iceland, picturesque, creative

iceland, picturesque, creative

Iceland, a place of beauty and literature, art and food. A place where the Muse sits close. Coffee shops, hot chocolate, fish, more fish, bookshops, art galleries, waterfalls, lava rocks, hot tubs, chocolate, museums, parks, lakes, ducks, swans, birds, bulbs of daffodils and barest of trees. A place where one wants to write.

We have just finished the Iceland Writers Retreat, a week of readings, workshops, talks, dinners and bus tours. Here are the writers we worked with:

1. GEROUR KRISTNY won the Icelandic Literature Award 2010 for her book of poetry Blóðhófnir. Gerður has published collections of poetry and short stories, novels, books for children and a biography, for which she received the Icelandic Journalism Award in 2005.
Workshop: Mythologies

2. ELINA HIRVONEN is a Helsinki-based author, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Her first novel, When I Forgot (2005) was a Finlandia Fiction Prize nominee and has been translated into seven languages. Farthest from Death (2010), her second novel, was born in Lusaka, Zambia, where Hirvonen and her husband spent two years.
Workshop: Writing the World

3. VINCENT LAM, did his medical training at the University of Toronto, and works as a physician in Toronto. Dr. Lam’s first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was adapted for television. The Headmaster’s Wager, Dr. Lam’s first novel, about a Chinese compulsive gambler and headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War, was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize.
Workshop: The Magic of the Inside Story

4. MIRIAM TOEWS is an internationally acclaimed writer whose work has been translated into over twenty languages. She is the author of six bestselling novels and one work of non-fiction. She has won many literary prizes including the Governer General’s Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for body of work, and the CBA Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year. Her third novel, A Complicated Kindness, was the first book by a female writer to win CBC’s Canada Reads competition. All My Puny Sorrows, her most recent novel, spent over a year on the Canadian bestseller lists and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Workshops: The Life of a Writer

5. ANDREW WESTOLL is an award-winning author, journalist and teacher based in Toronto. A former primatologist-in-training, his first book, The Riverbones, is a travelogue set in the remote jungles of Suriname, where he once spent a year studying wild troops of capuchin monkeys. Westoll’s second book, the national bestselling The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, is the biography of a family of chimpanzees who were rescued from a research laboratory and retired to an animal sanctuary near Montreal. The Chimps won the 2012 RBC-Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction and was a finalist for several other major book awards.
Workshop: Writing Your Life

This is the park where the Elves live...the thin veil between this world and the other world is thinnest here

This is the park where the Elves live…the thin veil between this world and the other world is thinnest here

One of the things that has fascinated me about Iceland are the stories of the elves. There are many stories about elves actually being real. In fact, more believably, they could be seen as morality tales. In the delightful book The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdottir (Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore (2015) she writes:

Elf stories were like morality tales. yet on a deeper level they might also have reflected people’s yearning to have some control over their lives-something that was cruelly denied them otherwise, in almost every respect. as a peasant in Iceland of old , you had the legal standing of a child. you were required by law to have a fixed place at a farm where you were completely subservient to your employer/master.


To the Icelanders stories of elves and hidden people are an integral part of the cutlural and psychological fabric of our nation. They are a part of our identity, reflection of the struggles, hopes, resilience and endurance of our people. As such, they are very dear to us.

Margi wanted this troll hat, or she devil hat in keeping with the mythology of Iceland

Margi wanted this troll hat, or she devil hat in keeping with the mythology of Iceland

The visual art here is unforgettable with brilliant exhibitions of some of Icelands most famous painters. Reykjavik is the hub. Reykjavik Art Museum- Kjarvalsstadir is an impressive museum dedicated to modern art with a permanent exhibition of Johannes S. Kjarval’s work, one of Iceland’s most beloved painters.

