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INTERVIEW

CULTURE

‘We bring comedy to the tough things expats deal with’

Josh Lenn, originally from San Francisco, has been working in improvised comedy in Sweden for over seven years. He tells The Local how expat life is just like improvisation.

'We bring comedy to the tough things expats deal with'
All photos: Eduardo De Los Santos

How long have you been working in comedy, and how did it all start?

I moved to Sweden seven and a half years ago, having worked as an actor in the US and I found a theatre in Sweden that had an improv festival. I went to some of the workshops and one of the theatre owners offered me the opportunity to teach there, so in autumn 2008 I began teaching improv in English. The class grew and became a small community. I do other kinds of acting too, but this is my passion.

In 2012, we created a show called Lost in Translation. It’s been running for four years and has been a big success, attracting people from all over the world. I started teaching weekly drop-in classes and taught improv to over 200 people – mostly in the international community – which was so exciting because it was on a bigger scale than previously, and people were really enjoying it. I wanted to start my own theatre so I partnered with an actor, Katarina, and we created International Theater Stockholm in March 2014.

Why do you think improvisation has proved so popular with expats in Sweden?

Well, moving to a new country is very similar to performing improv! You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know the characters – there’s no script.

For me, moving here was a big challenge and I experienced some tough times, especially in the beginning; you can feel really lonely. I didn’t have a community to lean on or a space where I felt I could be myself. I was craving a place where I could express myself and be a part of something, so I started creating it.

Something which has been great to see is that so who many students have come to the classes are trying to figure out when they’ll be able to leave Sweden when they first arrive, but after a few months, leaving is the furthest thing from their mind. Improv gives them a way to be themselves.

As well as the classes, we offer shows and lots of people contribute in different ways. We have nine or ten interns involved in stage production and marketing – it’s for anyone.

So do you find that turning the difficult aspects of moving abroad into a joke can be therapeutic for foreigners?

Extremely therapeutic! I meet a lot of people who resist Sweden or resist the differences that they face here. I even did that myself at points in my journey. Improv teaches you how to say yes and how to accept things, which helps you to embrace change and become much less judgmental. If you resist change and resist Sweden, you suffer, but if you accept it, it becomes an adventure. So improv can be extremely valuable in that respect.

We bring comedy to the tough things we deal with and celebrate the differences in an entertaining way which makes them feel less intimidating. So many people come out and do say it’s like a therapy session.

But if nothing is planned, what happens when things go wrong?

That’s actually my favourite thing about improv. We look at mistakes as gifts, we don’t see failure as a problem but as an opportunity. We fail gloriously! And that attitude is fantastic for life.

A lot of people get stage fright before a presentation or feel stupid speaking Swedish, but when you learn to celebrate failure in improv and see it is an opportunity, you become less afraid of taking big risks in other arenas.

Do you notice differences between people of different nationalities and their attitudes to comedy?

Our audiences and classes are so diverse; in a class of 14 students there could be 12 different nationalities. We get lots of native Swedes too, and the mix opens up a lot of comedic potential! Improv is a team sport so you’re really open to the diversity of the group, and all the different nationalities bring different kinds of material which widens the opportunity for humour.

Of course, in comedy you’re always walking a line between the potential to offend people. You just have to be respectful and do it in a loving way. Improv is very different from stand-up. You learn to commit to the moment and try to play the truth of a situation rather than playing it for laughs, and often the truth is what’s hilarious.

What qualities does someone need to be good at improv?

I work with a lot of companies and students and different kinds of people and so many people I work with are scared because they think  ‘I need to be funny, creative, original’ and they think they’re none of those things, they start judging themselves. When you do improv, you have to be really obvious and really mediocre!

Once you learn the fundamentals, before you know it, you’re going on amazing adventures. You get past thinking and critiquing the words coming out of your and your partners’ mouths, we all have endless creativity. Once you get there it’s the best feeling in the world because we all have that creativity available. It’s wonderful to see people get rid of that, break through – but sometimes your thinking mind comes back to haunt you.

What shows and classes are you offering at the moment?

Lost in Translation is still running two or three times a month, and we have a show called Mission Improvible, an improvised spy thriller, which will have its spring premiere on March 4th. We also run courses and drop-in classes, and every other week, we host an improv comedy club in the basement of Café String. 

 

For members

CULTURE

‘Don’t wear bright colours’: Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Swedes have an international reputation for dressing well, with Scandi style a popular trend outside Sweden. The Local asked Swedes and foreigners living in Sweden to try and figure out the best tips and tricks for how to dress like a Swede.

'Don't wear bright colours': Eight tips on how to dress like a Swede

Black is best

When asking several Swedes their top-tips on how to dress like a Swede, many agreed – wear black.

Young professional Tove advises to keep it “all black, minimalist”. Uppsala newspaper columnist Moa agrees: “Wear a lot of black clothes and DON’T wear sneakers or ‘comfortable’ shoes, like running shoes, with dresses.”

Black is a neutral colour and, in general, if you get the neutral colours right you have got a long way in following the Swedish style. 

Neutral colours and a lot of knitwear is a good starting point. Photo: FilippaK/imagebank.sweden.se

Stay neutral 

Sweden might be saying goodbye to hundreds of years of neutrality by joining Nato, but Swedish fashion maintains its strong neutral stance when it comes to colour combinations.

