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International: Bringing a taste of Mexico to the UK

Border Mass by Gorguz Teatro and Universiteatro. Photo: Angel David Border Mass by Gorguz Teatro and Universiteatro. Photo: Angel David
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casa festival“The joy of programming this festival is that nobody knows anything about Latin American theatre,” says Daniel Goldman, founding artistic director of Casa Latin American Theatre Festival. “We can programme an established company which is massive in Latin America and an emerging company, and the truth is it makes no difference to the audience here.” The result? “Complete freedom to programme whatever we want based on the quality of the work and what stories we want to tell.”

Inspired by the Casas de la Cultura, pop-up arts centres in actual Buenos Aires homes, the festival was established in 2007 to bring the work of Latin American theatre companies to London. Attracting audiences from within the city’s 100,000-strong Latin American community, as well as British theatre-goers with a taste for the international, it has always featured a mix of emerging and established work.

This year is no different in those terms – companies performing at regular Casa venues Barbican and Rich Mix range from Cafe Cachorro, a young company from Rio de Janeiro doing a madcap piece inspired by the short works of Samuel Beckett, to Los Guggenheim, an established Mexican group presenting a new work from Alejandro Ricano, one of the country’s leading playwrights – but the geographical focus is narrower than usual. For the first time, Casa is focusing its programming on one country, Mexico, taking advantage of UK-Mexico 2015, a year of events promoting understanding between the two countries.

Working in this new way has its positives and negatives, says Goldman. “When we present six shows from six different countries you’re presenting a picture of what’s going on in Latin America, but really what you’re doing is just scratching at the surface. And the big pro of having five shows from all over Mexico is that it’s a richer and more profound look at what’s going on.”

The inevitable downside, he says, is a slight feeling of imbalance, compounded by the fact that one of the two non- Mexican shows programmed for this year’s festival has had to be cancelled at the last minute due to personal issues. It’s also likely to be harder to attract the wide range of audiences that have attended previous festivals.

“There’s a lot of pride from the Latin American community about ‘this is mine, this is me, this is my story’,” says Goldman. “But to get people in, we’ve found that they will come and see work from their own country, first and foremost.” This year, therefore, “there is work to do” when it comes to persuading people that Casa is for them.

Apart by Colectivo Alebrije. Photo: Collectivo Alebrije
Apart by Colectivo Alebrije. Photo: Collectivo Alebrije

Goldman is keen to continue the country focus but will do things slightly differently than he has this year, he says, aiming in future to build a stronger programme of work from other countries alongside the in-depth look at one nation’s theatre. The festival has presented work from 18 countries so far, but there are plenty of places as yet unrepresented.

casa festival 5 thingsAttendance, of course, is crucial for its own sake but ticket sales are actually only a small slice of the pie as far as income is concerned. Historically, Arts Council England funding has played a major role, but this year Goldman has had to look elsewhere for support, having sustained a 55% cut to the festival’s ACE grant.

Fortunately, flights from Air Europa and the Mexican government, a crowdfunding campaign, support from private Brazilian companies and the Anglo Mexican Foundation, a Mexico City-based organisation supporting cultural exchange, have all been forthcoming. The Mexico focus has been helpful, says Goldman. “Funding-wise, it’s a clear message: ‘We’re going to feature your country, come on embassy, help us out, this is your year’.”

These new revenue streams notwithstanding, Casa has had no choice but to become leaner as an organisation, cutting staff from five to two and a half. In previous years, they’ve been able to provide development bursaries towards work scratched at the festival (When They Disappear, the debut show from UK-based Las Nanas de La Cebolla, began life at the Nuestra CASA Scratch Night 2014). A bursary is out of the question for 2015, but Goldman is hoping to be able to raise some money to support the most promising project from this year’s scratch night.

Money isn’t the only challenge. “It is really difficult to bring artists here. We’ve always managed to make it happen, but it is hard, and it feels like it’s going to get harder,” says Goldman.

Visa requirements vary from country to country within Latin America, with some nationals able to apply for entry permits before they travel, and some having to get on a plane and hope for the best.

“Every artist that’s ever performed at Casa has done it legally,” the director explains. “We give the artist all the correct documentation, and it’s all done properly, but any border official can still say ‘no’. We have a little party every time they come through. And so far – and I’m touching wood – everybody has got through. We’ve never had a company that’s needed to turn back and we’re around 40 companies in. We create that 5cm stack of paper with every single contingency covered.”

UK-Mexico 2015 is about UK culture in Mexico just as much as it is about Mexican culture in the UK, but this isn’t an area that Goldman will be tackling any time soon. Casa’s focus remains resolutely import-only, though the festival works year-round with UK-based Latin American artists through its community theatre group, Open CASA.

The Love of the Fireflies by Los Guggenheim. Photo: Jos Jorge Carre
The Love of the Fireflies by Los Guggenheim. Photo: Jos Jorge Carre

That’s not to say that this territory isn’t ripe for exploration. “Most of the big Latin American theatre festivals tend to concentrate on Spanish and Portuguese-speaking work, and then there’s the occasional show from Germany or France. I’ve seen 10 years of international festivals in Latin America and I’ve never seen an English show at any of them, ever,” the director explains.

British plays in translation are popular – a Spanish language production of Nick Payne’s Constellations is currently running in Mexico City – so it’s not like there’s no interest in theatre from this part of the world. Connecting the dots to create the right landscape for visiting British companies, however, would require not only language skills and a lot of energy, but also a presence on the ground there, says Goldman. “Maybe someone needs to start a festival in Buenos Aires called House Theatre Festival,” he suggests.

Casa was hard work before the recent arts council cut and it is even harder work now, says Goldman. Partly in response to the extra pressure of having to find additional funding, and partly because Goldman wants to “come back with a bigger bang” to mark Casa’s 10th anniversary in 2017, there will be no festival next year.

It’s not like they’ll be idle in the meantime though: the work with UK-based Latin American artists will continue and Goldman is in talks with various companies already touring in Europe about popping over to London. “We’re not very good at not doing much,” he says.

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