KjKarval's stunning work

What has stayed with me is the way this painter hides people and creatures within his paintings:IMG_0701

and this motivates me to incorporate all sorts of levels within my writing. I am thinking this is why I am so attracted to mythology as the ground zero of my writing…the myth is there and then the story comes. the myth that is sitting close to me today, and has done so for the last week is the myth of the Seal Woman. A famous myth, here it is from

The Seal’s Skin. Icelandic Folktale

Once in the east of Mýrdalur a man went along the cliffs on the seashore early in the morning. He came to a mouth of a cave and heard the sound of merrymaking and dancing inside. Nearby he saw many seals’ skins. He took one of the skins, brought it home and locked it in a chest.
In the daytime he came again to the cave. There sat a young and pretty woman who was naked and cried desperately. She was the seal whose skin the man had taken. He let her dress herself, comforted her and brought her home with him. She has become attached to him, but did not get on with others. She often sat and looked at the sea.
Some time later the man married her. They lived in harmony and had children. The farmer kept the seal’s skin locked up in the chest and had the key with him wherever he went. Many years later he once went outdoors and left the key at home, under his pillow. Others say that the farmer went to celebrate Christmas with his men, but his wife was ill and could not go with them. While he changed his clothes, he left the key in a pocket of his everyday wear. When he came back home, the chest was open, and both the woman and the skin disappeared.
She had taken the key, looked into the chest out of curiosity and found the skin there. She could not resist the temptation, bade farewell to her children, put on the skin and plunged into the sea. And before she plunged into the sea, they say, she whispered:

Where have I to flee?
I’ve seven kids in the sea
And seven kids on dry land.

They say the man grieved much for that. Afterwards, when he went fishing, a seal often swam round his boat, and it seemed that tears ran from her eyes. Ever since that man always had good catch and was lucky.
When their children went to the shore for a walk, people often saw a seal that swam in the sea not far from them, both when they were on land and near water, and threw motley fish and nice sea shells to them. But their mother never came back.

© 2008 The Viking Rune, translation from Icelandic

It is a beautiful story and probably resonates with many of you. It certainly resonated with me: the pull between the world of the arts (the ocean) and the natural world (the land). The task always at hand is how do we balance both?

Pilgrimages cannot be identified as being a certain thing…they can be linear or cyclical, they can be internal or external…the interior landscape or exterior landscape…it feels like I am on a pilgrimage of sorts here at Sostrup: a journey where we have no preconceived destination, yet a destination all the same: We are endeavouring to push theatrical form, trying to find the liminal entry points into the performance itself. And while we test this liminal topography we have moments of relief: wonderful new Danish friends who entertain us as only Danes can.

Danish supper at Sostrup

Danish supper at Sostrup

Liminality is that point that sits between beginning and ending…we do not know it well. It is the opposite of solid. It is the land of the unknown. We begin our day in the known, we move into the unknown and then hopefully we exit knowing something more than when we entered this strange vortex of experience. As we sit in the library mid morning I realise that the library is a metaphor of our journey: we sit in a library of books. We understand books. We love books. My own home has stalagmites of books growing from floor to ceiling. They are my walls. But in this library I cannot access the knowledge. It is written in Danish, it is a locked world of knowledge to me. Just like the creative process. We have to unpick the lock and one cannot take a short cut…until the lock opens, we sit in that in-between space, in liminal time.

Sostrupp dining salon, next to the library

Sostrupp dining salon, next to the library

Today was a big day of liminal time. We presented Playreading/discussion No. 2, presenting something that need to engage our audience and at the same time challenge their ideas of what it is to belong in this world. Our subject matter today is of course EVE, a story of a woman that I have been fascinated with for over 25 years. This woman who wants to be the artist she believes she was born to be. But she was born out of time. She knew that she was a woman. A comical woman. But she wanted to be a serious and handsome man. So she decided to change her name to Oscar Wilde by depoll. In doing so, she believed that she was Oscar’s reincarnation:

on this day I slew Eve Langley before she could slay me

2pm. Saturday afternoon. The Kings Room:

the storytelling chair

the storytelling chair

We sit in two beautiful chairs. We talk to our audience. We morph into Eve’s words, and morph out again. We make the movement from first position to second position to third position with a fluidity of simple moves. First position, in this case, the me in the here and now. Second position, the character I step into. Third position in the one who observes the me being the character. So I slip from one to the other and finally to the third position, where I am able to safely reflect, make decisions and operate with a clear and present mind.