Generally speaking, in autumn and winter Swedes tend to wear darker colours, as Sharon put it: “lots of beige, grey, black and ivory knits or wool. Jeans black or any shade of blue. Black tights with white sneakers for skirts and dresses”.

“Swedes in general will wear black and navy together which I’ve not seen before,” she added.

However, as the weather gets warmer, things change, as half-British half-Swedish Erik explained: “in summer/late spring Swedes change shape and personality,” adding a bit more colour to their wardrobe.

“Lots of colours yet still somewhat monochrome,” he said.

Most Swedes don’t wear a tie at work. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Follow the news trend, drop the tie

Nils, a reporter and presenter for public broadcaster SVT in western Sweden, does not always wear a tie in front of the camera – and he said his colleagues on national news don’t wear ties either.

“It’s not a must,” he said.

A blue shirt, no tie, top button open, beige chinos and a grey dinner jacket is the look he chose when presenting the evening news a few weeks ago.

Nils Arnell presenting the news on SVT Nyheter Väst. Photo: Nils Arnell/SVT

On a day to day basis Nils, who stressed that he’s “not a fashion expert”, gave the following advice: “As long as you manage to dress in a neat style, you can get away with quite a lot.”

“A white t-shirt and an overshirt work well in most situations and look stylish.”

Stay classy, even in class

Engineering student Erik (not the same Erik quoted previously) recently returned to Sweden from a one-year exchange at Birmingham University, where he noticed a big difference in student style between the two countries.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that on university campus there are so many people wearing work-out clothes, at least where I was”, he said.

“In Sweden, it’s more common to wear jeans than tracksuit bottoms, compared to the UK”. 

It’s also common to see a difference in styles even between departments at Swedish universities. The law and economics departments, for example, tend to wear more formal attire with a higher number of students wearing shirts and polos than, say, social sciences or engineering students.

Many students seem to wear a toned-down version of what they might be expected to wear in their future workplace.

When in doubt, think Jantelagen!

Equality and conformity are important concepts when it comes to many aspects of day-to-day life in Sweden, including the clothes you wear.

This doesn’t mean you have to do exactly the same as everyone else, but more that being too flashy or over-the-top can be frowned upon.

This can be traced back to Jantelagen, “the law of Jante”, a set of 10 rules taken from a satirical novel written by Danish author Aksel Sandemose in the 1930s, which spells out the unwritten cultural codes that have long defined Scandinavia.

Jantelagen discourages individual success and sets average as the goal. It manifests itself in Swedish culture not only with a ‘we are all equal’ ethos but even more so a ‘don’t think you are better than anyone, ever’ mindset.

And this is seen in Swedes’ attitude to clothing, too. Flashy, expensive clothing with obvious logos or brands designed to show off your wealth breaks the first rule of Jantelagen: “You’re not to think you are anything special”.

‘Stealth wealth’

This doesn’t mean that Swedes don’t wear expensive clothes, though. They’re just not in-your-face expensive.

Felix, a podcaster from Stockholm describes it as “stealth wealth”, saying that Swedes would have no problem buying and wearing “a black jacket without any tags for 10,000kr”. 

Despite living in Sweden his whole life, he said that it’s not always easy to get the style right.

“I’m struggling myself,” he admitted.

He suggested taking a look at fashion blogger and journalist Martin Hansson for inspiration on how to dress. 

“Do NOT use bright colours,” Felix added.

Birkenstocks with socks. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Footwear

Most of those we asked said that Swedes are a fan of white trainers, most commonly Stan Smiths or Vagabonds.

With the shoes being popular all year round for men and women, this can cause issues at house parties – as Swedes take off their shoes when they come inside.

This inevitably results in confused guests at the end of the night trying to figure out just which pair of white trainers belongs to them – and trying to find one missing shoe the next day because someone accidentally walked away with one of yours is more common than you might think. 

Vans trainers are also popular amongst more alternative crowds (black of course). At work, dress shoes are popular in the winter and loafers or ballerinas in the summer.

In the summer months, you’re likely to see Birkenstock sandals on men and women. Most Swedes wear Birkenstocks without socks – unless they’re off to do their laundry in their building’s tvättstuga.

Birkenstocks are also popular as indoor shoes all-year-round, both at home and at work. It is common to have a “no outdoor shoes” policy in gyms, schools and some offices. This is to avoid bringing a lot of dirt indoors, especially in the winter months when there is snow, rain, grit and salt on the streets.

H&M’s then-CEO Rolf Eriksen wears colourful socks at a press conference in 2006. Photo: Björn Larsson Ask/SvD/SCANPIX/TT

Don’t forget the socks!

As you often take your shoes off indoors in Sweden, your socks are visible.

This has led to an unexpected trend for colourful socks with interesting patterns, which are a great way to break the monotone of neutral colours and conformity by expressing your personality – in a lagom way, of course.

A pair of colourful socks or a playful pattern will get you noticed and likely be a conversation starter at a dinner party.

What’s your best advice for dressing like a Swede? Let us know!

This article is based on the responses we received from Swedes and foreigners in Sweden on what they think you should wear if you want to follow Swedish fashion trends.

If you have any tips of your own which you think we’ve left out, let us know! You can comment on this article, send us an email at [email protected], or get in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @thelocalsweden

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