From Plumbing To Poetry To Hard-Hats And Bouncing Back - The Reykjavik Grapevine

From Plumbing To Poetry To Hard-Hats And Bouncing Back

From Plumbing To Poetry To Hard-Hats And Bouncing Back

Published April 22, 2013

Norðurpóllinn bids farewell to its house and looks forward to its next adventure…

Photos by
Alísa Kalyanova

Norðurpóllinn bids farewell to its house and looks forward to its next adventure…

Rumour has it in Reykjavík that Norðurpóllinn is quitting. They’re not. In fact, the quirky theatre group is more enthusiastic than ever, despite the fact that a huge road is about to be plonked over the company’s ‘house’: an ex-factory building used by Norðurpóllinn as an experimental space for artists. “We always knew that we were losing the house,” says Íris Skúladóttir, sipping a coffee and keeping half an eye on her young daughter who is running about with a rather dangerous looking hot chocolate, “but we’re optimists. We hit a wall and we bounce back. New doors are opening.”

Íris is one of the four people who set up the independently run theatre company in 2009 to provide physical space for performers to use: from actors to artists, poets to painters, and professionals to children. It relocated to its current home in a large industrial building on Seltjarnarnes in 2010 and has generated some of Iceland’s most inventive work in recent years. In fact, it has produced as many, if not more, performances than ‘Þjóðleikhúsið’ (“National Theatre”) and ‘Borgarleikhúsið’ (“Reykjavík City Theatre”) every year, and its focus on grass-roots theatre means Norðurpóllinn has served as a crucial outlet for the creative minds of Reykjavík to experiment and express themselves. So what’s all this gossip about Norðurpóllinn losing its house? 

DERELICT FACTORY TURNED THEATRE

It turns out that the group has been fighting for their house from the get-go. In 2010, Íris and her friends Arnar, Denni and Gríma stumbled upon an abandoned factory in Seltjarnarnes. And in true Grotowski-style, they adopted this run-down building and their theatrical love child, Norðurpóllinn, as we know it today, was officially born. But it was not an easy birth.

“The biggest challenge we faced was to get the house going, transforming the setting into a useable space,” Íris admits, “and the house was a total mess and we had to do everything ourselves.” Without any financial support from the local funding bodies in Seltjarnarnes, Íris and company were forced to use their connections and call in favours from friends and family, including fellow actors. As actors are not well known for their skills in plumbing or fire-safety, it is a wonder that the house is still standing. 

Yet if they are anything, actors are resourceful: cue paint-wielding thesps dashing madly about the derelict building, painting wildly and frantically blocking holes in the wall with plastic bags. Such a scene pretty much forms the basis of the Norðurpóllinn house’s physical creation. In fact, “the factory setting is an element of the house,” says Búi Bjarmar Aðalsteinsson, Íris’s boyfriend and fellow organiser of Norðurpóllinn. “In a factory there is an element of making, of raw manufacture. That was the spirit of the space as we were creating it, and is the spirit of the house now.”

It seems that creativity, raw energy and sheer determination paid off, as Íris and friends virtually built a multi-functional performance space and grass-roots theatre out of nothing. Luck and improvisation of course lent a helping hand, but wiring lights and moving a brick wall halfway across the room on top of all the other crazy things which life threw at them was not really a matter of luck, but of hard work and dedication. Of course, Íris looks back and laughs at this period of mayhem, though it is clear that this was a time of great stress, especially after Norðurpóllinn officially opened on February 17, 2010. 

“We had official maintenance men come and check the house on quite a few occasions,” explains Íris and, in spite of working day and night to get the house ready, “they already wanted to shut us down in 2010. What’s more, we had three shows running at the time.” But like all challenges thrown their way, the artisans-come-handymen at Norðurpóllinn met it head on. Equipping themselves with hard-hats and flameproof paint, they smiled the smug-smile of victory when, a year later, the straight-faced maintenance inspectors admitted, somewhat begrudgingly, that they had ‘zero comments’ and the house was fine: Norðurpóllinn had finally ticked all of the boxes.

WHERE ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

With the go-ahead given and the paint on the walls still wet, Norðurpóllinn opened its doors to the public in 2010 and enjoyed great success. In 2011, it ran a performance of ‘Fjalla-Eyvindur og Halla’ written by one of Iceland’s most famous playwrights, Jóhann Sigurjónsson, which was nominated for the Gríman awards. In a poll which considered the number of plays each theatre produced annually, Norðurpóllinn was ranked third highest in Iceland, trumped only by Þjóðleikhúsið and Borgarleikhúsið. 

Yet Norðurpóllinn is more than just a theatre; it has held everything from poetry readings and belly-dancing classes, to school plays and the Reykjavík Dance Festival. Jón Gnarr celebrated his birthday there, and the huge Reykjavík-Bergen-Nuuk event, which saw bands from all over Iceland, Norway and Greenland, was just another one of many exciting events forming Norðurpóllinn’s repertoire. 

The company also places strong emphasis on theatre and workshops for children, encouraging kids to get involved and think creatively. ‘The Maze,’ a play written and directed by Íris herself, offered an interactive experience for the young audience. “We even had real grass,” Íris says,“ and had to keep the lights on at night to help it grow”

Such opportunities for real experimentation with physical setting is limited on the fixed, proscenium arch stages of bigger theatres in Iceland, and this is exactly what Norðurpóllinn wants to avoid: in the Norðurpóllinn house, you can do what you want. Literally. Paint the walls yellow, stick a pond in the middle of the room or glue furniture to the ceiling (although the latter has yet to be done). In the Norðurpóllinn house, anything is possible. “People need that,” Íris says, “I mean, knowing that they can do anything. People need a space with no restrictions.” 

TO BE DESTROYED TO MAKE ROOM FOR A ROAD

Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. Whilst Iceland is happy enough to build roads that veer around elf-stones, the luck of the land-spirits it seems is not with Norðurpóllinn. The local council in Seltjarnarnes is plonking a shiny new tarmac-wonder over the company’s house; performing on a roadside may certainly be ‘experimental,’ but it is not really ideal. 

But Íris and her boyfriend Búi are not sad. “We set out to create a theatre and ended up doing so much more. We became events managers, created a space to rent to painters and poets and hosted all kinds of children’s workshops. We’ve swept floors and mended light-bulbs, and we’ve created this organic, wonderful space,” Búi says proudly. And Íris is adamant that this doesn’t mean the end for Norðurpóllinn. “Although the physical space is going, Norðurpóllinn is continuing,” Íris says. “New doors are opening. We’re not quitting, we’re not going anywhere. This is the chance for something new.” 

But the house itself will continue being used right up until the first block of cement is torn down and Norðurpóllinn is hosting a fantastic line-up over the next month before it embarks on its next house-hunting adventure. So ignore the rumours: the house might be going, but Norðurpóllinn and its quirky, creative spirit is here to stay.

INFO: Norðurpóllin is located at Sefgarðar 3, 170 Seltjarnarnes. For more information, visit their website: www.nordurpollinn.com.

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