A view from the Festival TransAmeriques 2018

Blog Post by Cristina Cugliandro, July 4, 2018

The Beginning – 22 creators/critics representing 11 countries around the world

Photo credit: Lojiq

I had the honour of being part of Rencontres Internationales at the Festival TransAmeriques this year. In this blog I would like to share some of my random reflections about my experience.

For those of you who don’t know the program, it is for artists thirty five years old and under (yes, that mid-thirties end bracket again) chosen from all over the world to come together for ten days, see shows, discuss them, meet artists and programmers, and experience the FTA from within the machine.

I saw a total of 10 shows this year, the most I have ever seen at FTA. Though I have very strong opinions about what I saw and why things did or did not make an impact on me, I have no interest in reviewing the shows here, rather what I would like to work through are the questions and thoughts I was left with after this intensive international festival journey.

The first note I made in my notebook, interestingly enough, was about theatre criticism.

What you did.
Why you did it.
What your doing it did.
-Chloé Gagné Dion (from my notes)

These were the guidelines shared with me, by one of the members of the group who has been working as a critic, as a point of reference from which to start viewing work. These three little lines are also greatly useful for the artist.

I wanted to take part in this program to challenge how I view art presently, and to sharpen my spectator skills. What remained with me were reflections on programming, our habits of consumption, use of space, audience comfort, identity, accessibility, emotional digestion, and the boundaries of languages.

This year’s festival theme was Le Refus Global, a document written in 1948 during an authoritarian era in Quebec history. This document was a collaboration between a group of artists called ‘Les Automatistes’ (mostly surrealist visual artists). They refused to accept the religious fanaticism of the times. These anarchist views were extremely controversial and many of the artists were forced into exile. (If you would like to know more check out this great NFB documentary about the effects on the children of Les Automatistes: Les enfants de Refus Global)

Riffing off of the anarchist theme, FTA seems to pride itself on its diverse programming which can be enthralling and inspiring, as well as mind boggling, and at times really weird. Our group had interesting insights and questions on the workings of the programming, financial inaccessibility of the festival, the worth of a story or project. We often got vague answers that made me realize to what extent festivals such as the FTA can be completely subjective and trapped in a programming system that reaches for the richer. Many of the shows we saw also gave me more insight into how long the journey ahead may still be in terms of understanding and celebrating our cultural identities in Montreal, Quebec, and Canada. Questions were posed to the artistic director Martin Faucher about pricing and if there was a discounted rate for those with lesser means, to which he answered no.  It was telling to be a room with international artists and seeing them appalled by that answer. Some of my European contemporaries were shocked that residencies in this country expect artists to foot a big part of the bill if not all of it. In Europe most of all residencies are completely subsidized and access to art is handled very differently, and in my opinion, with much more respect. Now, is it enough to continue to work within these systems and accept this lot or is the artist’s responsibility to actively explore ways in which their art and the logistics around it can lead the way to a new ‘fonctionnement’? Can we stop politely asking for equitable systems, and rather actively claim a right to them?

What I think is wonderful about the FTA is that it really is a mixed bag in many ways. It programs established and spectacle size shows, as well as works-in-progress that are supported by high production values. We questioned how these shows were marketed so it can benefit both the artists and the audiences, and wondered how the prices could be adjusted accordingly. The festival has a program that accompanies projects through the creation process up until the show is presented. Though this is a great opportunity for artists to receive support, it seems like there is a glitch. Faucher himself spoke about how detrimental it is to put on a show even when the artists are not ready, that this can and has ruined budding careers. Artistic direction and programming present challenges, no doubt about it: mentoring artists while trying not to impede their artistic process; having to make the decision of whether to pull or keep a show; deciding on the appropriate venue; finding a thread that links the entirety of the festival’s programming; and being prepared to take the heat if the thread breaks. It’s a lot of responsibility. So, my next question is, is this possible? Can we do it all? Can we give the artists the freedom they ask for without compromising their career and the festival’s reputation? If the artistic direction assumes a right to make the final decisions on certain artistic choices, what is the impact on the artist? Can it be all about the artist even to the detriment of a festival’s success or the audience’s experience? If the artist is still in the process of developing their work, what is being asked of the audience? Does this need more clarification or better communication? Is there an advantage to presenting all the shows as if they are at the same level of quality or do we need more context? For example, how long the project has been in development or how long has this artist been developing their craft? Would adding more categories to the background of a particular show help the artist and the audiences have a more constructive experience?

To share a story is extraordinary.
Through the wall you see the other side but not quite clear, not quite bright.
(from free non-stop writing exercise)

The audience experience in theatre is being questioned and seems to be shifting. With immersive and site responsive theatre being tested more and more, it seems as though audiences are up for experiencing new ways of journeying. Even thinking about how space is used within a conventional theatre is being reinvented. Once again, some projects do lend to this deconstruction of space, whereas others do not. In the case of the FTA it was very clear where they stand on theatre form. In my view the priority lies in how edgy the story telling style can be with often a lesser focus on what the story itself is telling. The festival is a platform for pushing those boundaries but though playing with concepts is thrilling, it always walks a fine line. That line needs to be addressed and constantly questioned throughout the work in order to avoid the story taking second place or even being erased.

