Nina Sallinen Actress Demo
Q&A with Nina Sallinen
Q: How did the idea for Poor, Poor Lear first start to germinate?
Nina Sallinen: It started as an extension of my thesis work at the Theater Academy of Finland. In my thesis I worked on questions like ‘Can a woman be a so called every man—basic human being—not defined by her sex?’ It bothered me when, for example a director, if she was a female, was introduced as a ‘female director.’ Why not just call her ‘a director?’ Why did people always have to define things in terms of gender? ‘A girl band,’ why not just ‘a band?’ And so on. And if a female was the lead in a story, play or movie it always had to be explained why this particularly story was all happening to a female. A woman wasn't looked as an every man, the basic human being who deals with life questions or is in the act of saving the world. It was always easier for the audience not to question a male lead dealing with things, with no questions or justifications needed. Or if it was a female hero, then it was a very special case, and that alone made it worth telling, even if the story by itself wasn't so interesting. I didn't want to accept that. I wanted to be as good as the guys. And also I didn’t want to be forgiven things, talent, skills, because I'm a female. Like ‘she throws the ball pretty good for a GIRL’-type of thing. Just tell me I suck at throwing the ball!
Also I wondered why males had maybe an easier time being funny. If a guy puts on a skirt, they're automatically quite funny. If a woman wears men’s clothes, it doesn't look that funny, not even with a mustache. Was there something unfunny about the female body even? Which one is funnier, a naked guy or gal? I think I was jealous of men, of male actors.
I read about middle ages and how female performers were considered dangerous because the kings that watched them were intimidated by a funny and sexy female, so women performers were burned as witches at that time.
Those were the questions I was thinking when the idea for Poor, Poor Lear started to appear. I wanted my character to be the hero, or anti-hero, who isn't a character defined by gender.
Q: How did you take these questions and turned them into a piece of theater?
N.S.: I started working, brainstorming with my director-writer friend Katja Krohn. We started talking about all those abstract ideas, but we would also talk about things that concerned us in our lives at that time. I was pregnant and Katja was married with two kids (she now has three kids). We kept wondering if it was possible to be a great artist and have a family, too. Can you have both and be great and happy at the same time?
I wasn't all sure that was really possible. I knew all these artists who sacrificed their artistry, their work for being a good parent. Usually they were women who did this. Was I saying good bye to my career?
Or I saw how artists destroyed, sacrificed their personal happiness, their family life for their work. I read about crazy, brilliant artists who were just terrible spouses and parents. Or maybe it was possible to have it all. I needed to know. I was scared and I had to write about it. This led into the character we wanted to create. This is when the character was defined as far as she needs to have a character and family, at least children.
Then we realized that the area we knew the most of was theater, so why not make the character an actress. And to heighten things we made her the grand dame, the diva of the Finnish theater, so her life was defined by her work, her art. Theater had to be super important for her, so the questions would be harder to answer.
At first we had a different name for my character, I don' t even remember that name any more, it was something resembling my name like me in disguise, then it started feeling fake to have that disguise, so the character and I have the same name. It makes it even more personal
Then our fear of growing old came up. As female artists—or just as females—this is a scary idea. We knew way too well how hard it is for actresses to age. You lose a lot of work the older you get. And it’s hard getting attention for your youth and beauty and then gradually not getting that attention any more. That seemed very hard to give up.
So we then decided to make the character really old. The older she became, the more extreme the character became, less and less naturalistic in acting. And since she now was very old, it felt appropriate to deal with death as well. And we thought that the closer to death she was by her age, the more urgency it gave to the piece. And the more urgency there was, the more important everything became. With my eternal aging fears I personally wanted to have a test drive on being old, see if I could handle it.
Q: What happens to the character during the course of the show?
