Lyn Gardner speaks to Kate Craddock, the founder and director of Gateshead International Festival of Theatre, about how moving the festival online has opened up opportunities and given her ideas for its future
When Kate Craddock was planning this year’s Gateshead International Festival of Theatre, top of her concerns was Brexit and how the UK’s departure from the European Union might affect travel, borders and the ability of European artists to take part.
Little did the festival’s founder and director know that she would be facing a far trickier landscape where theatres were closed and gatherings impossible because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But even as major festivals such as Edinburgh, Norfolk and Norwich and the London International Festival of Theatre have been forced to cancel their 2020 plans, in one of theatres’ few good news stories, the 10th anniversary edition of GIFT is still taking place between May 1 and 3. A digital version of it at least.
It still feels as if people are making the decision to come to GIFT and spend the week with us’
Craddock is keen to point out this isn’t just about taking a stash of pre-recorded work and sticking it online. Rather it’s a ticketed and carefully curated festival that aims to connect audiences and artists from across the globe in real-time theatrical encounters, one-on-one experiences, workshops and panel discussions.
There’s even a virtual cocktail lounge for small talk and martinis where you are likely to bump into theatremakers Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas.
“I am well aware of the saturation of online offerings,” says Craddock. “As a festival we are always interested in presenting the work of artists who are trying to push the boundaries of their practice and going digital is another way to experiment. Uppermost in my mind was how the festival could still be a genuinely shared experience.”
To that end, Icelandic artist Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir will be broadcasting Elision live from her living room with every member of the audience watching from their own homes with a melting ice cube in their hands.
Live artist Tania El Khoury and musician and street artist Basel Zaraa have reinvented their moving piece about a refugee in detention, As Far as Isolation Goes, for one online audience member at a time with detailed email instructions sent in advance.
Jonathan Burrows and Wendy Houston’s Music for Lectures/Get Lost, which has been made in collaboration with Francesca and Matteo Fargion, is designed to be experienced while out on daily exercise.
One silver lining is that not only will the artists be international, but at this year’s GIFT, many of the audience members will be too. Tickets have already been sold as far afield as Australia and the US.
“GIFT,” says Craddock, “has always celebrated bringing people together who might not otherwise have met and the digital version of the festival is doing just that but in another way. It still feels as if people are making the decision to come to GIFT and spend the week with us.”
Making most events ticketed and time limited keeps the buzz of a real-time festival and also helps protect the artists’ work so that they will be able to tour it and present live versions in the future.
’We are always interested in presenting the work of artists who are trying to push the boundaries’
Craddock may not have set out to make a digital festival, but long before the arrival of the coronavirus and social distancing she was a pioneer in using everyday technologies to create and present theatre. While doing a Master’s degree in performance at Goldsmiths she met and collaborated with an international group of artists who were committed to working together, but who – when visas ran out – found themselves scattered across Europe and Asia.
“We started using the internet and Skype to make work together long before many people had even heard of Skype,” says Craddock. The company, Mouth to Mouth, performed as a virtual band at the Dublin fringe and London’s Whitechapel Gallery and made one of the secret embedded shows in Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death during its Battersea Arts Centre run.
Craddock became so intrigued by the digital possibilities of making theatre, that she wrote a PhD about challenging proximity and how to use domestic technologies to enable international theatre collaboration.
After finishing her doctorate, Craddock set up GIFT in 2011. She had become increasingly aware that while, as an artist resident in the North East, she had opportunities to scratch her theatre shows at local venues such as Northern Stage or Live Theatre, if she wanted to present it she had to travel to venues such as Battersea Arts Centre in London or to international festivals.
GIFT was established at a time when Gateshead was going through significant cultural regeneration with the opening of the Baltic art gallery and Sage music venue, but Craddock says that “behind those shiny façades on the quayside there was another story unfolding on the high street, which had boarded-up shops and lots of poverty in the community. One of the things I wanted to do with GIFT was to connect with those new cultural buildings, but also with the community.” GIFT’s office is still in the local library.
But most of all what GIFT has done over the last 10 years is bring international artists together with local artists so that all can benefit, and those working in the North East have an opportunity to see where their work might be situated beyond the region. GIFT has made local artists ambitious and widened their horizons, while it has also made Gateshead a name to conjure on the international festival circuit. This year’s festival includes work from Greg Wohead, Action Hero, Sophie Woolley and Oliver Zahn.
’The festival has always been a catalyst for change’
Craddock admits that a digital festival presents many challenges and that everything might not go to plan, but she already has experience in presenting the festival online. Back in 2015, when GIFT failed to secure Arts Council England project funding, that year’s festival took place in an open access iteration on Facebook and Twitter. “Now I look back and think of that as a pilot and I’m drawing on what we learned,” says Craddock.
But the director also believes this digital version of GIFT may offer artists, and the festival sector, food for thought at a time when it is not just Covid-19, but the climate emergency that is changing attitudes to international touring. Theatre can no longer bury its head in the sand about the environmental impact of making and touring and the sustainability of projects and festivals that welcome work from across the globe and the many air miles that involves.
“Internationalism has always been the driver of GIFT and it will continue to be so, but just as this year’s festival has encouraged artists to reimagine and reconceive projects for digital, so maybe the digital version will make us think about how international festivals might operate during a time of climate crisis,” Craddock says. “The festival has always been a catalyst for change and maybe this digital version will bring transformations we never imagined.”
GIFT takes place May 1-3. For more information go to: giftfestival.co.uk