Seppo Välinen: The stage should move and be alive
”I consider myself a renaissance person in the sense that I've tried to decipher my existence in many different ways, and I always end up with the arts and performing arts," says Seppo Välinen. In the autumn he will begin his tenure as the Director of Vaasa City Theatre. Previously he's had an extensive career in theatre and dance, in multiple roles: those of a director, performer, choreographer and teacher. Seppo's extensive interest in theatre and dance was visible during his studies in the master's degree studies in theatre pedagogy at the Theatre Academy ('12), where Seppo included the practical modules of the master's programme in dance pedagogy in his studies.
Now the programme planning of his new workplace is keeping him busy — ”now we're working on 2020, and then we'll move to the 2021 agenda: new people, new job opportunities at ours..." — as does the large-scale musical Cabaret, which premiers in the Rovaniemi Theatre in the autumn. In addition, he's studying in two universities: HR management studies at the Jyväskylä University and theatre management studies at the Theatre Academy.
”I've been developing my understanding of management and leadership processes." [Ed.note: 'Managing' and 'leading' are often used interchangably in Finnish, and in this translation both will be used.] "Managing and leading have always interested me: how to lead that process when a herd of people work together and happens to create a work of art?" Seppo describes himself as an inspirer, who aims at encouraging conversation. ”I'm a kind person, and I know that my challenge is to be more strict. But when decisions are being made, it's for the best if those decisions have been discussed and reflected upon together."
He often mentions collaboration and discussion when speaking of his upcoming tenure. To create new kinds of artistic outputs and thinking, Seppo plans to bring new artists to the "good combo" of people already working at the Vaasa City Theatre. "Vaasa as a city is very positive towards culture. Both the Finnish-language and the Swedish-language theatre houses are very respected, the orchestra has a lot of listeners, and young performers have created excellent pieces. I take it as an exciting challenge to get to offer something new to people who are already so hungry for culture."
Theatre for the audiences
Seppo hopes that theatre as an artform shows something unexpected to the audience member, and gets them to ponder about the world. "I don't think making art is really possible otherwise than by hoping that it offers something new to its audiences... 'Oh, right, these kind of values do exist' or 'there exists a possibility of this type of a world'." He laughs and mentions that toward the end of the rehearsal period, he's mostly facing the wrong way and looking at the test audiences reactions.
He also recalls an event from his studies at TeaK that shaped his perspective on the spectatorship: ”During Liisa Pentti's course we made choreographies in small groups, and because there wasn't enough space, we went into the large staircase to work on the material. And nothing was working! We tried to make it come together, and of course Liisa appeared just then to observe us, and the process just didn't go anywhere. But then, a group of people entered the staircase and they thought that it was a performance in action. They stopped to watch us and suddenly it all became very interesting, when we were crawling on the stairs in front of an audience. Liisa kept telling us: more more! Suddenly, it was a performance in itself. We had been creating inhibitions for ourselves and being there with an audience forced us back into the experimenting flow of the process." Seppo adds with a grin: ”It turned out to be a great, little choreography. It showed, how performing arts is always for the audience and not for oneself."
Music theatre in motion
Seppo has always loved music theatre and has, in the past, directed multiple musicals. These will be seen in Vaasa as well. ”Music theatre is a genre I want to develop further. As a word it stands for entertainment-oriented musicals, but also for so much more: music as part of dramaturgy, maybe nothing massive and so on. Even though the grand stage might house a known family musical, something more unexpected might be happening on the smaller stages."
When he directs and choreographs, Seppo focuses mostly on movement. He thinks of plays as fully-choreographed pieces where the diversity of the perfomers' bodies is allowed to become visible. "I try to make the stage to be constantly physical and in movement. In the last few years, when I've been invited to direct, people have said that 'we'd like some of that movement-based stuff'. It's been great that people have started to recognise that; that the stage is full of movement and not stiffness."
The last time he came across interesting and fresh movement material was while directing Katto-Kassinen to Vaasa City Theatre: ”The role of the little brother was performed by two kids, and they picked up the physical aspect of the performance immediately. We had designed the scenography so that everything could be climbed upon, and it was amazing, how the boys got excited and kept bombarding me with questions 'could this be done like this?' and 'could this jump here during this?'. They were just zooming around! I noticed that I had started to forget about the child-like playfulness in the body, and this crystallized it anew."
When directing movement, Seppo aims at bringing the uniqueness of each performer's embodied expression to the stage, and cultivating an empathetic and merciful attitude towards people's physicalities. He also calls for more personal growth as part of performing artists' job description. "I don't lead many exercises as such, but I design the rehearsal processes so that people themselves pick up ideas that interest them. That they go 'oh, this is something I've never tried before' or 'oh, these kind of elements could be used to build this character'. That's something I've inherited from the pedagogy programme; I think there's a strong pedagogical aspect to my directorial and managing styles."
In the circle of dance and theatre
Even though Seppo is a fan of classics, the studies of pedagogy allowed for experimentation, the echo of which still resonates in his artistic work. "It was such a good process to me – I did all sorts of wild performances."
He mentions that the first year at "peda" was a difficult one. What turned the course of his studies was the possiblity of including the practical parts of the master's programme in dance pedagogy in his degree. "Eeva [Anttila, the professor in dance pedagogy] asked one of my classmates and I to hold some physical exercises at the applications. The result was quite a bit of fun, and afterward Eeva asked me to her room and inquired, whether I'd like to do the dance studies, too. I was filled with such warmth in that moment, when I realised that Eeva had listened to me and seen me... That I was given that opportunity, has changed me as a person quite a lot."
He mentions that what was special to peda was the openness to mix dance and theatre, and bring all sorts of "ruckus" into the picture. The intertwining of dance and theatre inspired the contents of his teaching practices as well: "Whenever my classmate or I had an exercise, we tried to turn it on its head. If it was a very physical one, we introduced a text into it, and if we were rehearsing a dramatic scene, we turned it into a choreography."
”During my university years I pondered that I was at the crossroads of dance and theatre. Now I no longer think that, since they are not separate roads that cross. It's more of a circle within which everything can happen", Seppo concludes.
Seppo Välinen is an alumnus from the theatre and dance pedagogy programmes (2012) and will start his tenure as the Director of Vaasa City Theatre in the autumn 2019.
Interview held (in Finnish) in June 2019. Text: Kenneth Siren