We loved the experience, hearing the questions that our audience asked, trying to answer them to the best of our ability and at the same time posing our own questions as we move into this complex and layered landscape of multiple realities.

After our reading we walked. To walk in these woods of crisp, the brownness of the leaves slowing turning into green as the days move closer to spring. The light is muted, the air alive with potential.

we are not sure where we are but we know we are where we need to be

we are not sure where we are but we know we are where we need to be

I love rehearsal process. That constant return to the Unknown, that scary unpredicatable place of challenging ideas, discussions that move around rather than through the subject matter…and I am noticing my pattern of circular talking until it is not.

It’s late now. We have partied, eaten terrific food, shared the evening with our new Danish friends, friends that Kirsten our hostess has known all her adult life. We made a huge list of Danish movies to watch on our return to Australia while we drank Elderberry flowers next to red wine.

Time to sleep, and not without a huge smile. Such stimulation, aliveness, generosity, joy. Sostrup Castle is a hearty place, fecund and vibrating with ideas and understandings.

Reflective practice is a crucial and fundamental way forward when it comes to creating art. It is only in reflecting, either through engaging in conversation or writing, taking photos, making music, drawing images, painting, collaging, meditating and walking that we can see beyond the obvious. The images and thoughts flirt with you, they sit just outside your reach and it is through creative reflection and untamed thinking that they land sometimes. I often reflect when I am walking, inviting the thoughts to come together in rhythm with my steps or inviting them to merge with the landscape I am moving through.

Blue skies, clear undergrowth, tall trees, bare branches...Sostrup park

Blue skies, clear undergrowth, tall trees, bare branches…Sostrup park

The landscape in this part of the world is mysterious, it is foreign yet strangely familiar. I am in a landscape of bare branches and clear undergrowth, of blue skies that suddenly turn black and I race for cover only to turn around a few minutes later and it is blue again.

In a strange way the landscape reminds me of the Celtic countries of my ancestors. I have been reading “the Ancient Wisdom of the Celts”:

Down the centuries the Celts have kept their reputation as a secret people, guardians of an unknown lore…the Celtic view of nature takes on a new sophistication when we consider the role of the Four Elements in Celtic cosmology. To the Celts, the universe was made up of four forces: earth, air, fire and water.

…and as i walk the landscape here at Sostrup I am very aware of the brown earth, the crisp air, the mote around the castle full of still water, sometimes so still that is is hard to know which is the castle and which is its reflection. Always, when we eat or chat or just sit through the day there is a candle burning and not just one candle but many. The landscape is potently alive and exists with a different energy to the landscape at home. I do not need to be as alert here rather I can engage in soft focus which seems to match the bare trees and the contained sky.

After a big breakfast we move over to the castle, up to the first floor and begin a conversation in the library. We have a playreading at 4pm and we are not sure what we are doing. As artists in residence it was important for us to do something within the community as a way of saying thank you or rather “Hi, we are the AIR, and we are so happy to be here creating our new play…here is a little bit to share with you”. Today we are so lucky to have two beautiful Danish visual artists visit and listen to what we are doing along with Bill my partner who is journeying with us. Bente Lyhne is a visual artist who is exhibiting at the moment at the castle: is where you will find some more information and many more images of her powerful work:

Bente's work demands visit after visit...each time I enter the gallery the experience gets deeper and my thoughts become denser...

Bente’s work demands visit after visit…each time I enter the gallery the experience gets deeper and my thoughts become denser…

Bente’s friend accompanies her: Xenia Lassen is an international light artist, and creates unique structures. …really astonishing works: if you go to her website you will see some images of her creations. What a treat to have these artistic minds in the salon, helping us unpack this new theatrical landscape.

