Features Published 7 October 2014

Food for Thought

BE Festival co-director Miguel Oyarzun and theatre-maker Mokhallad Rasem on touring Birmingham's festival of European theatre and the need to feed your audience.
Natasha Tripney

Waiting by Mokhallad Rasem. Photo: Alex Brenner

The sharing of food is central to the BE festival. The act of sitting around a table, artists and audience eating and drinking together, talking together, breaking bread and clinking glasses, is a key part of the festival’s identity

Founded in 2009, Birmingham’s annual festival of European theatre began life in the city’s AE Harris building, an industrial space in the city’s Jewellery Quarter. But this year’s festival saw them relocate to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It was important to the festival’s directors, Miguel Oyarzun, Mike Tweddle and Isla Aguilar, to maintain the atmosphere of their original home while exploring the potential of a more central and prominent location. To this end they hit upon the idea of turning the Rep “inside out”, staging work in the studio and the backstage areas while inviting the audience onto the main stage to share the meal that forms the heart of each evening’s programming.

It’s this same sense of sharing they hope to continue as they take the Best of BE on tour this autumn.  This will be the fourth year running they’ll be touring the highlights of the festival and they’ll be staging work at London’s Barbican Centre ahead of a series of dates at venues around the UK and in Madrid.  The three pieces that make up the touring programme have been selected to give audiences a taste of the Festival. Hungary Radioballet presents From the Waltz to the Mambo, a piece inspired by a 1960’s Hungarian ballroom dance manual. Julia Schwarzbach’s Loops and Breaks is, says Oyarzun, a piece with “more scope for interaction with the audience,” while the evening concludes – following a break for dinner – with Waiting by Mokhallad Rasem, an Iraqi theatre maker now based in Belgium.  This last piece is “a little more profound, talking about what we wait for and what we long for. It mixes video and dance and documents of people’s lives – it’s a beautiful show to finish on and to leave the audience hopefully moved by the whole evening.”

The programme has been put together in a way that Oyarzun hopes will take the audience on a journey. Each piece is very different, both in tone and approach, and he hopes that together they provide a strong showcase for the festival as a whole.

The meeting of audience and artists over food, the blurring of the lines between performer and non-performer, will be continued throughout the tour, though what they are able to offer will vary from venue to venue. At the Barbican and at Manchester’s HOME they’ll be able to offer a full meal but even when this isn’t possible, there will still be drinks and “sometimes a little tapas” and the artists will still go out and mingle.

Audience feedback is another important element of the BE Festival model – in Birmingham they always host a regular Feedback Café and on tour there will be Q&A sessions to continue the conversation between artists and the audience. “We really encourage people to give their thoughts and to be very open. It’s a much more informal style of Q&A than you’ll be used to.”

Relocating the festival from the AE Harris space to the Rep posed a number of challenges. The backstage of the Rep, says Oyarzun, is “a factory. It’s this theatre factory, where they build things and paint things; it has a factory feel so we tried to decorate it in a familiar way, to recreate the same décor we had at the AE Harris building with help from our visual artist. It was a big enterprise to take over the building, but thanks to their support we were able to do so and it’s been such a success we’ve decided to do it again next year.”

The continued success of the festival has been instrumental in “connecting foreign companies and British companies,” says Oyarzun. “here are more European companies coming to Birmingham outside of the Festival. It’s opened some doors for them.” “I definitely feel this is a valuable platform,” echoes Mokhallad Rasem, “and because of this tour we get to reach an audience we would otherwise never be able to reach. We get to have a valuable exchange with this audience which is a true gift.”

Rasem previously worked at the National Theatre of Iraq and after being granted asylum in Belgium after the war, he is now a resident director at Toneelhuis in Antwerp.  His piece, Waiting, which concludes the triple bill, is an exploration of what it is to wait. “When I was a student in Iraq, I read Waiting for Godot,” he explains. After arriving in Belgium, it took four years for him to receive his papers. “During this period, I truly experienced what waiting means. Three years after finally getting my papers, the idea rose to make a performance based on my own experience of waiting, also inspired by Beckett.”

During the rehearsal period he took his three actors out onto the streets with a camera and got them to ask people what waiting meant to them. They also visited organisations which work with refugees, to interview them about their experience of waiting, to be documented, to be recognised. Rasem wanted to “give a face to the emotional experience of waiting. For me this is also a reference to a passport or identity card: you need to have a picture to prove your identity, which is also an important factor when you are waiting for papers.” These images are combined with voices.  He wanted the audience to “hear all these different sounding voices, because for me it is the sounds of all different expectations around the world.”

He believes Waiting is a perfect fit with BE because “I feel that our performance really embodies their philosophy: it shows the diversity of Europe, and crosses linguistic, cultural and artistic borders.”

The act of eating together he finds particular resonant and important. During these meals he felt “that the audience was becoming part of the performance. For example I remember talking to someone who saw our performance about how it made her think about what waiting means to her,” this while they were both waiting for their food to arrive. Having been in Gloucester recently for Strike a Light, where food was central to the festival in terms of drawing people together and strengthening community ties, the BE model with its emphasis on listening as much as talking, with feeding people – in every sense – feels like an exciting and valuable one.

The Best of BE is at the Barbican London, from 8th – 11th October and touring the UK until 8th November 2014  

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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