Last year, the independent theatre scene in Iceland had something for everyone to enjoy. Shows like Fame and Grease catered to the musical fans, while shows like Brim by Vesturport and Faðir Vor by Sokkabandið catered to those who thirst after original, Icelandic dramas. The puppet show Brúðubíllinn toured the country and entertained children everywhere. The independent theatre groups attracted, as usual, far more viewers than any of the institutional theatres in Iceland, with only a fraction of the funding.
“We may actually have gotten more than 180,000 viewers,” says Kristín Eysteinsdóttir, the manager of Sjálfstæðu Leikhúsin (SL), the organized interest group for independent theatre groups in Iceland. “We’re modest about our figures, so in all likelihood, they’re higher.”
In the colourful, ever changing landscape of independent theatre, SL provides support, advice and protection to independent groups. “We’re almost like a union in the way that we guard the rights and interests of the groups and make sure that they’re treated fairly,” says Eysteinsdóttir. “We don’t interfere with them, or the way they chose to run things. We’re just here for them in case they need us.”
The independent theatre groups got 52 million ISK this spring in the form of government grants to stage plays, of which 15 million went to a theatre in the township of Hafnarfjörður, leaving 37 million ISK to divide between 13 different projects. “It’s nowhere near enough”, says Eysteinsdóttir. To put things in perspective, the National Theatre alone got 500 million ISK in working capital for the year 2005. Still, things have improved dramatically. A few years ago, the grants given to independent groups were so low that it was really a disservice to get them. SL has been guarding the so-called 50% minimum rule, making sure that the grants independent theatre groups receive are never less than half of the production cost. The group then has to find a way to finance the remaining 50%. “Prior to this, groups would sometimes be granted 10% of the production cost. Financing the remaining 90% was in many cases impossible. The 50% rule gives the independent groups a chance of making ends meet,” Eysteinsdóttir says.
Money aside, another issue independent theatre groups constantly face is problems regarding housing. There is no theatre in Reykjavík that caters especially to this field of art. Renovating a locale is costly, and therefore not an option. As a result, many groups cooperate with the institutional theatres in order to stage their plays within them. “We’re a bit worried about the fact that most of the independent stuff is disappearing into the institutional theatres”, says Eysteinsdóttir. “It’s serves as proof that the grants to independent groups are too low, which forces them into cooperation with the big theatres.”
SL owns and operates a theatre called Tjarnarbíó, providing money to run an office and keep an employee. Tjarnabíó could be used by independent groups, thereby solving the ever-present housing dilemma. However, since the building has a reputation for being an amateur theatre used mostly by college students, many professional groups find it unappealing. Eysteinsdóttir is well aware of the problem. “Our dream is to renovate Tjarnarbíó and make it exclusive to the independent theatre groups, thereby ridding it of its amateur reputation. It would also be home to our office, a little café and serve as a centre for performance art.” A city commission is currently reviewing the plans.
When asked what she’d do if she had unlimited power, Eysteinsdóttir says she’d triple the money that goes into the independent theatre scene. “When the issue of money is brought up in correlation with arts, a lot of taxpayers get upset. What they don’t realize is that every penny that goes into the independent theatre scene goes back into society tenfold.”
Eysteinsdóttir explains that before a play is staged, materials need to be bought, workers need to be hired, costumes need to be made, the performance needs to be promoted, etc. Because the grants are so low, many independent theatre artists are underpaid, and some even donate their work. Combine that with the fact that theatre groups often make crafty deals in exchange for building materials and costumes, and the result is a production that’s worth twice the money it was granted.
“Of course I find it wonderful that people make theatre out of passion, regardless of money,” Eysteinsdóttir says. “But it’s a double edged sword. Politicians who want to cut our funding look to the groups who are making theatre for free, exemplifying them, which is unfair to other theatre artists. We’re professionals. Nobody should have to work for free.”