fair warning this post will be long – there was just so much to take in.
I’ve spent the last week in Amsterdam for the IETM (informal European theatre meeting) Plenary. I had applied for a bursary from the British Council which helped towards the cost of it. I honestly could not have afforded to go without it. To be honest I hadn’t even heard of the IETM prior to British Council’s call-out. Now I’m wondering how? The meeting is a large meeting, more like a conference with around 700 delegates attending. The days were filled with panel sessions, working sessions and theatre performances in the evening. It was a packed schedule. Between running between theatre plays and the working sessions I had just enough time to find lunch and take in Amsterdam (via the google maps app on my phone).
What is IETM:
IETM is an informal meeting. Informal as in you can walk out of sessions if you feel it isn’t for you. I felt guilty walking out of sessions so tried to stay until the end of each one, even the ones that went right over my head. I just hoped that they would get better (one of them really didn’t). The event, which runs a couple of times a year in and around Europe has been going for 30ish years! I was surprised I had never heard of it. It’s like some secret no-one wants you to know about. Which is partly why I’m writing this – to inform theatre-makers of it.
Something that struck me as I walked into the first event was how white it was. I was warned a little about it being white but to find that the majority of the BAME delegates came from the UK was shocking. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of women in leadership roles. Coming from the UK and attending events which are white male dominated, it was refreshing to see so many women leading and organizing and on the panels. They’re obviously doing something right.
The next one is a satellite meeting (smaller) in Beirut on Freedom of Expression in October 2016. The one after that (the main meeting) will be in Valencia in November 2016.
I forget that writing is a full-time job. And I don’t just mean 35-40 hours a week. After the theatre plays and the panels, there were late night meetings which were important when trying to make those connections with other theatre-makers around the world. These were held in one of the theatre’s bars and went on til 2am (I didn’t stay out that late!). As someone who is relatively new in the industry networking can be difficult. It seems like I’m having the same conversation with people all the time. ‘Hi, where are you from?, What do you do?, how are you finding IETM?’. I hate small talk. I can do it at a push but I prefer having deep meaningful conversations. And it was so easy to do this with the delegates at IETM. My version of networking, consisted of debating the ethics of funding and questioning the ending of theatre shows we had just seen. Of course with 700 delegates it’s difficult to network with everyone and often I found myself sticking to same group of people. It takes a lot out of you to constantly introduce yourself and your artwork to strangers.
Having only ever seen theatre shows from South Asia and the UK, Dutch theatre confused me. I guess part of it has something to do with funding. Majority of theatre in the UK is narrative based, even the live art shows we go to see, there’s a clear story-line. Its a pretty traditional form of theatre. Dutch theatre doesn’t seem to do that, and from what I gather neither does the rest of European theatre. The shows left us split, some of us hated them, others loved them. There was a tendency for me to intellectually dismantle the theatre (something I’ve been taught to do). I couldn’t just enjoy it, I was constantly thinking what’s the point, where is this going, why is there a woman in drag handing eggs to the audience (yes this did happen). There is a lot more funding in the Netherlands, for experimental work and also for work that isn’t traditional. Community theatre is given more importance – I don’t think I would have seen community theatre like that funded and toured in the UK.
An interesting piece of physical theatre I saw by Jakop Ahlbom seemed to really divide the audience. Horror, an attempt at bring horror to the stage. To be fair, I’ve not really seen a lot of physical theatre, so I left having a lot of respect for the performers. It seemed to be physically exerting, something my asthma and generally unfit nature wouldn’t allow. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone try to bring the horror genre to the stage. It was a good attempt, but I could name a dozen different horror movies which were referenced. From creepy twins, to a moving severed hand, there was just something unoriginal about the whole thing. Having said that I enjoyed it – most of the other British delegates didn’t.
