Interview With…Camilla Gürtler

Cut the Cord and its Artistic Director Camilla Gürtler are just around the corner from their brand-new initiative designed to shine alight on Nordic performing arts and to spread awareness of modern Nordic theatre and its approaches with a new UK Festival at The Yard Theatre

Hi Camilla, New Nordics Festival is rather unique; a whole four-day programme solely looking at combining Nordic and UK creatives. What inspired you to create this festival? With Cut the Cord, we had been focusing on bringing new Nordic plays to the UK for a couple of years and what happens when two cultures and their artists meet in a project. The conversations we had around this work were really interesting and it was inspiring how many other artists, theatres and audiences were drawn to this way of working. So, I thought of ways of making it a bigger movement – and what would be needed for more people to engage in international plays and the Nordic region. I came to the conclusion that in order to see this kind of work and collaboration in the more commercial, main-stream sector, the emerging artists and companies would have to lead the way in making this work exciting and taking on some of these working methods themselves. So, the project grew from a wish to a) showcase what Nordic plays and culture are and what we can take from them, and b) how we make a project that facilitates this for emerging artists and makes it easier for them to engage with. As a result, the festival then became both about showcasing Nordic plays and artists in the UK and the power of these stories and ways of thinking, but also about making international collaboration and skills-exchange more accessible to artists in the UK.

Tell us a bit about your background – what drew you to theatre?I’ve always been a bit of a storyteller – I was fascinated by drawing and writing at a young age and kept creating new universes and stories that expressed the world around me and how I fitted (or didn’t fit) into it. What first drew me to theatre was the liveness of these stories – that for a couple of hours you were living and breathing these characters and plots with people on stage, in the same room as you. I guess it was an epiphany of empathy and connections – that theatre can bring so many different people together in one room and make you all feel part of something, together. I moved to London from Denmark as I was fascinated by the idea of a city that was a creative melting pot – anyone could make anything there and it was a hub for artists. I spent a couple of years directing, trying to fool everyone I wasn’t Danish but a homegrown Brit (the accent was beaten out of me early on) but when I hit my second year of Drama School (Directing at Drama Centre London) I had another epiphany – I had been trying so hard not to be Danish, but that thing that defined my “style” and creative preferences was my background and culture. So, I started experimenting with merging my Nordic roots with the “British” text work and actor training, and I finally found my place. Cut the Cord grew from that and resulted in a company where we bring different theatre cultures together to explore social change on stage – the fact that I’m helping raise awareness of Nordic artists and culture at the same time feels pretty exciting! 

What do you think can be learned from the Nordic culture and their values? Part of this project is exploring this very question with our festival team – and it has been fascinating hearing their thoughts on it. For me it starts with structure – if society is structured in a way that supports creative thinking and innovation, art blossoms. At the core of Nordic values are five key elements: openness, trust, innovation, sustainability and equality. When society is structured around being open-minded and that everyone is equal (we don’t really have a defined class system in the Nordic region for example) then things tend to be more transparent and there are more opportunities to be creative. Examples of supporting this is how equal rights are written into law, better maternity/paternity rights and flexible working hours (in Denmark you tend to rehearse only 4 hours a day!). One of the things our directors for the festival were really struck by is the level of funding and support for artists – the amount of time and security they get just to create, sometimes without the need for commercial outcomes. The flat hierarchy is something I think we could really benefit from as well – that all creatives are valued equally and that they each have a stake in the company, play or theatre and all are part of the decision-making. It’s about creating values that bring people together and nurture free- and “out-of-the-box” thinking – rather than just individual gain and financial security. On a smaller scale part of the project is for the directors to come up with ways of incorporating these things in the structure of their rehearsals – and for us to have a democratic look at how we can explore working in this way during the festival, as well as promoting the values through the productions.

