Voila! festival directors Sharlit Deyzac and Amy Clare Tasker tell Nick Awde about celebrating ‘Europeanness’ in London, taking inspiration from the fringe and why the UK will continue to attract international artists post-Brexit
With its seventh edition this year, London’s Voila! Europe festival is hitting its stride – and the zeitgeist – with a programme that, it proudly declares, is “keeping the Channel open, promoting cultural exchange, and offering outward-looking Londoners the chance to encounter unusual stories and perspectives from their fellow Europeans”.
Running from November 4 to 17 across the twin hubs of the Cockpit in Marylebone and Rich Mix in Shoreditch, the festival was originally conceived in 2012 at the Cockpit – which continues to produce with director Dave Wybrow – as a French and English bilingual fringe festival. Under the care of artistic director Sharlit Deyzac it grew steadily before converting in 2017 to a Europe-wide remit in response to Brexit.
Last year, Amy Clare Tasker came on as deputy director and the learning curve has continued as Voila!’s calendar expands. “Voila! has become a community especially for artists and audiences for a while now,” she says. “We don’t want it to just be a once-a-year festival for two weeks, but a place – whether it be online or through events or talks and conferences throughout the year – for Europeans and Brits who are for the development and continuation of keeping London a European city with European theatre present on its stages.”
In April, for example, A Piece of the Continent, a three-week celebration of Europe-inspired shows in partnership with the Actors Centre, was held. It’s interesting therefore to see that the programme for this year’s Voila! has been reduced in size.
“We have two venues this year instead of three and we have ‘streamlined’ the shows to 23 to create a more focused programme,” Tasker says.
“We had 36 shows in 2018 and we almost felt like it was too much – sometimes audiences and press don’t really know where to go when there’s too much. This year it feels much more manageable – plus we would have had to get more funding.”
There aren’t many UK platforms that focus on ‘Europeanness’. Foremost is Birmingham’s BE Festival, which at 10 years old is more or less the same age as Voila!.
A few European seasons have appeared here and there, such as the International Theatre Institute’s Brexit? play competition in Morecambe, which toured the winners in 2018. Also this year, the Yard staged the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s Brexit Stage Left – readings of plays from across the EU. But these were one-off reactions to Brexit, rather than celebrations of Europeanness.
“One of the things about [Voila!] is the idea of fringe – a very British concept,” says Deyzac. “The idea was always: ‘How can we help companies in Europe who are working in subsidised theatre and therefore have to take a long time before they can actually put a project on stage? How can we get their most pressing issues as soon as possible on stage the way we do it here on the fringe?’”
Voila! seeks out and nurtures companies that want access to the sort of platform that isn’t always available in their countries. As a result Deyzac and Tasker have expanded their job descriptions by each year offering other companies producing tips, such as how to market themselves, programming shows in double bills so they can work collaboratively to reach new audiences and so on. They offer everything connected to the fringe idea of how to produce yourself.
BE Festival (Birmingham, July, founded 2010)
Shortened from Birmingham European Festival, BE takes place at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Its youth performance programme BE Next also engages and empowers local young artists. befestival.org
Global Voices (London, throughout the year, founded 2018)
A platform for international playwriting, editions include Global Black Voices, Global Queer Voices and Global Latin American Voices (Roundhouse, November 2019).
Casa: London’s Festival of International Arts (London, July, founded 2007)
A showcase for a diverse spectrum of work made by artists based in Latin America, as well as those of Latin American heritage based in the UK. casafestival.org.uk
Inside Out (Dorset, founded 2007)
Organised by Dorchester-based Activate Performing Arts, the mainly free festival brings urban and rural together with outdoor shows across the county including top international companies. insideoutdorset.co.uk
Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts (Great Yarmouth, September, founded 2008)
A free street festival that mixes international acts with community engagement. seachangearts.org.uk
And, of course, there’s the Edinburgh Festival Fringe… Although not indicated in the title, Edinburgh is easily the world’s largest de facto European and indeed international performing arts festival and industry gateway. edfringe.com
Another unique selling point is how Voila! recognises and showcases European practitioners based in London, who represent about 70% of the programme. Sometimes companies are from the same country but many are multinational European.
