By Kalle Vikman
“I had the pleasure to meet up with and interview the Finnish trailblazer of the Broadway-producing world, Maija Anttila, who is a hard-core businesswoman with innovative views on the future of theater production and its funding.”
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Seinäjoki, born and raised.
How long have you been living in New York and what brought you here?
I came to New York 11 years ago when I was 19 to start my studies in AADA (The American Academy of Dramatic Arts). Ever since childhood I always wanted to move here, I had no intention to stay in Finland because what I dreamed of, what I really wanted to do, couldn’t be done in Finland. There was no “plan B”; I didn’t think I needed one. I wanted this and I knew I’d find a way to make it happen. Naturally they were looking for someone with potential, and a different kind of flair, I think. I showed them what I could do and that I’m eager to learn more. Basically I let them know that “I am a sponge: now let me learn.”
Can you tell us a little about your program in AADA?
It was a two-year actor associate program. I did my first year in NY and was accepted to continue my studies in the second year. However, I had to go back to Finland for a year to work at Anttila (a Finnish convenient store chain since bankrupted) to finance my studies. After that I came back to U.S. and decided to do my second year in Los Angeles since the academy has another campus there. It felt logical, since the NY campus concentrates more on classic theater, whereas LA is where the movie business is. That’s where all the contacts were. There I trained under Brian Danner (the person responsible for such well-known stunt choreos as “Pirates of the Caribbean”) to be a stuntwoman. The mentoring continued even after graduation and I was a part of his stunt team Sword Fights Inc.
What did you do after you graduated? Were there any problems with actually working in the U.S.?
I started going to auditions. There certainly were problems. I didn’t have a Green Card so I couldn’t get paid. Every job and gig I had, I had to volunteer for them. I did get a lot of work experience out of it but I still had bills to pay. But then, as it happened, a friend took me to a restaurant in LA, owned by a Finnish-German chef, Stefan Richter. I got a job as a hostess but I had to spend all the money I was making to pay the travel expenses: gas is not cheap. So there were days when I had to eat cat food.
Fortunately, the restaurant served as a popular meeting spot for the staff from multiple studios, so I got to serve a lot of big names. After a couple of months, they got to know my face and I made some good contacts. I also came to the conclusion that I wanted to produce. In movie business there’s still a lot of sexism (we all probably remember that the #MeToo movement did indeed resurface from the midst of Hollywood actresses) and I wanted to be taken seriously and have my voice heard. When I was doing the acting gigs as a volunteer, I did have the chance to voice my opinions, but they weren’t taken seriously because of my age and my sex.
To get into producing, I had to get to the right people. They all went to the premiere after-parties, so on those days I fasted to save money for gas, got dressed to the nines, and waited outside the party venues, waiting for someone to leave so I could ask for their entry bracelet. Sometimes it paid off, sometimes it didn’t.
How did you feel about that, eating cat food or not eating at all? Did you have any doubts or desire to quit?
Not really, I never thought coming here and building my career would be easy. Sometimes you just got to make sacrifices and give up the comforts in life. Then again, now that I’ve reached this point in my career, I really love where I am. Of course even now, doing business decisions, basically being a pioneer in my field, it’s rough. The process has been quite hard and painful, but I was able to achieve what I wanted and it is totally worth it. And in the future I can share what I’ve learned and give advice on what gives a profitable outcome and what does not. I encourage people to think outside the box and keep trying until it works out.
You are currently working on crowd-funded theater production here in NYC, is that correct?
Yes, even though I returned to NY with a bunch of contacts, I was still a newbie. Fortunately an acquaintance tipped me about a vacancy for a producer. I got to read the script, written by Broadway multi-talent Dep Kirkland (who also happens to be an ex-lawyer himself) and we decided to make it into a movie, but only after we’d made it into a play first, since the script was originally meant for that purpose. The play is called MsTRIAL, it’s a law-themed drama that was supposed to come out in Los Angeles, but because of conflicting opinions it was scrapped. I started presenting this idea and it caught more wind under its wings than I could’ve imagined. We are cooperating with amazing partners such as Daryl Roth.
The budget for getting this production to Off-Broadway is 1.3 million USD. Over half of the current funds have been collected through commitments from the U.S., from Finnish angel investors and through the crowd-funding website. (The Finns reading this who are not familiar with the theater business in NYC: the term ‘Off-Broadway’ refers to the professional theaters in Manhattan, which can accommodate audiences from 100 to 500 people.)
