Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…
You’ll hear Minna Partanen before you see her, such is the carry of her voice. Once you see her, you’re inclined to keep looking.
Minna is a Finnish actor and theatre director with cropped, chameleonic hair. She never enters a room without a story, untangling her misadventures for impromptu audiences.
Her 2015 solo performance, Next Time was captivating. She currently works as house manager and drama teacher at English Theatre Berlin, as well as devising shows for International People’s Theatre Berlin.
When do you feel at your most creative?
I think right before a deadline. I know it sounds like a joke but I love the feeling when there’s no space to think about anything else and the whole world sort of quiets down.
Also when I’m in a rehearsal room working on a scene and it seems to go instinctively, without thinking. I’m a perfectionist filled with self-doubt so situations that don’t allow my mind to take over seem to be the most creative moments.
Artistic endeavours often create tension with parents. How do they feel about your work?
My dad was a musician when he was young but otherwise our family lived a very normal middle-class life. My grandmother had a real flair for theatre and drama, so I guess that’s where that comes from.
My parents were always very supportive of what I wanted to do and I got to choose my own hobbies. But I guess as I’m approaching 35 they’re slightly worried what’s going to come out of this. Luckily they’re very subtle in their concern.
This might also be due to the lack of conversational culture in Finland. Finally this aspect of my culture pays off!
But I think especially my mother is happy that I’m doing something I love. I’ve actually thanked her for letting me openly pursue my passion, from choosing theatre to moving to Berlin.
I feel very privileged in that way, especially in an era where we’re taught to be our resumés and society is pushing all the creatives to become entrepreneurs.
I really feel that career pressure in Sydney – partly the culture, partly the expectations (either real or perceived) of family and friends. For me, Berlin was such a relief from that.
Absolutely! It’s definitely one of the main reasons I like living here. Not being put into a box but having freedom to rethink and discover yourself over and over again.
I think it’s a benefit of living abroad in general. You’re always bit of an outsider so you can shut your eyes from the pressure that comes from outside. I didn’t know all of this in advance but it’s a very wise move to do right before turning 30 to avoid the crisis. Berlin is a very inspirational city no matter how much of a cliché that is.
The shortcomings of Berlin are pretty much the opposite of what’s great about living here. There are too many artists, so the funding is in crisis and it might be hard to find paid work. On the other hand, competition is not as harsh as in other major cities because living expenses are so low. There are people who are very excited to do projects – you can exchange artistic favours.
What’s your approach to collaborations, given that you won’t always agree with other people’s ideas?
It depends on my role. As a pedagogue I’ve learned to digest other people’s ideas but it can be extremely hard sometimes because I still have a big ego. I’ve been really lucky to find like-minded people in Berlin so I’ve been blessed with great collaborators.
If it’s my personal piece I think very carefully about who I invite in the process. I need to know the people well in advance both professionally and personally.
It also helps to see other people’s work together and discuss ideas and visions beforehand as much as possible. But theatre is always group work and I never have the best ideas alone. You just have to trust the ‘hive mind’.
Another downside of Berlin is fluctuation and temporarity. People are coming and going so it’s hard to pin them down for long-term work.
Does that also apply to relationships?
Same with them. Berlin is a place for broken people so that definitely affects the relationships a great deal.
Someone called me out for making that observation once. But I think there’s something to it.
It sounds funny but it’s really true. Have you seen that sticker: “Why should I go to therapy when I can just move to Berlin and be weird?”
This applies to me, too, so there’s no judgement here!
What’s your favourite German expression?
I like “komm gut nach Hause.”
“Get home safely?”
Yes, it’s sweet. Literally “come well to home”. Also, the concept of Feierabend is just genius. At the end of work, you just shout ‘Feierabend’, drop your pen and start your night off! There’s not even a good direct translation. If somebody asks anything else about work you just reply, ‘Feierabend.’
How do Germans compare to Finns?
We’re both pretty straightforward which English-speakers can find rude, but I can work with it and respect it.
The biggest difference is when it comes to minding other people’s business. In Finland you don’t comment on strangers’ behaviour in public, whereas Germans almost see it as their duty to tell anyone they’re speaking too loud or sitting in a wrong way or this and that. It’s both hilarious and highly annoying.
When did you develop your interest in theatre?
My first encounter with theatre happened at school when I was eight. And I noticed: wow, I really like this! So I started in a local youth theatre when I was 11 or 12 years old. I guess I just had a loud voice and I could make people laugh.
That was my first impression of you.
So not much has changed!
What part of a performance brings you the most joy?
I love working together with people. As an extrovert I get energy from being with people. The phase where you’re generating material together with people – when everything’s still possible, slightly scary but exciting.
Getting things started is the most difficult. Also the end of a process is depressing and I just sit in my room listening to Finnish rap.
Of course the performances themselves are amazing. That energy rush is something performers always keep chasing. There’s nothing like it.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I wish I was always actively working on something. That’s my biggest struggle! It’s so easy just to follow your routine and pretend you’re working on something new. With my International People’s Theatre Berlin I’m working on this year’s project where we’re exploring new site-specific options. That’s very exciting!
Then I’m trying to get my solo performance back on its feet again. I have some new collaborations in the pipeline which is always fun. I’m also teaching weekly classes at a school where I’m creating a performance for an annual festival.
