Saturday, 04 April 2020 11:02

Julia Varley: "I wish to give voice to women"

Interview at Rania Papadopoulou

“As an actress I sit, speak, run, sweat and, simultaneously, I represent someone who sits, speaks, runs and sweats. As an actress, I am both myself and the character I am playing. I exist in the concreteness of the performance and, at the same time, I need to be alive in the minds and senses of the spectators. How can I speak of this double reality?”, refers the actress Julia Varley to her book entitled “Notes From An Odin Actress: Stones of Water”.


Julia Varley, member of Odin Teatret for more than thirty years, in “Stones of Water” describes her  experiences from a professional and female perspective. This book is a personal account of her work with Eugenio Barba and this world-renowned theatre company, in which the readers have  the opportunity to discover the art and technique of Odin Teatret.

On the occasion of the publication of “Stones of Water” in Greek by Dodoni Publications, Julia Varley narrates at Culture Press and Rania Papadopoulou, what does mean to be an Odin actress.

-What made you write the book “Stones of Water”?

J.V.: There are different motivations. One was to answer the request that came from many young theatre practitioners doing my workshops. After the practical experience they often asked me if I had written something: They wanted to take my advice home with them and they wanted me to accompany them in their everyday work, even if I live far away. Another reason was to give recognition to the actress’s point of view. Mostly theatre books are written by scholars and directors. I wanted the physical embodied way of thinking of the actress to be heard. In theatre theories there is a tendency to contrapose methods, while in the practice opposition, contrast and diversity are essential for creativity and presence.  And “Stones of water” was my way of contributing to building a woman’s theatre history, taking responsibility and speaking in first person. I wish to give voice to women. In the past women in theatre have been talked about by others. I miss hearing them directly and I need to indicate that a woman’s capacity of being a reference for others lies in her availability to share vulnerability.

-What does mean to be an actress in 2020?

J.V.: Right now, in the middle of the corona virus crisis, shut up at home, it is much more difficult to answer this question. The value of theatre and of being an actress for me has to do with at least two people sharing the same space and time, creating a relationship based on physical presence. This I find is especially important in our era of virtual communication and isolation. Only that right now virtual communication is the only possible and isolation a must. In normal conditions, the communication I try to establish with a theatre performance is not dependent on meaning and narrative but on a dynamic dramaturgy based on impulses, body language, sound, intonation, actions and reactions. I feel that as an actress today I have a responsibility in sharing my experience in knowing how to do many things at the same time, using opposition to create a knot of drama, understanding that diversity and variation creates energy and interest in the other.  

-In which way the play “1789” of Theatre du Soleil directed by Arianne Mnouchkine changed your vision for the theatre? What did you believe before?

J.V.: Before seeing “1789” I had been used to theatre always being frontal, presented on a stage at a distance. I associated theatre with pretence, boredom and abstraction. The performance of Théâtre du Soleil revealed to me that the actors could be all around the spectators, and that the spectators could have an active role. I remember how incredible it was for me that as a spectator I was suddenly a person at the market, then part of people protesting in the streets taking part in a revolution. Of course, in those years there were other theatres experimenting with a different way of relating to the spectators, like Grotowski’s Teatr Laboratorium in Poland, Odin Teatret in Denmark, The Bread and Puppet Theatre and The Living Theatre in the USA. But I was very young, I had just started working with an amateur group that rehearsed in a garage and that I did not really associate with theatre. “1789” of the Théâtre du Soleil was the first performance I saw that showed me the power and potentiality of a different kind of theatre.


-What are the most important lessons that you harvest from Odin Teatret?

J.V.: That it is possible to keep a theatre group working independently for 55 years, living in a small town far away from the capital. Throughout the years I have learned the importance of details, of giving the best one can, of taking care of the human potential in each individual, of understanding that a group resists not because everyone thinks the same but because every single member is strong in their own way. At Odin Teatret we respect and defend the work, from the humblest aspects of cleaning the space and taking care of costumes and props, to the highest challenges of renewing our language and confronting difficult tasks that allow us to discover unknown paths. I have learned to listen to what the work needs instead of wishing for certain results, I have understood that obstacles are an opportunity that force me to find unexpected solutions. The group culture that unites us is built around the craft. We are artisans.

