Semna Segal was nervous before her first singing lesson, but the greatest shock came when she saw the song lyrics – they were in Finnish!
Segal had arrived from the Netherlands as an exchange student only a week earlier, in the autumn of 2018. She barely knew a word of Finnish, but she now had to learn, and fast.
Five months later, Segal stands in Tampere University’s Alakuppila cafeteria holding a microphone. Dressed in a baby blue skirt suit, she welcomes the audience in impeccable Finnish. Students of Tampere University’s Näty Theatre Work are about to begin a performance of the hit musical “Hair” – or, as the play has been renamed for this production, “Hair – Fifty Years After”.
Segal plays the role of the American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who in this version of the play is studying a 1960s hippie community from the viewpoint of 2019. The real Mead died in 1978, but a creative solution is found to this problem.
“My DNA was preserved and implanted into an embryo, and that was how I was born,” explains Segal, now in character as Mead, and she leads the audience into the theatre.
And so, the play begins.
Just like the original Broadway musical, this production of “Hair” depicts sex, drugs, and rock and roll – and bare flesh. To start with, Segal’s character remains seated with the audience and takes notes on the escapades of the hippie “tribe”. From time to time, she points out to the audience that they are not in the 1960s.
“Wasn’t that comment by Berger rather sexist? What if we turned the sex roles upside down,” Segal/Mead suggests, and that is precisely what happens.
Towards the end of the first act, Segal’s character and the audience are absorbed into the life of the so-called tribe. Mead’s jacket is thrown away as the rapturous anthropologist starts dancing and singing with the tribe. Even her shirt opens.
A few days later, Segal hurries into a cafeteria for this interview.
“I am so sorry I’m late,” she says, wiping sweat from her brow.
She is now part way through the theatrical run. Afterwards, Segal will return to her home university, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent, Belgium. This is a good time to take stock of what has happened in the months spent with Näty, not to mention her time in Tampere and Finland overall.
“Amazing,” is the response Segal gives when asked to describe her exchange studies.
Neither Finland in general nor Tampere in particular were on her radar at first.
“I’d studied acting at KASK for two years, but had no idea what I wanted to become. I also did not think I had found my own voice as an actor,” Segal says.
Segal thought that exchange studies might offer her something – if not a completely new language to work in, then at least fresh perspectives and alternatives.
“Then I found out that KASK had an exchange agreement with Tampere University,” Segal explains.
By chance, Näty’s Professor Pauliina Hulkko was visiting KASK at the time. She told Segal about the upcoming production of “Hair” and that sealed the deal.
“It was wonderful to do such a large production, with a real stage, costumes and orchestra. The productions in my own university are smaller. I am also great fan of hippie culture,” Segal says.
The original 1960s productions of “Hair” shocked audiences with onstage nudity, among other things, and bare breasts and bottoms are seen in Näty’s production as well. In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, there is now a lively debate in the arts about the purpose of nudity on stage and in film; whose skin is shown, to whom, and why?
This matter was also raised at Näty.
“Our director, Pauliina, instructed us that we can take off our clothes if we want to and that we should take off as much clothing as we feel like. Each actor was able to do as they chose. Of course, nudity is associated with a degree of vulnerability, but for me nudity is not such a big issue. After all, people bathe in the Finnish sauna naked with others,” Segal says.
One element of Segal/Mead’s commentary that brought the performance into the 2010s also added to the fact that the nudity was not there for exhibitionism or simply to shock.
“When the original ‘Hair’ was written, Western culture was much more sexist than it is now. In our production, we found a way to remind the audience about gender equality without making judgemental comments,” Segal says.
According to Segal, it is one of the theatre’s missions to be educational, but in the right way.
“Moralising is tiresome. The theatre’s job is to raise questions, not to issue answers. I think our ‘Hair’ succeeded in that sense,” Segal says.
In addition to participating in thought-provoking theatre, Segal was impressed by the student community in Finland and Tampere.
“The students of Näty are a small and close-knit group, like a little family. I really felt accepted and welcome right from the start. Everything I have done has felt really natural and relaxed. Even though I do not speak the local language or know how to pronounce the street names, I have felt at home here,” Segal says.
Apart from the first song in the rehearsals, that is.
“The song was ‘Aquarius’. It is a very difficult song and made so much harder because we sang in Finnish. ‘Hair’ is a play that does not make much sense, and that is its whole idea. The play largely consists of ironic conversations and we had them in Finnish. I was so out of it at first,” Semna says.
Because the rehearsal schedule was tight, Segal’s Christmas break mostly consisted of learning her lines. She was helped by Tiina Syrjä, lecturer of speech and voice techniques at the University.
“She concretely showed me where my tongue should be in the mouth when I was producing the sounds. Tiina became my hero,” Segal says.
Their cooperation obviously bore fruit, as the audience was delighted by Segal’s impeccable pronunciation. It even received plaudits in the local newspaper. Segal has found uses for her new skill in other contexts.
“I can shock people in bars by suddenly saying something bizarre and out of place in clear Finnish,” she says.
Tickets for the production quickly sold out, and the performances were hugely popular. Critics’ reviews were also very positive. It is therefore no surprise that Segal’s happiest memories of Finland are related to the play.
“I am sure I will remember the premiere for a long time. We put in long hours during the rehearsals and arrived at the university early in the morning, when it was still dark outside. Then we spent our days in the dark theatre and went home late at night. It was a great feeling to receive huge applause at the end of the premiere,” Segal says.
Other experiences in Finland that have stuck with Segal include student karaoke nights and visits to the legendary Rauhaniemi public sauna.
“The teaching was also very good and interesting,” Segal says.
Despite its inhospitable reputation, Segal came to appreciate the special climate of Finland.
“I like the cold, or more specifically, I like it when you can go outside into the forest, set up a campfire and look at the flames while you drink mulled wine. There is snow everywhere and the lakes and the woods are so close to the city centre. It is magical,” Segal says.
In the end, did she find her own voice and way of doing theatre during her exchange in Finland?
“I don’t know. At least I found a new approach to acting. In Finnish theatre, the rehearsals start more from the outside than elsewhere. The approach is more grotesque and physical, and the play is approached physically rather than intellectually,” Segal says.
Because Segal entered the close-knit community from the outside, she had no pre-conceived notions of what was expected of her, and she found this liberating.
“I don’t try to please others, but seek things that I want to do. I have also realised that you don’t have to take everything at face value. I just take what suits me,” Segal says.