Given all the fishy business in Longyearbyen during the past year, locals are ready to shake the coal dust from their boots and put their faith in cod.
Miners, politicians and others raised a bit of a stink about transitioning from a sooty town to a smelly one, but ultimately agreed our 100-year-old cornerstone conglomerate needs to embrace a new identity as “Store Torske.”
And with that one-letter revision to The Floundering Company Formerly Known As Store Norske, the local chums cast out on a whale of a job baiting their fellow townsfolk during the annual revue showing just how flaky the past year was Friday night at Huset.
That meant the newly-arrived governor (or her strong likeness) reminiscing about leaving her wonderful job on the mainland to preside over a community in crisis and mourning. The city politicians becoming odd bedfellows in a restaging of a famous Danish comertic opera from 1722. The editor of that “other” newspaper making an occasional visit here from his home on the mainland so he could ask probing questions such as whether there’s a lot of ice in Svalbard.
“I though it was me on stage,” said Svalbardposten Editor Eirik Palm, who is departing at the beginning of April after two-and-a-half years in Svalbard, of his stand-in. While the show’s content is closely guarded, with media allowed only a few minutes of access beforehand to ask a few questions and take non-revealing photos, Palm said he knew he’d somehow get a satirical standoff when organizers asked to borrow his trademark jacket.
The show’s writers and performers began working on this year’s skits and songs in January, but new material was added right up to the last minute. Local Green Party leader Espen Rotevatn, for instance, took a shot – so to speak – regarding statements a few days before the show about wanting meaningful action to reduce local alcohol consumption.
“You know when you enjoy your beer and say something about alcohol politics you’re kind of asking for it,” he said afterward.
One of the primary organizers of the show, now in its 22nd year, is Anne Lise Sandvik, who happens to be Rotevatn’s mother-in-law (and their vehement disagreements about political stuff has quickly become local lore). She said the last change to the show occurred a few hours before showtime.
“It was approximate around two this afternoon,” she said. “We just changed a short line. The former line wasn’t so punchy.”
And there’s no guarantee folks attending Saturday’s show will see the same performance.
“We’re 11 people,” Sandvik said. “We aren’t robots.”
With historic tragedies occurring during the past year such as the massive layoffs at Store Norske that may result in the loss of a fourth of Longyearbyen’s 2,200 residents and the Dec. 19 avalanche that killed two people, some participants were hestiant about staging the show.
“We were in doubt about whether we should still have the show or not,” said Tone Hertzberg, participating in her second show. “When we started in January many of us felt it was difficult to have a humor show because of the avalanche. But some people said that’s why we need to have it.”
Hertzberg, a spokesperson for The Governor of Svalbard, wrote one song and three skits for the show, which this year was titled “The Battle of the Coal Choker (and other misfortunes)”. She said she started working on ideas three months ago based on news articles, local social media posts and personal experiences.
“I’m sort of representing the newcomers because I’ve only lived here one-and-half years,” she said. “I think it helps to have people with lots of different experiences in the community.”
Writing for this year’s show was more difficult since the efforts as a group started only a few weeks after the fatal avalanche that also destroyed 11 homes, said Torgeir Prytz, operations manager at the Svalbard Satellite Station and a Longyearbyen resident for the past ten years
“I think we’ve found a very good balance. people need to have something to look forward to and they have to laugh,” said Prytz, who’s also participating in his second spoof show.
That meant a few tragicomical pokes at certain individual hardship situations (a certain person involved in Svalbard’s version of a DUI case for wrapping his snowmobile around a metal post), business struggles (our “fine dining” restaurant desperately upselling economy-boosting tastings such as coal-infused wine) and the overall pessimism many are feeling here (a finale where the whole case did a medley with altered snippets from Monty Python’s classic crucification ditty “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”).
The show has been staged in the wake of other tragedies such as a plane crash on Operafjellet in 1996 that killed 141 people and an explosion in the mine in Barentsburg that killed 23 people a year later, said Sandvik, a participant in the show for all but two years.
“You have to take it seriously,” she said, referring to how the show treats such incidents. One year, for example, when a beloved doctor died the cast performed a “silent song” for him. “That was the main challenge, but we couldn’t go on without mentioning the situation Longyearbyen is going through in every manner,” she said.
That said, the peer-review process during the many weeks of rehearsals was as bluntly honest as ever.
“Maybe we try to get a feel for what we write on stage, maybe some of it doesn’t work, maybe you have to remove some of it because it’s too long, maybe you have to add some other points,” Hertzberg said. “It’s what you would call a dynamic process.”