You work for English Theatre Berlin AND International People’s Theatre Berlin – can you explain what each one is?
At English Theatre Berlin I work as a drama educator and a house manager. ETB has built partnerships with schools so I do my teaching work through that. It’s a professional theatre that works in the Freie Szene has existed for more than 25 years.
International People’s Theatre Berlin is a company run by me and Inka-Charlotte Palm. We focus on devised, pedagogical theatre projects with a new group every year.
What are your teaching objectives?
At the moment I’m teaching two classes of teenagers. I work a lot from their ideas. I teach the basic theatre games and whatnot, then I try to find out what they’re interested in and mould that into a performance.
I feel like my job is to encourage everyone to find their unique self-expression as well as teaching team work skills. Someone once said: a director should make the actors look and feel good and beautiful. It comes pretty close to my teaching philosophy.
Who are your influences?
Theatre-wise: Signa, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and Forced Entertainment. In general, Miranda July.
What are the overarching themes of your work?
One of my main themes is feeling disconnected which I guess relates to depression and sadness, too. But always approached with warmth and humour. As my last director said, the heavier the topic, the lighter the process should be.
How does sadness inform your work?
I think it’s a double-edged sword. Something that can make you paralysed and not able to work on or do anything. At the same time it can be a great source of inspiration.
I wonder if we’re always compelled to express that kind of intense emotion as a means of helping ourselves understand it. Or if we need it to unlock a deeper well of creativity within us that can’t be accessed otherwise.
I think out of heartbreak’s palette, frustration is the one that inspires me – when I feel uncomfortable enough that it forces me to channel my emotions and thoughts into creativity.
I think the inspiration itself is the desire to communicate to the outside world something of my human experience. Those experiences I can’t find the words for.
Tell me about your most recent performance, Next Time.
Next Time is my first solo performance in 11 years and I did it because I felt like I really needed to. It was definitely born out of frustration.
I was trying hard to find an interesting intellectual theme but I had to realise that it was staring at me straight into the eyes. So I gave in and chose ‘missed opportunities’ as my theme.
At the rehearsals, together with my director Joseph Wegmann, the theme expanded to self-doubt, fear of failure and anything that’s less depressing. It also touched areas like vanity, getting older and gardening.
Do you consider it the best thing you’ve done?
I’d like to think my recent work is always the best work I’ve done. So that there’s this sense of my expression and thinking growing. It’s definitely my most personal and therefore most important work.
In the past years I’ve worked a lot in the role of a facilitator so I’ve felt like I’m bringing groups’ ideas together whereas this piece was born from my personal interest and passion to say something.
Can you describe your ‘writing’ process?
As you know I’m not much of a writer but I like generating my own material. So the piece was mainly born in the rehearsal room. I’d say it’s devised contemporary theatre.
First we collected a lot of ideas together. I love using cards. We thought of tasks and exercises then I would do them. Sometimes Joseph would come up with an idea, then we would physically see how it would look. We also used a lot of recording and looping which then became an important part of the show.
Do you have further plans for Next Time?
Yes, but my progress is very slow. It’s hard to work on your own show while doing all your other paid work. But the theme keeps rubbing it in my face, so I have to do it!
That’s actually what forced me to finish the piece. I thought, I can’t be that much of a loser that I can’t make the performance called ‘Next Time’.
You have a rapping alter ego, Minna Cooloo. When does she appear?
Minna Cooloo has been on a hiatus again, which is starting to be a bit of a joke. She seems to appear only once or twice a year these days.
It’s been a side project for me which has been very liberating and fun. I never really took it seriously but I must admit I had my moments thinking, ‘wow, this is actually pretty cool.’
I always wanted to make music but had no outlet for it. Then very, very accidentally discovered a hidden talent for rapping.
By rapping in Finnish, for mostly non-Finnish audiences, does that give you more freedom to say what you want?
Absolutely. It was the key in discovering the talent. Even though I teach improvisation in my classes, this was the first forum where I truly experienced flow without obstacles. And my flow dried up as the first Finns walked in.
I’m gonna resist the urge to use that as the heading quote.
I believe we have a lot of hidden capabilities we might never discover because we’re so wrapped up in our egos.
How do you mean?
When we grow up we become very self-conscious, we have a lot of self-limiting beliefs. When you practice improvisation your first task is to try to break through it.
I believe we get a lot of ideas and impulses all the time but we learn to repress them. So acting training is actually a lot about removing those obstacles. For me, rapping has been the ultimate arena to explore that.
They say you have to take a step over the shame every time you go on stage.
At what point do you fully learn to do that?
Never! That’s why performers keep doing it.
I mean, every time it’s scary, feels impossible. I just sigh and say to myself, here we go again! But when you’re up there, there’s no greater high.
What makes you happy?
Miranda July said something wise about this when she was in Berlin. I mean, I am a person that’s prone to melancholy. She said as soon as she stops writing she feels this certain ceiling over her head. Or a cloud of worries as I like to call it.
I feel happy when I feel alive. When I feel like I’m working towards my purpose in life. I feel happy when I feel loved and cared for. And I feel very happy when I’m able to do that myself. As much as I hate the word balance, it’s very much needed.
Minna works and performs at English Theatre Berlin and devises collaborative pieces with the International People’s Theatre Berlin.