25 Years In Another Land

English Drama teacher

In 1994 British actor, writer, director and educator Andrew Fearn came to Finland. He had been invited to teach Drama & Theatre here for ‘a few months’. A quarter of a century later he is still here …

Anne Frawder asks the questions.

HELLO, ANDREW. TO BEGIN WITH, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?
I was born in Wigan, in the North West of England. It is between Liverpool and Manchester. I have a degree from the University of Liverpool. I have been involved in the theatre since I was a youngster…

AND WHAT FIRST BROUGHT YOU TO FINLAND?
I was working in the Drama Department at a University in Britain and I got a phone call asking if I was free to come to Finland for five months to replace a teacher who was leaving halfway through a course that had recently been set up. I thought it might be interesting. I had been lecturing in drama/theatre from time to time between acting work, and other theatre work, and Finland was somewhere I had never been, and the timing was good as regarded other things, so I agreed to come here.

AND WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS?
Nice. I arrived in January, lots of snow, but I had been in Finnmark a couple of times in the 1980s so the weather was not a surprise. I wasn’t really worried. I had been reliably informed that ‘everyone in Finland speaks English’ and I was armed with three Finnish words: sauna, ambulanssi and helikopteri. I later learned that most Finnish people do understand English but not all of them want to speak. My first bus ride – from Helsinki to Huittinen – gave me sights to remember. I saw that all the stores had signs saying ALE! It was a while before I realised that they were not all selling beer. My arrival in Huittinen introduced me to the fact that Finns have a good sense of humour. My new boss (Länsi-Suomen Opisto principal Risto Numminen) generously drove down to the bus station to collect me – this was handy as I had no idea of where I was, it was snowy and well below zero. He leaned out of the car window and surveyed my luggage. Spotting my army kitbag (which was full of books) he said “Ah, you have brought your tent!”
People were very helpful and even more so when I tried to speak a little Finnish. But even that is sometimes not enough. The first time I went to a bar, and ordered a drink in Finnish, the barmaid asked if I was British and I assumed I had made a mistake. “No,” she said, “your Finnish was perfect but you were too polite!”

HOW DO YOU MANAGE WITH THE LANGUAGE?
25 years and I confess I am still a novice. My work is all in English, my children speak English, my friends speak English, my students must speak English. I try my best but I still think in my first language – I still study English as part of my work. I have spoken Finnish with sometimes comical results. I was once at a dinner party and struggled to find the Finnish for bagpipes. I was very close, but there was a stunned silence followed by a lot of laughter when I uttered “säkkipillu.” I learned that Finns can be quite forgiving!

YOU MENTIONED HUITTINEN. WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU DO AND WHERE DO YOU DO IT?
I run the English Drama Course at West Finland College which is based in Huittinen in South-West Finland. Each course runs for one academic year, September through May. We deal with many aspects of theatre, drama, performance, etc: The course incorporates the practical and the academic and is designed primarily for those interested in pursuing dramatic and theatrical studies but also operates for those who want to improve their English, develop their confidence, communications skills, etc. Many of the students have gone on to study outside Finland, mainly at university or drama school in the UK. Some have gone to further study in the USA, Canada, Australia, Russia… many places.
The College used to be called Huittisten Kansanopisto. It was the first ever Finnish language kansanopisto so it has a special place in Finnish educational/cultural history, founded in 1892. It has changed, even in my time here. It must change to move with the times, and meet the changing student needs. We have a very international feel. The Principal (Sami Malinen) is a Finn but the Vice Principal (Maxim Ipatov) is Russian. The admin’ staff and regular teaching staff include Finnish, British, American, French and Russian personnel.
The location is particularly nice, away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Many students have referred to it as ‘the bubble’: they feel safe and isolated and un-hassled here. Many of them come back to visit us. Some of my students have done the English Drama Course twice… we must be doing something right.

SOUNDS INTERESTING. DO YOU USE A SPECIAL TECHNIQUE?
No. Definitely not. I suppose the closest I get to any pedagogical methodology is the maieutic method (and I am influenced by all my experiences and the teachings of Paulo Friere and Augusto Boal) but all students are different and so each course is different. I cover the same bases but not necessarily in the same way or depth or at the same speed. The students have more responsibility for things than they perhaps realise. I do cover a set of basic areas to help prepare students for moving on to University or drama school but the precise programme varies each year depending on the students. This is also important for me: constant repetition would be very enervating!

AND HAVE ANY OF THEM GONE ON TO BE FAMOUS ACTORS?
A number of them are now actors, directors, film-makers, teachers but I think that fame and fortune are not really positive goals. Being good at what you do and enjoying it and never stopping the learning and improving… those are the things I like to encourage. Some of them you may see on your film and TV screens and in theatres in Finland and elsewhere. Some have gone on to work in TV production or stage design… all sorts of things. Some of them have gone on to be quite successful in those areas. Some have gone on to do things that may not seem obviously related, one of them is now a politician.

