Samantha Shay at LungA Art Festival

As I walk out of the airport in Paris and straight into the arms of a sizzling-hot heatwave, I am confronted by the most Icelandic dilemma ever. My suitcase is full of black clothes and my vampire skin melts like butter at the first sight of sunlight. This was going to be an interesting fashion week! Sunscreen and hot pants are not high priority during the summer in Iceland. But that doesn’t make it boring. Quite the opposite. The summer in Iceland, with its 24 hour daylight and wide selection of music & art festivals, are very awesome indeed. The LungA art festival is one of the most popular ones. It takes place from the 17th-23rd of July in the beautiful town of Seyðisfjörður, located 9 hours from Reykjavík. Tucked away and surrounded by majestic mountains and breathtaking nature, Seyðisfjörður tuns into a little paradise on earth during LungA festival when the town is filled with music, artwork and creative energy.

Samantha Shay is a young American director of theatre and film, performer, and producer, and she is also one of the participants at the festival. She’s a lady of many talents and has been hailed by great artists like Björk who mentioned her as one of her inspiration in The New York Times Magazine. I caught up with the creative mind and asked her a few questions about her work and her project at the LungA art festival.

So first of all! How do you like Iceland? 

I love Iceland. I have been traveling back and forth since 2011. It has always been a very creative place for me, a vortex of good vibes.

Tell us about your project “of Light”. Where did the idea come from and why did you decide to make an art-opera?

The idea for the piece came about over the course of a few years. I was really emotionally effected by my first visit to Iceland, in which I visited in June, so I was in the midnight sun for the first time. It was kind of a consciousness shifting liminal space – somehow very emotionally heavy but very beautiful. The endless light sort of shed light on all my shadows. I guess it all sounds like I was in a cheesy Sigur Ros video, but let’s be honest, nature is powerful and especially powerful in Iceland. I sat at the ocean and cried for three hours and it was like I had some sort of weird initiation ritual.  It was like I was spiritually aligned. I had this feeling like “I have been desperately searching for something and I found it and idk what it is, but maybe it’s just me, or me in the face of what is natural/nature” That moment got me thinking. I think it was my closest experience to being connected to God, whatever that is.

I’ve always been connected to nature, and so it started there. Then I had a long bought of depression in 2013, and I realized how we judge “darkness” vs. “lightness” – whether it be emotional, spiritual, psychological, the color of people’s skin – and so I began exploring my relationship to darkness, primarily in an emotional way, my own – and I think the piece really is about the cyclical nature of light and dark – and darkness as a fertile space for rebirth. I also made it a point to spend time in Iceland in winter, and we composed most of the music in a very very snowy January in Reykjavik in 2015.

I decided to center it around music for a few reasons – in my training as an actor, I came to realise that the human voice is a vehicle for channeling and conjuring energy. So I wanted the human voice to be the light source in darkness. I also had two really amazing musicians in my project, Nini Julia Bang, and K Á R Y Y N, so it would have been silly for me not to elicit something powerful from them. The three of us are also very close friends, and interestingly, through the process, we all had deep personal kind of spiritual crises, so we held each other close and put it in the piece. By the time we premiered, we had a lot of meaning and authentic energy to bring to the stage. I am very proud of this work.

What are the highs and the lows of being an artist in LA?

LA has been an artistic home for me for a long time, because I went to school at CalArts. I am lucky to have that community, which in my opinion is a community of some of the most forward thinking kiddos. So in a lot of ways, I think I get to side step some of the pretentiousness of the big city industry stuff (which is not exclusive to LA) – even though it’s a big expensive city with traffic and over culture toxicity, I’ve got a long list of talented friends who I can make magic with.

I have friends who are on hit TV shows and we still go to warehouses downtown and make experimental theatre, there’s a lot of people playing the game to change the game. It’s not easy, but it can be really cozy sometimes.

Your biggest influencer when growing up?

When I was 18, I got to see German choreographer Pina Bausch, before she died. I realized I wanted to make theatre when I saw her work. I was also very influenced by Gertrude Stein – the way in which she made language so musical, and that the accumulative effect of her madness created reason. I think I structure my performances in that way. Also, ironically, Marina Abramovic, who I later performed with and is a mentor to me. Her work with the body really moved me. I have had a lot of health issues in my life, and her interrogation of the body really inspired me. When I actually auditioned to work with her, I realized because of some health issues, I couldn’t complete the audition even. I cried and told them – they invited me back the next day, and ended up casting me in a role in which I got to scream Abramovic’s manifesto with her onstage!  I think it’s a testament to her morals – such generosity, and interest in authentic power, it meant the world to me, it changed me, gave me a belief I could do more through being honest and vulnerable. Anyway – I wish I could have met Pina Bausch before she died, but I’ll be honest – sometimes I think her ghost visits me. It always feels like her spirit has a hand on my back, pushing me forward.

You have worked with many Icelanders, how come?

I am so impressed with the music scene, first of all. It also seems that somehow, I don’t know if we all think similarly, but there is a real flow and abundance between me and this community. Perhaps there is a more intuitive and sensitive way to work in Iceland, in America I very often have to over explain, as if my work doesn’t make sense, Icelanders seem to appreciate that work doesn’t need to make sense to be powerful. We can sit in the liminal together, and its so easy, but at the same time, there is a very high level of excellence. I just started working with Jófríður and Áslaug from Samaris on a new performance, and once again, it’s an authentic flow. So nice.

What can you tell us about your workshop at LungA Festival? 

I have spent a lot of time studying theatre, and then in order to understand theatre and performance more deeply, I decided to study esoteric things, ritual, which is where performance originally came from. So my workshop is a mixture of theatre and the esoteric. If all goes as planned, it will be witchy as fuck. No more details, come see for yourself.

Something at last?

Psssst I am moving to Iceland right before LungA, I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time and I’m sooooo excited. Long time coming.

Where can we find you?

IG @samantha___shay______ and @source_material


5 quick questions 

Coffee or tea // COFFEECOFFEECOFFEE in the morning, matcha everything in the afternoon.

Bloody Marie or Moscow Mule // Moscow Mule!

Boys or girls // DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE

Justin Bieber or Mick Jagger // RuPaul.

Reykjavik or LA // Reykjavik <3

Photo by Silvia Grav.

Get your ticket at LUNGA ART FESTIVAL HERE!