Thesbiteatret (The Thesbi Theatre)

Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) was established in 1972 and is one of Norway s oldest independent theatre companies. Thesbiteateret was started by Italian Gianni Lepre December 3 1972, at the time using the name Tønsberg Alternativteater. Tønsberg Alternativteater switched names to Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) the autumn of 1975.

Thesbiteateret took part in establishing the independent companies' association (now Performing Arts Hub Norway), but didn't have the funds to pay the members' fee, and had to withdraw from the association after only a short period of time.


(Objekt ID 3931)
Object type Organization
Organization type Theatre company
Main focus Theatre
Established December 4, 1972

Contact information

Address Nordlysveien 4 c, 3113 Tønsberg, Norway

Other information

Legal entity Other

At the webpage of Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) the following is written about the company history:

"Thesbi is a variety of the Greek name Thespis - and Thespis is the first actor whose name history knows. In the year 534 B.C. he performed the first tragedy as he added an actor speaking in Iambic pentameter to the Dithyramb choir. Legend also tells that he drove around Attica in a cart and that he gave theatre performances as part of the Dionysian celebrations (in other words, the wine parties).

Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) was started by Italian Gianni Lepre December 3 1972, under the name of Tønsberg Alternativteater. Gianni Lepre had studied at Anna Gruber's institute for film and theatre in his hometown of Trieste, and been a student of Peter Brook's at The International Centre for Theatre Research in Paris, before leaving for USA and a collaboration project with Allen Ginsberg about an adaption for the theatre of the latter's poetry cycle Howl. Next he went to Canada where he began to teach drama and theatre at a college. It turned out that the only 'drama' his students had any interest in was the one they could experience on LSD. He broke his contract, did dishes until he had sufficient funds to return to Europe - and stretched it to go to Norway, with the aim of getting as far from 'civilisation' as he could. He became a bass player in an Italian dance orchestra, and had a gig in the restaurant of the hotel Klubben in Tønsberg.

During a walk in Tønsberg late in the summer of 1972 he got to see the amphitheatre at Slottsfjell, at the time still in its prime after the 1100 anniversary of the town in 1971. The desire to work with theatre returned, and he decided that he wanted to stage A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare before travelling on.

Through employees at the hotel he got to hear about the drama section at the upper secondary school of Tønsberg, and he got in touch with Frank Lie, who delighted told his fellow pupils about the 'mad' Italian who wanted to work with theatre in Tønsberg. That way he managed to gather a group of young enthusiasts, he wrote a learning play, Cassandra 1030, which he staged with the interested youth, so that they would have a bit of a foundation before starting with William Shakespeare, and the summer of 1973 the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was completed.

Now, however, Lepre had decided that he liked Tønsberg so much he could imagine staying. He got good help for the first couple of years by the English immigrant Jack Buddell, who, among other things, made sure that Gianni had a roof to live beneath, and by Else Marie Høst, who indefatigable worked sending papers and applications to the east and the west. One may say that Else Marie Høst functioned like a kind of surrogate mother for the whole ensemble. Not least because of these people's efforts and involvement, one of the first independent performing arts companies was a fact during the summer of 1973.

An ad was printed in the local newspaper and the Oslo press, in search of workers for Tønsberg Alternativteater (literally: Tønsberg Alternative Theatre), and with some of the pupils who had graduated from the upper secondary school in Tønsberg the same spring, those who applied became the first members of the theatre company. The first three years it functioned as a practically oriented theatre school, led by Gianni Lepre. The members/students was taught theatre history, breathing techniques, plastics etc., and also got meticulous information on different directions of theatre (Stanislavsky, Brecht, Meyerhold, Grotowski and others) by connecting theories and methods to different production. In particular, the method of Stanislavsky was central in the work.

In addition to education and productions, Lepre managed to help his members to positions as leaders of drama groups at several of the lower secondary schools in the area, and he used them as workers when he worked on psychodrama at the open department of the local prison, and at the psychiatric ward at the central hospital in the county of Vestfold (later also at the department called Lien, at the hospital Dikemark).

The summers of 1974 and 1975 theatre festivals were also arranged, called 'Thesbi-festivalen' (The Thesbi Festival), with workshops and theatre performances by several visiting companies and theatre institutions.


A lot has happened since the start in 1972, and Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre, Tønsberg Alternativteater changed its name the autumn of 1975) has performed close to 90 productions (see list at the webpage of the company). Plays from Holberg via Ibsen and Beckett to off-off-Broadway theatre and plays written within the company have been performed. One may mention that Thesbiteateret was the first Norwegian company to perform Jens Bjørneboe's Amputation, (in close collaboration with the writer), and Thesbiteateret was also the first to introduced the now highly acclaimed Sam Shepard for a Norwegian theatre audience (Red Cross and Action). Thesbiteateret has toured Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Italy and the former Yugoslavia. The theatre has produced some short films and - not to forget - the TV version of Lepre's play Everesto - a piece about the physically disabled - bringing Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation the international TV award Prix du Jeunesse.

