking I have seen on stage on how it is to be a woman in todays’ society.”
In Mater Nexus I wrote about nine completely different women. Many were unhappy, some didn’t know why, others knew it all too well. It was about reason and emotion, to succeed or not. In the play there had to be one character to represent the centre around whom I could spin the story. I knew that this “centre-character” could not be a traditional main character because I wanted to tell the lifestories of all nine women. But of course something had to build up a tension and make the audience keep their interest. The tecnique I used was to have one situation overlap with another in sequence, always putting different characters in focus and making others go out of it. I also decided that the basis of the play should be the presence of nine realistic characters, that is I wanted to create naturalistic characters for actors working in the psychological-realistic tradition, which is the tradition from which the best actors in Norway emerge. At the same time, I wanted to give them both artistic and technical challenges, concerning the level of stylization of a scene or the poetical level in a line. How do we work on the borders of realism? The actors had to master fast rytmical and focal breaks and stylized patterns of both movements and speech. I wanted all the people who were involved in the artistic process to feel that the final artistic result was a result of themselves being part of the process. The main reason why this seemed to be happening was that my vision was clear, even if we talked a lot together and everyone had their chance to contribute, it was an effective and collected work in process.
During rehearsal time it became clear that the changes of focus which structured the text, also had to be the basis for how our rehearsal time was structured. No one could take too much focus during rehearsal, there was always someone who had another important scene or situation coming up, and therefore we became a true collective in our way of working with the text. The first six months I met the actors four times, the next year I held two 2-week workshops with 7 months in between. I worked with approximately 20 different actors on the nine parts, and one of the methods was to alternate actors for the different parts.
At the time when I finished my last workshop, I got a large amount of money from the Norwegian Cultural Fund, enough to secure that Mater Nexus could be produced as a professional performance. I wrote through the whole play three times before starting the rehearsals one year later, collaborating with my dramaturg Halldis Hoaas. In the pre-production-time I managed to gather a very fine group of well-known artists and theatreworkers for the project. My producer and I wrote a lot of applications and talked a lot about economnic and artistic strategies. Three months before starting the rehearsals in Oslo I got the good news that Stockholm City Theater in Sweden wanted to buy the text and make their own production. And I hadn’t even asked them!
While waiting for the City Theater to get Mater Nexus into production, I thought a lot about what kind of resistance I would meet now. Great emotions are put into force when theatre bosses choose directors, directors and theatre bosses choose plays and actors are casted for the plays. The fact is that this is not only a question of artistic consideration and priority, but also has a lot to do with prestige for the people involved.
At The Open Theatre in Oslo we got a home for our production. They were co-producers, along with The Norwegian Theatre where we got actors “for free” among other things. The National Theatre was also contributing with an actor. To stay in the same place throughout the whole production period was a real luxury for those of us with a non-institutional theatre background. We had an excellent basis for developing a good spirit for collaboration and creating our own atmosphere in the working space. In the third part of the text Mater Nexus I wrote that there should be a projection of a videofilm as part of the visual landscape. A year before the actual theatre production, we produced the film, which was a collaboration between light designer-/photographer Marianne Thallaug Wedset and myself. Fortyfive women of all ages participated in a video session of what would become a morph-video. Slowly a baby-girl of three months was transformed into a hundred year old woman, with all the other faces as steps on the way. Each face having approximately forty seconds on screen – always mixed with the last face or the next face. Marianne also did portraits of the women. She made a photo-exhibition which was shown at The Open Theatre throughout the three weeks Mater Nexus was running. Later it has had its own life. All in all there were more than forty people involved in my production of Mater Nexus in Oslo. Madness and extasy! It may be good to be a bit crazy to do this sort of production outside a theatre-institution. I am convinced that the experience which evolved from not going into compromises – to keep my vision – and both demand high professional standards and at the same time focus on creating an open and caring work atmosphere, with emphasis on collaboration, made this a special project.
