On Curating FLARE17

Every iteration of Flare starts with a blank slate. At the point when initial plans are being drawn up, funding applications written, partnerships forged, we don’t know the artists that will be involved, we’ve never even heard of most of them, and indeed much of the work that we now know will feature did not yet exist. Flare’s focus on ‘emergent practice’ means we really do sit at the start of things, even if the moment of ‘emergence’ (depending on how you define it) can be spread over many years.

Looking at the programme as it now exists, we know that some of the artists selected have featured at Flare before. Massive Owl made their Flare debut at the first Flare International Festival of New Theatre in 2011. Beaches is led by iara Solano of Sleepwalk Collective, the very first company who applied to be part of the same Flare festival, and with their very first piece, which we invited back to open the festival in 2015. And Guillem Mont de Palol and Jorge Dutor brought the brilliant #losmicrófonos to the Royal Exchange Theatre in the last outing of the festival as well. But even these presented themselves as options during the normal selection process rather than being chalked in early, as events that we could confidently build the rest of the programme around.

Equally, some of the artists are further down that long road of ‘emerging’ than others, and it’s only their profile in this country that makes them seem like ‘new artists’. The divide between the UK and the rest of Europe, sadly destined to get wider, remains an obstacle preventing audiences in the UK encountering new versions of what a theatre event might consist of, versions that these artists and others have been creating elsewhere in Europe for sometime now. Still, context is everything, and ‘new to us’ makes them just as welcome in the Flare fold.

So we have to be confident that enough extraordinary new work will exist out there to make a festival, performances that we can confidently categorise as ‘ground-breaking’, even if we don’t know at the time what in practice that will mean.

The process of identifying the shows to be included in the festival therefore becomes one of defining new areas of theatrical innovation – new combinations of theatricality and ideas that are being investigated by new artists, and in ways that we believe haven’t been seen before. And not only does it have to be new, but it has to be good too. It has to successfully achieve its aims in ways that result in a truly rewarding experience for a theatre audience. It’s a fascinating process, which I’m going to try to open up here, and if there is some anxiety at the start of it all, it’s pretty much gone by the end.

The first question for us then is who is making waves, ploughing new furrows, changing the landscape? Who are the theatre artists with new things to say? Not from secure positions of visibility and established profile (if those things would help anyway), but from new places, new voices with new perspectives. Who is engaging with theatre as an art-form in new ways, re-affirming the boundless potential of theatre to be significant in the world, creating fresh new opportunities for people to be in a theatre space for a period of time, with ideas, with people, with materials, with reflections on being there, and being, and location, that amount to significant new theatrical experiences?

This does feel like a privileged position for us, and from which we are able to ‘report back’, to talk about what’s coming, and determine how things may have moved on since we did it two years ago. Can we identify developments, shifts, patterns of adjustment? The idea of a linear progression may well be impossible to determine in such a short span of time, or is frankly a myth, but the world has moved on (hasn’t it just) so perhaps there is some evidence of a discernable change in direction, in mind-set amongst those working within it, and responding to it with the making of new theatrical art.

We should acknowledge too that some of the contexts we were looking to fill, the theatre spaces available to us, have changed as well – for the first time we were looking for work for HOME, for The Lowry and even for our new Flare Hub (if anything would fit it), and that was bound to have an impact too.

We’ve been travelling to theatres and festivals and a range of different contexts in different countries. We’ve watched hundreds of videos, and talked to esteemed colleagues across Europe, and we’ve whittled the resulting list down to 20. Two years ago we went through this exercise, and ended up bringing to Manchester a range of theatre practices as extensive and exhilarating as anything we could have wished for. We hope we’ve done it again.

So what did we find this time? Well, to put it bluntly, we found philosophy - implicitly and explicitly - theatre pieces that were addressing complex and universal ideas. These were big ideas about being, and identity, and language and meaning, but ideas invoked through a very down-to-earth series of actions or objects or gestures. Most of these pieces seemed to work through a calm and reflective audience experience, one with a real eye for detail and which absolutely worked with the duration involved, with the impact of the minutes gone (and all they contained) on each present moment and the audience’s experience of it. Not for these pieces the instant gratification of short term impact - these were theatre pieces that demanded a little to start with, but ended up paying back tenfold, by the end and afterwards.