-When does an actress discover her personal theatrical language?

J.V.: It is not a discovery that happens once and for all. As a beginner I could discover a certain quality of energy in a training session, and then it would disappear again. During the rehearsals of a performance I could discover how to make a montage of texts, songs, actions, ideas, to realise that I had to find a different strategy for the next production. During a travel away from theatre, I discovered how to give volume to my voice without pushing, and then how to reassure myself while my voice guided me into adventures that seemed impossible. For every performance I need to discover my personal theatrical language right now, at the point where I stand that day. And start again the day after.

-Does the training follow an actress during her entire life?

J.V.: It is the actress that follows the training! Training goes through periods of apprenticeship, exercise, creation of materials, montage, discoveries… It is always necessary because it is during the training that the body is allowed to think and create. Training is necessary for me as an actress in the same way as a writer needs to read, a painter to see, a musician to feel the vibrations of sounds. Training gives me the freedom of being, without representing or interpreting. It prepares me for everything that will come.

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-What about the “Echo of Silence”?

J.V.: At Odin Teatret we have developed a technique in which we reduce the external form of a physical action maintaining all the impulses and intentions, so that we keep the essential of an action without necessarily showing the full movement. I wanted to try the same procedure with vocal actions, so I tried to pull back the volume of my voice as much as possible, maintaining the variation of tone and the intention of living out in space. This made me think of silence as all possible sounds retained, in the same way as the colour white contains all colours, and stillness in a position of impulse is the possibility of stepping forwards, backwards, of jumping or sitting. The echo is to dialogue with what walls, nature, spectators, colleagues give back to you, instead of concentrating just on the emission of the voice. The voice is generous, it should be given, and the echo is what is comes back to tell a different story than your own.

-What does an actress think when she improvises?

J.V.: Improvisations can be done differently, starting from a theme, an image, a technical task, a music, a painting. Sometimes thoughts concentrate on the sequence of images that help me remember as an actress. Sometimes images or stories come to my mind as a consequence of the actions. My attention is often taken by what is around me when I improvise: sounds, the colour of the floor, the walls, the ceiling, people watching, the chairs, the windows, the view. It is the changes of tension in my body while I improvise that guide my thoughts, contrary to what one imagines. Improvising is being without divisions, and often I discover that I am being thought rather than thinking. It is a completely different way of experiencing. Would anyone ask what does one think while cooking, or riding a bicycle, or playing the piano. Of everything and nothing at the same time!

-During a journey in Crete Island in Greece, you discover Daedalus’s secret. What was your discovery and how did it help you as an artist?

J.V.: I travelled to Crete when the rehearsals for “Mythos” were in the final phase, so the visit didn’t influence my creation of actress’s material for that performance. But the visit enriched the inner world of my character. The secret was in part the goddess with bare breasts holding two snakes, the labyrinth in the form of a painting with a special blue colour and dolphins flying, the restaurant names in town, a tiny doll’s swing at the museum, the flowers on the highlands, the icon in a small church, the trip shared with a friend, the round sculpture with incomprehensible signs, the wind dialoguing with the rough sea, rocks and bushes, and most of all the incredible quality and beauty of everyday objects, plates and jars, at the time of Minos.

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-Do you believe that theatre can change the world?

J.V.: No, of course not. But I pretend it can.

-What are your future plans?

J.V.: We have started working on a new ensemble Odin Teatret production and I have just premiered a new solo with Mr Peanut, my ‘death’ character. Both demand my engagement as an actress. Although I have many other responsibilities, my priority is to work as an actress, because the foundation I stand on to do everything else comes from there. Eugenio Barba and I should visit Athens in September 2020 with a masterclass and the performance “Ave Maria”. I hope to meet our Greek friends on that occasion. When the virus is under control, I will allow myself to think about the future again. For now, I concentrate on the present, learning texts and songs, repeating scenes, sewing costumes – at home, because the theatre is closed.