Josephine Larsen has been ruffling feathers…
LONG READ: 15-20mns
…and she appears to be delighted to be opening out debate. On a new website she has been penning a regular blog and recently wrote positively about Tommy Robinson who was released on appeal from a prison sentence for contempt of court for filming defendants at a high level rape gang case endangering the prospect a securing convictions. This makes perfect sense because her life seems pretty much dedicated to personal revelation. Not in a vague ethereal life-improvement guise at all, it’s simply a by-product of her life’s work so far; acting. The blog post ‘exploded’ on Facebook with a predominantly left-wing backlash against the championing of someone who is the leader of the EDL (English Defence League) and widely regarded as a racist white supremacist. But we’ll come back to this…
I am invited into Josephine’s Paignton house just as she is completing a transaction involving renting a room to a good looking young man who is looking for a home while attending the local college next term. She also does Air B&B and enjoys the process of meeting and having people stay in her home. The rooms are full of space, airy and uncluttered. Stylishly decorated with eastern fabrics and pictures from her past and artifacts by artists she admires including Hieronymus Bosch – revealing her interest in the widest range of human emotions.
“I do sessions here and in Totnes at Bogan House and Monday classes start next week.” Josephine refers to developing the ability to recall emotions for acting as psychic alchemy. Since the age of 10, Josephine believe she’s been an actor. Bundled into a boarding school at such a young age forced her to develop systems for her own protection and she pretty much cried her way through the first year. One year later, after developing depression, her parents, finally convinced that boarding was not going to work for her, moved her to a day school where she found herself mentored by the drama teacher who encouraged her from the start. “She introduced me to imagination. That’s when my whole world exploded.I was spotted as a young talent and that became my world“. Her book “The Power of Acting” covers this period of her life and she describes the book as much about philosophy as it is about acting. Hence the subtitle, ‘discovering the person behind the mask’. It’s clear Josephine believes acting is a fundamental part of living life.
“That’s what I’m teaching people. Emotional intelligence, flexibility, thinking on the spot, being brave- being daring.”
At 17 she started at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school where she met a Dane called Henrik Larsen. “…we fell in love very quickly. He was a great actor and got work in Copenhagen and of course, I followed him out there.” Not speaking Danish initially, the new Mrs Larsen set to learning the language and resorted to teaching acting as a means of income. She also used the time to begin learning to dance. The success of the acting classes were partially due to a character trait of Josephine’s – being outrageous, pushing acceptable boundaries, shocking people – not being ordinary. Within 5 years, in her mid twenties and after re-educating herself on many levels, she turn to directing and performing in Danish. At that time, Scandinavia was at the forefront of feminism. “That seriously empowered me and impacted on all of my creativity. The birth of the freedom of sexuality, the liberation of the female orgasm and sexual expression probably started in Sweden and Denmark.”
Onward to Paris.
“..then I was invited to join a dance company in Paris. In Place de Clichy, pretty much opposite the Moulin Rouge. I was doing ballet, acrobatics and modern dance in combination doing very soft erotic performances with sexy clothes on to Pink Floyd music.” It was at this time Josephine was introduced to philosophers like Gurdjieff and books like the I Ching being in a free thinking atmosphere of the red light district, Josephine was introduced to some of the greatest philosophers of the time. This appears to be another onward progression shaping her strong outspoken character… “I was challenging expectations as I do today, so I will experience things in my own way, I have a right to say that, I have a right to do that. If I get into trouble, that’s my responsibility.”
“I am not a victim and I won’t point fingers at other people, I will point at myself”
She continues to explain, “I will tidy my own room before I tell them to tidy theirs up.” Here, she is paraphrasing another controversial figure, Jordan B Peterson from his book “12 Rules for Life”, a book she rates highly and regards the main thrust of the self help book as simple common sense. “…it makes absolute sense to me and it’s given a lot of young men who are suicidal in life, meaning again. Enabling them to trust themselves again. The 12 rules is something I would teach my children. In fact as both a mother and a father, a single parent, I’ve already been doing that.”
The Art of Teaching
The conversation turns to human characteristics and how everyone has their own combination of traits but with acting, the actor needs to be able to access them all – “…nice people have to play Lady Macbeth” for example. On teaching she explains; “The wonderful thing is, there’s not one single being who is the same as the other. In a group of 6 – 9 people, they will all look completely different and will all have completely different ways of being. Each of them, all of them will have a brilliant unique talent in some way or another. I love that.”
The road to Berlin.
After several years in Paris a choreographer called Daniel Sander came over from Germany on a quest to find potential stars for a show in Berlin to re-create the Cabaret style from WWII and he came to see Josephine in performance. Afterwards he met up with her and asked her to join the new show. This offer had to be turned down because of contractual obligations to the theatre she was working in and Daniel went back without her.
