The Södra Teatern is theater complex in Stockholm, Sweden is located at the top of a steep cobblestoned street (“steep” as in the Santa Monica Pier ramp), overlooking waterways, carrying boats of all kinds. Six small theaters are spread up and down this scenic hill, connected by dozens of iron stairs. There, all nearly three hundred of us scampered or in my case, limped from readings to workshops, dashing back to the huge, old main theatre, and its red plush seats.

It was my intention to fill this blog with keen and incisive impressions of the many workshops and keynote events I attended at the Women Playwrights International Conference, in Stockholm, Sweden last month. Seriously. I had my trusty steno pad, Bic AND Sharpie pens with me at all times. The one thing I forgot was how the Universe gets a hearty chuckle at all of my good intentions. As usual, the Universe had an agenda all its own.

The message: see what comes along, listen, take notes and tell these stories to as many people as possible.

One day, I missed a keynote speech when a young playwright from Serbia took me aside. It seemed so urgent to her — this woman with eyes downcast and in a quiet voice to speak of her country of origin. She feared that I and the other Americans attending would be mad at her for atrocities “put upon Muslims.” I doubted if she was old enough to have been alive during that terrible time. Still, here was this beautiful, young, talented person, taking the guilt of a whole country onto her little shoulders. Once she saw that she wasn’t about to automatically be condemned, we created a great conversation in our new international language – that of the female dramatist. My advice to her – put it all into your next play.

A few days later, I gave up my spot on a workshop waiting list in order to sit on a bench in the square outside the main theatre, doing an impromptu reading of my Eileen Heckart Award winning play, HAPPY AND GAY, with the wonderful Swedish actress, Ulla-Britt Norrman. She was a brilliant ‘Betty’ to my so-so ‘Veronica.’ I looked up from the script to see a small crowd had gathered around us. We even got a bit of applause. In retrospect, maybe I should have passed a hat. Afterwards, I had to explain why ‘Veronica’ was so worried about the ramifications of the first gay wedding in their church. Ulla wanted to know why there was much “gay fear” in America. The more I tried to explain gay rights in America, a realization crept into my consciousness. What’s the big deal about America’s gay rights? I have no clue.

My new friend, the beloved Lia Gladstone, made an unexpected appearance at the Columbus Hotell (yes, two “l’s), where I was staying. She had just gotten in from a long flight and needed a good walk and talk before the arrival of her charges, the young women who would perform their “Afghan Voices” presentation later in the week. Lia knew from the moment they arrived from Afghanistan, she would have to constantly be there for them, giving multiple interviews with the press and shepherd her charges to the various public events.

Since this might be her one rare, peaceful moment before the impending media storm, I suggested we take a stroll through the Katarina Churchyard, located behind the Columbus Hotell. We walked and sat on benches, listening to the church bells dutifully toll every fifteen minutes. As a family of rabbits, the graveyard’s unofficial grounds keepers, nibbled on the grave side flowers Lia and I quietly chatted about everything from our lives, writing and eventually to her work teaching drama to young girl orphans in Kabul. Lia moved me to tears as she described giving one little girl a head scarf to play with for an improv exercise. The child rolled the scarf up, making it into a turban, the symbol of masculine power in Afghanistan. Lia said she looked out over the rest of the class, watching all of the other little girls empower themselves by rolling up their head scarfs into turbans and wearing them.

With my Steno pad, Bic and Sharpie in hand, I was bound and determined to take the iron stairs from the main theatre down to KGB West in order to find the director of “Isaac, I am,” my play to be presented the next day. Once again, the cosmic chuckle materialized into a downpour outside. About a hundred of us were caught in the lobby, awaiting the rain’s end when Van Badham, a fresh, fierce playwright from Australia, climbed up a couple of stairs and called for our attention. She announced the conviction of members from the Pussy Riot punk group, who had broken into a church and recorded a protest song about Putin in Russia.

Leaning on her cane (“I have a bum ankle,” she told me later), Van’s strong, clear voice delivered her message, electrifying the room. She announced an impromptu march from the theater to downtown Stockholm. The place went wild! With Van’s permission, I recorded her repeating the announcement on my little camera as she stood on the stage of the big red-plush-seated theatre. Lightning struck again! A few moments later, I sat with Van, as she gave a quiet, focused statement. She was illuminated only by a single window, which gradually brightened with the passing of the storm.

See below– these are short. Feel free to share these links.
Van’s announcement on stage:

Van’s quiet, focused statement:

I shared these links with Hettie Lynn Hurtes at KPCC/National Public Radio in Los Angeles. She passed them on to her colleagues.

You gotta hand it to the organizers of the WPIC. Besides hosting 275 playwrights from dozens of countries, they fed us, provided those who had play presentations with excellent directors and actors, who gave our work respectful and often brilliant treatment. The cast in my Helford Prize winning “Isaac, I am” was so enthused, they honored me with requests for full copies of the play so they could find out how it ended.

Yes. The organizers did a wonderful job. The only problem? There was too much ‘wonderful.’ It was physically impossible to see absolutely everything. On Saturday night, August 18, I had to choose between attending two performances in different venues at virtually the same time; Afghan Voices or the Gueerilla Girls. Hoping to catch up with the Guerrilla Girls back in the states, I chose to support Lia Gladstone and her Afghan performers.

We were mesmerized as one young woman made the stage her own with a self-choreographed hip-hop dance, while rapping her own lyrics. While I wish I could have translated her words, in the end it didn’t matter. What transcended any language issues was her joyous defiance and courage in the face of possible dire consequences back home. Her spirit moves me to this moment.

I’m writing from this from home with the Democratic Convention livestreaming on my laptop beside me. My poor steno pad is within reach, its Bic and Sharpie waiting patiently nearby. Before the WPIC, my biggest concerns were working to get productions and hoping for good reviews.

Spending one extraordinary week with these women playwrights and performers who, every single day put it all on the line while expressing their art has given me a greater appreciation of the freedom we have always known, must protect and encourage in others.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: HIT AND MISS: MY OWN LITTLE STOCKHOLM SYNDROME by Mary Steelsmith

  1. Mary, as usual, your words are deep and moving and exciting. Your skill is astonishing. Don’t stop. So thrilled that you are getting such recognition.

Leave a Reply