Special Envoy Ferguson at Koreja Theatre’s Festival
July 31, 2014
This past spring the PuSh Festival received an invitation to attend TEATRO DEI LUOGHI FEST in Lecce, Italy. The invitation focused on participation in an “international workshop on the theme ‘Cities and theaters.'” Vancouver-based theatre artist, writer and teacher Alex Ferguson was sent as PuSh’s envoy. Alex edited our 10th anniversary broadsheet, entitled Placemaking: A Decade in the City and has collaborated on several projects that that have explicitly been about citizenship, urbanization, what does it mean to live in a city.
– Norman Armour, Artistic & Executive Director
Lecce, Italy, is bidding to become the European Capital of Culture in 2019. That’s the cultural equivalent of getting the Olympics or the World Cup, but on a smaller scale. Getting the designation leads to significant social, economic, and cultural benefits and can also spark urban regeneration. The boost comes in large part from an injection of cash from the European Union. Lecce, a beautiful city of 90,000 inhabitants already has a designation as a “Capital of Baroque” and is a major tourist destination. At the center of the city is an old walled town, a gorgeous maze of baroque architecture. You step into it hoping to get lost in its cobblestone streets. Any path you take will eventually lead you to a restaurant, a bar, a church, or other cultural landmark. It’s well set up for visitors.
Koreja Theatre, one of the key partners in the bid, is located on the outskirts (which is to say a 10 minute bike ride from the center). It houses a well-trained repertory company, produces shows for adults or children, and puts on a festival that mixes the company’s work with work from elsewhere. From time to time big name Italian directors, such as Gabriele Vacis, create performances with the company.
This year’s festival opened with The Word Father, a biographical piece about women and their relationships with their fathers or father figures, created by Vacis and six female actors. I found it typical in its approach to biographical post-dramatic theatre—avoiding conventional character and story structure while maintaining the energetic flow of that structure. Despite the various biographical perspectives, one confession seemed much like the next, which made the whole thing feel static. Great setting though: The Word Father took place in an outdoor baroque courtyard at the university.
Koreja does bring rigour to its work. The actors seem to be able to commit to psychological realism as easily as they do to clown work, or to playing human puppets. Each show by Koreja is also characterized by superb lighting and sound design. But for me the highlight of the festival was a show from elsewhere. Loss Layers, a contemporary dance performance by Fabrice Planquette and Yum Keiko Takayama of France, was intense to the point of being terrifying. Video art, sound composition, and choreography were in meaningful dialogue with one another. The choreography was extremely intelligent, and the dancer was superb.
I think Lecce would be a great location as Capital of Culture. The city is relatively small so it’s easy to get around. Land isn’t at a premium so there are many places to perform. This includes the Koreja Theatre, the baroque buildings, open spaces, and ancient amphitheatres. Koreja won’t have the kind of resources past capitals such as Marseille have had, but I don’t think that should stop it from putting on a great event. Koreja, in collaboration with the Lecce 2019 bid, seems to have a clear proposal to put to the EU. Civic support, on the other hand, has been a challenge for some reason, but the authorities seem to be coming around (slowly).
Interestingly, Koreja Theatre doesn’t receive government support. It is almost entirely dependent on box office. In light of this the company’s programming is very adventurous. They don’t have the luxury of successive commercial failures. A serious dip in box office would give the company nothing to fall back on.
A conference on two themes, “Theatre and Cities” and “Audience as Consumer or interlocutor,” was held on day two. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into “alternative” forms of audience development (together with Steve Hill, my co-AD at what used to be Leaky Heaven Theatre) so I spoke on that. No one at these kinds of festivals likes to think of patrons as consumers, but the larger the organization the more you have to try to find a balance between pitching your wares, so to speak, and keeping things on a personal level. Contemporary performance festivals don’t really sell product. They try to bring the audience to the art—and to thinking about the art. The art becomes a medium for sense and the sensory. By “sense” I mean intellectual engagement. By “sensory” I mean irrational “felt” experience (my favourite kind). In the context of the funding structures that exist in Canada, the more dependent on box office you are the more clever you have to be in resisting collapsing the performance experience to a product, or the festival to a brand. At the level Steve and I operate with our company, we’re finding that the marketing and “capacity building” strategies promoted by government funding agencies don’t make much sense. We don’t have the human and financial resources to take advantage of them. Rather than thinking in terms of building identity as a “brand,” or of developing greater administrative know-how (which for a small company always comes at the cost of shifting energy and time away from art-creation and toward management and admin), we approach audience development as a free exchange of thought, with no expectation of further ticket sales or higher attendance (those might become happy byproducts). It’s about civic engagement first. To this end we offer artist talks in the form of our salon series, Suzie’s Address. We also create audience talkbacks which are extensions of the performance aesthetic—the audience remains in the spatial configuration of the performance while sound and lighting design are also continued. This turns the talkback into a co-creative work of art, and changes the tenor of the conversation. It can lead to greater patron investment in the work we do.
