By Erika Benke
Video: Erika Benke and Varikko official trailer by Lentoi Films Oy, Picture: Janne-Pekka Manninen
Members of the audience arriving at Oulu City Depot are handed a yellow vest as the door: a visual clue, if you need one, that you’re part of the show.
“It makes you feel like a worker on the site. You’re drawn in to help. I like the immediate feeling of being connected,” says Markus as he enters a run-down foyer where yellow-vested members of the audience have already started to gather.
A unique location
Varikko is a site-specific show. It’s been designed to be performed in the Oulu City Depot – a disused industrial site in Toppila. The venue is big and slightly oppressive: like an old engine room with an odd feeling that some of the mechanics is missing.It’s rough but it’s not falling apart: the walls are not crumbling away and the windows are not broken. But there are stains and cracks in the walls, and there’s an air of slow decay.
Picking up a story, piece by piece
So how is art going to be created in a place like this? Here’s Varikko’s artistic director, Oulu-based dancer and choreographer Pirjo Yli-Maunula.
“The show begins in the two big halls downstairs. The first 40 minutes are here. Then the audience goes to the second floor where there are 17 smaller rooms, including former offices, a changing room and a bathroom. They explore them for about 50 minutes. Then they come back downstairs for the finale that lasts about 15 minutes.”
Varikko is Pirjo’s fifth immersive show – a multi-sensory experience featuring dance, acrobatics, circus arts, theatre and music.
The director’s road to immersive art
Between 2004 and 2011, Pirjo Yli-Maunula started adding multi sensory techniques and audience participation to her work – two key elements in immersive shows.
She had no idea she was part of a global trend in performative arts that was growing in popularity. She hadn’t even heard the term “immersive”.
“Then in 2013, I got to experience a show of the British Company Punchdrunk, and that was a life changing experience. That brought the realisation that immersing audiences into shows was a big wave,” she explains.
”In 2014, I made ‘Varjakka’ that I consider my first immersive show in the scale that I am currently doing. By then I’d learnt the term immersive.”
How immersive is Varikko?
Members of the audience definitely play an organic part. They walk into the show and make their own choices. They are free to go wherever they want in the building. They can choose to interact with the actors or to ignore them.
To some of the audience, it’s overwhelming at times. There’s a lot going on, with several scenes unfolding at the same time.
Imagine standing in what used to be the staff toilets in the depot, now decorated as a tropical island with palm trees and flooded in pink light, watching a dancer hugging an inflatable crocodile and serving glasses of champagne as part of her routine, only to be distracted by the sound of gushing water as the shower room is being flooded next door. You just about get your head around plotting an escape route when a cheerful manager hands you a clipboard and instructs you to fill in a holiday application form. But you haven’t got time to write down a word before somebody else ushers you into an office where a man’s patiently building a huge pyramid of chairs, carefully balancing them on top of each other – until one tips over and they all fall down with an almighty crash.
A show created by collaboration
Pirjo Yli-Maunula may be part of a global trend but she does things with a twist: she uses her own unique way of creating shows that’s very different from how theatre and dance shows are traditionally directed around the world.
“My way of working is not to tell a story in the traditional way, from beginning to end. There are fragments of different stories happening at the same time in different locations and members of the audience are collecting these fragments to build their own stories. So for each audience member the story is different and this is something very exciting.”
“We are creating the show together with the team. The ten performers in Varikko, including artists from Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Norway, each have to create their own content,” Pirjo explains.
“For example, a dancer is doing her own choreography and a circus artist his own act. They have to be theatre makers rather than just interpreters. I’m building the show from the fragments that they’re creating.”
“Like a character in a video game”
Pirjo’s vision to co-create the show has resonated extremely well with the artists who seem to be thriving under this arrangement.
“Pirjo gives us a lot of freedom to bring ideas to the show. It’s very interesting but also a bit scary,” admits one of the performers, circus artist Henna Kaikula.
Actor Merja Pietilä agrees. “In this show you have a lot of freedom but you also a lot of responsibility. Everybody works towards the same thing but we come from different perspectives.”
Co-creating the show and performing in it has given a burst of energy to Australian-born acrobat Jared von Earle who believes an immersive piece has much more of an impact on the audience than traditional theatre.
“In Varikko we are so close to the audience. Normally when you’re on a stage, you’re five or ten metres away. Here, we are one meter away or even closer. The audience can see all the little movements of our hands, our expressions, and we can get them to follow us and help us with things. It’s like being the main character in a video game, taking people on a journey. I really enjoy how people connect with us, the story and the building.”
What makes an Oulu audience special
Varikko is circus and dance artist Kim-Jomi Fisher’s first immersive performance. He’s from the the Netherlands and he’s noticed how different audiences are in Oulu.
“They are not as impatient as Dutch audiences. I think people here have a very different connection with nature. Therefore they experience things differently: they have more time and they’re more available to watch details and process them.”
At the end of the show, members of the audience slowly filter back to the foyer to return their yellow vests. Many stop to exchange a few words with the artists.
“I could easily spend hours exploring each room”, says one of them, Sanna-Mari.
‘That’s right”, adds Leena. “There were some rooms I didn’t even go in because there was so much going on and I didn’t know which way to turn. I need to come back again.”
For actor Merja Pietilä, it was a dream come true to perform in Varikko.
“I’ve seen all of Pirjo’s previous immersive shows as an audience member and they always had a ‘wow’ effect. I kept thinking ‘it’s amazing that we have these performances in Oulu, something so special – and now I’m in it.’
Immersive art for Oulu2026
The cultural programme of Oulu2026 – European Capital of Culture 2026 – will include a big immersive performance entitled Faravid’s Land, by Pirjo Yli-Maunula.
“It will be a collaboration between Flow Productions and Oulu Theatre. We’ll be co-directing it with Alma Lehmuskallio.
“We’ll be re-imagining the history of northern Finland in it. We’re trying to create something completely new that will enrich people’s lives.”
Varikko has 20 performances at Oulu City Depot, from August 27 to September 30, 2022
Details on Flow Productions’ website