Daniel Goldman is in the CASA Festival’s office when he answers my call: “I better get out of here! They’ve heard it all before. Must know it off by heart.” But, as the interview progresses, I become increasingly sceptical anyone could get bored of the festival founder’s enthusiasm. He replies to my questions with a domino-like tumble of thoughts that often wind their way to a topic completely unrelated to the original, other than it is also fascinating. His passion is deserved: on offer to London from Goldman and his team is a 10 day celebration of the Year of Mexico, showcasing a diverse selection of performers most likely inaccessible to Londoners at any other time of the ear.
CASA’s aim is a noble one, but daunting in scale and much harder than shipping over works of art and placing them in a gallery: Goldman’s goods are human beings. After sifting through hundreds of performances over video, travelling to Mexico to see around 30 shows and another 35 at the Mexican National Theatre Showcase (of which he laments the lack of an equivalent here – “it’s ridiculous!”), only a handful of pieces can be programmed in the festival. And even more limiting is the searing 55% budget cut suffered by CASA this year (“We’re all dealing with cuts. All of us”). Even when all the performances are booked and, to the casual observer, assumed to now be smooth-running, then comes the nail-biting task of actually getting the companies to the UK and even through border control. “We’ve had every visa issue you can imagine… At the airport, they are often taken off to a little room to question them about their true motives”.
Still not satisfied it has truly tested Goldman, the universe throws in sometimes stubbornly slow tickets sales for good measure. “In the UK nobody knows anything – anything – about Latin American theatre.” Shamefully, I agree, unable to name a company not on the CASA programme (though all of our ignorance can circularly be solved with a ticket to CASA). But there is hope: the British section of the audience has grown to around 55%, with 45% being Latin American, and “quite a lot of the audience are coming to the theatre for the first time”. Being hosted at the Barbican is a particular draw for British audience members, but Goldman says it’s harder to create the festival’s intimate feel there. “Rich Mix is our hub… [The Barbican] is great for the profile of the festival, but it’s a bit harder to create our dishevelled, easy atmosphere”.
Latin American theatre might be tricky to sell, but its obscurity has its benefits and Goldman relishes them. “We can bring anyone we like and it doesn’t really matter if they’re famous or not. That’s the real beauty about the programme. In lots of festivals, people are forced to bring in the companies that are doing the rounds. It’s always the same companies. The bigger the festival, the bigger the pressure. Something I love is that we can bring in an emerging company and they have exactly the same weight… I can programme shows that I believe in and it’s not a question of how famous the company is, but how good the work is…. This year we have two companies from Mexico and one company from Brazil who have never been out of their own country…There’s just something very satisfying about watching people at the beginning of their career that you’ve put your trust in.”
‘Casa’ means house or home in Spanish; the spirit of the festival is to welcome the audience to its home and serve up a wide assortment of art and perspectives. I can’t help but accept the invitation. The carefully-considered selection of music, theatre and debate explores the darker politics and human rights abuses of Mexico, the country’s strengths and, as a bonus, gives festival-goers an opportunity to party. From Monserrat by the multimedia-experts and Mexican theatre company Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol on the opening night to The Love of the Fireflies (a straight play but an incredible one, according to Goldman), the festival lets you “discover stories that are completely from another world, in a sense, but also learn we all live in this shared universe whether we like it or not and the stories are relevant”.
CASA is playing the Barbican Centre and Rich Mix until 11 October.
Image credit: Alex Brenner