Caro Meets Festivals Interview Theatre Interview

Sharlit Deyzac & Amy Clare Tasker: Voila! Europe

By | Published on Friday 30 October 2020

I feel fairly sure our readers will be familiar with Voila! Europe, the London-based festival of European theatre that’s staged at The Cockpit Theatre, not least because we write about it – one way or another – every year.

This year, as with all festivals and theatrical endeavours, COVID-19 stepped in to make things a little bit interesting. The creative team behind Voila! Europe have risen to the occasion, though. Keen to find out more, I spoke to co-directors Sharlit Deyzac and Amy Clare Tasker.

The original plan was to have socially-distanced events happening at The Cockpit itself, as well as presenting shows online. Since I spoke to Sharlit and Amy, though, the second lockdown has been announced. However, as far as possible, online elements will be going ahead.

CM: We first interviewed you a few years back, when the Voila! programme expanded from its original focus on French theatre to cover all of Europe. How have things developed since then?
ACT: Expanding the festival in 2017 meant that we learned a lot – fast – about other European theatre traditions beyond French-language theatre. What we in the UK call ‘European theatre’ is actually an extremely varied collection of styles and aesthetics.

For instance, German-language theatre has a very different flavour than Italian-language theatre, and of course there are variations within those categories too, just as there are lots of different kinds of ‘British theatre’. Our expansion has connected us with many more artists, ideas and international conversations.

SD: We’ve also made some exciting new partnerships with venues and cultural institutes in London. Alongside presenting the festival at our home, The Cockpit, we’ve also programmed shows at the Etcetera Theatre and Applecart Arts in 2017-2018, and at Rich Mix and the Actors Centre in 2019.

With the support of the Hungarian, Italian, Belgian, French, Austrian and Czech Cultural Centres in London, we’ve been able to bring artists from abroad to perform in the UK, and make trips to the continent to see work in other festivals there.

ACT: A major highlight of the last few years has been developing our residency programme and cultivating long-term relationships with UK-based European artists. First at Applecarts Arts and then at Rich Mix, we’ve supported fifteen brand new shows with residency space and their first performances at Voila.

One of those shows, ‘Diary Of An Expat: Reloaded’ is returning to the festival this year, in a new version re-designed for Zoom. We weren’t able to offer residency space this summer, unfortunately, but we are looking forward to seeing some brand new works in progress at a Voila special edition of ‘Theatre In The Pound’, The Cockpit’s monthly scratch night.

CM: Clearly things will have been different this year because of the pandemic: did it change your approach in programming the event? Did it make it harder to organise the festival?
SD: Well, yes! It’s been a big challenge – but it was also exciting to find the opportunities and discover new ways of doing things. When the pandemic hit the UK in March, we were already receiving applications from artists. We just couldn’t fathom cancelling the festival this year, so we added a question to the application form that said “could your show be done digitally?”, even though we didn’t really know what that would look like.

ACT: Then we had a lot of conversations with Dave Wybrow and The Cockpit about what was possible – and thanks to their support and their resilience, we’ve been able to programme a mix of on-stage and online shows this year. It has taken a lot of extra time and effort to get to this point, and a lot more back-and-forth with the venue and the artists to make sure all the ideas and plans are fully thought-out. We had some really exciting discussions with the companies about what makes a great show online, understanding how they could adapt and how we could best support them.

SD: Once the logistics were sorted, it didn’t change our programming approach too much. We’re used to organising the programme in ‘strands’ according to each venue, deciding which shows would fit better at The Cockpit versus a residency space, for example. So when we started thinking about online broadcasting as a ‘venue’, it all fell into place.

CM: How does that change producing the festival logistically speaking? Are there fewer events than in previous years?
ACT: The Cockpit has created a whole new broadcasting department over the past few months, which means that for Voila, we can film the on-stage shows for online replays, present live shows that have been designed for Zoom, and host watch parties of pre-recorded shows, followed by a live discussion with the artists.

SD: Our core artistic focus hasn’t changed: multilingual, multicultural, multidisciplinary theatre. And we’re working hard to preserve the welcoming festival vibe, whether the audience is joining us in the venue or online. Everything in the festival is ‘live’ in some way, even if it’s not in person, and that liveness is key to creating a sense of community and shared experience.

ACT: Yes, there are fewer events – though still plenty: 20 events over twelve days – and we are working with Europe-based artists differently this year, in that they are not physically coming to the UK, but participating via the internet.

CM: Did you programme this year’s festival with particular themes in mind?
ACT: Actually, we never programme with a theme in mind, but let the artists tell us what is urgent for them. We look for ‘motivated theatre’ – that is, shows that are driven by the personal experiences or passions of the theatre makers. ‘European theatre’ is already niche enough in our UK context, and we prefer to present a mix of shows exploring different ideas.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about some of the companies involved in this year’s line up? What sort of work can we expect in terms of genre and style?
SD: Voila is always a multidisciplinary festival, so you can expect to be surprised! There are some very inventive online shows this year, for example Defiant Reality’s ‘Trojana: Webcamming Chronicles’ which guides audiences via email on a nine-day task-based exploration of the sex industry, leading up to the live discussion on the tenth day.