“Providentially, two weeks later at the club where I was working there was a razzia.” – I have to stop her at this point. Josephine is multilingual and occasionally scatters different languages into English sentences – razzia is a police raid. “The gendarmes arrived and the whole place was closed down because of some dodgy dealings by the management“. Josephine, now free of her contract, called Daniel in Berlin who audibly whooped for joy at the news. It turned out that he had intended casting Josephine as the star of a show called ‘La Vie en Rose’. It also turned out to be a long-running (3 years) show where the Rolling Stones rocked up once and Mick Jagger came away disappointed at failing to secure a date with Josephine. “I wasn’t prepared to do the old, traditional cabaret numbers. I shaved my head and stuff like that to perform Salome which was quite shocking at the time.” It was a positive, radical move that put her on front pages and posters on the streets of Berlin. So how did this much exposure affect her? “Well, it all seemed quite normal to me. This is the way my work is, I wasn’t completely aware of the position I was in. If I was older I would have played my cards a little differently. If I thought about it too much, I might have got scared.” With 3 years on a show, how did it feel to perform similar work almost continually? “Oh! That would be deadly boring! You have to keep re-inventing the wheel and I think I was good at that. Political changes and fashions meant you couldn’t keep repeating the same things and it was in the third year I introduced the Salome character. I also became the moderator and improvised directly with the audience but it was hard work with up to 14 costume changes. It was an edgy show”. Following this she moved on to more theatrical productions joining the Reineke Fuchs Rock Theatre Company for several years working with rock guitarist Lutz Ulbrich (who is closely associated with Nico) and other musicians and later worked with Marianne Sägebrecht (Bagdad Cafe, The War of the Roses). Eventually she became a member of the avant-garde Berlin Play Actors. An English language company performing Shakespeare in radical new ways. “That’s where I really got back into acting in English“. After returning to the UK, She started ‘Trans Form Theatre’ with Giles Ashton where they arranged Shakespearean plays, often performed in the ruins of Holy Trinity Church in Buckfastleigh.
The world of theatre has changed dramatically (excuse the pun) since the 70’s and 80’s. With the rise of the internet, social media and TV, people can find limitless entertainment in their own homes and to put on worthwhile performances requires funding which, whilst available, requires huge effort to secure. “I have managed to raise money in the past for projects with Peter Oswold (husband of Dartington poet Alice Oswald) who was the playwright in residence at the Globe Theatre, London. He worked alongside Mark Rylance for 8 years. Peter contacted me and asked if I’d form a theatre company in Devon. So I ended up working with him and Alice for about 8 years training actors and arranging works including students from Dartington college”.
How does she feel about the closure of Dartington as a college? “A great shame. Totnes is sort of gentrifying. More affluent and less edgy? I don’t know – I don’t know… perhaps I’m not talking to the right people? What I’m missing is slightly more radical debate. I think left-wing thinking has an enormous place in Totnes and that’s who I tend to speak to and meet and I’m finding I have to tip-toe around subjects, hence my coming out a bit, politically speaking and position myself where I’m not afraid to argue with people”. After the minor storm of her Tommy Robinson blog and FaceBook posts, has she changed her mind? “Yes, I have. Tommy Robinson is a football hooligan. He’s not Ghandi! I’d like to think others have too but I don’t think so.” Is it that the left-centric views in Totnes have become too solid, too rigid and im-movable recently? “Yes, that’s nails it. I was told by someone during a conversation, ‘That’s not a line you can cross, Josephine!'” At this point she sits up mimicking her own horror and amusement at the idea of being censored from discussing a topic and this hit’s the spot that she is very interested in. Josephine clearly feels that polarization is extremely unhealthy and stifling debate can only be damaging for further discourse. “Here in Paignton you get a completely different sense of reality. Brexit for example – I voted to remain but there were incidents here… The pub down the road didn’t let my Lithuanian guest to sit and watch football, They pushed him out very quickly. A store where I shop regularly and had lovely chats has only now started talking to me again after I revealed I was a remainer.” Although Josephine is obviously a ‘european’, she clearly believes the subject of open borders and integration needs to be discussed more honestly. How do you integrate a culture that is so radically different successfully. She explains further with an analogy; “If I go to America with my car and the steering wheel is on the wrong side, they may think I’m a bit of a nutter, but that’s ok, I can drive like that if I want to. But, if I was to demand that it is my right to drive on the left side of the road as I do here in England, that clearly can’t work. Where do the social lines get drawn?”. Josephine turns the example to her house where she has lodgers staying. “It’s my house, I have to have very clear boundaries. They’re flexible, easy – I’m very easy going, but when people stay in this building and don’t respect what is going on, then I can ask them to change, to adapt, but if behaviors unacceptable to me continue, I’d have no compunction to throw them out. It’s not hostility, it’s self preservation. They can upset all the other residents and for me that’s where I come from as a mother. It’s common sense”.
It’s seems like Josephine Larsen has worked her body to be strong and fit and has, over the years, developed her own gymnasium for her internal self, through experience, analyzing and learning from each milestone in her life. All this informs her teaching which is about learning about one’s self as much as it is to be able to be an emotional chameleon on stage in performance. Now with her questioning blog and a newly awakened interest in politics, I suspect this won’t be the last disturbance to be seen.