N.S.: In the show my character has invited her two daughters to come and see her farewell performance. My character wants her daughters to see through Shakespeare's King Lear—her chosen material for her swan song—how she feels about them. She wants to use the story of Lear to show her daughters how angry she is and how they’ve hurt her. The show is a revenge to the daughters, a public humiliation, so the daughters can recognize what they have done and then ask for forgiveness.
But the daughters never show up. The plan doesn't work out. This was the character’s last chance to get things straight with her family in the time she has left. So she loses her chance and has to deal with it.
Q: How did you choose Lear as the grand dame’s swan song?
N.S.: We came across King Lear accidentally. In Finland, most well known (and not so well known) actors and actresses have their farewell performances. It's them usually reciting poetry or long long monologues and lot of times it's kind of sad and ridiculous to watch, since they're trying to condense all their life’s work, all their skills, all the artistry, into that one performance. And knowing this, it makes it so precious, too pompous and self important, with no sense of what's tolerable for the audience watch.
So we needed a play, the farewell performance material. We wanted a classic, very well known play my character could speak through. King Lear seemed like a pompous character, a king, just like a diva. We could see our character relate to that. We read it and it clicked right away with our themes. So after that the play King Lear started to influence our story, our writing as well.
We picked the scenes from King Lear that matched up with my character’s point of view. What would she want to show? So we only picked scenes where King Lear is treated badly, where he suffers, so the daughters in the audience would then realize how badly they have treated their mother. So all the Shakespeare parts in the show are acted through anger and self pity, to really show them! From a very narrow point of view. Also, Lear has three daughters and my character has two daughters in her real life. So Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, represents the dream daughter, how a daughter ought to act.
Also we thought it'd be funny if the character in her angry state never bothered to rehearse Lear. She only planned it. So that gave permission to forget lines et cetera, and make the set as pathetic as possible. The set should look like her home and all the props are from her home. In her fury, she forgot to solve some performances things, so she has to come up with quick solutions as she's going on.
Q: Not to give anything away, but Poor, Poor Lear has an enormous interactive aspect. How did that come about?
N.S.: Katja and I were interested in how much an audience can take. We both hated interactive theater where the audience is forced to participate. So we wanted to see if we could solve it, become comfortable with that. We wanted to learn how to do it so it wouldn't feel like a fake connection with the audience. That was our experience of it in that past watching shows like that. So we have a lot of interactions with the audience. The more we did it, the more comfortable it felt. It felt more real.
I hated doing it at first. Now I really enjoy not pretending there's a fourth wall. So, in this show there is no fourth wall. The audience is like another character. Without it she would not function.
Also we wanted to see how much could we get away with by breaking typical rules in the theater. For example I leave the audience alone, leave the stage, and they're left watching no action at all. Does that work? I hope so. We blame them or make them feel bad for coming to the theater. But we blame them with humor, of course. I forget lines and anticlimax at places and see if that works. Will they still stay? I apologize to the audience for my show and say that maybe they should just leave, go home, this is pointless. And again, see if we can get away with that, does that work? I react to audience noises, like coughing. How much of that is too much? I do realize there's a limit to that.
Then I did realize that there are rules you can't brake, if you want the audience to watch you. For example, if I blame them, if I'm angry with them, they need to know why, where am I coming from. If it's something positive, they don't need reasons so much.
Q: How has the experience of performing Poor, Poor Lear changed over time?
N.S.: I've done this show for more than ten years now. Not consistently, though. There have been long breaks. One was six years. So how is it different now? I'm different now. I'm not as emotional as I used to be. My character is more matter of fact. When I was younger I think I romanticized the character more. Everything was way more important, every sentence. Now I find more and more places which aren't so important in the script.
I think I'm more critical now too. I get bored watching myself on tape. When I was younger I was panicky, just like when people hear their voice on tape or watch themselves on TV the first time. They look at themselves very subjectively, so now I'm much more objective with this show. I'm not as attached to things. I can cut lines and change things as long as I think they're better choices and make sense to me. And I'm okay if people can't relate to this. I do my best and that's all I can do.