We found an interest in art, in visual art particularly, and in what happens to theatre when the artists making it assume the right to draw parallels with the conventions and practices more associated with the gallery. Jan Lauwers, Director of legendary Dutch performance company Needcompany said at a recent theatre festival in Copenhagen that ‘90% of people who work in theatre haven’t heard of Marcel Duchamp’. True or not, the implication that theatre has for too long existed as separate from art, from its history, ideas and practices, is one that appears to be being addressed by some of the work selected for FLARE17.

Alongside this we found an ongoing fascination with illusion. A staple of the theatrical encounter of course, but there was a discrete strand of work that we came across, and now have represented in the festival, that uses strategies not often found in theatre to re-engage us with the thrill of ‘how did they do that?’ and ‘did that really happen, or did I just imagine it?’ There’s something about our involvement with illusion, and with the location and function of illusion in theatre, that makes it key to the theatrical experience, and ripe to be exposed and exploited in theatre that wants to use its own mechanics to talk about our wider experience of the world.

And our real physical experience of ‘being there’ kept coming up too. We know that theatre is a live and embodied encounter, whether we sit in rows in the dark or are invited into a more active or immersive experience, but there are many points on the scale when we balance the objective/intellectual with the subjective/sensory, and a surprising range of these were targeted in the work coming forward. To what extent can our bodily experience trigger our emotions or memories? Can it alter our perceptions of the reality of our situation? How might our intellectual discomfort with ideas be manifested in our physical experience? To what extent is our capacity to cope with the world routed through our bodies, and can an (embodied) theatre experience actually make us better?

And we found a careful engagement with the operation of communication, with how it works in theatre and elsewhere. If the basis of any communication – that both parties share a language, share an understanding of the contract involved and the presuppositions in play – is ultimately founded in trust, then what happens if this trust is misplaced? And what if the attempt to communicate is pushed beyond breaking point? Does the failure of communication lead to the failure of the event, or could there be a poignancy, and a sharing of human empathy, that acknowledges a different kind of bond between the speaker and the listener, one that is even more fundamental to the theatrical exchange?

There was talk of ‘our times’, perhaps inevitably, but possibly less than might have been expected. The historical roots of right wing populism, gender roles and identity, and the twisted logics of racism all featured, though blended with an engagement with theatre form, such that the theatricality of the event remained central to the practice rather than simply providing a context. And there was almost no direct reference to those particular issues that we can’t avoid these days (world leaders, continental relations, sporadic acts of murder and destruction etc.). Perhaps the provision of information, and the space to discuss such issues, is better provided by the technology of our age, or perhaps these artists making theatre feel less directly implicated than others, or perhaps they have yet to achieve the distance that might allow for the more open interpretative approaches, arguably suited to the form.

We could probably identify other areas as well, depending on what other parallels we choose to draw between the pieces we shortlisted, and ultimately selected, but for now these feel like the most dominant.

As you will hopefully witness, these areas are represented in incredibly diverse ways in the programme for FLARE17, so perhaps one thing we can say is that the outcomes of all these lines of artistic enquiry don’t really share a form. Looking back on the hilarity of some of the experiences offered last time (brought to us particularly by Daan van Bendegem, Mont de Palol and Dutor, Figs in Wigs and Irreverent Sideshows), perhaps this year’s selection demonstrates that the broad mood of the times has got just a little more sombre, or the artists concerned don’t want to be making work that distracts us quite so much from the bigger challenges of the world and our existence in it.

Of course one could argue that all of these insights tell us more about what we were looking for in the first place than what we found, that they are more the result of some hidden criteria operating than an objective picture of what is out there. Equally they could be the result of criteria imposed on themselves by the artists applying, resulting from the sense that this was the ‘kind of work’ that Flare was looking for. But looking back at the programme for FLARE15, and the reflections published in the catalogue produced then, there is surprisingly little overlap. This suggests that if the work is defined by the festival, rather than vice versa, at least it allows for a breadth of practices, driven by the creative instincts of the makers, that will always be impossible to predetermine.

Ultimately, we are really proud of this year’s programme, of the extraordinary audience experiences that are contained within, and the support it represents as a whole for the brilliant new theatre artists who have created it. So do engage with it as much as you can, and do let us know what you think.

Neil Mackenzie
Artistic Director of FLARE17