In what Co-Director Mike Tweddle calls an “opportunity for people to learn about other backgrounds and cultures”, BE Festival (Birmingham European Theatre Festival) is back for the third year running, celebrating both our differences and shared experiences by bringing together a multitude of international performers. From 2 July, the European arts festival is taking over an old metalworks factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter – “the perfect frame for all these encounters” – as a flexible space to house multi-national collaborations, performances, workshops and audience-artist exchanges.
And BE is not just about theatre; it’s a truly inter-disciplinary festival that features live music and visual arts as well as inviting guests to share meals with artists in between performances. “It’s a really nice opportunity to meet in an informal way, to talk about the work, get to know each other and make some lovely new friends in a celebratory setting,” says Tweddle of this immersive format. “We want to bring people into contact with ideas and languages that they’ve never come into contact with before.”
Tweddle makes it clear that BE Festival is very much about the joy of the unknown, with its structure encouraging audiences to embrace its inherent diversity: each evening contains four 30-minute performances by different international companies, with an interval for dinner that allows audience and artist to discuss the piece. “If a show was an hour-and-a-half long the public might not buy a ticket for it, but they’ll see a half-hour version and hopefully be inspired to see more international work,” Tweddle explains. “We don’t make it all about the show or a particular star – it’s about the ride of the evening. People don’t buy into the festival for a particular company, they do it knowing that they’ll discover something new.” Clearly audience members must be in it for the long haul, a standard that is also upheld for the artists, as Tweddle states: “A rule we’ve had from the beginning – it’s slightly vicious of us, but we keep to it strictly – is that the artists have to stay for the whole festival. If a company performs on Thursday, they can’t leave until Sunday. They have to see all the other pieces.”
Fully experiencing what Birmingham has to offer, it seems, is unavoidable for the European visitors – as well as seeing the whole festival, artists lodge with local residents. This tradition that can be traced back to BE’s 2010 conception, when its tiny budget couldn’t be stretched to include hotel rooms. Yet this money-saving tactic turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant idea. “The performers really got to know Birmingham life,” Tweddle says. “In most festivals you get parachuted in and out and you don’t necessarily feel that you’ve learnt about their way of life. But this way, all the hosts came to see at least the night of their guest’s performance, so there’s a real feeling of pride and connection, and many hosts and performers kept in touch. So that’s something that’s remained even though we’ve got a bit more funding now – this year, the vast majority of artists are staying in the spare bedrooms of 65-year-old ex-teachers.”
And BE Festival’s incredibly immersive approach seems to have paid off. “The artists really communicate with each other and learn a lot about their work; they explore techniques together in the workshops, and new collaborations have occurred as a result of that laboratory space. It’s a real cliché, but the constraints [of having a small budget] have brought about creativity – all the best things that have happened in this festival have not been our ideas, but it’s exciting to open a space and discover much better ideas than you could have ever imagined that come about because of these collaborations. The biggest challenges have also brought some of the biggest surprises.”
One such surprise is BE Mix, a new company compiled from other festival participants: one artist from each company that performed last year was nominated to stay in Birmingham for an extra week to create new theatre. BE Mix’s “really beautiful, very daring piece”, which is all about the city of Birmingham, was instigated as a result of the performers’ requests. “[BE Mix] came about because the artists in 2010 said, ‘These workshops are not enough; we are learning to know each other and we’re discovering things in common, but a morning workshop over five days is not enough time to really cement these new bonds,’” Tweddle explains. “They suggested an extra week in which some performers could stay and work together more intensively. So that idea – it has been a wonderful project to see grow – was not our idea, but we’re very excited about it.”
BE Festival has also resulted in another offshoot company in the form of BE Next, a company of teenage theatre makers who participated in a free programme run by BE and the Birmingham Rep Young Producers programme. The young people – many speaking English as a second language – have devised their own theatrical creations with the help of Danish and American professionals. “It’s a really wonderful experience for those young people,” Tweddle says. “They really do get brought into the fold of the festival and surrounded by all these new ideas; their work gets taken very seriously and I think they are inspired to strive towards excellence.” And Tweedle is keen to engage other young theatregoers. “I feel that this is a very inspiring programme for young people. It’s all devised, brand-new work that brings together a host of different ideas and starting points. It’s a master class on all the possibilities for surviving theatre for young people.”
BE Festival’s ethos is “crossing borders”, whether it be internationally, artistically or that of Brecht’s infamous fourth wall. By bringing together acts from across the world and encouraging audiences to engage with these theatre creators, it seems BE is doing a brilliant job of sticking to its philosophy. To experience a diversity of European arts and great conversation in a welcoming environment (BE hosts a cocktail bar and dedicated space for massages, so I’ve heard), BE Festival, it seems, has it all.
TICKET OFFER: For £6 tickets to the grand opening for arts and drama students, call mac Birmingham on 0121 446 3232 and quote ‘BE FEST SIX’.
Image credit: David Martin de Juan