Emma Geliot's picture

Davida Hewlett, image courtesy Davida Hewlett Davida Hewlett, image courtesy Davida Hewlett

The International Performance Festival Cardiff is up and running and before it set sail we talked to James Tyson, Festival Director, about the experiences and thinking that have shaped this new exploration of performed work.

James Tyson, former Theatre Programmer for Chapter Arts Centre, has been away very away but now he s back with a new festival that will explore performance practice with a very international flavour.Tyson has been interested in the possibilities of performance and the cross-over from performance art practice and theatre-making and has regularly travelled the globe to find new and exciting work. But where does this interest stem from?

Emma Geliot: You ve been involved with theatre and performance-making for a long time now and your work always seems to have an international dimension to it. Has this always been the case?

James Tyson: When I first came to Chapter and Cardiff (I m not sure if they are one and the same but it would be interesting to explore how one influences the other!) in 1996, I remember I was so impressed to be seeing the work of artists in Wales making experimental theatre and performance (and here I mean performance works that were complex and challenging in their thinking and form) that was particular to an experience of Welsh history and culture, and yet had also come out of a dialogue with the work of artists and cultural forms internationally, particularly in Europe and other places such as South America. Artists from Wales were touring and presenting their work internationally and there was also an incredible history of outstanding and influential artists coming from around the world to present their work in Wales, particularly to Chapter, whether from Europe, Japan or America.

This was the situation that I was able to become a part of and so, when I became responsible for the theatre programme at Chapter in 1999, it felt that this was an important legacy and vision within both a UK and European context. So the question was,how to continue with this? Of course the situation, whether politically, financially or artistically, was changing, as was what people were able to make and where it could go. Yet the idea and history and vision remained. Yes, this aspect of international exchange and dialogue has always been interesting to me, and I m sure any student of performance or culture or art knows how much we rely on, or esteem, or become aware of the influence of the work of artists and movements from other countries, and so, to enter a situation where one can be part of this process in an actual way, and to develop it as an integral part of a local culture, seemed a very important thing to be able to do.

I also grew up during the time of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, South Africa, and the discussions around the possibilities of Europe. So it also enabled a way of thinking around how do we exist as individuals, or a local culture within an international context, which also relates to a political engagement of some kind.

EG: While you were working at Chapter you were responsible for setting up Experimentica, a festival that pushes at boundaries and challenges understanding about what performance can or should be. Experimentica in particular often foregrounds the processes and collaborations that go in to making new work. Is this still as important to you for this new festival?

JT: Yes, but more specifically so.

EG: Since you left Chapter you ve been travelling all over the world for various projects. Are some of the participants in the festival people/companies that you ve encountered on these recent travels or is there more of a mix that draws on your experience over the years?

JT: Yes, in some ways the festival is a kind of reflection of the past three years (since 2011), working with and meeting people and seeing the work of artists and different communities in different parts of the world, specifically bringing artists from the USA, Australia and Europe. So it is by no means exhaustive! The choreographer Beth Gill is coming with a group of dancers from New York; choreographer and digital artist and performer Hellen Sky from Melbourne; Ranters Theatre and the performanceSONG that had started as a collaborative project at Chapter a few years ago and which also involves the conceptual artist Laura Lima from Rio de Janeiro, who had come to Cardiff for a residency at Chapter in 2004; also artists making work from Cardiff such as Davida Hewlett, Beth Greenhalgh; and the theatre-maker Clyde Chabot from Paris. Clyde s work I have known for several years but for some reason there never seemed to be the right context to present it. The name of her company is La Communaut Inavouable (which is almost untranslatable and named after a text by the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot, which can be translated literally as theinavowable community , with a meaning along the lines of theunspeakable community ).As I thought of Clyde s work and such artists as Beth Gill and Hellen Sky, for whom I thought it would be very interesting to make a context to present in Cardiff, I was reminded of this very specific name of Clyde s company. Her work focuses on language and text from a specific European tradition yet with stagings that often take the form of interactive installations concerned with the presence of the audience. This led me to think of how different artworks not only come out of a specific community, but also how they can make a form of community.

As I have continued working without an institution but rather as a performer or artist in different contexts, I have also been reminded at times of how fragile this process of making performance can be: its ephemerality; its resistance to certain kinds of market; of promotion; of the demands and appropriations of global capitalism; and the time it takes as a practice that evolves through time. Institutions can be so important to help sustain this, whether it s places such as Chapter or elsewhere. Yet most often it is how artists and communities work together to sustain and develop certain structures to enable this art to continue and find whatever place it can within a wider society. This is its incredible strength, yet which also, in some way, isunspeakable .

EG: What were the challenges that you faced in setting up the festival? Were there any surprises?

JT: It s always a challenge. Sometimes and perhaps it helps initially to have some fixed idea as to what it should be. But as it goes on, for practical reasons or whatever, this changes and perhaps this also makes clearer what is most important about the motivation for putting a programme like this together. I think it has involved focusing on the need to enable a space for works that are not complete in some way. And how this, if framed in the right context, can be a very particular possibly unknown active and formative space, both for audiences and artists. I think this is one of the most important aspects of the festival, where we can think about what a community is, or what a festival is.

EG: How much is riding on this festival? Will its success determine if it will happen again and, if so, how on earth do you measure that success?

JT: Indeed,how on earth ! How do we define success? I wrote a play about that once. CCQ

International Performance Festival Cardiff runs from 03 22 June


This interview also appears in print in CCQ Issue 4

Image courtesy of Davida Hewlett