Then there’s ‘Sh*t Happens’, a one-on-one performance about the Patrycja Dynowska’s personal experience with IBD – or inflammatory bowel disease – in which the performer and the audience member connect via Zoom, each from their own bathroom! Yael Karavan and Sylvia Murcuriali’s ‘Bingo’ takes the form of a surreal game with “ridiculously serious” callers and the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.

ACT: On stage at The Cockpit, you can see physical theatre and devised work, including ‘NAKED’, an exploration of gender and authenticity by queer collective NAKEDpresents, fresh from its award-winning debut at VAULT festival, and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, which features the performers of Zoo Indigo attempting to prove their cultural heritage in a series of ‘citizenship catwalks’ set to live music.

SD: We couldn’t have a European theatre festival without some design-led shows: ‘Alice In Wonderland’ features Susan Marshall’s ‘insubordinate costumes’, that allow solo performer Tilde Knudsen to morph from character to character. ‘The Escape Of Iris Dupont’ is a mask piece – think theatre mask, not COVID mask! – created by Voila regular Freya Strang during lockdown in a small village in France.

CM: Are there any events you are especially looking forward to?
SD: We’re excited to have STIGMAcollective returning to Voila with their absurdist ‘Right Left With Heels’, tracing the history of a pair of shoes that were custom-made for Nazi first lady Magda Goebbels – from the shoes’ perspective. The show opens on 11 Nov, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Armistice Day.

ACT: Award-winning clowns Julia Masli & Viggo Venn are bringing some much-needed joy with their new show ‘We Missed You’, combining footage of their neighbourhood performances during lockdown with live physical comedy.

SD: Likewise, Coney’s Telephone is full of “miraculous moments of connection”, with audiences joining from all over the world. We saw an early performance of this piece during the summer and were really moved by the atmosphere that creator-performer Tassos Stevens was able to create via Zoom.

CM: Do audience members need to be able to speak European languages to enjoy these shows?
SD: Most shows are in English, or mainly in English with other languages sprinkled in. A few have English subtitles. Several shows in the festival have no words, so speakers of any language at all can enjoy them.

ACT: If you don’t speak any languages other than English, this is the perfect opportunity to dip your toes in the multilingual water. You’ll be surprised how much you understand, with the help of body language, or music, or a bilingual delivery. I only speak English – though I am learning German – and last year at Voila, I saw a show entirely in French, and understood most of it.

SD: If you do speak other languages, keep an eye out for shows that have specific performances in Russian, French, Polish and Spanish. For example, ‘State vs Natasha Banina’, the critically acclaimed interactive online show from Arlekin Players in the USA, has two performances in English and one in Russian.

CM: Lots of companies and festivals have been embracing new digital means of delivering culture over the last few months as a result of lockdown. Are there up sides to this approach? Do you think you will include digital elements in future festivals?
ACT: Yes. Although we’ve expanded the festival online out of necessity due to the pandemic, there are other benefits to a hybrid on-stage and online programme: it reduces the environmental impact of flying artists in from abroad, and it’s less expensive to bring a show this way.

It benefits the company to have the film ready to be included in other digital festivals. Online theatre also helps us to overcome the challenges of Brexit; we expect it will be very difficult for a small festival like ours to deal with visa requirements for artists coming from the EU in 2021.

SD: And it’s great for audiences to have the option to see shows online, because they don’t have to be in London, or even in the UK. For some people, getting to the theatre is difficult even if they are in London, due to disability or caring responsibilities for example, so online theatre helps us to reach people who we might not otherwise see at the festival.

ACT: Digital theatre is not new, but what’s changed recently is that audiences are more willing to engage with performance online. As long as that remains the case, yes, we’ll continue programming the festival like this in the future.

CM: Obviously the arts industry has been badly hit by the events of the last few months – how optimistic do you feel for its recovery?
SD: Artists will always find a way. That’s the core of independent theatre. There are always challenges, but we take them one at a time and we find creative ways to adapt. We describe Voila as a non-Brexit-fearing festival. We’re not afraid of Brexit because we are finding ways to adapt – all of us, the artists, the festival, and the venue. We are finding ways to adapt to COVID, too. Now it’s up to the audiences to book their tickets and support the arts – we can’t do it without you!

Since this Q&A was completed, the UK government have announced a second lockdown in England, which will mean that Voila! Europe will be forced to cancel its socially distanced events at The Cockpit. However, online elements will still take place from 9-21 Nov. For more information, see the festival website here.

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