We begin slowly, creating a new way forward…to begin slowly is not an unusual way of starting the day: A book I refer to every now and then, “The Art of Slow Writing” by Louise DeSalvo, talks about how writers can be very slow.She writes:

Slow writing…could be one way to slow down time, to “articulate time”. A way too, to “slow down life”. Like Slow Food, “slow writing” doesn’t “just take time, but makes time”. Slow writing is a meditative act: slowing down to understand our relationship to our writing, slowing down to determine our authentic subject, slowing down to write complex works, slowing down to study our literary antecedents” (The Art of Slow Writing)

Late night Skype meetings and rich dinners certainly slow our rhythm for the day. We notice this and go with it, allowing our stories to unfold as they needed, rather than as we needed them to. To understand our rhythms and embrace them, to refuse the invitation to manipulate them to fit a prescribed timetable is the way we want to work.

Dunne, in her book “Carl Jung-Wounded Healer of the Soul” talks about how understanding ourselves is a tool for understanding the world. Same I think in the world of theatre making: we move towards an understanding of character, we move towards an understanding of the world of the play and we move towards an acceptance of the unfolding and unique “how”: how do we create this new story? Every process is different, regardless of the philosophical framework that underpins it, in our case our base line includes a high regard for the creative process, a “yes and” approach, a need to hear our stories out loud, a patient stance, a respectful ear, an acceptance of everything at this stage of development. All of these qualities are within RIC, the frame that I have created for creative practice: Relational Impulse Cultural Training. I use RIC as a way of staying on track, of understanding the unfolding landscape of creative play. You can read more about RIC on other pages on this website.

Today we unpack a little more the importance of exploring a character such as Eve. A character that never ceases to move me even though I have journeyed with her since 1991 when Doug Leonard, an astonishing director, presented two texts as scores for our devised piece “Songs of the Hut”: Doug wanted to work with Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Eve Langley’s The White Topee, two books I had not read back then, but once started could not put down. Primarily it was the description of the landscape that captivated me…Eve writes things like

I turn my head, incline it to the right and stare out into the awful loneliness of the painted looking Australian bush, the course blue gums, the coarse yellow dry earth. All these, looking like a vast savage picture to be thrust forward to influence Australian and world art

As I read this I am thrust into the Australian outback, its dry beauty, its old beauty. And I am moved. I look out Sostrup’s window and I am back in Denmark, a landscape so vastly different it jolts me.

It is the landscape that holds me, regardless of where I find myself. The space, the colours, the shape, the size of the sky,the temperature, the smell, the sound, the feeling that emerges. And it is the landscape that then moves me forward.

we are in spring, and things are just turning...brown is everywhere with tiny flowers, green grass, beginning to peak through...we cannot rush this new growth. it will take the time it needs...

we are in spring, and things are just turning…brown is everywhere with tiny flowers, green grass, beginning to peak through…we cannot rush this new growth. it will take the time it needs…

Our reading goes well…we have created a new form. Whether this new form stays in the final production is another question. Whether this play changes its name and moves away from Eve and into other territory is likely. But the essence of Eve will remain. The reason why I want to do this topic again and again is because I believe it is extremely relevant right now. Women are putting up their hand to be recognised in our Australian theatre industry. In Brisbane we are led primarily by men, men are the artistic directors and the people with power. We are lagging behind the world in gender parity. Eve is a terrific example of a very talented and original voice being “invisibilized”. As Australians we do not tolerate difference too well…Eve Langley was an artist of unique vision who did not fit the mould. Australia needed to find a way of accepting rather than silencing her voice. Eve’s words influenced my world greatly and I use her words when she/I write:

It is alarmingly easy to commit your wife. One simply requires the collusion of a relative or two and a couple of medical professionals. Perhaps i am just someone who loves planets and the Gods. Someone wh wears clothes that don’t quite fit: someone who dreams so loud that they find the world an awkward fit. My husband says “She’s acting odd. She’s alway stalking about Saturn and she thinks she’s Oscar Wilde”. Then the doctor interviews me and I’m committed”

Eve, the character I keep returning to again and again...for she is the voice of the invisible female artist of the Australian landscape

Eve, the character I keep returning to again and again…for she is the voice of the invisible female artist of the Australian landscape

Doorway to the tower...we stop at  the first floor and make our way to the library

