Birgitta Palme was an actress at the Gothenburg city theatre and the second woman (after Karin Kavli in the 1950s) to accede to the post of theatre director.
Birgitta Palme was born in Jönköping in 1940, the daughter of Birgit Sjögren, née Väjne, and chief librarian Paul Sjögren. She had four brothers: Sven, Mats, Jan and Per. She married the architect Erik Palme who was a remote relative of the prime minister Olof Palme. They had one daughter, Ulrika Johanna.
Birgitta Palme arrived in Gothenburg as a 20 year old, to train to become an actress at the Gothenburg city theatre school in 1960—1963. She worked at the theatre for most of her professional life and made memorable contributions to the theatre’s legendary group theatre plays Hemmet and Sandlådan in 1967—1968. She also collaborated in prominent roles as the queen in Strindberg’s Gustaf III on the main stage in 1973 and as Siri von Essen in Per Olof Enquist’s play The Night of the Tribades in 1976.
During the 1970s, Birgitta Palme worked at both the Gothenburg city theatre and on TV theatre and according to some critics, she became more and more free in her acting. In the play The Hunchback in 1977 by Slawomir Mrozek, the critic wrote that Birgitta Palme “as the baroness seems from her many TV roles to have brought with her a new and freer style of acting to the stage – she sees to it that the emancipation process [for the baroness] is credible”.
Birgitta Palme was engaged in the union at the Gothenburg city theatre at an early stage and it was well anchored with the staff. When a repertoire committee was constituted at the theatre in 1979 with five actors and a scenographer, she was one of the participants and the six were elected by a unanimous ensemble. In the major daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, Birgitta Palme stated that the staff had started a repertoire committee and that this was “a new way of working in the theatre and it feels very revitalising”. The committee’s first choice of plays according to her had in common their mirroring of “woman’s role in society and the relations between men and women during different epochs”.
Three years later, Birgitta Palme became one of seven artistic leaders at the theatre. Her assignment was to be responsible with two of the other artistic leaders for the Götaplatsen stages. The others were to be responsible for the artistic leadership of the Angeredsteatern (Sven Wollter and Maria Hörnelius) and school theatre (among others Ulf Dohlsten).
Her deep engagement in the theatre led to her being appointed the director of the Gothenburg city theatre in 1986. In that way, she was more in the limelight than she had ever been as an actress. The theatre had gone through a number of divisive conflicts since the 1960s: the establishment of the group theatre, and the manifesto and inflamed battles about the theatre’s role in the community. Not least, the theatre’s leadership for long periods of time was out of step with the board elected by the City Council in Gothenburg. Left stood against right purely politically, and radical renewal demands for a “people’s” theatre stood against those who asserted that the classics should be the foundation of the theatre’s enterprise. The consequence of the many battles was that the audience stayed away more and more and therefore the expectations placed on Birgitta Palme’s directorship were enormous, both within the theatre ensemble and from the board and general public. Apart from Karin Kavli in the 1950s, all the theatre directors had been men, which also increased the expectations on Birgitta Palme.
One of the first effects of the new directorship was that Birgitta Palme took back both the artistic and administrative leadership of the theatre. The reporter from Svenska Dagbladet who visited the theatre also sensed this new engagement: “Inside the theatre building, job satisfaction, optimism and self-confidence reign. The newly furnished and repainted director’s office has been occupied by Birgitta Palme since 1 July, and she is enjoying a dream start.” Birgitta Palme was at the same time careful to emphasise that it was not possible to recapture a lost audience in a hurry. However, she was convinced that “everyone at the city theatre is now inspired by the same will for the theatre to regain the importance that it enjoyed during ‘the great epoch’ in the 60s and 70s.”
It did not take long for the board to oppose the theatre’s orientation. Seven months after Birgitta Palme’s appointment as director of the theatre, the board decided to wind up Angeredsteatern. She declared in the media that this decision was unacceptable and a scandal in cultural politics and that was the start of a problematic journey for her in her attempts to tack between on the one hand the political demands to balance the economy through attractive plays and on the other the ensemble’s various special interests when it came to choice of plays.
In December 1988 she had reached the end of the road. She resigned as theatre director as from 1 July 1989. She motivated her decision by stating that the work demanded “strength, and I entered into a situation in which I had none”. The various special interests had also become too much for her: “It is sad that there should be so many individual interests in one theatre that conflicts are unavoidable.” Behind this statement was the fact that the theatre had had an enormous audience success with West Side Story which had greatly improved the theatre’s economic situation. Audience interest was so great that Birgitta Palme decided that the musical should continue into the next season, the spring of 1989. This led to the premiere of the more “exclusive” play Chang Eng being moved to the following year. It was a play about the conjoined twins Chang and Eng who together had a total of 21 children with two Quaker sisters, and how that took place. The criticism was immediate. Birgitta Palme was blamed for courting the public and for opportunism, as well as for putting on Broadway musicals at the cost of authentic dramatic theatre.
Birgitta Palme was very open about the demands that according to her were placed on a theatre director. It was a very lonely and demanding job. It felt “as though I had run a marathon for four years”. She compared the role of an actress with the directorship. In the latter role, she had played herself in many public contexts. “Earlier, I have always spoken others’ words in public, but now I have had to formulate my own in my own speeches.”
After her resignation, Birgitta Palme continued the collaboration she had already started in the 1970s with Carin Mannheimer and her TV series Fosterbarn, Dela lika and Klassträffen. This collaboration led during the 1990s to her directing Carin Mannheimer’s successful play Rika barn leka bäst at the Folkteatern in Gothenburg. She also accepted other directorship assignments at the Helsingborg city theatre and Teater Tir Na Nog in Gothenburg. With Lars Norén and Isa Stenberg at Riksteatern, Birgitta Palme worked in 1998 on a theatre project at the Tidaholm maximum security prison that resulted in the much-debated performance Sju-tre with heavily criminal prisoners onstage, a play that lost control with catastrophic consequences. It was Birgitta Palme who had initiated a study circle with four prisoners at the gaol after having seen I väntan på Godot performed by prisoners at the San Quentin prison in the USA. It was there according to Elisabeth Åsbrink that she got the “idea for a kind of social humanist gateway where the imprisoned and the free person can meet”. Lars Norén and Isa Stenberg took over the work on the play after that.
Birgitta Palme died in 2000. She lies buried in the Stampen Cemetery in Gothenburg.