Finding ways for the audience to consume or want to consume.
How do we reclaim consumption from capitalism?
(from notes)

This brings me to interrogate the consumption of art and how it can challenge our consumption needs. Are we privatizing art more and more because of our ingrained habits of consumerism? Our group sat down with Gurshad Shaheman whose show Pourama Pourama was presented this year. He spoke about the importance of understanding consumerist practices. This subject was one of the main conversation points that stayed with me. How does this impact how we view art? This subject bled into our discussions about Windigo by Lara Kramer. The group questioned whether or not this show had been crafted to challenge our habits of art consumption. If you are used to being invited into a conversation when attending the theatre, what happens when a performance piece never extends that invitation in the first place? Do we get angry because we want the conversation and are then deprived of it? Is there any point then? Is the frustration a reflection of our level of privilege? How do we compartmentalize our experience to better view the art? Should we have to compartmentalize at all?

How to invite the audience to feel a freedom & comfort – cushions!?!
(from notes)

I have recently been thinking a lot about the physical comfort of audience members. I have always thought more about this when in movie theatres. Short seats with no headrest at the movies annoy me. So why not hold theatre to the same standards? Does this come from some sort of strange subconscious acceptance that we are meant to be physically uncomfortable in a theatre?  We have all experienced the difference of having legroom vs. practically no room, not to mention comfortable seats vs. not so much. There are many details to consider when creating the environment for an audience: chairs, temperature, choice of how and where and when they sit, their use of the space, varying perspectives, noise, how the audience gets ushered in and around, etc. As artists we may not be able to successfully address all these factors, but thinking about the conditions in which the audience receives the questions being posed is worth as much focus, is it not? What is special about an environment that makes people eager to consume in it?

Another question: why should we care? I pay for a ticket, I sit in a seat for a good amount of time, things come at me and… will I be pulled in? Is it only the responsibility of the artist to engage the spectator’s senses? I bought therefore you better deliver? Or does the audience member need to assume their own participation? Shouldn’t art be able to stand on its own without previous research or knowledge on the part of the viewer?

This makes me think of John Mighton’s theory about education and theatre:

I think one of the reasons we struggle in theatre, why theatre struggles to find audiences now, is because we have a population that’s not really been educated according to their full potential. Consequently, many, many people start to lose their sense of curiosity, their sense of wonder, their sense of engagement, empathy, all those things. John Mighton – Art House Theatre Interview 2013

During this FTA journey I wondered a lot about curiosity and empathy. I asked myself if my craving for magic – and the disappointment of too often not experiencing it – stood in the way of my appreciation of some of these shows, to experience them in a way in which I was not accustomed. Then again, as an audience member and/or artist, isn’t the relentless search and demand for magic in the theatre not a worthy quest?

My personal highlights out of what I experienced in those two weeks were:

‘Freedom is a restless place.’
‘In order to exist you have to co-exist.’
‘When you hit a brick wall in creation, use the bricks.’
‘Don’t beat around the bush with truth. Push the truth.’
‘Create onto reality.’
-Albert Khoza (from notes)

And So You See – We met with the performance artist and shaman Albert Khoza, and he spoke about how the cosmic inhabits everything he does. This performance was magical to me.

Les ancêtres nous suivent, nous encouragent, nous informent.
(from notes)

Emilie Monnet is on a roll! This year she approached the FTA with an initiative that she led and invested in called Rencontres de créateurs autochtones. Their group went to shows, had critique sessions, and worked with Victoria Hunt, an Indigenous artist from Sydney who was invited to lead the group of creators from across Canada in movement workshops during their time together. Their outcome was beautiful, touching, affecting, and celebratory. This was also a highlight for our Rencontres group who walked out with a new perspective on Canada as well as their own countries.

Finding a language within another language
(from notes)

We also met with a poet Kouam Tawa who was part of the FTA’s Cliniques dramaturgiques. A social activist artist, he spoke about how he started theatre in families’ backyards in Cameroun and how this initiative has now become an important event in the landscape of his country. His aim is to focus on what a community needs and how to support those needs. As one of many examples, an initiative he started was a travelling library for kids that offers and introduces books to young readers while their parents work the markets. Kouam also spoke about how many people still consider French to be the language of the colonizer, yet he is actively reclaiming it and refusing to think of it in that way anymore. He explained how French has now taken on another purpose, one that is used to connect people of different cultures and places in order to commemorate on past histories and collaborate on building new and better ones.

Est-ce qu’il reste du nouveau à découvrir ou c’est simplement toujours de la réinvention?
(from notes)

The rich conversations and the stimulus of being part of Rencontres Internationales could easily make this blog a novella. What I can finish up by saying is that the FTA has been demystified for me. I was confronted with a realization of how highly I had regarded the FTA. I am left with many questions that will most likely inform me throughout my future projects. Every journey changes you no matter how big or small. What we learn and the ways in which we keep questioning that learning are at the heart of it all for me.

The End – 22 creators/critics representing 11 countries with love Photo credit: Trung Dung Nguyen

The End – 22 creators/critics representing 11 countries with love

Photo Credit: Trung Dung Nguyen

My Utopic Festival Manifesto – For my Rencontres Internationales colleagues

To allow our paradigms to shift;
To listen to the thoughts of others;
To dream of the possibilities and move towards them;
To explore the universe with collaborators you love, respect and cherish;
To create art that audiences can swim through visually and psychologically;
To make audiences live through something horrible and glorious at the same time;
To trust that answers may not reveal themselves but that the important questions will;
To push, to never get comfortable, and to always choose projects that challenge and scare us.

To be brave;
To pursue magic;
To question always;
To demand a conversation;
De vivre des moments de grâce.