Three years ago, Jenný Lára graduated as an actress and director from the Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Every year quite a number of young Icelanders complete their education in dramatic arts abroad, most often in London. Some choose to stay, some to return home. Jenny Lára chose to return to Iceland immediately after graduating. Back home to an extremely competitive market. Back home, to reap the rewards of her education and harness her creative spirit. But, what was it like returning home?
"It was very nice, but at the same time, quite hard. Returning to all this lovely nature and my thinly populated country after all the hustle and bustle of London was great. But, it was hard. I was educated abroad for a highly visible profession. Nobody in Iceland knew who I was. I had to start building a reputation from the scratch. But, being an actor or a play director isn't easy anywhere. I reckoned it would be easier for me in Iceland than in the UK. Firstly, my roots are here; secondly, Icelandic is my mother tongue."
My work has to matter to me
Jenny Lara has wasted no time since returning to Iceland. She has been quite prolific, writing, acting, constantly directing for three years. She has worked with methods hitherto unknown in Iceland and in places not too obvious for staging a play. Her ways are quite unconventional, as she still hasn't found time to venture into the big conventional theatres. Why?
"When I returned home I found I wasn't ready. I needed time to experiment and grow; to develop my creative voice.
Establishing oneself is quite complicated anywhere in the world. The big theatres have their repertoire. Their directors can't choose which plays to direct, that is, not until they are very experienced and established. They also have a set group of actors and a director can't always choose his/her actors. I am still not ready to do just anything. I want my work to matter to me – creatively.
I relish the freedom to experiment. When you are young it is important to challenge yourself, try out new methods, new venues, new ideas. I simply don't want to tread other people's path."
Your standpoint seems to be that of the director. What about acting?
The beloved northeast Iceland
"It is a similar situation. If you are an actor working at the constitutional theatres, you have to do as you are told. You neither choose the roles you are cast in, nor the productions. Whatever your dream role, it is not yours. Not by a long shot. Maybe never.
When you are working independently, you are not forced into roles where you have no chance of demonstrating your versatility as an actor. And the greatest freedom of all for the theatrical outsider is not being confined to Reykjavík. The whole country is your playground.
I spent part of my youth in the northeast and my ties to that area are very strong. I wanted to bring something back to this wonderful area. Not just anything. Not a traditional piece with a traditional text. I wanted to introduce diversity and the vast possibilities the theatre has to offer. It has been a wonderful experience."
A brand new experience
Jenný Lára's first production in the northeast was Elska (Loving), which Jenný says is a play based on the Verbatim method. "I interviewed people living in the area about their relationships and what constituted love in their minds. From this material, I wrote the play. It was a study on the concept of love. It had six characters and in order to switch from one character to another I had shoes. Each character had his pair of shoes. I performed Elska in all the communities but one in the Þingeyjarsýsla county. After the performance, I invited questions and discussions on the topic of love. Every performance was great fun and a brand new experience for the audience and me. I also performed Elska at the Act Alone Theatre Festival in Suðureyri and in Reykjavík."
The next piece Jenný Lára wrote and produced was on the Hidden People of the Northeast area. "I was asked by Mývatnsstofa (The Mývatn Cultural Centre) to write a piece from the local Elf-tales and then perform the play in English during summer 2014. It was a magnificent experience as the play was staged in Dimmuborgir, the greatest lava formation area in Iceland – and just by the beautiful Lake Mývatn. I also relished being able to bring those stories to our visitors, as I have always loved the Icelandic Elf-tales."
Her very own Theatre Company
Jenný Lára's third production in Iceland's Northeast was the "Culture Bus." Along with artists from England and Norway, she travelled in a bus from Kópasker to Raufarhöfn, performing their play en route. The topic was the old, Icelandic tradition of domestic work migration. The questions being asked were: Why do those who stay, stay? And why do those who leave, leave? The Culture Bus was quite a success, but alas, had limited capacity for audience. Ever since, the group is being asked when they will be back. As a director, she has staged two amateur productions, one in her beloved northeast part of Iceland, one in Reykjavík.
But, Jenný Lára has not only been working in the northeast. She founded her own theatre group, Artik, where she directed the Icelandic play, The Equal and played the role of Sophie in Blink by Phil Porter. She also had a small role in Rams, the film nominated by Iceland for the Oscars. Jenny Lára has further worked as a producer for numberless theatre groups and is the founder of Uppsprettan (The Source), which is quite a novelty in Iceland.
"Uppsprettan is for promoting writers, actors, directors and other professionals educated in theatre genres. We ask writers to submit a short play they want performed a few weeks before a set date. We select three selection committees that choose one play, each. Then we advertise for directors and actors who want to take part. They get the script 24 hours before the performance. At six o'clock on a set day, they start rehearsing and at nine o'clock, performances of the three chosen plays commence.
During rehearsals, the audience is free to roam the theatre, read the scripts and observe the groups rehearsing. It is great fun and wonderful experience for the artists taking part. They also get a chance to meet and bond with other artists, instead of wasting away alone in their corner. This method is a very demanding for all the artists taking part. The time pressure exposes both your strengths and weaknesses, thus providing a great opportunity for you to work on your skills."
Well, what next?
"Apart from managing Uppsprettan (The Source) twice this winter, I am off to London in November and December to act in "The Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot," by Tennessee Williams. In the New Year, I'll return to the north, to direct Thorbjorn Egner's children's play about the animals in the Swedish Hakkebakke forest in Húsavík. Then, back to Reykjavík to rehearse a play I am writing along with a colleague of mine. It is a play we base on the Verbatim Method on the consequences of DUI and will premiere in April. And then I am working on developing Elska further as it has gathered interest in quite a number of places."
Iceland sounds like the ideal place for you.
"I believe you can do anything in Iceland if you really set your mind to it. But, it is not enough to be a creative artist. You also have to be creative in how to realize your dreams. You know, it is quite possible to be creative in Excel.