Like many veteran travelers, I don’t talk to the person sitting next to me on a flight. I’m always dealing with only one potential chin wagger because I have enough miles banked to book the seat I want, and I’m always on the window. That way, I can wedge my shoulder into the fuselage, dig in the earbuds and open the laptop—forging a bubble of “I don’t give a damn…” that can’t be invaded by any tale of a brilliant child or some yarn about the travails of a catheter salesman.
So, it would seem like my own personal nightmare when my backside hits the seat of an Icelandair flight from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK (via a stopover in Reykjavik) and the 30s-something guy next to me starts in on his life story before I could so much as find my headphones.
As we taxi to takeoff on this typically bleak London morning, I settle into my unexpected chat with the ease of sinking into an ice bath. It turns out my new travel buddy is James Pyle, a volcanologist from the U.S. traveling to Iceland and making a study of the rugged country’s volcanoes and hot springs.
Since I must have committed some terrible crime against puppies and kittens in my past, James’ wife Astrid sits a few rows ahead of us. Her seat assignment doesn’t stop the husband from carrying on a cheerful conversation with her—the couple leaning out into the aisle and shouting back and forth between air kisses.
Astrid is a writer, and she’s working on a book about her grandmother, Edda—an explorer and female aviation pioneer from Iceland. (See a pattern emerging here?) The husband and wife will visit Edda at Keflavik International Airport to celebrate the grandma’s birthday with all of their friends—most of whom are also from Iceland and all seem to be on this very flight. As I look around, I see those Icelandic acquaintances immediately burying their own nervous neighbors in the same sudden, detailed conversation.
It all might seem like some Reykjavikian Twilight Zone episode, but the special flight was a very elaborate setup, and I was in on the bit. Icelandair will celebrate its 80th anniversary through March 2018, and I was an awkward passenger aboard the inaugural flight of the airline’s birthday celebration, Ahead of Time.
A gathering of journalists, special guests and a hundred or so wary passengers joined a collection of 27 actors and Icelandair insiders in varying degrees of anachronistic costuming. Depending on where a ticket took the passenger aboard this time-traveling flight, he or she might sit next to a flight attendant from the 1970s, a starlet from post-war Hollywood or a flower-child hippie circa 1967.
The entire show is the brainchild of Icelandair reps and Gideon Reeling, a London-based interactive theater company that specializes in this genre of experiential, themed performance. The obvious through-line for anyone onboard long enough to speak to a couple of the performers was the role of women in the growth and evolution of Iceland and its titular airline.
Icelandair is technically older than the country it represents. Established in 1937, seven years before Iceland became an independent republic, the airline prides itself on its progressiveness and how it stayed out ahead of the travel industry. (Yes, I learned all of this trivia pinging around the cabin of the aircraft and tapping in on the various rehearsed conversations on the leg between London and our stopover.)
Whether it’s the early introduction of women into flight crews, the hiring of female pilots years ahead of other airlines, the election of the world’s first female head of state or the guarantee of equal pay between the sexes, both Iceland and its national air carrier have tried to play it fair with women over the years. The actors on board used tales of fictional birthday girl Edda and her friends to demonstrate that advancement.
For example, Kate Hargreaves (actress and Gideon Reeling producer) portrayed Lydia Bird Walton, acquaintance of Edda and a heroine from World War II who flew supply missions into combat zones—only to find herself banned from commercial pilot work after the war. She set the scene of inequality that served as a backdrop for Icelandair’s 20th-century evolution.
There are easier jobs for any actor to master than remaining in character on a seven-hour flight surrounded by passengers who might not be into the land of make-believe.
A few rows along in the plane and almost six decades beyond from Lydia’s plight, Berglind Heioa Arnadottir of Icelandair played the pilot of the airline’s 2001 flight that featured the first all-female crew to serve aboard an international flight.
During any full-blown interactive theater experience like Ahead of Time, the audience bears some of the responsibility for the event’s success. Everybody must join in the show. For example, once I realized I was sitting next to a character and not just any mere globetrotting volcanologist, it was on me to play along and engage in the docudrama.
I asked questions and let friend-scientist Pyle (Gideon Reeling player Adam Burton) perform his answers and relay the information required. It’s safe to assume there are easier jobs for any actor to master than remaining in character and in the moment on a seven-hour, two-leg flight surrounded by passengers who might not be into the land of make-believe with him.
Like every other actor aboard, Hargreaves and Burton never broke character for a moment. Every member of the cast, regardless of their role in the story or their assigned tasks onboard the plane, remained in character at Heathrow check-in, at the gate, during boarding, on the plane, at the Keflavik stopover and upon arrival at JFK, where all passengers returned to the 21st century. Many would play the same scene and repeat similar conversations throughout the flight. It was up to the passenger to piece together the Ahead of Time narrative even if the pieces came together out of order.
Not every performance that blind luck and a seating chart might send my way had a feminist motive. A few of the characters shared popular folktales from throughout Iceland’s history. In those cases, the actors would produce their carry-on luggage. Clunky, square cases from bygone eras opened onto detailed dioramas of fairytale lands, adding little visual flares to the stories of 35,000 feet.
The crescendo of this airborne drama plays out at the Icelandair Sage Lounge at Keflavik International Airport. The passengers gather with the performers as decades’ worth of anachronistic characters join together at Edda’s birthday party, complete with food, drink, live music and dancing.
Highlighting the stopover is deliberate as Icelandair wants its passenger to kick off their shoes and stay awhile during their Reykjavik visit. Any customer can stay in Iceland for up to seven days before continuing their journey, with no penalty or additional airfare, via the purchase of any round-trip flight. Travelers interested in spending a little time in “the land of the ice and snow, the midnight sun and the hot springs flow” can book accommodations and vacation packages via Icelandair’s website.
To keep the 80th birthday party rolling, passengers out of Chicago’s O’Hare, Boston’s Logan International, LAX, JFK and ATL can request to fly on a Ahead in Time flight. The performance is free with the price of a ticket. Online requests to join a performance flight via Icelandair’s website receive a response within five business days.
The anniversary celebration isn’t limited to the play in the air. The airline plans free surprise anniversary performances and pop-up events until March on planes and in airports to keep the party going. The Saga Lounge will host surprise live performances from some of Iceland’s best up-and-coming performers.
This November 1 to 5, the Iceland Airwaves Festival will spread from downtown Reykjavík up to the northern city of Akureyri. This multi-genre music festival will welcome Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes to headline a lineup of more than 200 bands between the two venues. The venues range from bars and record shops to church yards and amphitheaters.
From December 27 to 30, Icelandair will sponsor the Sigur Rós Gig, a music and art festival in Reykjavík combining cutting-edge technology, modern sounds and interactive art. Finally, to wrap up the show, the Design March Arts show will bring the Icelandic capital’s top local designers and artists to showcase their work from March 15 to 18.
Several days after my journey through airborne history, my next international flight took me to Milan for business. Same old routine held fast. The window seat, earbuds and laptop all hit their marks. As the plane took off from ORD, I was struck by a lonely thought once believed impossible: “I wish there was a volcanologist I could talk to about his wife.”
Thanks a lot, Iceland.