Margareta Söderwall was an eminent teacher, theatre director and playwright for children and young people. She founded the Umeå Shakespeare Company in 1952.
Margareta Söderwall was born in 1912 in Stockholm, the daughter of Klara Söderwall, née Lundqvist, a concert pianist and Knut Söderwall, a government official and member of the Supreme Court. She and her five year older brother Knut Erik thus grew up in a middle-class home.
After matriculating in 1931 at the Whitlockska co-educational school in Stockholm, Margareta Söderwall gained her Bachelor’s Degree in Odontology in 1933. Eight years later, she gained her M.A. Degree at the Stockholm College, later Stockholm University, and continued her studies at the Teacher Training College. In 1949, she was appointed to a post as a teacher of English and Swedish at the Umeå grammar school. It was in connection with her engagement in children and young people that she started her creative enterprises.
During the summer of 1951 in England, Margareta Söderwall had been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays while participating in a drama course on the English playwright’s works. When a group of pupils at her school in the autumn of the same year turned to their teacher of Swedish with the wish to start performing theatre plays, Margareta Söderwall suggested learning some of Shakespeare’s scenes with the aim of performing some of them at their school. The ball was ”set rolling” in her own words and the little core group of 20 pupils, girls as well as boys, had laid the foundations of a theatre enterprise that was to gather impetus like an avalanche during the coming years.
The Umeå Shakespeare Company was founded in 1952 as a school society with theatre on its programme and with pupils from both the secondary school and the upper secondary school. The company’s drama exercises were even further stabilised by being absorbed into the trial enterprise in drama production that the national school board ran during the 1950s and the first years of the 1960s. On the basis of among other things Margareta Söderwall’s contributions, drama as a voluntary subject was introduced with up to four hours a week in upper high schools in 1966. Margareta Söderwall, who was the teacher of this subject at the Umeå grammar school, was now able to link the theatre productions of the Shakespeare Company to her teaching. The company attracted more and more pupils and in the 1968–1969 school year it had over 100 pupils in various groups. During the 20 years 1952–1972, 40 theatre productions were presented with a total of more than 300 performances. The productions were performed all over the province of Västerbotten and eventually also in Stockholm and Malmö as well as Vasa in Finland. The company also did tours to England in 1959 and 1969 with two Shakespeare plays. They were met by ”standing ovations by the English audiences”. At their guest performance in 1959 in Leeds, Strindberg’s Folkungasagan was performed in English, which according to their teacher Margareta Söderwall was a feat considering the ages of the young pupils.
Much of their success was also connected to Margareta Söderwall’s behavior when the level of stage fright of the young ensemble rose before their premieres. One eye witness recounted that the only person who did not show the slightest trace of nervousness was Margareta Söderwall. She ”resembles the spring itself as she rushes around smiling at everything and everyone”, as the eye witness enthusiastically expressed it. Her aim with her work was that it should result in a performance but the most important thing according to her was that the participants should be able to occupy themselves with plays containing ”material to stimulate their imaginations and engage their thoughts, and the artistic merits of which make demands on the young people”. One such simplification resulted in 1964 in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a Lappland setting, a completely natural setting in northernmost Norrland. The play was so well received by the press and audiences that it returned on the open-air stage in Umeå just about every midsummer.
The starting point for Margareta Söderwall’s drama pedagogy was to adapt the plays to the young players, to aim the pedagogy at getting them to be co-creators and give them pleasure in the performance. To her pedagogy belonged therefore about 20 books from Natur och Kultur publishers in the Play and Learn series that Margareta Söderwall wrote, as well as appearances on the educational radio. In the books, she simplified translations of first and foremost Shakespeare’s plays. Many of the school productions in the country also came to be based on these books. In her method was also included the production of ”drama kits” containing simple props that complemented the books so that pupils could also perform theatre plays in their classrooms. Considering the results in the form of triumphant performances, she also succeeded in creating the pleasure in performance that was vital for achieving quality in a performance.
In 2001, Margareta Söderwall was awarded an honorary doctorate at Umeå University for having ”left a permanent contribution to praxis in teacher training as well as schools”. She was also seen as innovatory when it came to ”enabling young people to produce classics both at school and as a leisure activity”.
Margareta Söderwall died in 2009 at 97 years of age in Stockholm, where she spent her last years with her brother Knut-Erik who by then was over 100 years old.