My favourite piece of theatre, was The Radicalization of Saddetin K. A one man show about a Muslim Dutch man who becomes radicalised (or does he?). He’s held accountable by his son in 20 years time. Its a show that tackles issues that are being discussed in the UK but not on the stage (or at least I haven’t heard about them). It was a show that resonated with me because I felt so connected to it and him. His experiences echoed those faced by myself and other Muslims in the UK. He performed it in English (not his first language, Dutch is) and had this wittiness and lightness about him that drew us in. If I had the power and money to do so, I’d bring him to the UK to perform it here. The theatre it was performed in, the Meer Vart amazed me. There were BAME folk on their walls, on posters, in their pamphlets. Compare this with the diversity of IETM and you’ll see why I was so amazed. BAME Dutch Theatre-makers exist, so why weren’t they at IETM.
Diversity V Inclusion
I’ve mentioned diversity a few times now, mainly because it is really important. In one of the panels, with MEP Julie Ward, we discussed if the Arts and IETM properly reflects the world we live in. There are two points here: 1 does the arts reflect the world we live in? 2 does IETM reflect the arts at the moment? Answer to both those questions is no. There’s a class problem with inclusion to the arts and a race problem that we sometimes ignore in the UK. Its ‘ the elephant in the room’. The panel spurred conversations about inclusion and diversity. In the UK, I feel that we sometimes brush the race issues under the carpet by using words like diversity. An organization is diverse if it is has an equal number of men and women, but they are all white. That organisation can then ignore how exclusive it is racially. The term inclusion is more useful, we can talk about barriers to the arts and a more solution based discussion begins to happen.
Diversity has become a dirty word. Its a word people associate with quotas. As someone who has worked in the arts I’ve become tuned to the sigh that occurs every time diversity is mentioned. I only heard this a few times in the sessions at IETM and people seemed fairly willing to have conversations about how their venues/organisations would be more inclusive. I like the word inclusion, more and more. I contantly hear from industry professionals that ‘these people don’t exist’ ‘we can’t find them’ or ‘there aren’t any BAME x that exist’. The onus here is for the BAME folk to exist (they do) and to seek out these organisations (again they do). Using the word inclusion puts the onus on the organisations rather than the individuals. The organisations must do something to change how monochrome they are.
Inclusion 1 ¦ Diversity 0
Gen x V Gen y
I understand that the arts, at management level is mainly older white men, but surely there are young creatives out there who would be interested in IETM or similar conferences and events? I found I was one of a few delegates under 25. It made some conversations rather annoying. One in particular, about Generation x and Generation y. Generation y, otherwise known as the millennial is anyone born between the 1980’s to the 2000’s i.e. me. Generation x is anyone born 1960’s to 1980’s. Putting aside the problems with talking about and in ‘generations’ and the problems with generalizations, discussions were centred around how we involve generation y in the arts, and more specifically in theatre. There was a patronizing assumption that was made about young people, that they wouldn’t get involved with the arts because of the increase of digital technologies. What was interesting, is that no-one thought to actually include any gen y people in their arts planning. Yet somehow wanted to know why gen y weren’t attending their venues. One example, given by Jaffer Ali Hussain about an arts centre built for young people and no young people turning up. A £5 million structure was built without even asking young people what they wanted. And not the council wants to know why the young people aren’t using it!
Digital taking over
One of the one most interesting things I learnt at IETM is the inclusion of digital technologies in art and how easy it can be. From virtual reality to ‘agent-in-a-box’ type interactions with the audience, digital technologies could be used to not only enhance the theatre experience but to draw in a different crowd. The world is moving to instant and constant connections, how is theatre supposed to compete with that? Well Joris Weijdom shows us different ways in which this can be done. You can see his key-note speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6d2JepgILs
All in all I’ve connected with lots of people and had interesting discussions about the future of theatre in a world where digital is taking over. I’ve also I’ve learnt a lot (including the difference between Coffeshops and shops that sell Koffie). Lets hope I’ll get the funding to go to the next few.
Thanks to IETM Amsterdam, British Council, everyone that sat and debated with me about theatre and the arts and thanks to those who made my first IETM a memorable one.