Q&A with BE FESTIVAL directors, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun
What’s the process of selecting shows for Best of BE, what do you look for?
BEST of BE features three different companies from three different countries which perfectly embodies the spirit of the festival from the previous year. Often they are the shows that win awards at the festival such as the Jury Award or the Audience Award.
We try to programme in a way that will be accessible to all sorts of audiences whilst not losing an edginess of which the festival and the shows we showcase are renowned for.
What’s your favourite part of this process?
Programming is an exciting process as there are so many combinations of shows that ‘could’ work but eventually we have to choose three that we think fit together perfectly.
BEST OF BE gives us the opportunity to really get to know the artists as we are with them for a month, eating and laughing together.
What’s particularly special about these three shows, what makes them the ‘Best of BE’?
All three shows create a specific relationship with the audience yet it is the spectator who ultimately chooses how the show will turn out. Grumelot charms the audience in the sense of a lover trying to charm a potential suitor and TiDA’s performance is totally reliant on the audience – the outcome depends on audience decisions while the Whistle, by Squarehead Productions, involves the audience opening and shutting their eyes. And so each show crosses borders between artist and audience and also in performance discipline – theatre, dance and circus.
Why are they good for small to medium sized venues?
The tour takes place in small and intimate venues which is an essential element of the BE experience. Because of the size of the venue the artists can build an intimate relationship with the audience members. Also after every performance there is a Q & A with the artists, which in the smaller confines enables an open and honest dialogue with everyone involved.
What is BE FESTIVAL and how did it come about?
BE FESTIVAL was conceived by Isla Aguilar, Miguel Oyarzun and Mike Tweddle. Our ethos of crossing borders isn’t just a reference to the countries that our artists come from it extends to breaking down the traditional boundaries across artistic disciplines and between artist and audience.
The festival started in 2010 in an old metal pressings factory, AE Harris. In 2014, the factory was no longer available and so Birmingham Repertory Theatre offered us a new home. At The REP we try to replicate the industrial, communal and intimate atmosphere we achieved at the factory and that embodies, in our opinion, the spirit of the city’s arts community. So for the festival, we turn The REP back-to-front, transforming the set construction workshops, scenic paint shop and other backstage spaces into our festival hub inviting audiences to see parts of the theatre that they wouldn’t ordinarily experience – the places where theatre is actually made. Every night we invite four companies to perform, two each side of the interval. An important and convivial element of the festival’s evening programme is the interval dinner, one of the festival’s many quirks, when the main stage makes way for a pop up restaurant and we invite audience members, actors and festival staff to enjoy a meal together under the spotlights.
Since the very beginning we wanted the idea of exchange to be at the heart of the festival. We wanted the festival to feel like a transitory community where people could connect with new cultures, with shows to inspire speakers of all languages. During the first edition of BE FESTIVAL audiences were invited to enjoy fifteen unique performances by companies from across Europe over four days. That year we developed our ethos and installed various expressions of our personality that have helped us to stay true to our aims, and which continue to shape BE into a unique festival experience.
How long has the festival been running? Why the BEST OF BE FESTIVAL tour?
The festival has been running since 2010 and has grown year on year. When we made our first call out to companies across Europe we received 64 applications. In 2016 we received 660 applications but we still programmed a small amount of shows. This year 24 companies will be visiting Birmingham.
The tour began in 2011, our second year, based on a unique premise to showcase emerging European talent to audiences around the UK. In 2011 there were 4 venues in the tour and that has now risen to 15 venues including the Barbican in London.
How does BE FESTIVAL help emerging artists?
BE FESTIVAL is often the first step into the UK for many companies. We do champion emerging artists but often companies taking part in BE will already have a strong reputation in their own country. So that idea they are ’emerging’ rings true in the UK but not necessarily everywhere else in Europe or further afield.
BE FESTIVAL attracts audiences that are not so typical for emerging theatre. Audiences that attend the festival come from all sorts of backgrounds and demographics. This offers a great opportunity for companies to test their work with audiences they might not usually perform in front of.
Artists also benefit from the high amount of programmers and arts industry professionals at the tour dates and the festival.
What next for BE FESTIVAL?
We would love to expand the tour internationally. We already have touring bases in Spain and UK. We’d love to take the format further afield to the likes of Asia and South America.
And the EU referendum falls right in the middle of this year’s festival. Will you be embracing / responding to it in any way?
Yes, absolutely. Europe and the idea of inter-country cohesion are really important to us, so we have organised a series of talks and discussions, which is a nice continuum from our festival theme of democracy. There’s a special referendum party on the day of the referendum called ‘Count me IN’ with local Latin music act Manos P’Arriba performing which should give everyone some much needed respite after referendum overload. There will be some other fun bits and pieces too.
What is the most challenging thing for BE?
Between the programming team we have huge amounts of creative energy – all of us are artists in one way or another. However we sometimes have to face the reality that not everything is possible. Finding the balance between creativity and logistics is an ongoing challenge.
What has been the standout moment in the life of BE FESTIVAL to date?
ISLA: The opening of the very first festival in 2010 was a nerve-wracking moment and our knees were shaking. We had no idea whether anybody would turn up! They did of course.
MIGUEL: To be able to succeed in a life and career project with Isla (my partner).
What’s the biggest challenge for artists today?
Funding, without a doubt – it’s all about having enough money to create and survive.
What five words would you use to describe BE?
Exchange, Community, Europe, Crossing borders
One of the hardest things in this job is….
Saying ‘no’ to some companies, especially when their work is brilliant.
The thing I love most about theatre is…
Its ability to mobilise people. Theatre touches emotions in so many ways. Not only does it stimulate intellectually, it can be a catalyst for change.