Doorway to the tower…we stop at the first floor and make our way to the library

Today was a rich one, listening to several recordings, improvising, dreaming on ideas, reading parts of scripts from elsewhere, all pointing in the same direction: who is Eve? Not so much the person that Eve was inspired by, that of Eve Langley, but who is the Eve within every one of us. We talked about why people do what they do: for example, the woman who wrote the spectacular book on Eve, The Importance of Being Eve Langley. Why did she dedicate so many years of her life looking into this remarkable woman. What Eve was awoken within? And my preoccupation with Eve has spanned over twenty five years…why would one person create such passion? I think it is because there is an Eve within all of us, the one who wants to do what she was born to do. In Eve’s case it was to write, to write…

I write. i write for myself. i write for myself by myself.

deep in conversation about why we are doing Eve in the first place...what does Eve mean to our audience?

deep in conversation about why we are doing Eve in the first place…what does Eve mean to our audience?

What I love about big rooms is that it gives room for big thought. The rehearsal space is crucial when it comes to creative thinking…and sometimes we just sit and chat:

… It quite frequently happens that you’re just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly … And that seems to be the process.
Brian Eno at”

We are dreaming Eve2…

an image of EVE...always longing to belong

an image of EVE…always longing to belong

Eve1 is a play I wrote about the tension that sits between the role of artist and the role of mother: how do you hold both of these things? As a mother of four I found this topic an extremely relevant one. I was inspired by the writer Eve Langley, an Australian writer well before her time, who wrote stream of consciousness way back when James Joyce experimented in a similar way while writing Ulysses. Eve was extraordinary and had many obstacles to overcome. I absorbed her journey and borrowed some of her words as I collaged together a script that hopefully related to our time right now and our place right here:

“I am not sure of parenting baby girl, i am unsure of romance, I do not believe in my own talent, but to write, that is something I understand. To write the lies of living…the great Australian loneliness that old disease of mine.

These words I love for they sum up Eve’s passion for her art and for Australia, despite the fact that she wrote most of her writings in New Zealand where she lived for over 20 years.

What does Eve1 sound like after two three and a half years? We read the script aloud in this beautiful room:

Piano Room

Piano Room

I read it aloud without stage directions. The words hang in the air creating new meaning…the body remembers but stays still. I read it without Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant…and so we create new meaning. Words sound different when they are not juxtaposed with other text. Yet the message is strongly there, the understanding or rather non understanding of what it means to belong. Eve’s unbelonging is potent. Her sense of not being in this world. I have spent some time researching Celtic mythology and for the first time I am thinking that Eve passes the fine line between this world and the other…she belongs in the other world perhaps, the world we don’t acknowledge aloud but one that Celtic mythology is most aware of:

The Celts believed that there was another dividing line that all people could straddle, if only they stretched themselves a bit. And that’s the divide between the world and the otherworld. Steve Rabery, In the House of Memory

Eve straddled this line. She managed to stretch herself forever in her attempt to understand her role as an artist: she flew through paper windows and out into the stars…Eve lived a life of exile as do many of us:

Exile is that undeniable sensation of being cordoned off from what is most essential to our souls…Family in the Celtic sense, is meant to feel like a warm hearth fire, a downy nest of repose, and yet all too often our families contain the fiercest blades that slash at the peace of our souls”(The Mist-Filled Path Celtic Wisdom for Exiles, Wanderers and Seekers by Frank MacEowen)

Its a joy to be reading Eve again. She has always resonated with me, for she is a storyteller and so am I. She was of Irish decent and so am I:

Druids, poets and storytellers shared a major responsibility in traditional Celtic communities: they reminded the Celtic people who they were.Tom Cowan in Frank MacEowen’s book The Mist-Filled Path.

Each morning as I awake before going to work I find the Danish sky soft grey, the light soft, no sharp edges so early in the morning. And I am reminded of how the mist is seen as that liminal space within Celtic spirituality: the thin veil between this world and the other…and that is where we are whenever we rehearse. We sit in a space of neither here nor there. It is a time of magic.

Bente's painting, Sostrup Gallery

Bente’s painting, Sostrup Gallery