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Casa Festival: Latin America sets up home on London’s stages

Thebes Land is returning to London's Arcola Theatre for Casa Festival 2017. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Despite reduced funding, the capital’s festival showcasing work from Latin America is flourishing and attracting an ever-wider audience. Its artistic director tells Nick Awde how increased collaboration with artists and venues has been the key to Casa’s renewed vigour

After a year off for a rethink, Casa Latin American Theatre Festival is back bigger and better than ever for its 10th-anniversary edition, edging closer to establishing the London-based event as a major player on the world circuit. Having grown from a 10-day programme to eight weeks in two years, it is worth noting that Casa’s expansion has been inspired by depleted funding, creating a flexible model for building an international festival from the bottom up.

“We’re still a small festival – we’re not London International Festival of Theatre and we don’t have an enormous budget,” says artistic director Daniel Goldman. “All the companies have come over to the UK because they believe in this project – it’s not about the money. It’s helped by the fact that everyone wants to be in London as a global capital of theatre. But it’s also because we have a very collaborative approach to the companies.”

Less funding has meant that Casa has become more ambitious, says Goldman. “We’ve changed the way we think, trusting that by putting on a bigger festival we will reach more people and be able to do more. It’s been inspiring to start from the point of view that we can do anything as we’re not bound by funding. We can ask, ‘Where can we push it? What can we do?’ It’s now changing our model pretty much every year.”

The festival wasn’t idle in its year off but joined forces with the Arcola to create Thebes Land in 2016 – a play performed in a giant steel cage that is now returning for the 2017 festival. Directed and adapted by Goldman from a Spanish-language work by Franco-Uruguayan writer Sergio Blanco, Thebes Land opened up “a whole new perspective for Casa with a whole new branch of work”.

As a result, Goldman is keen to focus on getting UK programmers to see the shows this year, with the hope that they can come back and tour the rest of the country. “Look at this year’s Edinburgh with the Canada Hub, Taiwan season, Korea, South Africa, Finland – there’s an understanding that this is a way forward, that international seasons are an important thing to do. Although Casa is not a mini-Edinburgh, it is a fantastic opportunity to build that sort of dialogue.”

Casa 2017 shows

Otelo, a Chilean version of Othello. Photo: Viajeinmovil
  • Thebes Land – Casa, Arcola Theatre (UK)
  • Otelo – ViajeInmovil (Chile), pictured above
  • Osmo – Movicena (Brazil)
  • Efemera – Gael le Cornec, Casa; in association with QMUL, KCL and People’s Palace Project (UK/Brazil)
  • Where to Belong – Victor Esses (UK/Brazil)
  • The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs Is a Great Play and the Desire to Succeed – Vaca35 Teatro en Grupo (Mexico)
  • Mendoza – Los Colochos (Mexico)
  • Here We Cook With Love – Martin Morales, Ceviche (UK/Peru)

UK Week

  • Autoreverse – Florencia Cordeu
  • Stardust – Miguel Hernando Torres Umba, Blackboard Theatre
  • I Occur Here – Mariana Aristizabal, Male Arcucci

Bringing international work to the UK, especially from Latin America, is always going to be a costly proposition. Casa responds with strategies such as having visiting companies stay in people’s homes rather than hotels – “we eat together, we drink together”. It’s an area that Goldman is obviously looking to improve, particularly addressing the challenges of applying for visas, something that creating links with venues and other festivals across the UK will help to support.

This year, Casa is especially proud of its close relationship with Southwark Playhouse. “Even though we’re hiring the venue, it’s much more of a co-production then we’ve ever done before, just as the Arcola collaboration proved to be so inspiring with Thebes Land.”

Running through all the Casa shows are often left-field – from a UK viewpoint – sociopolitical themes. From Chile, there’s Otelo, a version of Othello by Viajeinmovil, one of the leading puppet companies in Latin America, last seen by UK audiences with Chef at Casa 2011. It’s a 70-minute production that strangely starts at Act IV, where the actors who play Iago and Emilia manipulate life-size puppets of Othello and Desdemona.

“What they’re actually talking about is femicide in places like Ciudad Juarez in Mexico,” adds Goldman. “Women are regularly targeted and killed all over Latin America. This show is going, ‘Okay, what’s a strong femicide story? It’s Othello.’ ”

Osmo is based on a short story by Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst. Photo: Keiny Andrade

From Brazil comes Osmo, a one-hander based on a short story by Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst about a serial killer getting ready to go out and kill someone that night. It’s delivered as a stand-up show with the difference that actor Donozeti Mazonas performs it naked in an aquarium. Producers MoviCena Producoes Artisticas and Nucleo Entretanto describe it as “dance-theatre-anti-stand-up” while there is political resonance in the recent arrest in Brazil of a performer for male nudity on stage. Because of budget restrictions, we won’t get the chance to see the play as a double bill with Flor de Dama by Silvero Pereira, which addresses what it’s like to be trans in Brazil.

