Swede of the Week

‘Politics has no place on my theatre stage’

'Politics has no place on my theatre stage'
Swedish theatre director Catta Neuding has long sung the virtues of private money in the cultural sector. She tells The Local why many of her colleagues see her as a norm-breaker.

In a recent debate entitled “Does culture suffer if it sells”, Catta Neuding questioned whether Swedish citizens should have to pay for plays that “no one goes to see”.

In 2012, she was head hunted to take charge of the outdoor theatre Fjäderholmsteatern, on the Fjäderholm island just 20 minutes from Stockholm harbour. She has since remained faithful to her belief that culture should be entertaining

“Entertaining in the best sense of the word. I wanted a broad repertoire,” Neuding tells The Local about setting to work to refresh the theatre. “Earlier it tended towards pantomime and while I didn’t want to deprive the theatre of its accessibility, I wanted to add an artful bent.”

She says there is still a lot of scepticism in Sweden toward private theatre, in large part due to how few such stages there are.

“I want people to have a good time, so it automatically becomes commercial. I don’t aim to create an artistic masterpiece with every performance.”

Neuding, who studied commedia dell’arte, has put together a summer repertoire including Selma Lagerlöf’s tale The Changeling (Bortbytingen) and August Strindberg’s Hemsöborna performed by clowns. She is no roaming saltimbanco, however, when it comes to the demands of running the show commercially. The long-term goal is to survive through ticket sales.

“We’re in the starting blocks, we’re not there yet. I spend a lot of time on marketing, and I have to focus on making sure it sells.”

Although she says politics has no place on her stage, she has a larger political goal with how she works.

“One of my aims is to create a climate where it’s OK to privately finance theatre,” she says.

While many artists shy way from the term commercialism, Neuding thinks theatre should be allowed to have as its ultimate goal to entertain and to fill its seats. She welcomes private involvement in the sector, but notes the Swedes are not in the habit of giving donations to the arts.

“In the US, in contrast, there is almost a social expectation that you contribute to society, including the arts.”

Sweden’s government is working to lift the 25-percent tax on charitable donations to sports and culture, explains Lars Anders Johansson, whom Neuding has drafted in to put together a one-day festival of visor – melodies that follow in the Swedish troubadour tradition. He is also a musician and culture sector analyst at the conservative think-tank Timbro.

“I’d like more of a debate about what state funding for culture should be used for,” he says. “Right now we just have some kind of tepid consensus that ‘culture is valuable’, which people interpret as keeping up payments to institutions that have always been supported.”

Johansson thinks there is a happy medium, where outfits that rely on state funding don’t try to lock horns with private actors. The risk otherwise, he says, is twofold. One, that cultural consumers end up with less variety to choose from, and two, that tax is in essence wasted because it goes to produce something that already exists as well as threatening private enterprise.

“It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Neuding and Johansson are both members of what has been nicknamed “The Red Wine Right”. It’s a spin-off to the oft-maligned term “The Red Wine Left”, which has described the often urban section of middle-class voters who cast their ballots in favour of a strong state and who often work in creative industries.

The Red Wine Right is less of a demographic sweep, but a small movement of people with right of centre views – ranging from conservative to libertarian – who meet up to discuss culture and the arts.

The spin-off term also serves to highlight what many right-leaning observers say is a dominance of leftwing views in the cultural sphere.

“If you’re a socialist, you tend to think that everything is political. A conservative person does not necessarily view their art as political,” says Johansson.

“So let’s say for argument’s sake that Sweden has a 50/50 left-right divide: One half would produce politicized art whereas the other half wouldn’t, which means that all politicized art would be leftwing.”

“Does culture have to question the status quo?” interjects Neuding. “I’m not interested in political theatre, I don’t think the stage is the right place to raise political questions.”

Johansson also says that the structure of how to get state funding is troublesome, in two ways. Firstly, it risks lending a helping hand to people who are good at filling out forms with no guarantee that they are equally skilled at their actual creative profession.

It secondly comes with caveats, such as outlining a gender equality plan. Many such goals, Johansson says, are “worthy causes in themselves” but end up drawing up very strict parametres for the contents of culture – a consensus censorship of sorts.

“We spend a lot of time in Sweden making sure culture doesn’t offend anyone,” Johansson says.

Ann Törnkvist

Follow Ann on Twitter here

Editor’s Note: The Local’s Swede of the week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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