A lot can be said and written about Thesbiteateret, but one weak point has more or less always been there - miserable economy - and the economy was the main reason why Lepre withdrew from the company in 1983 to concentrate on film and TV work.

From the 1980es until the change of millennium

Many probably assumed that Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) wouldn't survive Gianni Lepre threw in the towel in 1983 and went home to well-paid work in Italian TV. But they were mistaken! With Frank Lie, who had been a member of the company since its very beginning in 1972, as its artistic leader, and with Lars Martin Myhre as musical director, the company survived as a project theatre with a core of actors until the autumn of 1989, when Thesbiteateret yet again was gathered to a steady ensemble.

The summer of 1987 the company staged Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap in Sjøbodamfiet in Tønsberg. Locally this became a turning point for the theatre. A brand new, and far wider audience than before came to see the performance, and it became a solid success.

In 1988 Thesbiteateret initiated collaboration with Odd Børretzen, who designed the Bellman performance Är jag född så vill jag leva (Swedish: If I am born, I want to live, a Bellman quote). The production brought an even larger local audience to Thesbiteateret, and the same year the company was awarded the municipal culture prize of Tønsberg.

The collaboration with Odd Børretzen continued with success in the early 1990es, with the Prøysen production Du ska få en dag i mårå (dialect, a Prøysen quote: You will get a day tomorrow) and the madcap, musical comedy Oppdagelsen av Columbus* (The Discovery of Columbus). Several of the songs from the latter have later become popular as performed by Odd Børretzen himself, including Noen ganger er det all right (Sometimes it is all right).

In 1991 and 1996 the theatre was artistically responsible for Kåre Holt's grand historical play Kristina av Tunsberg* (Kristina of Tunsberg) when the municipality of Tønsberg wanted to stage this yet again in the amphitheatre at Slottsfjell.

In November 1991 the theatre company had the honour of opening the new theatre venue in Tønsberg, called Papirhuset - Thesbiteateret belongs to the foundation running the house - with a revival of Agatha Christie's immortal play The Mouse Trap.

And the autumn of 1992 went ahead with its jubilee production Noises Off by Michael Frayn, and the release of the jubilee CD Sanger fra ei Kjerre (literally: Songs from a Cart)

The spring of 1993 Lars Martin Myhre withdrew from the theatre company to be able to concentrate on his own projects, and Terje Johannesen took the responsibility as musical director.

During the 1990es the theatre company was busy, and the repertoire range was wide. Audience friendly productions and more 'narrow' plays switched, and all the way the aim was to perform as much theatre as possible, with as high a quality as possible.

Several visiting instructors came by. Terje Strømdahl educated the company members in how to convey text, and staged Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers AKA Ten Little Indians, Ivar Tindberg staged Evert i Änglamarken (literally: Evert in the Angle Field, a wordplay on a Taube quote) - a musical built on songs by Evert Taube. Line Rosvoll was responsible for the direction when Vestfold International Festival in 1995 was to use Jens Bjørneboe as one of its main themes, and Thesbiteateret was asked to stage Amputationagain. And when Marit Simonsen made her unforgettable interpretation of Shirley Valentine, Kalle Solgård directed it.

Other than that, during the 1990es the repertoire ranged from theatre for children and crime plays to absurd theatre (among other things, Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days as well as Waiting for Godot was part of the program). Even the poetry of Edda was represented in the company's repertoire, with Rolf Dolven's one man show Skaldens gilde* (The Feast of the Bard).

Increasingly central in the theatre's production, however, William Shakespeare was. In 1989 A Midsummer Night s Dream was back in the program, and in 1994 Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre)'s production of The Tempestwas part of Vestfold International Festival's program.

Both productions were performed at the beach called Fjærholmen near Tønsberg, and to perform Shakespeare outdoors was something the company wanted to do more of. Inspired by Gotland's Romateatern, the company decided to start a Shakespeare tradition in Tønsberg during summer.

In 1998 the company performed Measure for Measure in the courtyard of the art museum Haugar in Tønsberg, and the summer of 1999 As You Like It was up, in Thaulowhullet in Frodeåsen (a dried-up water basin in a forest area just outside of town). Again Line Rosvoll directed it. The company felt that the venue now found was appropriate as a regular summer arena for Shakespeare performances.

Late in the autumn 1999 Thesbiteateret had success with its version of the adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and this became, naturally, the last production The Thesbi Theatre did during the millennium.

With Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) into a new millennium

As the first spring of the new millennium came, the theatre had managed to secure the very competent director Dave Mowers from New York's creative off-Broadway community to stage Much Ado about Nothing.

After having delighted the audience and the ensemble with a crazy comedy version of Frankenstein the autumn of 2000, the theatre was able to present a European premiere in Papirhuset Teater in February 2001. The play was Wind on the Water by the American writer Andrew C. Ordover, who was personally present during the opening in Papirhuset.

The Shakespeare production in Thaulowhullet in 2001 became Twelfth Night, with Nina Pontén from Romateatern in Gotland as the director.


