Arts & Culture

Thea Foss returns to Norway with ‘Finding Thea’

Rehearsals in Skiptvet, Norway, for the outdoor play “The Other Country,” based on the story of Norway-Tacoma immigrant Thea Foss and inspired by a Tacoma film
Rehearsals in Skiptvet, Norway, for the outdoor play “The Other Country,” based on the story of Norway-Tacoma immigrant Thea Foss and inspired by a Tacoma film Courtesy

Thea Foss is going back to Norway.

A new play about the 19th-century Norwegian — a Tacoma woman who began one of Puget Sound’s biggest boat companies — will open Aug. 27 at an outdoor theater in Skiptvet, close to where Foss grew up.

And it’s all thanks to Tacoma filmmaker Nancy Bourne Haley, whose 2006 documentary, “Finding Thea,” inspired Norwegian playwright Kristin Lyhmann to bring the entrepreneurial immigrant story back to the old country.

Haley, along with Foss’ great-great-granddaughter Leslie Foss, will travel to Skiptvet this week to watch the play as it comes to life — and possibly bring it to Tacoma.

It’s a century-old story of smart, creative women that just keeps unfolding.

“(Thea) caused a ripple in the water that just keeps growing and growing,” said Leslie Foss, who grew up in the family business, Foss Maritime, and now lives in Mount Vernon. “It’s amazing how far out it reached.”

Thea Foss did indeed create a big ripple in Puget Sound when she bought a rowboat for $5 and launched a maritime business that would become a regional success story.

But while her name is now fairly familiar even to Tacoma school children, when Haley and co-producer Lucy Ostrander made “Finding Thea” it was hard to find folks who even realized she was a real person, as the film’s opening sequence shows.

“(People) didn’t really know her story,” Haley said.

When she heard in 2001 that the Foss Waterway Seaport museum was planning a Thea Foss exhibit, she knew she wanted to make a film for it, and for the community.

The result was a 24-minute documentary co-produced with Lucy Ostrander that tells Thea’s story from her roots in poverty-stricken 1850s Norway, through migration to the Midwest and finally her move to Tacoma with husband Andrew and three small children.

There, in 1889, her off-the-cuff rowboat purchase led to a prosperous business ferrying people and goods around Puget Sound.

Haley’s film, supported by the Seaport museum, premiered there and was screened at the first two Tacoma Film Festivals, then on PBS and KBTC television.

In 2008, it was picked up by a touring exhibit for the Eidsberg Historical Society (Foss’ hometown), and in, 2009, made it onto Norwegian state television, where playwright Kristin Lyhmann saw it and was inspired.

“I was curious,” said Lyhmann, 71, of why she decided to make Haley’s story into a play for her company, Nes Lenseteater, which produces historical plays outdoors every summer.

“We all have somebody in the family that went to the U.S., mostly in the Midwest or Seattle,” she said. “Nearly 30,000 left Norway every year ... but not so many of our women became entrepreneurs.

“The thing about Thea is that she came from the poorest, grayest, dirtiest Norway ... and said, ‘Where am I? What can I do?’”

So Lyhmann wrote “Det Andre Landet” (“The Other Country”), a play that tells the Thea Foss story through Norwegian eyes. After a visit to Tacoma last summer, when she met Haley and the Foss family and saw many of the film’s landmarks, she rewrote the script.

Nes Lenseteater, comprising professional directors and some 24 amateur actors (including children), went into rehearsal this spring, painting local rowboats in the Foss green and white, and building a set for their riverside stage near Skiptvet’s Nes Lensemuseum.

“Det Andre Landet” — a one-hour performance with a walk-through re-enactment of 19th-century Norway beforehand — will run from Aug. 27 to Aug. 30.

Like Haley’s film, the play will have live folk musicians. The show is partly sponsored by Daughters of Norway lodges in Tacoma and Port Townsend.

“It’s very close to the film with several meaty additions from the Norwegian perspective,” said Haley, who has read the script in English translation. “It (feels) more and more akin to (Thea), as if (Kristin) was channeling Thea’s spirit in telling this story.”

That spirit — a can-do, creative independence that worked for the good of all — is what pulled Haley and Lyhmann into Foss’ story.

“She was definitely a woman before her time, a feminist,” Haley said. “I’m sure Andrew Foss was a lovely man, but it was her loving, creative, motherly spirit that brought substance to their early success.”

“She was so strong,” added Lyhmann, who was fascinated by the fact that Thea sent first Andrew’s brother, then sister, over to America to join him before earning her own passage.

Lyhmann was also struck by how Thea founded the Daughters of Norway despite losing three daughters of her own.

Haley, aided by the Seaport museum, will go to Skiptvet and document the play’s rehearsal and performance with video and photo for later presentation in Tacoma.

Leslie Foss will go with her husband, staying with the mayor and reuniting with family she met on a previous trip.

“It’s so remarkable how Nancy’s movie has had such a ripple in Norway,” said Foss, who wanted to work on tugboats as a child and realized only as an adult how much influence her family had had on the region.

“Kristin is very vibrant, very inquisitive. It’ll be fun to see what she comes up with.”

And if she comes up with something that Tacoma audiences might like, there’s a chance “Det Andre Landet” might come to our own waterfront.

Two local theater directors have expressed interest in reading the English script, and Seaport museum director Wesley Wenhardt is enthusiastic about offering the historic waterfront warehouse space as a venue.

“We would be very interested in considering a performance in conjunction with the Seaport,” Wenhardt said. “We want to build community on the waterfront, and a very strong part of that is the performing arts. The Foss Waterway celebrates Tacoma’s rich maritime heritage, past and future.”

“For me,” Haley said. “this story just kind of lives on — it doesn’t seem to go away.”

FIND OUT MORE

Film: “Finding Thea” is available on DVD from Tacoma libraries. See an excerpt at thenewstribune.com. For more information, see findingthea.com.

Play: “Det Andre Landet” will open at Nes Lenseteater in Skiptvet, Norway, on Aug. 27. Fore more information, see neslenseteater.no.

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