The Finnish Conundrum

When you learn the facts about Finnish theater, it almost feels like a cruel version of a “Did you hear the one about…?” joke.

It goes something like this: What country has had the highest per-capita rate of theater attendance but has never, repeat never, had a play produced by a professional theater company in the United States?

Yes, it’s true. More than 3.5 million theater tickets are sold annually in Finland, a country with a population that barely tops 5 million, yet outside of a few regional productions and university theater shows, no Finnish play has ever seen a stage in America.

Lit Moon director John Blondell aims to change all that with the company’s 10-day “Land of the Midnight Sun” Festival of Finnish Drama.

Blondell, whose alter ego is professor of theater at Montecito’s Westmont College, was the first American producer to sign on two years ago when Finnish director Mikko Viherjuuri and associates from the Finnish Theatre Information Center came to the U.S. to try to promote Finnish plays. At first, Blondell opted only to direct a new work called “Queen C,” but eventually that expanded into a 10-day festival featuring two full productions – Viherjuuri will direct “For Sheer Love of Me” – plus two staged readings and a film presentation beginning Friday.

Q. What attracted you to producing “Queen C?”

A. Blondell: It felt so completely “other.” It’s a really poetic play, and also deeply philosophical, about an enigmatic and mysterious figure, Queen Christina, the mid-17th century Swedish queen who was way ahead of her time. I thought “I have no idea how to work with this material,” and that challenge was intriguing for me.

It felt like it came from such a peculiar, particular imagination. And since I’ve been doing so much Shakespeare or working with known classics for a while, this felt like I would be a total beginner again, naive, like I was entering theater for the first time. It actually reminded me of my first year as undergrad at UCSB when we read “The Hairy Ape,” an expressionist play by O’Neil, in an English class. I was mystified. All I knew going in was American musicals and comedies, only things that were realism. Reading this play, with its strange elliptical structure, logic and surreal imagery reminded me of that fresh, eye-opening experience from college.

Also, I was stunned to realize I’ve never directed a play written by a women before. So this was a great chance to fix that.

So how did you solve the issue of staging the play?

Well, I met with the playwright in Helsinki in January, and we have had long, heavy phone calls and e-mail conversations. But she mostly offered advice about how to approach it, and we spent a lot of time talking about another possible collaboration. Other than that, I treated it like any play I direct. I let it sit with me for a while and sink in.

What’s important is to figure out the physical structure of a play and how it relates to the audience. My initial image, my first decision, was to have the audience situated on two sides of the action. “Queen C” was originally written as, and first staged as, a radio play. That was an important clue for me. There are no stage props in the show at all. It’s just action, language and characters and music. It’s very simple, pure theatricality. Other things emerged from the rehearsal process.”

What do you hope audiences will take away from the festival?

This project is similar to all the work that Lit Moon does in international and cultural exchange. The mission of Lit Moon is about developing experiences for our audiences that they’re not normally going to get in this country. The idea is to expose other people’s cultures here to understand more about the world and their theater traditions in the hope that it might change, transform and develop our own. I also certainly hope that it achieves the main purpose of the Finnish project, which is to influence American theater directors and literary managers toward staging some Finnish plays.

(The full festival line-up is available online at www.litmoon.com. For tickets, call the Center Stage Box Office at 963-0408.)