The autumn of 2001 Thesbiteateret (The Thesbi Theatre) chose to go for The Dresser by Ronald Harwood in Papirhuset Teater.

The spring of 2002 Marit Simonsen's success performance Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell was repeated the same place, and during summer it was time for Shakespeare in Thaulowhullet again - now Romeo and Juliet was on - and Dave Mowers again crossed over from New York to stage it. Next followed Season's Greetings by Alan Ayckbourn in Papirhuset in November/December.

For Thesbiteateret 2003 started in February with The Alchemist based on the novel by Paulo Coelho. In this production a visiting actress worked for the company, Solfrid Heier, who had also written the script for the production. The music was by Anders Rogg.

Summer came back, and a new Shakespeare performance was next. Now 30 years had gone since the first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream - and what could be more natural than putting this adventurous comedy back on? Nina Pontén came from Sweden again, staging it.

A new autumn, and for the first time in its history, Thesbiteatret performed a play by the Swedish master August Strindberg - Miss Julie

Before Christmas we attempted the European opening of a thriller with a long Broadway run - Perfect Crime by Warren Manzi - in a hope that people wanted to come to Papirhuset for some extra cold during the dark of autumn.

In February 2004 Thesbiteatret staged the monologue Bondage, written by David Hines and based on conversations with London prostitutes. Liz, as the character is called, was interpreted by Hannah Simonsen, who was met with praise when the users of Pro Centre watched the production prior to the official opening, smiled with recognition and gave thumbs up for what they saw.

And before we knew it, it was summer yet again. Anew David Mowers was a guest of Thesbiteateret's in Thaulowhullet. This time to stage The Taming of the Shrew.

At the same time we also put on a production for the family the same place: Robin Hood in a version by Thomas Malling.

Autumn came and so did the time for Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, adapted for the theatre by Örjan Herlitz. The opening was set in the culture centre Nøtterøy Kulturhus in Borgheim, celebrating its tenth anniversary that year, but of course, the play was performed in Papirhuset Teater too.

A new year and a new February premiere. Now time had come for Madame de Sade by Yukio Mishima, directed by Geirr Johnson. And in April 2005 Hannah Simonsen visited Centralteatret and its Café stage with Bondage.

In May Nina Pontén returned to Tønsberg to stage a new Shakspeare production in Thaulowhullet. It was time for tragedy again, and the choice fell on Othello.  

In February 2006 Educating Rita by Willy Russell was performed in Papirhuset.

In April a bunch of youth wanted to stage a play based on The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. They asked nicely if they could be permitted the name THESBIS BARN (literally: The Children of Thesbi). Of course we found this nice, and because of this we have included their production - a right fine one - a place in our list of former productions.

Summer came, and yet again Thesbiteatret performed Shakespeare in Thaulowhullet. This time it was a brand new version of The Tempest with a - for Thesbiteateret - new director: Ingrid Forthun - and her brought-along choreographer, Lisbeth Rønning. The role of Ariel went to the young talented dancer Christopher Flinder Petersen, whom it became very nice to get to know.

Despite of excellent weather and large audiences, reduced support from public funds led to huge deficits on the production, and all savings in the company were lost.

When autumn came, the company couldn't afford a new production, and instead dusted off Educating Rita. The play was performed in Stokke and Nøtterøy. At the same time the preparation for Shakespeare 2007 started. 

Time had come for Macbeth. Sturla Berg Johansen accepted the leading role, and the director became - to the delight of Thesbiteateret - the artistic director of Romateatern, Thomas Segerström. He brought two of his actor friends from Sweden, Peter Järn and Pia Halvorsen, plus the composer he usually works with, Thomas Almqvist, and despite a summer with much rain the company felt satisfied with the result, and thinks a large share of the audience feels the same way. For the second year in a row, however, the company got less financial support from the county of Vestfold than expected, and a new deficit grew this summer, placing Thesbiteatret in what is in many ways a fateful hour. So if you haven't done so before, do it now: Visit Thesbiteateret when we stage From the Life of the Rain Worms by Per Olov Enquist in Papirhuset Teater."

The historical outline by Thesbiteateret (as quoted above) only stretches to 2007. The company has managed to survive economically, and after 2007 Thesbiteateret has staged Alan Ayckbourn's It Could Be Any One of Us (2008), Shakespeare's Hamlet (2009), Marsha Norman's 'Night, Mother (2010) and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (2010), Bryony Lavery's Frozen (2011) and Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (2011), Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap (2012), Kurt Aust's Start (2012), Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (2012) and the wandering theatre performance Gatelangs* (Along the streets) (2012).


Thesbiteateret,, 10.08.2012,

*Not yet translated into English. The title within parentheses is the Norwegian title's literal meaning.

Co-productions (1)
Title Premiere
Alkymisten – 2003
Contributors (5)
Terje Johannesen – Composer (fra 1993)
Lars Martin Myhre – Composer (fra 1983 til 1993)
Gianni Lepre – Artistic director (fra 1972 til 1983)
Frank Lie – Artistic director (fra 1972)
Else Marie Høst – Administrative head (fra 1972)