Elsa Olenius was an important pioneer of the children’s library agency and of children’s theatre.
Elsa Olenius was born in Bollnäs in 1896. She was the only child of Otto Söderström, a postal inspector, and Blenda Johnson. Both her parents were interested in the theatre and her father was also an active amateur musician. The family moved to Örebro, where Elsa Olenius first became exposed to the theatre as a child. She later began to act, initially at the high school theatre and then at the Uppsala student theatre. When she was 17 years old she gained her school-leaving certificate at Uppsala private high school. Following a period of study at the Stockholms barn- och ungdomsbibiliotek (children’s and youth library) she became employed at its sister institution at Hornsgatan on Söder in 1927. She very quickly began to run story-telling sessions for children and during the 1930s she set up a children’s theatre agency, in which she sought active participation from the children. She introduced elements of theatrical games and pantomime, and in 1942 she established Barnens egen teater, later known as Vår Teater, at Medborgarhuset. From 1958–1961 she served as the first children’s theatre consultant in Stockholm. She also worked as a children’s book consultant for Rabén & Sjögren Bokförlag (publishers).
The children’s theatre agency was very successful, largely down to Elsa Olenius’ driving spirit. It also benefited from the fact that Stockholm municipal politicians were engaged in the cultural lives of and provisions for children. In the autumn of 1942 Oscar Larsson, the Social Democratic party commissioner for culture, gave Elsa Olenius permission to take over the space at Medborgarhuset which Ingmar Bergman had previously used to direct theatrical productions for both children and adults. Now it was possible for the children of Södermalm, aged between 7 and 16, to engage in theatrical games and pantomime, dancing, stage acting, and improvisation. Regular plays were also rehearsed and then put on for the public. The enterprise expanded rapidly and the core troop of the children’s theatre toured Sweden, first visiting Eskilstuna in 1946 where they performed Astrid Lindgren’s specially-written play Pippi Långstrumps liv och leverne. Every year thousands of children took part in these activities.
In 1955 the children’s theatre agency became a distinct institution named Vår Teater, within Barnavårdsnämden (children’s welfare authority). New branches were opened throughout the Stockholm suburbs. Elsa Olenius set up and supervised a training course in order to train theatre leaders. The aim of this theatre agency was to encourage a child’s evolving personality and personal development. Elsa Olenius published several collections of plays which were intended to be performed by children. Her 1957 book entitled Barnteater describes her view on working with theatrical games and children’s theatre.
Elsa Olenius received financial support from Stockholm city and travelled to the USA in 1947 where she visited the community children’s theatre called Children’s Theatre in Palo Alto (near San Francisco). She also met Winifred Ward, a major authority within the field of the children’s theatre movement. Elsa Olenius was inspired by “creative dramatics”, which entails not only improvisations, but also exercises in concentration and movement. The American children’s-theatre instructor Isabel Burger did a stint as a visiting expert at Vår Teater in 1957 and Elsa Olenius gained new stimuli regarding ways of creating drama. She was a visiting professor at the University of Washington School of Drama in 1967.
In 1943 Elsa Olenius began to serve as a literary advisor of children’s books at the Rabén & Sjögren publishers, where she was also on the jury for the manuscript competition in which Astrid Lindgren was awarded second prize for Britt-Marie lättar sitt hjärta in 1944. Elsa Olenius and Astrid Lindgren became colleagues and life-long friends who travelled the country together. Elsa Olenius would give talks on children’s books and Astrid Lindgren would read from her works.
Elsa Olenius also ran a book-club for children at the library. Upon retiring she continued to promote children’s literature and children’s theatre and she also carried on with her story-telling sessions at schools and libraries. She was awarded the Expressen children’s culture prize, Heffaklumpen, for her story-telling skills. She also published several fairy-tale anthologies which she had reworked.
Elsa Olenius was a pioneer of the outward-looking children’s library and children’s theatre agency. However, she was not the only one. It was the combination of her involvement of colleagues in her work as well as the fact that several theatre instructors had been inspired by both earlier and current ideas of teaching reform to work with children’s groups. Elsa Olenius was driven by her heavy involvement in children’s theatrical games and children’s reading. She viewed fairy tales as the best introduction to literature. Her ambition was to reach all children regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. She believed that theatre helped children to be more unselfconscious and empathetic and that literature and the theatre could contribute to children’s sensitivity to language, imagination, and both aesthetic and social learning.
Esla Olenius died in Vallentuna in 1984. She is buried at the Norra cemetery in Solna.