Who am I? - Interview with Þorleifur Örn Arnarson

18. Feb 2011

Þorleifur Örn Arnarson has in a short time received attention as director on the international stage, in particular in the German speaking world. Earlier this years his production of Peer Gynt, at the city theatre in Luzern in Switzerland, made news through the theatre website www.nachtkritik.de . Þorleifur is booked two years ahead in time and coming up are productions of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder by Brecht, King Leer and a productions of Johann Strauss's opera Die Flaedermaus. Þorleifur studied at the renowned theatre school Ernst Busch in Berlin and graduated in 2008.

The first interview of the this new website of Performing Arts Iceland is with Þorleifur.

Þorleifur, congratulations with your achievements, explain to us, did you get the German theatre award? „No not quite but the recognition was no less. Nachtkritik.de is the largest “treffepunkt” of the German speaking theatre world. The site is run by 40 critics, scholars and dramaturge and is the most popular portal for theatre reviews and dialogue in this part if the world. The owners nominated 38 productions as “best productions of 2010 – of probably 500 – 700 which were reviewed. The site ´s viewers could then vote between productions and low and behold – to everyone ´s surprise our Luzern productions scored highest and thus was chosen as the best production of the year by www.nachtkritik.de. A very enjoyable outcome for us and the theatre in Luzern.”

Peer gynt by Þorleifur So the “scholars” chose the productions as one of 38 best, out of hundreds of productions in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and then “little Luzern” got the trophy?” “Yes, on the menu were many of the largest productions of the year, a production from the “theatre of the year” in Cologne and other mega projects. The votes come from all over and it seems that a certain “grassrootwave” happened organically. The result was fantastic

Peer you are a liar, is not only the words of your production but also its “guiding light” – it says in one of the reviews. Is that an accurate description, Þorleifur? “We centered our work from the core question “Who am I?  The play happens in a closed room were the whole cars is at all times present.  A room which keeps the memories of the truth and the lies of Peer ´s life.  Scenes from his live appear and his forced to face himself, the lies, one scene come to life after another.  Towards the end the “old Peer” cant stand it anymore and is desperation tries to get out, out of the theatre itself”.  

You acted as a child in Peer Gynt at the National theatre of Iceland – has the play followed you ever since? “Yes, totally, the paly and this question – Who am I? ... am I who I think I am?..has been twisting and turning with in me for over 20 years. I can still remember whole scene, the music, the atmosphere of the production at home in 1991. I was twelve.  WHO AM I? – is there a larger question? We all have to face it, in one way or another, as individuals, a group, a nation. This is a question I have been fighting with all my life.

You have chosen the theatre as your space, can you find the answers there? “Yes, I am a great believer in theatre as a medium. Each and ever theatre maker is continuously trying to mirror his own vision in life and when successful the response theatre gives, is very powerful.  Theatre is always “make-believe” but the experience of each audience can be unbelievable strong and true.  Theatre can be so close and the journey it offers in the technological world, where human communication is disappearing, machines taking over and people interacting through virtual reality – then theatre become a social venue which more and more has a paramount role. Not only to educate, entertain, take us back to our roots, heritage and history, but to unite us, in journey, in a world where the space for social interaction is fading. The message of theatre with the present is extremely important."

Does theatre fulfill this role?
“Often it does.  What is hard back home in Iceland is the lack of destination between entertainment and art.  I think the cause is lack of academic discourse, we don't have specialized educated critics and the critics we have are not given ample time to do their work.  Therefore the discourse rather becomes “exchange of opinion” then actual, real, deep analysis of the role of theatre."

Do you think Icelandic audience long for a deep dialogue and analysis of theatre? "Yes the fantastic thing is that in Iceland theatre is still the “peoples theatre”, we own it and we visit it – all of us, no matter where in society we stand.  It is such a short time ago in history that we built a National theatre to certify our independence, our self image as a nation.  Now we are back in those steps, to define, again, who we are.  It is no coincidence that all theaters have been full, up to the roof, back home, since the crash!

What is ahead for you,  Þorleifur? “I am in Konstanz in south Germany where I am head-director at the city theatre.  We just premiered  Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder eftir Brecht  and King Leer is next on the agenda.  Then there are various other projects, I am booked for two years. Amongst other projects I am going to direct my first opera, Die Fledermaus by Strauss.“    

How come you have reached this status, to be booked for two years? “Theatre directors have come, seen my work and asked me to work for them.”

Come on, Þorleifur, you finished school two years ago.  For most it takes much longer to get known and get jobs.  Is this luck, faith, talent – are you yourself surprised by your success? I am in awe, full of joy and I feel I am just beginning.  I am growing with each project.  Of course one feels happy when successful but I have also been on the other side, where nothing has been going as hoped for – so I know that feeling too.

Peer gynt by Þorleifur But perhaps the beginning of “my success” can be traced to Teatertreffen in Berlín in 2005 where I got the opportunity to express myself.  I made a little “speech of fire” over the heads of the jury which many people heard.  I few years later the director if St Gallen in Switcerland was searching for  director to stage Romeo and Juliet, had seen the production of Vesturport theatre group, his thoughts drifted towards Iceland I my little speech came up in his mind.  The funny thing is that the very same day the graduation brochure from Ernst Busch landed on his table so you say it was a mixture of luck, faith and perhaps a few other ingredients!  
I was hired, the Romeo and Juliet production was a huge success and I have been busy every since.

Are you ready to direct and opera? "Well, I have signed the contract!  But, seriously I am very well aware that there are many that much deeper knowledge of opera then I.  But the house director was searching for theatre maker and hired me.  I will have a great team with me, which have knowledge of the music and the needs of  the form of opera.   One very important thing I have already learnt is that it is okay for a director to say: “ I DONT KNOW!”

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