I was intrigued by a few things offered by other panelists. Andrea Porcheddu, an Italian theatre journalist, argued that the interesting work in Italy is happening out in the suburbs in “unclaimed spaces,” and that nothing of significance has been coming out of Rome for some time. Certainly Italian theatre’s most famous recent export, Romeo Castellucci and Societas Rafaello Sanzio (Hey Girl!, PuSh Festival, 2008), comes from the small North Eastern city of Cesena (about the size of Lecce).
Didier Thibault of Next Festival in France-Belgium talked about his festival as a geographical boundary crossing event—literally, given that the festival occurs in an area that crosses several national boundaries and occurs in various cities. The artists don’t move, he said, the audience does. This made me think of the idea of a narrative of spectatorship, something to do with the physical and conceptual journey an audience makes during a festival. At PuSh, we sort of touched on this a little with our 10th anniversary broadsheet, but that was from the artist’s perspective. There may be something further to develop if we shift the perspective to the audience’s experience of the festival. What is the territory they are venturing into? What kind of art landscape is it?
Regarding audience development strategies, Alexander Elsner, a dramaturge of the Leipzig State Theatre in Germany recounted a happy accident when his theatre company accidentally took out an ad in the wrong magazine, one that didn’t have arts coverage or advertising. It resulted in people who never come to his theatre buying tickets for the first time. Interesting tactic perhaps. (Side note: The budget of this state theatre, of which there are many in Germany is “small” at 13 million euros annually. That’s more than the annual budget of the BC Arts Council.)
Cultural Capital Bid: Lecce 2019
Airen Berg is the artistic coordinator for Lecce’s European Capital of Culture bid. He has experience in this area and is also a former performance maker. One of the things the Capital of Culture is supposed to do is create a kind of model for European society. Art and performance are key elements of the event, but are also only part of a larger whole. A wide variety of socio-political projects are undertaken—each of these driven to a large extent by artists.
Berg’s agenda, in meeting with festival directors and the like from all over, seems to be to create a network that he can draw on to strengthen the bid. It seems to be partly thematic—get various festivals and artists to take part in thinking creatively around the bid’s them of “utopias”; and partly practical—festivals and artists can make proposals for actual projects, possibly of a collaborative nature. In either case he can use the interest of a festival like PuSh to bolster his bid. So he’s sort of at the stage of getting his ducks in a row.
The agenda of Franco Ungaro of Koreja overlaps with Berg’s, but is also independent to an extent. Within the context of Lecce 2019, Ungaro hopes to promote the work of his company. He is looking for opportunities to send the company’s work abroad. Koreja already does quite a bit of touring, mostly with work that is oriented toward children’s theatre. In a one-to-one meeting we discussed several items that he put forward including the possibility of bringing work of a collaborative nature from Vancouver. I suggested a couple of Vancouver projects I thought might be adapted well to issues of concern in Southern Italy. The projects I suggested were also very low budget in terms of material costs (I also suggested these to Berg).
Franco is also very interested in issues around immigration. In the Italian context this has to do with the refugee boats coming from North Africa on a regular basis—a very dangerous crossing in which many people regularly lose their lives. I actually met a refugee from Nigeria who had survived a crossing from Libya to Italy. He has tried to emigrate to Canada, but has twice been refused because he is too poor (way to go Canada).
Franco also wants to get various festivals to write a statement of principle on international performance relations. He sees this as being a cooperative project shared among many festivals, one that will also lead to concrete projects. It’s hard to see how this would work in practice. A statement of principle can certainly be co-written. Beyond that I’m not sure. But as Franco says, we don’t need to think that far ahead yet. Let’s just start dreaming.
For Franco, the interest in having, say, ten international festivals go in on this creates a position of strength for the company vis-a-vis the Lecce 2019 bid.
PuSh and Koreja
Koreja is not a major theatre with a strong reputation in contemporary performance. Having said that, there were some pretty major players from the European scene in attendance. I feel that, together with other similar size theatres and festivals, Koreja may offer emerging Vancouver companies an opportunity to put together a European tour. I’m not sure such a tour will lead to further tours (it might) but there is a value in just getting over here, learning something about the various scenes, and just enjoying the work. It can expand the horizons of emerging artists (it did for me the first time I came over) while also, perhaps, renewing their faith in the Vancouver scene. PuSh’s role may simply be to add moral support or tacit approval to such artists. I’m just speculating here. Norman of course will probably have a much clearer idea of such things.
Ciao for now to Lecce and Koreja. The Koreja people took great care of me, worked extremely hard, are very committed, and love to be in Lecce. I love it too.