Supporting opportunities for artists to work internationally has always been a core element of the British Council’s mission. Collaboration and exchange helps to build links beyond borders and creates space for learning, dialogue, understanding and trust. Last year, we partnered with Pro Helvetia and the Festival d’Avignon to support participation of a British-based artist at the “Séminaire d’Avignon” – an intensive immersion for artists from different countries in a 2 week programme of performances, workshops and discussions. Hannes Langolf shares his impressions from this unique chance to make new connections and reflect on his own practice as an artist.
I was thrilled to receive confirmation of my participation at the Avignon Festival Seminar 2016, organised and funded by Pro Helvetia and supported by the British Council. As an idea it was equally exciting as it was daunting. A week at the Avignon Festival, watching as many shows as possible and sharing my thoughts and impressions with a group of 11 international artists from various different disciplines (directors, actors, choreographers, dancers, dramaturges, writers etc.).
Before the seminar, I was rehearsing my introduction in my head - who I am as an artist, what I do, what my work looks like, etc… What will everyone else think of me and my artistic background? Will I have enough to say about all the shows? How will I manage to discuss everything with my rusty French?
And just like you are used to as a freelance artist, you arrive on the first day, prepared to champion your work, tell everyone about your background, who you have worked with (hopefully you have some impressive, recognised names that you can drop), how your version of art is groundbreaking and unique and where your work has been presented.
And then – none of that. Instead, it was a brief welcome with a short round of names, some logistic information, a quick moment to move into our rooms and off we went for a lovely dinner in the summery atmosphere of beautiful Avignon.
As soon as the sun had set, we saw our first performance at the amazing Palais des Papes: Les Damnés – a collaboration between director Ivo van Hove and La Comédie-Française – an impressively directed but visually harrowing production, following the descent of an industrialist family into death and darkness during the Third Reich. Based on the screenplay of the famous Visconti movie this production finished with the protagonist taking a machine gun and firing relentless shots into the seated audience of over 1,000 in this ancient and beautiful theatre space. Needless to say that this image, the sounds and the feeling of being shot at was an intense first encounter of the seminar, so recently after the Nice attacks and the shootings at Bataclan in Paris.
Somewhat shaken and full of questions about the responsibility and social role of theatre, I returned to my hotel room and searched the TV for something lighter, looking forward to the discussions with the group the following morning.
The next days started with a conversation among our group about the shows we had seen. Led by dramaturge Eric Vautrin, these sessions were a perfect forum to throw questions into the room and having the freedom to not necessarily find answers. Having the freedom to ask questions, to provoke and to turn the discussion on its head, with no reference to our own artistic journeys, felt truly liberating.
One of the many interesting debates that took place was about the Middle-Eastern Focus at this year’s festival – highlighting and presenting artists and works from that region.
Hearing audience commentaries after some of the shows and also talking to one of the directors, who was from Iran, it brought up the questions of how work is perceived through what we know as an audience. In what way can a broad western notion of the current social and political issues of this very diverse region mean that creative work originating from this area could be painted with one brush of western consciousness and become a form of artistic ghettoization? Also, on the other hand, how can this dialogue and presentation successfully act as a wonderful way of engaging in a dialogue, shifting cultural concepts and media impressions nurtured by the daily news?
Seeing 16 shows in the space of a week – some of them only 45 minutes long, some of them 4-5 hours, at all thinkable hours of the day – was amazing and a huge privilege. It was wonderful to immerse myself in theatre – even loosing the sense of time and reality.
Some highlights that have stayed with me have been the clever, intimate atmosphere and story telling of Daniel Hellmann’s Traumboy and the epic and witty concept and performance of Het Land Nod by Belgian collective FC Bergman.
I loved surrendering to the quiet yet powerfully slow pace of Place des Héros by Krystian Lupa and joining the crazy yet clever ride of Raoul Collectif’s Rumeur et petits jours.
Apart from all the wonderful connections with the amazing and curious artists of our group, I returned back to London full of inspiration and hunger for making, discussing, sharing and inventing. Especially at this stage of my career, this pivotal point of moving from mainly performing in other people’s work to following my own artistic vision and making my own creations, this week was a real gift. It confirmed my passion for art and theatre, gave space to question what excites me and why, offered perspective on theatre in the UK and instilled courage to keep going and to keep being brave.
Inspiration can come from anywhere – so in the words of wise food critic Anton Ego from Pixar’s Ratatouille: “The world is often unkind to new talent and new creations. The new needs friends.” How wonderful for every emerging (younger or older) artist, that projects like this Seminar at Avignon Festival exist in order to nurture, to ponder, to exchange and to support the ‘new’.