Debbie Kruger
Heading and photo of May-Brit
Thursday October 30 1986


MAY-BRIT AKERHOLT has been acclaimed for her translations of the European classics for Australian theatre. As Sydney Theatre Company's next dramaturg, she is certain to achieve greater recognition. DEBBIE KRUGER reports.

MANY appear puzzled when the word “dramaturg” is mentioned. In England they use “literary advisor”, but a dramaturg can be many things, according to Wayne Harrison, who is retiring after 5 1/2 years as dramaturg at the Sydney Theatre Company.

A dramaturg’s function changes in accordance with the needs and demands of the company. Certainly, the person is a literary manager who controls and deals with incoming scripts, commissions, and liaises with writers. The dramaturg can also be researcher and the writer of publication material. Then there is the floor dramaturg, who works in the rehearsal room, attached to a writer, liaising between the writer and director.

Harrison has been all of the above, but he adds one more – a dramaturg can also be one who specialises in translations.

May-Brit Akerholt, Norway born, is the dramaturg and lecturer in drama at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. She has a wealth of experience in both European and Australian drama which makes her the obvious choice as Harrison’s successor. Her NIDA students clearly love her warmth and vitality, and she will fit in perfectly at the STC.

May-Brit sounds English. This she attributes to her schooling and the high standard of Norway’s language system – she was taught English with an Oxford accent. She is at home in three Scandinavian languages – Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. She studied French at university, and she has a little German.

Growing up near Osio, May-Brit always had an interest in live theatre, but at university was more interested in studying drama as part of literature. She took her BA at Osio University and in 1975 settled in Sydney with her husband and twin daughters.

Her honours thesis, at Macquarie University, concentrated on translating Ibsen’s plays for performers but her master’s degree signalled a return to Australian writing – she chose to work on Patrick White. Her admiration for his work has since increased, and she has written a book on White’s drama.

May-Brit established a course in Australian literature and drama at Macquarie, and taught there for several years. She has been at NIDA for two years. She has presented papers and lectures on Ibsen and Australian playwrights at conferences here and overseas, and is secretary of the Australian Drama Studies Association.

Her practical experience in theatre includes translating five plays for the Australian stage, with the firm idea of them being presented for Australian audiences. May-Brit Akerholt is the fusion of the academic and the artistic.

Her most widely recognised and acclaimed translation was Hedda Gabler, staged earlier this year with Judy Davis in the title role. Her previous translations for the STC, Ibsen’s Pillars of Society, and Strindberg’s Dance of Death and Playing With Fire, were impressive for her new and innovative interpretations of the European classics.

Hedda Gabier was her favourite play and her biggest challenge. “It was wonderful to work on Hedda with a most professional cast. Their approach to the text and the research work was wonderful.”

Moving away from Scandinavian works, her first assignment as dramaturg in the STC’s new season will be on a Wherrett-directed Sartre play. She will also work on Restoration comedy and atleast one new Australian play.

“My particular interest is in Australian writing.” she says. “I’ve been involved in the play-writing course at NIDA with Paul Thompson, and I worked on the school’s production of Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age earlier this year. This term I have taught only Australian drama and theatre-writing. It’s not as if I’m a classicist exclusively.”

May-Brit Akerholt wants to increase public awareness of the role of dramaturg, but the biggest problem, and Wayne Harrison agrees, is the lack of adequate funding.

May-Brit is blatantly outraged by the funding predicament in Australia, and says the STC has very little money for playreading and workshopping in1987. The Theatre Board of the Australian Council is doing next to nothing in this area. So what can be done to encourage new writers?

“The Playwright Centre’s playreading service has a lot to provide,” May-Brit says, “and all theatre companies have an absolute responsibility to provide a playreading service, which the STC does.” May-Brit is concerned about her ability to help new writers without funds.

She is extremely enthusiastic and excited about the challenge. She feels television should play a far more vital role in nurturing new writers by doing more Australian drama and comedy and by providing script assessment services. She also believes TV stations should provide free promotion of theatre to the public. She says “awareness” is the key word. Theatre should be popular, as in Shakespeare’s day, for the masses. “Many more people would go to the theatre if they were aware of it, like they all flocked to watch the Navy’s spectacular fireworks,” she says.

As for the prohibitive price of theatre tickets, May-Brit again blames lack of funding. “Theatre must be much more heavily subsidised. In Scandinavia 70 to 80 per cent of theatre is subsidised. Prices are lower and theatre companies don’t have to think about bums on seats.”

May-Brit’s appointment means that of the three senior artistic figures at the STC, two will be women. Associate director Robyn Nevin has always promoted the recognition of women in the arts, but says it has been a slow, natural development and not a sudden, deliberate move. “May-Brit was appointed because we were familiar with her work and she was established with the company. It didn’t occur to me particularly that she was a woman.”

Both, however, have indicated an increase in appreciation of women as dramaturg, directors and writers. Of the four Australian works in the new STC season, two are new plays by women.

Robyn Nevin adds: “I’m very pleased, because a dramaturg’s position is very important to me in this company. Naturally I’m pleased it’s May-Brit, because she and I seemed to be a good mix when we worked on Pillars of Society.”

May-Brit leaves NIDA at the end of this year and immediately moves into The Wharf. She is reluctant to leave her students and will continue to teach at NIDA part-time. She hopes to combine the talents and facilities of the STC with NIDA and the University of NSW Dept of Theatre Studies, where she instructs on the dramaturgy course with Phillip Parsons.

Will May-Brit eventually direct? “As an English director once said, nobody remains a dramaturg forever. I will probably end up directing, but at this point I’m interested in new writing and translating – more in dramaturgical work."

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