Recognition of Iceland’s vibrant arts culture radiates across the globe—as does the assumption that the scene has always been as diverse as today. In reality, though, much of Reykjavík’s underground artists have always been just that—underground. It’s only recently that traditionally “low” art forms, like burlesque, cabaret and drag, have begun to depart from the confinement of queer bars and other diversity-friendly venues. Now, they’re knocking on the door of Þjóðleikhúsið, Iceland’s National Theatre.
Key to this radical change is Gréta Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Creative Director of the National Theatre Basement, Kjallarinn. After a year-long renovation of the space—which was long kept alive by improv performances—she’s ready to re-open, pulling aside the velvet curtains of the historically non-diverse institution to make room for what she refers to as “raw art.” And what’s “raw art”? Well, it’s the kind of culture that has always existed in the margins, but now it’ll be given the same respect and attention as culturally mainstream theatrical and operatic performances. And it’s about time.
“Queer culture was practically non-existent [when I grew up],” Gréta explains. “That has a lot to do with why it’s important to me and why I have a passion for it. I wasn’t born with any cultural capital.”
Gréta was born in a small town, she explains, so exposure to queer culture was minimal until she moved to Reykjavík. This led to a bit of a crisis of identity—representation matters. “Being a queer person, I had this identity that didn’t really relate to what was expected of me. So, I had to sort of make my own,” she says. Eventually, Gréta stumbled into the academic world, which allowed her to create, reshape and understand her own identity. “That’s how I came into the theatre. I see it as a tool to recreate what’s possible.”
Fostering a future
Alternative art forms, Gréta emphasises, have long struggled to make their way through the doors of institutions like the National Theatre, which has focused on more conventional performances.
“Historically and politically, theatre is about creating possibilities for people,” she says. “We have to be aware when we’re working in theatre, we’re actually creating meaning––especially for a public institution that’s funded with public money.”
Of course, the queer community also pays taxes, making their representation equally as valid. Therefore, Kjallarinn is about to present one of its most dynamic and diverse stages yet. “We also have to be aware of what stories we are telling.” she explains, passionately. “This is a place where [artists] can grow and elevate their form.”
Radiating with warmth, Gréta admits that she hopes to “create a family here and give the artists an opportunity to grow. I want the audiences of the National Theatre to get something that they don’t expect.”
“It’s also for queer people who have been marginalized but have found glamour in their grievance to create their own culture,” she says. And now they can share that with the world.
Restoration of the Kjallarinn charm
Stepping into the dimly lit Kjallarinn, you would never guess that its wooden and warm details endured a large scale renovation this year. Gréta and her team managed to revive the space, restoring its original charm. The entrance even underwent a facelift. “It’s no longer like you’re coming to the dentist,” she laughs. Hints of nostalgia pervade, though, but with a touch of vintage class; you can almost smell the glamour emitting from the wall panels.
While creating a comfortable space for the public was important, above all else Gréta wanted to give artists a nice place to perform. And starting in September, guests will be able to catch matinées along with drag brunches next spring hosted by the legendary drag queen Gógó Starr.
The atmosphere will be mild by day, Gréta explains, but transform into a speakeasy style theatre by night. Equipped with a full bar, cocktails will be adorned with references to the shows of the night—i.e. the “Burlesque Spritz” or “Improv Mule.
Under the pavement
Gréta’s ultimate goal is to create an elevated space for marginalised artists. “All of these scenes have grown so much in the past five years, such as the drag scene in Iceland—it has just blown up,” she continues. “Kjallarinn is a classic joint––it doesn’t have sticky floors and you don’t have to rely on tips to actually survive working in this field. I just wanted to do my part to add to an already blossoming scene.”
Whether you’re creative, queer or just curious, take a moment to step below the streets of Reykjavik into the revitalized Kjallarinn, opening soon. Cabaret, burlesque, drag artists and more will transform the once bland basement into a vibrant playground of entertainment and expression.
See the schedule for upcoming shows at Kjallarinn here.
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