Imagine a TED Talk featuring a tall Viking warrior woman from the Middle Ages carrying a shield. What would she say? How would she behave?
This is the premise behind Melanie Teichroeb’s one-woman show, Shield Maiden, which she will perform at the Anvil Theatre in New Westminster on Saturday (December 16). Her character, Ingrid Larsdottir, struts around a 10th-century longhouse, speaking directly to the audience as she tries to recruit other warriors.
“I’m hoping that people are willing to be curious about their own ideas of the warrior spirit—and what that looks like for women,” Teichroeb tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I want men to be curious, too, about the warrior spirit for women.”
There’s not a bunch of high-tech stagecraft in this Norse RED Talk.
“But when it does come in, it’s typically to help build whatever emotion the character is dealing with in that moment,” Teichroeb explains. “Some of it is really funny and some of it is to really help the audience connect to the feelings about the warrior. So, it’s used strategically, but it’s minimal.”
Teichroeb first performed Shield Maiden at the Cultivate Performing Arts Festival on Gabriola Island in 2018. There were two driving forces behind it. First was the Me Too movement in which women around the world rose up against sexual assault and harassment.
“I was pretty caught up in that, as a lot of women were,” Teichroeb says.
Women were going public with their experiences. However, reading those stories on the phone seemed so small and contained to Teichroeb in comparison to the feelings that they summoned within her.
Viking warrior women existed
Around the same time, Teichroeb read a National Geographic article about the 19th-century discovery of the grave of a Viking woman warrior known as Bj 581. She was buried with her weapons in the 10th century in Birka, Sweden.
However, for more than a century after the discovery, archeologists assumed that her remains were that of a male warrior. Only after a 2014 osteological analysis and 2017 DNA analysis did researchers determine that Bj 581 was female.
As a result, the Me Too movement and the existence of a Viking woman warrior collided in Teichroeb’s mind. She wondered what this warrior might say today.
This led her to read extensively about Norse history to learn more. And she started writing, first in a stream-of-consciousness way, telling the Viking woman warrior’s back story as a means to figuring out and developing her character.
“I really needed to understand who she was before I could have her speak for 60 minutes,” Teichroeb says. “That was my process.”
Fortunately, her first directors, Robin Kelly and Nicolle Nattrass, helped her sculpt the play. After the first performance on Gabriola Island, Teichroeb started paying attention to how Viking women were represented in the TV series Vikings and a Scandinavian comedy series called Vikingane (Norsemen).
During the pandemic, she did a DNA test through Ancestry during the pandemic and discovered that both sides of her family’s roots went back to Denmark.
“That was an interesting surprise,” Teichroeb comments.
She’s curious to learn more about women warriors who lived in other parts of the world.
“Along with the DNA testing that they’ve done on this woman warrior in Sweden, they’re doing DNA testings on grave sites all over the world,” she states. “And they’re finding woman warriors in almost every culture that people are buried.”
Taming an inner wild horse
Nowadays, Teichroeb says that women are not encouraged nearly as much as men to tap into their warrior energy. From her own experience, it can manifest itself in ways that people might not expect.
“The feeling of rage is one that I explore in the play,” Teichroeb reveals. “But it’s not a feeling that a lot of women get to explore. We don’t get to tap into what it feels.
“And when you do, as I have by playing this character, it’s almost like you have to figure out how to tame a wild horse,” she continues. “It’s just this big feeling that doesn’t necessarily have context in your daily life—but it is a real feeling.”
During the interview, Teichroeb lets on that being a warrior doesn’t come naturally to her.
“I’m lucky I have another skill set,” she says. “I’ve been a massage therapist for over 30 years, so that’s what I’m doing—very nurturing, compassionate, caring, gentle work.”
Beyond this, she has a keen interest what feminism looks like around the world. However, Teichroeb is also highly conscious of what she read in Cree-Métis writer Kim Anderson’s 2001 book, A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. It was based on Anderson’s life experiences and interviews with 40 Indigenous women.
From these stories, Teichroeb concluded that white women must find their own feminism rather than co-opt what Indigenous people are doing in their cultures.
“That just had such a profound impact on me,” Teichroeb says. “That was actually when I did my Ancestry DNA test because I didn’t know where my people came from. I’m walking this path and I’m trying to be authentic to where I come from.”