Mexico’s Vaca35 brings over The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs Is a Great Play and the Desire to Succeed, which has its own take on body issues. Inspired by Genet’s The Maids, the play juxtaposes female bodies of very different sizes in a production that explores the line between humility and vanity. For the London run at Southwark Playhouse, this already intimate show becomes even more intimate by reducing capacity to 60, creating a smaller theatre space within the existing one.

“We’re scared of putting bodies like that in the public domain and this play is about bodies and humiliation – but it’s also about the cycle of poverty. We don’t have a culture of domestic servants in the UK except for the aristocracy, whereas in Latin America if you’re middle class, you have domestic servants. Even here on a floor in our building in London there’s a union that represents Latin American cleaners.”

Mendoza by Mexican company Los Colochos. Photo: Alma Curiel

Shakespeare emerges again on the bill with Mendoza, from Mexico’s Los Colochos, which re-imagines Macbeth during the Mexican Revolution. “It’s a big ensemble piece, earthy and again political. What it’s talking about is the tens of thousands of Mexicans that have disappeared in the last 12 years. It’s talking about the Iguala mass kidnapping of 43 students, the horror that everywhere that is excavated in Mexico, they’re finding bodies.”

But the play is also fun: it is an accessible, fast-paced take on Shakespeare, complete with a chicken trained by one of the actresses. Mendoza provides an interesting comparison with Much Ado About Nothing, Matthew Dunster’s exuberant adaptation currently playing at Shakespeare’s Globe, which is also set during the Mexican Revolution.

5 things you need to know about Casa

Casa is throwing two parties as part of this year’s festival. Photo: Alex Brenner

1. This year marks Casa’s 10th anniversary. ‘Casa’ means ‘home’ in Spanish and Portuguese – the festival is a home for Latin American theatre and culture in the UK. Its main base for 2017 is Southwark Playhouse, in the heart of London’s biggest Latin American community.

2. UK Week is an integral part of Casa’s programme, supporting Latin American artists in the UK with workshops and performances. The week begins with a repertory season of new full-length works and concludes with an all-day event with new performances by Casa associate artists such as Victor Esses’ Where to Belong.

3. A partnership with Out of the Wings, the Play Reading Festival involves readings of eight English translations of plays from Latin America. These are all free and culminate with Here We Cook With Love by Peruvian chef Martin Morales.

4. In keeping with the Latin American spirit, Casa 2017 is throwing two parties as part of added audience participating in the programme. Its 10th anniversary launch is Happy Cumple Casa (September 3), an all-day and night event for all ages at Lost Rivers Elephant, celebrating the UK’s Latin American connections. The Arcola Casa party (September 30) marks the middle of the festival at the Arcola Theatre with a late-night, mid-festival party.

5. Two productions made by artists based in the UK have been very successful in Latin America after appearing at Casa and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Juana in a Million, by Vicky Araico Casas and Nir Paldi, won a Fringe First in 2012, and Manuelita, by Tamsin Clarke, won a Three Weeks Editors’ Award. Juana in a Million did 100 shows in Latin America. Manuelita is touring there now.

While the festival’s text-based productions are surtitled in Spanish or Portuguese, many in the audience will not need it. In fact, Goldman says the festival’s audience has been consistently 45% Latin and 55% non-Latin. He adds that although London, with its large Latin American community, will always be a base, Casa’s expansion plans in the UK include finding a home for a Colombian theatre festival, somewhere like Brighton or Edinburgh (he notes the unrelated Argentine season at Edinburgh 2017), and developing year-round activities.

“People are waking up to the fact that there is a continent’s worth of theatre culture there,” Goldman says. “Just as people woke up to Latin American literature, I think the door is going to open to its theatre.”

This needs to be a two-way process, particularly as the UK has fallen behind other countries in sending work there. At any of the growing number of arts festivals in Latin America, there is a strong presence from the French, Belgians and Germans. If you’re lucky, there might be a single British show, usually from strongly internationally minded companies such as Gecko.

That’s the spirit driving Casa. As Goldman says: “This should be a dialogue, because we don’t want it to be a monologue.”

Casa Festival runs from September 3 to October 29

Casa Profile

Artistic director: Daniel Goldman
Location: London
Founded: 2007
Venues: Arcola Theatre, Southwark Playhouse, Lost Rivers Elephant
Companies: Four international; seven UK
Staff: Four part-time, plus interns, associate artists and volunteers
Audience numbers: 3,500 (2015); 7,500 (2017, projected)

  • £87,000 (2015): £13,000 box office, £12,000 Anglo-Mexican Foundation, £45,000 Arts Council England, £2,000 Nabas Legal, £12,500 crowdfunding, £4,000 events, advertising and merchandise, £50,000 in-kind support
  • £190,000 (2017, projected): £80,000 box office, £8,000 Arcola co-production support, £20,360 Arts and Humanities Research Council, £34,000 ACE, £15,000 ACE Catalyst Evolve, £18,500 philanthropic giving, £10,000 crowdfunding, £4,500 events, advertising and merchandise, £40,000 in-kind support

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