“They all have concerns that there is no place for them on stages here,” says Deyzac, “that it’s hard as individuals for them to be cast because of things like having an accent. As collectives they encounter the same barriers, which is strange for such an international city as London – particularly with its large audiences who come from across the world.”
Barriers like these are also thrown in front of theatre in the UK’s own indigenous languages. It’s somewhat shocking to see that it takes a European festival to bring a work like Mags by Cwmni Pluen Company, created in Wales, to the London stage. It’s a piece about one woman’s search for ‘home’ inspired by stories from communities across Wales – performed in Welsh and English.
More community tales surface via the trilingual Forbidden Stories – in English, Turkish and Greek. It is a multimedia show from Cyprus’ Ludens Ensemble that reveals the positive reality of the communities split by the political history of this divided island.
Pushing a wider EU agenda is European Freaks by Hungary’s Stereo Akt, an interactive show where dysfunctional humanoid robots get the audience to help them create ‘EU 2.0’, provoking questions of how we can resuscitate Europe and what it means to be a responsible citizen.
A more personal look at Europe is Nuna Livhaber’s I Will Tell You in a Minute, a UK-Portuguese production that takes an Afrofuturist look at the 21st century. A black writer, who lives in a future world where racism has ceased to exist, travels back in time to meet her younger self.
Thoughtful approaches to climate change also figure, such as Lighthouse by Hazel Lam, from Belgium and Hong Kong, who combines acrobatics with plastic tubes to examine our relationship to plastic. In contrast, The Medea Hypothesis, devised by the Washing Machine Collective – which hails from Greece, Italy, Japan and UK – mixes myth with science to explore the idea that Mother Earth might not be an all-nurturing mother figure but a parent who is prepared to kill her children.
“A lot of the time artists are tuned into what is going on in society and address what we need to talk about next,” says Tasker. “Fringe theatre particularly: if you see something today at the fringe you’ll often see a derivative of it at a subsidised theatre a couple of years later.”
The Voila! team sees audiences as being additional collaborators, in particular with shows that are in development. The double and even triple bills make for unexpected connections, while tickets at £10 per show or £8 in advance for works in progress help encourage participation.
Given the ubiquity of English, language is less of a barrier than many might think. As Tasker says: “We want people to use multiple languages but most of the shows will use mainly English with other languages sprinkled in a way that’s accessible to English speakers.”
Fringe of course involves hand-to-mouth financing, and Voila! is not swimming in European funding. Deyzac says she is regularly asked the question: why not? “Our reply is because that’s not how Creative Europe works. You need to have three different countries involved and we do this in London with people from all over the world – but that’s not a country.
“Still, we went to the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts this year in Hull and it was really interesting because though there was a lot said about Europe, like: ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’, what we found out is that of all the Creative Europe bids, the UK is the joint most-partnered country [alongside Germany]. There is something about the way that theatre is made in this country and that’s why people want to make work here.”
Artistic directors: Sharlit Deyzac and Amy Clare Tasker
Producers: Dave Wybrow, the Cockpit
Dates: November 4-17, 2019
Employees: full-time 0, seasonal 2, volunteers 6
Spaces/venues: three – the main auditorium at the Cockpit Theatre, and the Studio and the Mix at Rich Mix
Participating companies: 23
Countries represented: 26
Languages: 14 (plus five shows with no words)
Audience figures (2018): 3,000
Funders/sponsors: Supported by United Colleges Group, the Cockpit, the Hungarian Cultural Centre London, French Institute UK, Français à Londres, ICI Londres, Wallonie-Bruxelles International. Voila! Europe is part of the European Festivals Association label.
Key contact: Sharlit Deyzac, festival director