Mater Nexus also lives a life on its own as text. At the departments of literature at the Universities of Oslo and Bergen it is part of the syllabus. This is extremely rare for a contemporary drama text, especially when written by a woman. In such a context the dramas are compared and discussed according to different methods and theories. What place the text can take in relation to contemporary art and aesthetic theories in general, will be an issue of discussion. Sometimes there also will arise questions as to what the text expresses on political and social issues. As for Mater Nexus, the students have, among other things, focused on feminist philosophy and linguistics in dealing with the text.
Ingeborg Winderen Owesen, researcher at the Center for Womens’ Studies and Gender Research at The University in Oslo writes in the programme for Mater Nexus in Oslo: “With its nine speaking women Mater Nexus is neither a monologue nor a dialogue. On the other hand, a more appropriate term is the term “polylogue”, a term introduced by the french philosopher Jacques Derrida and the feminist theorist Julia Kristeva. While a monologue is a one-person-speech, and dialogue a speech between two, “polylogue” indicates an act of speech consisting of several voices. […] For Luce Irigaray language is the stepping stone for her feminist based critique. The symbolic language is mainly created by men. Women lack the language to express spesific female experiences, and this leads to a sort of “homelessness” in language and culture for women, a kind of internal exile. Hélène Cixous prescribes as cure for this diagnosis what she calls female writing. Mater Nexus is a good example of female writing. […] Even if we today have numbers of female writers in our part of the world, it is a paradox that themes like birthgiving and nursing are still taboos. Mater Nexus breaks this taboo in a brave manner.”
Virginia Woolf wrote (A room of ones own, 1929): “For my belief is that if we live another century or so – […] – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think […] then the opportunity will come.” Woolfs text is of course valid even today, especially if we concider it in a broad perspective. We have to conquer the rooms, we have to take place, take space. We must write about what we mean is important, and choose forms and styles which correspond with what we wish to tell. We must create places where we can talk together about the work we do.
For instance: Do we really have more in common than the frustration of bad working conditions? We have to confront the people who decide if our manuscripts are good, if our themes are interesting, if the form is salable or the structure right. We must create spaces where it is possible to talk about all this in a broader perspective. But then we have to dare to be seen. Daring to be seen is daring to mean, and if what we mean seems complicated and hard to communicate, we have to acquire knowledge – enough to dare speak out loud.
In Norway the institutional theatres get all the money – the rest of us have to compete for a ridicously low amount of money. Now the authorities want to give room for changes: They want the institutions to initiate more co-productions, more collaboration with groups from the non-institutional theatre-world. Women – now we have to be there. When what earlier was looked upon as avantgarde become accepted and now is taken into concideration for co-production in the theatre institutions, we must not back out. Women are good at defining themselves as marginal, and there is a risk that we will stand in the back of the line when our male colleges find their way to the funding possibilities which emerge when the authorities want our rich institutional theatres to go into co-production on a much larger scale. When there is a greater openness for different kinds of projects, there is more room to define ones own peculiarity and concern.
But this demands that the artists have a belief in what they do, and also that they are able to communicate why their project is good and important to the right people. Compared to women there are lots of men who just head on and tell how extremely interesting and important their projects are; you must not miss this! Of course there are women who could learn from a rougher manner of behaviour, but only if there also is a conscience on the fact that there are other ways of communicating, which I think a lot of men also would appreciate to use.
I worked hard and never gave up, and managed to produce Mater Nexus in my own way, never giving up on my vision. This got me a bunch of challenges which made me learn a lot. As playwrights and theatre-artists we only get better from continous work, and to see our texts and ideas as performances. Then we get more secure – about who we are or are not, as human beings and as artists. If one shall find a point in going on with the work, there must be those kinds of working possibilities we work to acquire, we have to dare to think we are worth it! We deserve good working places.
Mater Nexus by Lene Therese Teigen