ARE ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS FINNISH?
No. The majority perhaps but I have had students from many places: Gambia, Russia, Namibia, South Africa, Latvia, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Italy, Great Britain, Turkey, Morocco, Denmark, Nepal, France, Congo. As long as their English is of a reasonable standard and they are prepared to work hard there is no problem. The more varied the group the greater the benefits for all involved.

HOW MANY STUDENTS HAVE YOU TAUGHT WHILE IN FINLAND?
Well, for ten years I was also teaching English during the summers and when free I have accepted invitations to be involved with other projects and programmes and institutes (the Gatchina Pedagogical College in Russia and the local primary school, for example). Certainly it would be in the thousands by now… hard to say beyond that.

HAVE YOU NEVER BEEN TEMPTED TO GO BACK TO BRITAIN?
Some of my friends and colleagues have made overtures but I am still happy here. More money would not compensate for the hassle of living in a hectic place again.

DO YOU MISS BEING MORE INVOLVED WITH ACTING AND THINGS?
Not really. I keep my hand in. I have been involved with plenty of things whilst over here; TV and film and theatre. I have acted in films directed by former students. Sometimes things come up… In fact I am going in to do a job at YLE (the Finnish state broadcaster) later this month.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT FINNISH CULTURE AND ARTS?
There is still a lot for me to learn but I enjoy it all, even if (the language problem again) I do not always understand everything. I know Sibelius from Englund, Tauno Palo from Matti Pellonpää, Kaurismäki from Harlin and so on. I like M A Numminen, he does things differently – I had a chat with him after a gig in Helsinki, an interesting chap. There is still a lot for me to see and experience.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE THINGS IN FINLAND?
I like the people, the scenery, the countryside, the wildlife, the friendliness. Somebody once said that where some people say “you must visit us sometime” they don’t mean it but a Finn always means it. I have found that to be true, the Finns are quite hospitable and generous – but, they are not fools. They are very generous, helpful people if they can see that you are being honest and being yourself. Also I like the changes I have seen over the last 25 years: Finland is becoming much more multi-cultural and this has many knock-on effects… it is easier to get Guinness on draught and good vegetarian food! And I like the Finnish capacity for laughter – even at their own expense. The people in this part of Finland are very friendly. I have many friends here. And many friends now scattered around the globe, former students who have gone on to do their various things in various places – many of them stay in touch, some of them make the effort to visit the Opisto from time to time. Nice people.

HAVE YOU SEEN MANY CHANGES WHILE YOU ARE HERE?
A few. I mean, apart from what I already said. Obvious things. The internet and so on. When I came here a notebook was made of paper and a telephone was in a box on the street. And the educational trends… so much admin’ nowadays… and changes in student expectations: they seem to be geared now to ‘passing exams’ and ‘completing modules’ rather than finding applications for what they have learned and putting it into practice (but that seems to be an international trend). Education should perhaps be more like life – it does not stop, we go on learning and developing. A piece of paper with some grades on it is not worth as much as the confidence of knowing we can cope and continue to learn... And changes in Huittinen – we have a set of traffic lights now, there were none when I arrived… but this is still a nice, quiet place. I hope that does not change.

SO, THE BIG QUESTION: WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?
That is easy to answer. I like it. I like Finland, particularly this quiet little spot here in the countryside, and I like the Finnish people. My first boss here said I had done a great job after my initial 5 months and suggested I stay for another year. I stayed. The management were happy and suggested I stay for another year and really make it my own course. I did that. They didn’t ask again. I am still here. I have two children here. I am part of the furniture now. I like where I work and what I do and the people I work with. My job can be bloody stressful sometimes but… I really enjoy it! If I didn’t then I would not be here.

AND THE NEXT 25 YEARS?
Who can say? I am not in a rush to go anywhere. I am quite happy here, thanks.

OKAY, ANDREW, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR TIME. WE CAN START TO BRING THIS TO A CLOSE… DO YOU HAVE ANY BRIEF WORDS OF ADVICE FOR PEOPLE PLANNING A VISIT TO FINLAND OR MAYBE CONSIDERING TAKING A JOB HERE OR STUDYING HERE…?
Yes! Be prepared to stay longer, or to make a return visit. I know a number of ex-pats who came here for a short visit and are still here after many years. Most of them in long-term relationships with Finns. It is not easy to escape… it is hard to pinpoint precisely what makes Finland such an easy place to be in… the people, the weather, the peace… but it grows on you, until you become part of it.

THANK YOU. AND ONE FINAL QUESTION. I KNOW THAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN DRAMA AND POETRY AND THINGS, AND THAT YOU HAVE SOMETIMES USED OTHER NAMES. WHAT IS THE LIKELIHOOD THAT YOU INVENTED A CHARACTER TO INTERVIEW YOURSELF?
I think there is every probability that you are a character I have invented to allow this text to operate as a piece of dialogue.

THANK YOU, ANDREW.

Thank you, Anne.