I’m sitting in the Marmalade Cafe in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (REP) waiting to interview Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun – directors of the Birmingham European Festival, or BE FESTIVAL for short.
In this tumultuous political time, a festival of European art seemingly has no choice but to move beyond mere celebration and it has become in their own words, a responsibility. And bringing together performers from the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Hungary, in styles incorporating dance, circus acts, puppetry, music, traditional styled theatre and more, BE FESTIVAL seems to be setting out to prove once and for all that we really are Better Together. As the festival programme says, ‘here, in the inclusive city of Birmingham, the multifaceted cultural identities and creativity of a continent will once again be celebrated through performance and art’.
Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun are lovely, approachable people, and our discussion runs to over 45 minutes – far beyond what my tired digits can type out in a single sitting. However, through everything we discuss their enthusiasm and passion are remarkable and heart-warming to see.
It’s a cheap start but I can’t help myself. I go back to square one and ask how the festival came to be. Miguel Oyarzun starts off, explaining “in November 2009 the Arts Council – in collaboration with the cultural sector in Birmingham, started a series of meetings and open talks with the idea of looking at how can we improve the scene in the Midlands. We had a friend that was from Birmingham, at that time we were living in London, and we said ‘why don’t we go to Birmingham and see what’s going on?’” So the birth of BE FESTIVAL came from interest outside of the city?
“At that stage we were thinking about setting up a theatre company,” continues Oyarzun, “and so we said ‘okay, well, we’ve never been to Birmingham, let’s go and see what the scene is like.’ We came to one of the open talks and it was a two day talk so after the first day we were saying ‘gosh, these people are great, they’re up for collaborating, there seems to be a good sector and they’re all talking about international work and saying there’s not enough. There’s not enough international work coming to Birmingham. At that stage the REP had just closed, or was about to close down to refurbish, so there was even less as the REP do bring some international work but even with the REP there wasn’t enough.”
“So we asked people ‘so when is the Theatre Festival happening? The International Theatre Festival?’ Assuming there was one. And they said ‘no, there’s no theatre festival. There’s a brilliant performance festival, there are festivals of music, festivals of cinema, but there’s no theatre festival.’ We were kind of a bit surprised by that really.”
“It’s (Birmingham) the second city of the country and it was kind of weird,” add Isla Aguilar. “In Spain almost every single city has a festival of theatre and here the tradition is much bigger than in Spain so we were, like, wow, this is kind of… awkward.”
And so through raising the question in an open talk with members of the Arts Council, the City Council and the wider artistic community, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun became the organisers of this long standing event. I smile at how raising an issue in an open forum can so often lead to you finding a solution to it yourself. Some clichés do prove themselves time and time again.
We talk more about that first year; I ask how the programme looked for their debut. “We put out a call (for acts),” tells Miguel Oyarzun, “and received 67 proposals which at the time we thought ‘wow, 67’…” “…this is massive” adds Ilsa Aguilar, before Oyarzun finishes, “now this year we received 1070. So, you know.”
I know. BE FESTIVAL has certainly grown since it began and it seems to be an annual event that doesn’t sit on its laurels or stay in its comfort zone. As the directors themselves write, the event has ‘the ultimate aim of breaking down borders, that only serve to divide us’.
The programme is expansive too, with this year presenting a variety of shows and subjects from pertinent to the more playful. There’s Paula Rosolen & Haptic Hide Aerobics ‘recalling the ’80s-born trend for aerobics’ in Aerobics! A Ballet in 3 Acts (Tues 4th / Germany), alongside The Sensemaker – Elsa Couvreur’s one woman dance show ‘to a quick-switching backing track’ (Weds 5th / Switzerland) and Anatomia Publica – the story of a solider returning home after being presumed dead to find his wife remarried, ‘performed in an intense style that bridges physical theatre and dance’ as presented by Man Drake and Tomeo Vergés (Sat 8th/ Spain, France).
So seven years later, with more than 15 times the production proposals coming in, how do Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun come to choose the acts at BE FESTIVAL? “The idea behind the programme has always been a kind of festival to cross borders so we programme work that does that,” explains Oyarzun. “The first criterion is the quality and then we programme work that does one of the following things; one, to cross disciplines. So work that is in-between dance, theatre, circus, puppetry, any kind of discipline.”
“The second thing would be that they cross the language border. So it’s work that is either not using words, so, communicating through physicality or through other means. A show that would fit into that is a pure theatre show where they use masks and there’s no words so we see everything that happens before the words are needed or when there’s not a need for words any more… Emotion and content come from a different place that is more touching, that is deeper than words.”
Quality is also key at BE FESTIVAL and “everybody has to do an application and goes through that application process” continues Aguilar. “It’s a way also that we will see a lot of people that have not necessarily made it onto the circuit yet. It’s a way to discover companies who are doing amazing things and it’s beautiful because each year we feel confident that we have companies that haven’t been seen in this country or haven’t been seen on many other festivals and we are giving them their first opportunity.”
“And that doesn’t mean they don’t have quality”, adds Miguel Oyarzun, “it’s an extraordinary programme of beautiful unique art. Some of the companies are world class companies. However, they may have not jumped into the stages of the UK yet or some of them are very big in their countries but haven’t come. Some of them are not big in their countries but have a lot of potential or are very good but for some reason they haven’t managed to get their art out.”
We touch on Britain leaving the EU (the referendum vote took place during BE FESTIVAL 2016) and as organisers of a festival celebrating European work it comes as no surprise that the political situation is a concern – one that changes the tone of our discussion to a more sombre one, tinged with sadness. But whatever their personal feelings, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun are keen to see people come together at BE FESTIVAL and openly discuss their thoughts and apprehensions, “it takes a lot of work to bring people together,” begins Oyarzun, “it’s something that you build very little by little and then it’s very easy to break things apart. It takes much less work to do that… of course, we would want this to be open to people who think differently to us and hopefully seduce them that another Europe is possible and we can live together.”
BE FESTIVAL has also commissioned a new piece of theatre exploring the subject, with British Enough? showcased on Thurs 6th, Fri 7th and Sat 8th July. A collaboration between artist/filmmaker Kristina Cranfeld and writer/director John Harrigan, this new production explores ‘the notion of becoming British’ through the ‘fixed, itemised cornerstones which are deemed critical by immigration officials for fitting into British society’.
The underlying messages are challenging perception, encouraging thought and providing quality – “making these (theatre) doors more accessible to the people”, tells Isla Aguilar, and trying to “make them feel comfortable in here. A way to cross borders”. Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun want there to be a healthy platform for debate and expression throughout BE FESTIVAL 2017 and both “expect this year to be particularly lively and energetic”.
Togetherness, diversity, quality and opportunity, these are BE FESTIVAL watchwords – an event that despite its best intentions of being a celebration of art, has become more than that. It’s become a celebration of people, open thought and communication, of hope and potential.
BE FESTIVAL 2017 – official trailer
BE FESTIVAL runs at the Birmingham REP from 4th to 6th July. Day tickets are priced at £20-22 (with dinner) or £12-14 (without dinner). Weekly tickets are priced at £100 (with dinner) or £60 (without dinner).
For more from the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk