For more than four decades, the London International Mime Festival has welcomed performers from all over the globe, but this year it is bringing British companies to the fore, as Jo Caird discovers
When Gecko takes to the stage of the Barbican theatre, as part of the London International Mime Festival later this month, it will be the first British company to do so. It’s a similar story just up the road at Sadler’s Wells, which is also hosting a British company – Gandini Juggling – on its main stage for the first time in the 44-year history of the festival.
British work has always been an important part of the mix at LIMF, and British companies have played plenty of prestigious venues in the intervening years, but never before have festival directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig opted to put British companies at the forefront of their programming in this way.
That Gecko is the first British company to play the main house of the Barbican as part of the festival is “something that we’re very proud of”, says Seelig, who founded the event in 1977 at the instigation of mime-clown Nola Rae. The slot is a “great recognition for them”, he says.
What started as a small celebration of mime – in which a handful of acts, all of them British, could be seen at one small theatre in north-west London – has gone on to become the capital’s longest-established season of international theatre. Overseas companies and artists were first programmed in the second year – “A French bloke came to the festival and said: ‘I’ve got all sorts of ideas’,” recalls Seelig, who was joined by Lannaghan in 1986 – and the festival gradually expanded. He estimates that it has played at 80 different spaces over the years.
At the same time, the range of work presented at the festival has diversified, with Seelig using the term “visual theatre” to encompass the broad spectrum of performance on offer. They’ve kept the original name for continuity reasons, but these days the programme includes live art, circus and puppetry, plus movement, physical, object and mask theatre, as well as what most think of as mime. For Seelig, visual theatre is simply a “way of expressing emotions and telling stories that just happens not to involve language”.
The roll call of companies and artists that have taken part over the years reads like a who’s who of contemporary visual theatre – Derevo from Russia, Australian company Circa, France’s Jacques Lecoq, Belgium’s Les Ballets C de la B, the UK’s Complicite – so it’s hardly surprising that being programmed by Seelig and Lannaghan carries real cachet in this world.
But for Amit Lahav, founding artistic director of Gecko, there’s more to it than that. “Seelig and Lannaghan’s place in the story of Gecko is very significant. They have always believed in the work,” he says, reeling off the names of four previous Gecko shows that have appeared as part of LIMF.
“They are very aware and deeply interested in the company’s needs and the company’s journey. That is about a meaningful relationship, proper conversations where they go: ‘Where do you want to go, where do you see yourself, what does the company need and how can we be joined up in that?’ ”
Programming Gecko’s The Wedding in the headline slot at the Barbican Theatre is just the most recent, and illustrious, example, Lahav says, of Seelig and Lannaghan’s commitment to ensuring that “the company is in the best possible venue”. That’s not to downplay his excitement about it, however.
“It’s pretty enormous, actually. My interest has always been in creating a theatre language that is human and doesn’t have any boundaries. The work has always had that potential: to play the main house at the Barbican. It might not have always had that scale.
“I had my battles in terms of making a piece this big. I feel uncompromising in the sense that this is work that needs to be made. It needs to be about the world that’s around us now, it’s about society, it’s about humanity. It can’t be a small show. It needs to reflect that, and the fact that the Barbican have picked up on that and that the mime festival said ‘yes’ to it feels really important.”
Sean Gandini can attest to the positive impact of long-term support from LIMF too. Gandini Juggling has been part of the festival on a number of occasions and regards it as “a bit of a home for the hybrid companies, the sideways-looking people, the people that don’t fit into any other category”. Of Seelig and Lannaghan, Gandini says: “They were wonderfully supportive of us right at the beginning, 20 years ago, when a lot of people were thinking: ‘What on earth are these people doing?’ ”
Taking its 2018 show Spring to the main stage of Sadler’s Wells feels like recognition, says Gandini, partly because his company will finally be playing a UK venue of a scale and calibre to match those it already frequents around the world.
In the close-knit world of international visual theatre, being programmed at the festival is regarded as something of a seal of approval, artists agree. London-based company Theatre Re is returning to the festival this year with the world premiere of Birth, a LIMF co-commission with Shoreditch Town Hall. Being part of the festival, says artistic director Guillaume Pige, “opens the doors for more people to come and see the work further down the line”. He points to the fact that the company’s previous show, The Nature of Forgetting, has toured extensively, both around the UK and internationally, partly thanks to the interest it attracted at the festival in 2017.
It’s also an important platform in itself of course, with both British and international companies able to play to far larger audiences as part of the festival than they would on tour around the UK or at other times of the year in London. This is down to the fact, says Seelig, that the festival has a “core, loyal audience: there are people who’ve been coming literally from the beginning; now their children are coming”.
Loyal audiences are a boon for the companies programmed as part of the festival – “The English arts landscape isn’t at its healthiest at the moment so to have a festival that often guarantees you an audience is quite extraordinary,” says Gandini – but it’s also crucial to the ongoing success of LIMF.
Seelig reports ticket sales of about 90% for the 16 to 20 shows the festival puts on each year, with that cash going directly into paying artists’ fees. The LIMF is an Arts Council national portfolio organisation, receiving an annual grant of just over £200,000, but box office accounts for most of the rest of its £400,000 turnover. “If the public didn’t come in large numbers, we’d be in big trouble,” says Seelig.
Ticket sales may be healthy but there are other challenges that keep Seelig up at night. One of them is the state of sterling.
“If you bring shows from abroad, most people don’t want to be paid in sterling. So we buy currency ahead. We’re not speculators. We sometimes get it wrong, but if you’re able to draw a line under your budget, [that helps],” he explains.
“But you can only do it to the extent that you’ve got available money. A large chunk of our money comes from the box office, which we don’t get until after the event, so we have to be very careful with what we buy so it doesn’t eat into our costs running up to the festival.”
Brexit – its impact on the pound, as well as the fact that customs and visa restrictions may be off-putting to foreign companies – is another concern. “International festivals have a big problem looming,” he says.
But despite all that, Seelig professes himself an optimist. “I don’t think it’s going to be so terrible and we’ll be able to sort all this out, I’m sure we will. No point getting gloomy now.”
Joint artistic directors: Helen Lannaghan, Joseph Seelig
Performances (2019): 68
Audience figures: 20,000
Number of employees: 8, including freelances
Funding: £200,000 in grants; £200,000 in ticket sales