MsTRIAL is about a top-of-the-notch lawyer named John Paris and his two employees, Dan Burks and Karen Lukoff, whose lives develop flair of luxury after celebrating their triumphs in court. These grand celebrations result in a lawsuit and John is accused of sexual offences. The play makes the audience to listen to the dialog that’s happening in the society and offers a glance to the world of he-said-she-said conflicts. It aims to open up the “gray area” because that’s where we have the opportunity to change things. It’s where the damage happens but also where it gets fixed!
Has the crowd funding been a popular channel of participation?
In Finland it’s mostly the government and different foundations that fund the production of cultural productions and events, where as here in the U.S. it’s a hard-core business. When it comes to “MsTRIAL”, I personally wanted everyone to have a chance to get a piece of this cake through funding. Broadway is a 1.4 billion dollar business annually. For Finns, excluding few exceptions, this still remains unmarked land, which holds great potential. We launched a radio campaign in Finland that turned out to be quite effective and enabled the Finnish everyman/woman to take part in this business. If you want to read more about the crowd-funding campaign in Finnish, you’ll find it here.
Where do you draw your inspiration in the city that never sleeps?
Hmm, that’s a good question… Where do I draw inspiration? I’d like to say that it comes from Finnish nature or love etc., but to be honest I’ve just always wanted to do this. I belong here. I’m having loads of fun and I’m enjoying myself, I’m in my comfort zone. That’s where the inspiration comes from: I don’t need to search for the meaning of life, because it is right here: making all of this possible and sharing it. I trust that the future has good things in store for me, since I’ve already gotten so much. Before this point in my life, I wasn’t comfortable. I was searching for this feeling right here.
What are the biggest differences in making theater and performing arts in NYC and, for example, in Helsinki?
The scale and the budget are totally different. In Finland the audience for theater productions is also extremely limited. I’ve studied this business and I know my field so well that I find it so much fun to see what works and what doesn’t. For example, now’s the most opportune time for MsTRIAL. You just have to know how to schedule your production and be able to maneuver. Nothing’s impossible; it’s just a question of how.
Do you aim to express any Finnish values or embody something traditionally Finnish in your work?
No, I don’t. But I do strive for opening the door for all that potential in Finland, so that we could bring that here and make it a part of this market. I want to enable the Finnish talent to make a breakthrough here.
What I got from Finland is that I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer nor take any bull***t. That is a quality I learned growing up in Finland and I’ve made sure to keep that. I think I also have that urge to ‘push it through’: sometimes you get a cut or two, but that’s life.
What is, in your opinion, the best thing about NYC?
I’m never bored in New York. Of course there are times when I need some space and privacy, but 90% of the time I love that there’s so much to do from finding a new café or a restaurant to trying out the new culinary innovations, such as grilled watermelon ham. There are loads of concerts, museums, and all kinds of cultural activities that I love. There’s no such thing as a ”regular night out”, simply because the possibilities are endless.
What are things you miss about Finland?
Forest, nature, and berry picking. It’s a very different vibe here in the U.S., everything’s so big: if you go to the wild, then you go the wild. It’s quite hard to compare, for example, the Grand Canyon and the birds singing in Finnish birch trees. Of course like any other Finn living abroad, things related to Finland are important to me, such as traditional Finnish dishes.
Speaking of food, in the U.S. there’s only powdered yeast, which is a bummer if you’re into baking. And there isn’t really proper rahka (quark) either. Then again, they have so many delicious things at Trader Joe’s. Their excellent Kim chi, for example. Oh, also, the traffic in Los Angeles was a bitch. You don’t get traffic like that in Finland.
Can you think of any cultural differences that still shock you a bit or do you see yourself as “fully integrated”?
The way Americans have their coffee is different, more bustling. They just grab it to-go from the corner place and sip it on the way, but in Finland you might have a wide selections of pulla and other baked goodies, and the best part is that you don’t even have to choose; you can have one of each! And you take your time enjoying the experience!
Which three words would you use to describe New York?
Home, lively, dream
And how’d you describe Finland?
Three words ain’t gonna be enough. These days Finland for me is a place that raised me well, gave a good starting point for my dreams, and a place that I love to visit. You can’t get the Finnish culture out of me, but my home is here, because I belong here.