Theatre Bubble speaks to director of The Cockpit Dave Wybrow and Voila co-directors Sharlit Deyzac and Amy Clare Tasker
What can audiences expect from Voila! Festival this year?
DW: Inspiration! This theatrical conversation is taking place at an intensely difficult time against all the odds. Despite everything, these Voila voices have broken through. The pressing, crying need for direct connections across borders has never been more keenly felt, and Voila this year has become above all else a triumph of collaborative achievement. It’s like COVID was invented to force us to find new ways to talk to each other. And we have.
SD: Voila! Europe is a celebration of languages and cultures, and a welcoming community of European Theatre lovers. This year, with the festival taking place entirely online, we’ve been thinking about ways to create that sense of togetherness digitally. Everything in our online programme is LIVE, a shared experience in real time, from our Welcome Night on Zoom to online interactive shows.
This year’s Voila offers one-on-one performances, an absurdist concert, puppetry with ‘insubordinate costumes’, gonzo journalism, watch parties and meet-ups with theatre makers. There’s even a ‘ridiculously serious’ game of ‘Bingo!’ in Karavan Ensemble & Yael Murcuriali’s new show, framing human rights as a game of chance.
ACT: As always, the festival is multilingual, multicultural, and multidisciplinary. Most shows are in English, or mainly in English with other languages sprinkled in. Even if you don’t speak those languages (like me!), you’ll be surprised how much you understand, with the help of body language, or bilingual delivery, or subtitles.
What’s been the biggest challenge of pulling together a festival in 2020?
DW: Coming to understand the online world as part of the real – not just a second rate alternative to it. We’ve had to find new ways to make online events worthwhile – not just as events but as ticketed events, where artists can still derive income from theatre at a time when theatre is either banned or limited. But we’ve also had to find out what ‘live’ actually means. What can a virtual dimension to a show bring that its ‘actual’ dimension misses? What happens when you have three or more ‘layers’ of audience ? The watch party watching the zoom meeting where the performers are also watching each other, etc etc. We’ve invented 28-day pay walls, stumbled across hyper-voyeurism and realised we really can be there with others and here with ourselves at the same time.
ACT: The government announcing a lockdown in England days before the start of the festival was also a pretty big challenge! We had planned to present four shows on stage at The Cockpit with social distancing. But we were prepared for the possibility of a second lockdown, and those productions have all adapted to an online format, using the templates we created in the spring and summer for online interactive shows or watch party & discussion events. We’re so inspired by the determination and innovation we’ve seen from all the companies taking part in Voila this year.
What’s next for the Voila! Team?
DW: Going cross-Europe! Last year, we went London-wide. This year we have found collaborators in Austria, Hungary, and Portugal. Next year and beyond, we will reach out and make contact with collaborative hubs in other places to help grow the cross-continental independent theatre movement.
SD: Exactly. Our focus is on making and maintaining connections within independent European Theatre, and that includes outward-looking artists and theatres here in the UK. We’d love to work with more venues to programme European theatre year-round, with the wealth of talented artists from European backgrounds based in the UK. Once the travel restrictions are lifted, we’re looking forward to resuming our plans to invite artists from abroad to perform in London, in collaboration with partners like the Hungarian Cultural Centre. We’re also very excited about expanding the festival to other European cities, starting with Vienna in 2021.
There’s so much to choose from in the festival! Have you noticed any particular themes in this year’s shows?
ACT: We don’t dictate an overall theme for the festival, and we love the eclectic mix of ideas that bubble up as we read the applications. The climate crisis is always an important theme – for example in Farewell Concert by Budapest’s K2 Theater, the actors arrive on stage in hazmat suits with oxygen masks and sing Mozart’s Requiem. The theme of identity is always present at Voila, represented in ‘Diary of an Expat: Reloaded’, ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’, and ‘Naked’.
SD: Some of the shows this year are responding directly to the pandemic with themes of isolation and community: a joyous physical comedy ‘We Missed You’ by award-winning clowns Julia Masli and Viggo Venn; ‘The Escape of Iris Dupont’ with beautiful masks and life-size puppets created during artist Freya Strang’s confinement in a small French village; and Coney’s ‘Telephone’ which creates a remarkable sense of connection between audiences live on Zoom.
DW: It’s all about the personal and the political. The huge themes of our time – climate, gender identity, state control, violence, post humanity, borders and equality. They are all there with intensely personal stories linked to real-world concerns and hunger for change. This is a generation of theatre makers who are paying attention and determined to communicate with each other.
And what do you hope for in a post-COVID theatre world?
DW: Connection, contact and change. Independent European Theatre is a key space where people of energy, ideas and talent are formulating their relationship to the future. It’s a voice – one of the few spaces where a cross-continental conversation between people on the ground can actually happen, and we need to make sure its speakers are heard and its participants are seen and its ideas made visible. Our best future depends on our ability to make unlikely connections, formulate our priorities – and mobilise. Independent European Theatre is a crucial level for that to happen. Voila’s aim is to help make sure it does.
ACT: We’re already seeing a resurgence of appreciation for theatre, and for being together in a shared space and time. Between lockdowns, The Cockpit was home to sold-out socially-distanced performances, and we hope that this time next year, Voila! Europe will be back in the venue, feeling the buzz of audiences in the foyer and seeing performers on stage in 3D.
SD: We’re also hoping to see digital programming embraced across the theatre world. There are so many benefits to online performance becoming mainstream: reducing the environmental impact of touring; avoiding visa restrictions for visiting artists; and reaching out to audiences beyond our immediate geography. Hopefully this will mean more opportunities for artists to collaborate across borders and more opportunities for audiences to enjoy and explore theatre from around the world.
Voila! Festival runs online from 9th – 21st November. For more info, please visit: https://www.voilafestival.co.uk/