Elizabeth Liang in front of Tjarnarbíó, in downtown Reykjavík, where she performed her one-woman autobiographical show, Citizen Alien, on growing up as a TCK of mixed heritage. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Liang.
This month Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang updates us on her own creative life, which this past summer veered in the direction of an island situated at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans!
Halló, vinir mínir! Hello, my friends! I’m addressing you in Icelandic because in this month’s column I’ll be re-creating my journey to Reykjavík, where I traveled in August to perform ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK, of mixed heritage.
How did I end up performing my show in Iceland? I have a friend in that part of the world who put me in touch with the artistic director of Tjarnarbíó, a creative center for professional live art in Reykjavík, who enthusiastically offered to host the show if I could cover my travel and lodging. Presented with a chance to combine three of my favorite activities—acting, writing and travel—how could I resist?
Engum flýgur sofanda steikt gæs i munn (“One cannot expect to benefit without making some effort”)—Icelandic proverb
My husband, Dan, agreed to work as my stage manager, which was perfect because he knows the show so well. I launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise the requisite funds for our trip, found a cozy house in Reykjavík on AirBnB for us to rent, bought our flights, started promoting the show on social media—and then off we went to the Land of Fire and Ice.
We arrived in ideal weather, cool and dry, which many Icelanders told us was lucky because it had been raining all summer. We were relieved to find that our lodgings were in a quiet, pleasant residential area that was a seven-minute walk to downtown and a 15-minute walk to Tjarnarbíó.
Tjarnarbíó is a beautiful venue with state-of-the-art technology. At the technical rehearsal, the two “techies” who adjusted the lights and projector were friendly and professional. (Incidentally, we never met anyone in Iceland who was unfriendly, and the Icelanders we encountered all spoke perfect English, some with gorgeous British accents.)
That said, we had an unexpected snafu at the tech rehearsal. There are two kinds of projections in the show:
- Pictures and videos that are projected onto a screen via my laptop, and
- Words that I project onto my torso using an old-fashioned slide projector.
During the tech rehearsal, the slide projector I’d used in the show for over a year konked out. The stage hand and I stared at the plume of smoke rising from the top and said: “It’s smoking.”
No, the problem was not the power converter. We had the right one. Nor was it the bulb. We replaced it but the projector still didn’t revive. So my Icelandic friend’s father-in-law generously loaned us his. More on this later…
(top to bottom) At the tech rehearsal, the lights were lowered from the ceiling–fancy!; opening night; closing night; post-show celebratory drink; with Dan in front of Hallgrímskirkja Church; with Dan in Þingvellir National Park. All photos courtesy Elizabeth Liang.
August 20, 2014: Opening Night
We had an audience! I only knew of five people who were planning to attend (of whom I’d actually met only one—my Icelandic friend). What a pleasant surprise to see twenty or so people in the house!
And they laughed! I guess the show’s humor translates.
Dan stage managed wonderfully and the light board operator did a great job, too. The only hitch was that when it came time to project slides onto my torso, the borrowed projector didn’t work, even though we’d tested it earlier. I improvised and the audience went right along with this. (Afterward, a very kind audience member offered to loan us his projector, but when we met later, he realized it had a part missing. So Iceland never got to see words projected onto my torso. Ah, well.)
The best part of opening night was the fact that I enjoyed myself on stage, which hadn’t happened in a while. There were two curtain calls and people stayed afterward to shake my hand, thank me, and say lovely things. It was such a pleasure. About half were Icelandic and the other half internationals—once again, the right people had found me and my show. Several said they would spread the word for the next performance.
A few people from Spain, France, the Czech Republic, and Iceland hung out with us at Tjarnarbíó’s cafe afterwards. They all mentioned different parts of the show that resonated for them, and one said she felt that the show does a service for nomadic and non-nomadic people—it’s like a bridge between them. They thought it should be filmed, which I’m planning to do in December.
All hail my director, Sofie Calderon, for making this show such a dynamic experience for the audience! People from far and wide have enjoyed the production, and that’s Sofie’s doing. If it had been up to me, I would have found ways to hide onstage, because performing a solo show is super scary.
August 22, 2014: Closing Night
More people in the audience, which was very moving, because I knew none of them. The word of mouth from opening night must have been good. And maybe all those promos I sent to the international school and Facebook groups helped…?
