“Watching students discover their own ecstatic joy of playing is the key ingredient of my life”
With a flux of Nordic noir drama, Ben Meagher, a third-year art-history student spending the year in Copenhagen, catches up with Ole Brekker, the founder of Copenhagen’s Commedia School, to talk clowns, politics and the joy of teaching
Thanks to the majority of the British public being glued to the Nordic noir screen, our perception of Denmark is of a land where everybody wears knitted turtlenecks, plays with Lego bricks and kills their dinner guest. A lot like the Danish version of Cluedo then. But in the heart of Copenhagen, the Commedia School (the oldest physical theatre school in northern Europe) is bucking the theatrical scene.
“We have 25 students,” Ole tells me. “15 in the first year and 10 in the second year of study – from 15 different countries. It’s an exciting place as far as the student body is concerned – a lot of language and cultural experiences – we have two students from Yorkshire now as a matter of fact”, he adds cheerfully. Originating from 14th century Italy, ‘Commedia Dell’arte’ is characterized by the use of masks – each representing an identifiable stereotype. It’s hardly a surprise then, that Ole focuses a lot of his work on the figure of the clown.
“We approach the clown by developing the performing personality of the students; naivety, stupidity and pride are the three ingredients, so we have to find ways to let them discover those aspects.” From King Lear to Twelfth Night, I eagerly bring up the subject of Shakespeare’s fools as a case in point; how independent are the actors from the text if the emphasis is on physicality? “They need to find their own fools and clowns first before they start. The text will show them a lot of dimensions of themselves and that’s the beauty; texts as good as Shakespeare will lead you to a place you haven’t been before – so it’s not how you play Shakespeare, it’s how Shakespeare plays you.”
Behind Ole’s mask is a background marked by a persistent and enthusiastic attitude. “I was a dancer before I went to the Dell’arte School in California and L’ecole Jaques Le Coq in Paris, but some injuries prevented me from dancing. I was operated on a couple of times, so I spent more time teaching.” Originally working out of Stockholm with his Swedish wife, the course increased from a one-year to a two-year programme and moved to Denmark to increase its international scope. “At that time,” he adds, “Denmark was in the EU and Sweden was not”.
With a population of just 5.6 million, Denmark has made a remarkable impression on global politics, economics and culture. Ole offers a simple explanation to Denmark’s recent achievements: “People here are very ambitious and the work ethic is very strong”. With an increasingly modest economy, little in the way of class divisions, and an unemployment rate of just 4.7% (Britain is almost double that figure), “there is a wonderful possibility for absolutely everybody”. Unlike the UK, this does not exclude education – far from it. “You have a very good education from pre-school all the way to university. It’s all available to everyone and it’s free.” Come again? As if this weren’t enough, Danish students are also entitled to a £600 monthly grant.
However, this winter wonderland does have its drawbacks, especially in the arts. “I have four children and all of them have done their university studies in England; there isn’t a musical theatre school here and the dance is not so strong, so they went to London to do that”, Ole says. Aside from government bureaucracy that makes running an independent school a hassle, the political climate doesn’t help. “We have had a history of right-wing politics like most places in Europe. There were extreme racists in the coalition that made bringing foreigners into the country a big problem.” Ole is referring to the election of Lars Løkke, Rasmussen’s right-wing coalition in 2009. In 2011, they marginally lost to Helle Thorning-Schimidt’s left-wing coalition and she went on to become Denmark’s first female Prime Minister. “We always have a lot of issues getting Visa’s for people that want to study here, so right-wing extremism is still a problem.”
Having said that, these problems seem like a drop in the ocean for Ole. The satisfaction he gets from teaching at the school on a daily basis overrides any administrative fears. “I often talk about the joy of playing, it’s so important. When you see a good show and the performers are really playing on a top level, you can see them really enjoying themselves; it’s infectious.” He confesses that his real excitement as a teacher is “watching students discover their own ecstatic joy of playing; it’s the key ingredient of my life and work here and it’s something that I am very fortunate to be around”.
Details of Copenhagen’s Commedia School can be found at: http://commediaschool.com/