Beyond the event itself, what do you hope this venture will achieve? I hope it makes other emerging artists and companies investigate other theatre cultures and engage with artists in the Nordic region and beyond. I hope it proves just how powerful a social issue explored through different eyes – through a different culture – can be, and how similar we all really are. At this moment in time we want to encourage more collaborations and skills-exchange across borders, beliefs and identities, and so I hope other artists get inspired to go and chase this. I also hope we can help demystify the process for them – to make it more accessible how they can go about doing this work. With the directors in the festival it’s been important for us to link them with the Nordic embassies and contacts in the Nordic countries, in the hope they keep collaborating.I also hope it will make more venues and producers in the UK take risk on international theatre – and for them to realise how powerful new Nordic writing is and that it is an exciting time to engage with these artists.

What are your hopes for the festival in the future? We are hoping the festival returns every two years with a pool of new artists – to spread the engagement with emerging artists from both the Nordic region and the UK. We hope it can grow in scale to involve more Nordic communities and become a strong force in international skills-exchange – hopefully with a longer programme, more artist outreach and partners.  But let’s just see how this one goes first and take it from there!

What’s been the best part of this experience? And what, if any, have been the challenges? Facilitating the journey of the skills-exchange has been incredible. There are a lot of opportunities for emerging artists, but not many that enable them to travel to a different country to meet a playwright, the artistic director of the national theatre, other emerging artists, arts councils and organisations etc, and then come back and implement this experience into a show. So, working out how this part of the project can come to life, and then connecting the many artists and partners in each country has been the most fascinating and awe-inspiring part of the journey. Hearing the inspirations and reflections the directors have taken from it and then shared with each other was a heart-warming experience. I’ve also loved engaging with the many different plays and playwrights in the Nordic countries and creating the programme in a way that would best showcase the different cultures and ideas.

There are always challenges in creating something completely new without previous structure and security – it’s thrilling to mould a project completely to what you envision, but also terrifying as you have no security net and really learn as you go and from all the mistakes you do. There is no manual, and although there are some fantastic support groups out there, at times it can feel you are on your own being judged for how you tackle the next challenge. It is challenging being a young woman behind the wheel and I do feel I’ve spent the last two years proving to every new person I’ve met that yes, I am leading this project, and yes, I do know what I’m doing (even if I don’t always!). Whilst the stigma around being a young woman in a leadership position is still in the process of crumbling, I think it is sadly still part of the culture that you have to prove yourself. But I have been very lucky that our Nordic funders, partners and embassies took a chance on a good idea and let me run with it – they have been so supportive from the start and have enabled me to grow the project and my own career into something impactful and exciting. The fact that I have a brilliant team of young creatives as well has created this strong sense of ‘yes we can’ and I love how this project has helped so many fantastic artists discover how capable and brilliant they really are.

What advice would you give to anyone else looking to start their own festival? Knowing why you are doing this festival and what the overall vision is will determine everything you do – the practical details of New Nordics Festival have changed a lot since the first funding application as we grew more relationships and ideas but keeping a simple idea razor-sharp at the core of it all makes it easier for the whole team to help grow that idea. Having a clear outcome makes it easier to get partners and collaborators on board – and you need those early on. Networking takes time and has to grow naturally, so invest in that part of the project before you set too many things in stone. Most of our connections grew from a strong relationship with the Nordic embassies in London (who are amazing) so identify the people or organisations who can become long-term partners and supporters of you and your idea. Once we had created a working relationship and trust I then went on research trips to all of the Nordic countries to meet artists and organisations – and this hands-on approach is what has created such a fantastic and vast network for us, and made it possible to really have an impact on our directors with their research trips.

It’s also important to make sure you have a team around you that you really trust, but who also really believe in the project. When you find those special few they really help you grow but they are also there to hold your hand when it really gets tough (and trust me, it will at times) – make sure you have an open and transparent way of working with them.

Also, time is everything and you never have enough of it! Be organised and ready for a not-very-balanced work-life balance. At the same time make sure you schedule in time for yourself – producing an entire festival is often being the executive of many departments all at once, and so your mental health often ends up in the bin. Make sure you take time off and remember that not everything is a life-or-death deadline.

New Nordics Festival will run at the Yard Theatre from Wednesday 18th to Saturday 21st March. Tickets and more information available from here: 

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