The performance didn’t feel as good—I was having less fun and getting fewer laughs—but I forged ahead. Afterward Dan and the light board operator said “No way, it was TIGHT, really good show!” Yet more proof that we actors have no idea how well we’re doing. We only know if the audience is responsive or quiet.
Just like on opening night, a bunch of people waited to speak to me afterward. One was a young adult TCK who was very moved by the show. Another was a professor at the University of Rekjavík whose field of study is TCKs. Their compliments, along with all the words of support from other audience members, was tremendously encouraging.
Because the truth is: before embarking on this Northern European adventure, I had no idea how audiences would react, or if there would be any audiences at all. I had girded myself to perform for a handful of kindly people on opening night and then possibly cancel closing night because who knew if there would be enough interest?
Reykjavík may be a small capital, but as it turns out, it has plenty of residents who are international or international in outlook, and open to trying new things.
Kleina & coffee, Björks in boots, Lutherans & lava…
Beyond the show, Dan and I had a glorious time exploring small but pretty Reykjavík; the Blue Lagoon, a thermal spa located in a lava field in Grindavík; and the Golden Circle, a route the loops from Reykjavík to central Iceland and back. Other highlights included:
- snacking on kleina, a donut-like pastry in the shape of a trapezoid;
- visiting Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran cathedral designed to resemble the lava flows of Iceland’s landscape, and Settlement House;
- hanging out at the Boston, said to be one of the world’s best bars, and at several coffee houses; and
- last but not least, watching singers and dancers all over town on Culture Day/Night, a day and night-long program of cultural events that takes place in August every year and is one of the country’s largest festivals.
I also got a kick out of Icelandic fashion—bright colors, unusual cuts—and, as I love boots, was pleased to see practically every woman sporting boots of some kind: ankle, knee-high, sexy, hiking, and everything in between. (Did I buy a pair? Nope. Iceland is expensive.)
On our last night, we stepped out onto our little street to see fireworks, which felt like a final burst of congratulations. I got teary-eyed!
Overall, it was a delightful trip. Dan and I left thinking we’d like to go back someday. We want to see more of the island (puffins! volcanoes!), enjoy the friendly vibe…and hopefully bring another solo show for Icelanders’ entertainment—but without any cantankerous 1980s equipment.
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Thank you, Lisa! Having only been to the Blue Lagoon as a round trip from Keflavík International Airport, I really appreciated this vicarious journey into the heart of the city’s cultural scene. And, as always, I’m impressed that you were contributing to the culture as well as taking something from it! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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Lisa, I love the way your Iceland photo mimics the photo of you that appears on the Alien Citizen poster–very clever! As an Icelandic alien, you are more of an elf, I suppose? 🙂
Haha, that’s right! Thanks ML! 🙂
On another note, having seen your show, I can appreciate how much energy and concentration it takes b/c it’s solo, and I’m in awe of your ability to tell your own life story in this way. The fact that it’s YOUR story is what gives the performance so much emotional depth. I think that’s why audiences respond so warmly. Even (especially?) in a place like Iceland, they appreciate your fire.
But having read your account of the Iceland trip, I also wonder what kind of toll that takes on you, the actor, to be on fire repeatedly? Does the fact that the show is autobiographical make it any easier–or perhaps it’s even more demanding b/c of that?
Thank you for your thoughtful and kind words about the audience response, ML! The show is the hardest thing I’ve ever done as an actor simply because it’s solo, but I am happy to report that it has become something I perform rather than relive in any way, so I can enjoy myself much more than I did in the beginning, when the stories still felt fresh and vulnerable. Now I approach it as I would any text, and immerse myself as an actor vs as Lisa-talking-about-a-private-personal-moment, which was a trap I sometimes fell into in the very first run. It’s a lot more fun for me now and it seems to be so for the audiences as well. (Although there are exceptions, of course. I performed it last night to dead silence all the way through. That was a first that I hope never to relive as a solo performer. But an audience member still stayed afterward to say she was a TCK and liked it–so, again, ya never know.) Anyhoo, thank you for your continued support of AC:aeo!
Congrats, Lisa! You are an international success. I’m so happy people from all over the world are getting to discover you and your beautiful show. It’s been such an inspiration to see your creative baby growing out into the world.
Thank you so much, Diahann! It has meant a lot to have your support since the staged reading of 2012. I’m so glad the show has resonated for my fellow ATCKs like you!