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10 years of BE: the Birmingham festival of European theatre where dinner is political

Artists and audiences eat together at BE Festival. Photo: Alex Brenner
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The act of artists eating with audiences has been at the heart of the BE Festival, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Natasha Tripney explores the event that showcases European work and finds out how sometimes dinner is more than just dinner

For five nights last week dinner was served on stage at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Artists and audience members sat down together around communal tables. Bread was broken. Wine was drunk. 

The act of eating together has always been at the heart of the BE festival, Birmingham’s festival of European work, now in its 10th year. In 2009, Isla Aguilar, Miguel Oyarzun and Mike Tweddle set up the festival to address the lack of a platform for international work in the Midlands – and the lack of any theatre festival in the city. From the beginning the intention was to break down geographic and cultural borders, as well as the barrier between maker and spectator.

Initially, the festival took place in the AE Harris building in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, home to Stan’s Cafe. Each night, in between performances, people were invited to sit down and have dinner together.

In 2014, the festival relocated to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. In an effort to replicate the spirit of the festival in these more formal surroundings, they adopted an upside down approach. Work was staged in the two studios while the festival spread into the theatre’s backstage spaces.

Participants in the BE Festival. PhotoAlex Brenner
Participants in the BE Festival. PhotoAlex Brenner

Dinner remained a central part of the format, though now people take their meals on the Rep’s main stage against a backdrop of empty seats. “We tried to do something professional in an unprofessional space and something more unprofessional in a professional space,” Oyarzun says. 

Tweddle left to take over as artistic director of Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre, but Aguilar and Oyarzun have continued to grow the festival. Everyone who works for them is now paid.

The BE Next programme supports local young people. Aguilar describes it as a “beautiful laboratory for young makers”.  Over the years it’s played host to 800 artists from 28 countries around the world, not just Europe, reaching around 25,000 audience members in total. That’s a lot of dinners.

What struck me repeatedly during my week on the jury panel at this year’s festival was the number of volunteers I spoke to who were returning and the young producers who’ve been with the festival for years. The festival feels a bit like a family in this respect and the act of eating together surely plays a big part in this.

I was reminded of the way the US company Nature Theatre of Oklahoma served its audience barbecue and brownies during the all-day marathon of its ambitious Life and Times project at Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 2013.

I was thinking about the vodka and borsch ladled out to audience members at the start of Counting Sheep, a powerful immersive piece about the protests in Ukraine. Or the way the Strike a Light festival in Gloucester includes a meal with the ticket price at its launch event.

BE Festival 2018 review – ‘risk-taking, multi-disciplinary European theatre’

While the food can be a useful tool when it comes to audience development, the thing that connects all these examples is the way they reinforce a sense of community, both in a micro and macro sense. 

This is, in many ways, the antithesis of the immersive dining experiences, the increasingly popular pairing of multi-course meals with a side of performance. These can be inventive and exciting, they can be fun, but fundamentally they’re more about consumption than sustenance.

Sometimes dinner is more than just dinner. It’s a gesture and a statement. It’s an opportunity to talk as well as eat and drink. Sometimes even that isn’t necessary; as someone who’s wary of a communal table, I sometimes enjoyed the opportunity simply to sit and listen to all the languages being spoken around me.

The generous spirit epitomised by BE feels even more important now, at this time of polarisation where so much of our political discourse is about separation and division. A shared meal is the opposite of a hostile environment.

This is something underlined by Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low, who has played host to BE’s touring programme at the Hub in Leeds. “Food makes people feel they are being welcomed. If I set a place for you, it says: ‘There is a place for you.’ It makes you feel part of the story.” In theatre as in life, “feeding people is an act of generosity and an act of politics”.

For more infomation about BE Festival visit befestival.org

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