BREVIEW: BE FESTIVAL …Friday 07.07.17

Words by Damien Russell / Pics courtesy of BE FESTIVAL

It’s day four of the Birmingham European Festival (or BE FESTIVAL for short) and having been lucky enough to interview the festival directors Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, I am keen to see how the event delivers the ‘dizzying array of entertainment’ that the programme has promised us.

As usual, I get lost walking through Birmingham (using whichever car park is cheapest has its challenges) but still make it in plenty of time and having been pre-warned that the event entrance is at the back of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, I wander round and in. The setting has been described in Wednesday night’s BREVIEW from Paul Gallear but I would add that the visual art exhibitions are largely all interactive and nobody is left without something to enjoy, be it bar, video or art experience.

In good time, the call is made that the doors are open and though the event has unallocated seating it’s a well-natured queue. As there are four acts on per night it is understandable that the stage we are presented with on entry is quite stark and devoid of props; clean changeovers must be key to the timing of each night. This does, of course, lead me to think about what clever uses of staging we can expect, and that to me is always one of the joys of what I would be tempted to term ‘lo-fi’ theatre.

The format of the night remains the same as the previous nights and we begin our four-act lineup with Claudia Catarzi’s 40,000 Centimetri Quadrati – a dance piece that begins with minimalist movement and sound, yet flourishes into a fully musically backed performance that uses the full extent of the stage. The stage itself contains only an approximately 8ft square boarded section; Catarzi begins her piece moving within this area with uncertain, almost unnatural movements – more automaton than dancer, at times using what I would associate with the circus skill Isolation.

As the piece develops Catarzi explores the extents of this confined space, expanding her movements and increasing her fluidity to match the build in sound and lighting effects – until, eventually, she breaks free of the 8ft square board and her movements are almost jubilant. The message seems clear to me and while the idea of breaking ‘out of the box’ is certainly not a new one, it has never been presented to me in such a format before; I found the piece captivating in presentation, clearly understandable and overall, very engaging. Something as I will freely admit is unexpected; dance is not a medium that has ever really appealed.

As is typical for BE FESTIVAL we are asked to leave while the stage is re-set and it’s an opportunity to reflect and discuss what we just experienced. No bad thing. As we re-enter the auditorium, ODC Ensemble are onstage and performing an almost ‘on-hold’ introductory part of their act which is a nice touch. The stage is almost split into thirds: musical equipment to the left, a table with a 3D cardboard cityscape in the centre, with another table containing a laptop, small camera and some other technological items beyond my comprehension on the right. Each section has its own performer and while they are separate to a degree, they interact in turn throughout the show.

ODC Ensemble’s show, REVOLT ATHENΣconcerns Athens and is thematically in three parts: Athens as presented to and seen by tourists, the darker Athens behind that and, the Athens that the people there live in/with. Deeply moving at times, we are reminded that this Mediterranean paradise has the same issues as any major city and in some cases, worse. There is a stark emotional transition mid-way through, as the recent riots and political unrest in the nation are presented ‘warts and all’, but it gets a bit surreal after this mid-point and to my mind loses some of the impact of the piece. If grunge were theatre this would be it; excellent concept, important message, Marmite execution.

And then we break for lunch; dining on the main stage of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre isn’t something I do every day so, quite looking forward to it, I wend my way in. The room is as I would expect – it’s mass catering and a bit ‘school dinner’ feeling, but done well enough. Plenty of salad and bread on offer, the main dish comes hot and the staff are attentive. None of the performers sit at our table, which is a bit of a disappointment, but nevertheless, hunger abated, we return to a stage which now contains an unusual array of objects: a small paddling pool, several jugs of water, a table with ping-pong equipment and juggling rings and a flip-chart on a stand.

This of course is the setting to What Does Stuff Do? performed by Robin Boon Dale, intriguingly advertised as ‘using innovative juggling, physical comedy and almost-philosophy’. And I’m certainly not disappointed. Dale is an engaging performer, eloquent and disarming, and his performance moves through a number of circus acts and prat-falls designed to display items and acts we can easily recognise, yet modified and taken out of context to challenge perception.

Dale moves through his act smoothly, dazzling us with his skills and making us laugh with his mishaps. I am never certain if any of these mishaps are actually accidental or if they are all for effect and that is part of the charm of the performance. Perhaps not the most emotionally challenging act of the night, I nevertheless feel What Does Stuff Do? is the most entertaining and Dale’s point is clear – every new scenario offers us a new opportunity to be who/what we want to be in the context of what is around us, which is a valuable life lesson in evaluating our actions. Dale describes himself and us all as ‘tools’ in the context of his philosophical point; never have I been called a tool in a more appropriate and enjoyable manner.

There is no break between What Does Stuff Do? and Waiting for Schrödinger, our final staged act of the evening; Timothy and the Things enter the stage, backs to the audience to begin their predominantly dance related act. It’s never made clear who Timothy is and who are the Things, but as the first group performance which is not lead by one of the cast over the others, who is who is clearly not important.

The group move through a surrealistic show where interactions between them are designed to apply the Schrödinger’s Cat theory to a more realistic scenario. I find myself more affected by the surrealism of it than the message for much of the performance, I must admit. But the message is still there as we see cast members dealing with isolation, exclusion and vying for dominance before being pushed away.

Waiting for Schrödinger moves in ‘scenes’, and while each scene is well put together some of the transitions feel clumsy at times. The last slot of the night is always a tough one to have, tougher than the first in some ways, and while not a bad performance or a bad piece of work Waiting for Schrödinger unfortunately doesn’t quite top the bill for me.

Before it’s time to go home we take part in the BE FESTIVAL’s commissioned British Enough? ‘immersive experience’. The show begins and almost immediately I am put in mind of The Running Man by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King) and George Orwell’s 1984 having a baby, and that baby growing up in Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room.

Moving through the previously inaccessible backstage areas of the theatre we are treated to a dystopian view of what entering the British Isles could be like, where immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers are forced to compete against each other (and the state) in an intense and disconcerting environment.

The performance by Kristina Cranfield and Foolish People is excellent and British Enough? is certainly immersive. I must admit, I had been expecting something more educational about our current situation than this extreme future representation and I can’t help but feel the piece ends a little weakly. But as a lover of immersive theatre I’m certainly not disappointed.

‘Groundbreaking’ or ‘artsy’ theatre can be a little hit and miss, and even though an event like BE FESTIVAL has a screening process for acts there’s still always a risk of something not being to your taste or even just being too unobtainable/obscure. But my experience of BE FESTIVAL 2017 is that while the programme pushes the boundaries of traditional performance, it remains vigilant in keeping things accessible to a broad range of people.

There are things I didn’t ‘get’ entirely and things I didn’t like entirely, but nothing alienates me entirely; as a new audience member, there was plenty that actively encourages participation and engagement. So if a challenging but accessible series of thought provoking acts sounds like something you would enjoy, BE FESTIVAL is an event to fix in your calendar for 2018.

For more on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit

INTERVIEW: Isla Aguilar & Miguel Oyarzun – BE FESTIVAL

INTERVIEW: Isla Aguilar & Miguel Oyarzun – BE FESTIVAL / Graeme Braidwood

Words by Damien Russell / Lead pic by Graeme Braidwood 

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 SensemakerElsa 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 on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit