A centurial milestone – Verdensteatret

Easier said than done, a century is a measure of time that often fails to portrait the tremendous dimension of its signification whenever the word is mentioned in quick day-to-day conversations. That is precisely what might happen when walking by the iconic verdensteatret in Tromsø sentrum and noting how it just turned a hundred years old, hitting a cultural milestone that, on top of the already impressive evidence of longevity it represents, conveys a great deal of art, beauty and history for the city. So it is well worth it to pause and ponder the beauty of this institution at the core of Tromsø’s enriching history.

At Storgata 93 B, Tromsø sentrum, Verdensteatret rises it’s inviting facade with an enrapturing aura of intellectual melancholy, consolidating itself as a unique piece of architectural memorabilia with a buzzing contemporary heartbeat flowing through its windows. But it’s not here that we’ve been taken to on this day – despite the unmistakable magnetic atmosphere warping the halls – but rather Tromsø’s public library hall which, not far from there, offers the perfect setting to honor such a memorable landmark for this institution.

At the uppermost floor of the library, guests gather around the array of chairs that have been lain before the vast glass windows facing Tromsø’s coastline, a gloomy yet picturesque image hugged by the ever-present fjords which, at this hour, appear wrapped in a somewhat mystic mantle of clouds that have yet again wandered too low from the skies. Among the guests appear notable figures such as the mayor of Tromsø and Jone Lein, manager of the Verdensteatret itself, making a clear statement of solemnity for the celebration with their attendance – this is no mere low-profile cultural gathering, but rather an iconic day for both the city and its citizens, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.

Between the window and the chairs, a projection screen dominates the room, anticipating the central piece of the event. Beside it lies also a beautiful wooden piano ready to play along once the screening begins. For this purpose walks the room Ben Model, an accomplished silent film pianist and resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre, in the US. Being one of the leading silent film accompanists in the nation, Ben’s mastery soon becomes obvious once the lights have been dimmed and our attention is directed, fully this time, to the big screen.

“Ask father”

At twenty-two years of age, I have very seldom stumbled upon silent cinema myself aside from the occasional Charlie Chaplin movies back in my high school days. Nevertheless, the medium does not feel unfamiliar to me, and I am gladly surprised at how quickly I am picking up the plot despite the absence of dialogue and the undeniable hyperbolic twist to the actors’ gestures. It is exactly then that I am struck by a shocking, though obvious realization: The movie is indeed silent. Completely silent, lacking any soundtrack whatsoever. In my nervous ignorance, I had failed to note how Ben’s performance was adding all of the sounds we were experiencing in real time, and it was not until a couple of minutes into the movie that I turned my eyes – and my gape – towards him and the piano. This point needs to be stressed because (and to some extent in my defense) it comes to show how the level of synchronization was just amazing, making it very hard to tell how the sounds were detached from the media.

Stolen from us in a professional rhythmic frenzy, the artist kept playing simultaneously as the plot progressed and unfolded, alternating his look between the screen and the keys in order to match the mood of the characters to perfection.

“Ask father” is a short movie by the Company “Pathé Exchange inc.”, portraying the tale of a young and handsome man trying to marry a beautiful lady, whose number of suitors is equaled only by the bad temper of her father.

Full of both humor and woes, the movie relies entirely on the score in order to communicate the characters’ feelings to the audience, and when all of us are giggling as our main character is rejected again and again, enduring all manners of miseries and coming up with unexpectedly clever comebacks, one can only acknowledge how playing music for silent movies is truly a form of modern art. The way in which the sounds vertebrate the development of the plot, driving the feelings and eliciting empathy, pity, and all the array of emotions that might spin from a movie scene, has a special way of teaching about the power music has as a medium to communicate as a language in itself. Moreover, at the sight of Ben’s uninterrupted playing (it is a rather agitated melody, full of allegros and fortes) it is impossible to help being amused by the effort that comes with playing along for such lengths of time back in the old days of Verdensteatret, how difficult it must have been for the orchestra and the artists to perform for so many hours during a regular business day a hundred years ago when it all started!

Once the projection has ended, there is time for small talk and networking, while a guide leads those interested to the exhibitions hanged on the walls at the back of the room, where pictures and story about Verdensteatret are displayed in a classic museum layout. It is very beautiful to see so many people engaged in culture coming together in such a relaxed and charming context, all of them showing respect and admiration. It is mostly mature people attending the event, but there is also young faces to be spotted among the crowd, mostly with an expression of curiosity in the face of everything we have been witnessing. This must definitely be great news for the projection of the institution and its prevalence, which is precisely the main topic concerning our interview with Jone Lein, the manager at Verdensteatret who was more than willing to talk with us as we drew near closing time.

What does it mean for the city of Tromso to see this institution turning a hundred years old?

I think it makes us understand culture has been an important part of the city for a very long time. I think it gives us a perspective on how long the city has been a cultural place because this is one of the oldest cinemas in Norway and sometimes we think that being a cultural city is a new phenomena for Tromsø, but when we have this city and we get to learn about the history of the cinema, it tells us –and me- that what we are doing now is not very unique, because we have been doing things for a hundred years and it gives the city a depth, sort of.

You have just hit the 100 years milestone. What do you think are the biggest challenges that Verdensteatret will be facing from now on?

Becoming more international, because my goal is that Verdensteatret should be a place for everyone, which means that it has to be also not only for Norwegians or people that can walk, like one of the projects that I am working on now is making it possible for people in wheelchairs and carrying babies, people who cannot Access the stairs, to make it possible for them to go inti the cinema, so that we can reach the goal of becoming a place for everyone.

Also, it is nice when you have a birthday and become a hundred years old to look back, but it is also important to look forward, and one of the things that we want to do for the next hundred years is making Verdensteatret more international. My vision is that we want to have all of the movies that are in Norwegian with English subtitles, we want to have the whole webpage in English and all this kinds of things to make it more accessible. These are all things that we are wishing for as birthday gifts, because we don’t have money for it, so you could say that all of our birthday wishes have to do with becoming more international.

Is it a private run institution?

No, it is run by the film festival, it’s a charity foundation so something in between. One third of our money comes from tickets sold to the audience, one third from sponsors and one third from the government.

What is the day-to-day reality of Verdensteatret nowadays? Do you Project contemporary movies, classics, etc.?

Yeah, we Project contemporary movies and classics, so it’s a cinematek, so we can show movies in all the different formats. We show the classics in our archive and we also show new films, it’s a curated movie theater so the movies that we think are good and fit in the theater we screen them. We also have concerts, debates or if you want to call us and say that you want to put up a movie, then you are in charge of the screening and the arrangement (inviting people and so on), we do that all the time!

I think this might be very interesting for our readers, are there any additional conditions in order to screen a movie there?

Well as long as I am able to acquire the rights for screening the movie there is no problem whatsoever. I get the money from the tickets, of course, (as it is something that you do voluntarily) and as long as it is a good movie and you can debate with me why it is important / interesting to put it up and stand for it, there is no problem at all!

Text:Marc Legua Mira