16th September 2020
Grüezi Zurich & Basel, Hallo Hamburg!
What does an international arts festival look like in summer 2020? Late this August, I spent 5 days in Switzerland and Germany and attended international arts festivals in Zurich, Basel and Hamburg. In person. While GDIF was one of the few UK festivals to offer audiences outdoor offerings with a programme reset for Covid-19, mainland Europe had its festivals back on in theatres and outside, and I wanted to see how they were doing it.
I arrived in Zurich for Zürcher Theaterspektakel, a festival that like LIFT programmes leading international work and has been devoted to commissioning and presenting artists from the Global South. Its calling card is a series of large pop-up theatres, outdoor restaurants and a glowing festival site set on the Landiwiese, a strip of park along Zurich Lake. This year, the festival stripped down its centralised park offering, instead opting to programme installations by Mumbai’s Shilpa Gupta and Sheffield’s Tim Etchells, a panoramic film installation by Johannesburg’s William Kentridge. Covid-19 meant they met the challenges posed by the pandemic by staging roving pop-up performances across every district of the city and supported artists into transforming their venue-based shows differently.
Hercules von Lubumbashi by Congolese and Swiss artists Dorine Mokha and Elia Rediger particularly impressed me. Originally meant to be an oratorio staged in a traditional theatre, Mokha and Rediger created an installation where audiences moved in small pods between gallery spaces. In each space, we encountered Zoom calls and live video where Mokha and Rediger explored the injustices of cobalt mining and the unassailable power of Swiss multinational Glencore via the story of a mythical activist character, Hercules von Lubumbashi. Attendants disinfected the spaces before and after our arrival, we wore our masks and were carefully ushered from one partitioned area to the next.
Sun & Sea, by Lithuanian artists Rugilé Bardziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte & Lina Lapelyte didn’t need much transformation. With a birds-eye view, audiences stand on an elevated gallery (1.5m apart of course) and view an array of beachgoers. Except they’re not only beachgoers, they’re opera singers (with kids and dogs and deck chairs), lounging on the beach wryly singing about climate change, ecological disasters and the melancholy of a final holiday in the sun.
I met with the artists right after my arrival, while the durational piece was playing. After our chat, they offered to give me a tour of the backstage, and then before I knew it, they were handing me a speedo and a check-in sheet and imploring me to be a volunteer extra on the beach. Who doesn’t want to make their Swiss debut? I promise I did my very best beach-acting; I read my book, sifted my feet through the sand, checked my phone, squinted into the sun, took a selfie. It was surreal and it was bliss. Seeing the show from inside and out was an incredible jolt of the power of art and after a summer on lockdown and way too many unfinished digital broadcasts of theatre-on-YouTube, I got such a surge from being in and at a live event. Theatre is possible – we just have to flip it around a bit.
From there, I took the commuter train north for Theaterfestival Basel, the contemporary theatre centre Kaserne’s summer biennale of international theatre. There, I saw Du Sale! by France’s Marion Siefert, my first proper show in a proper black box theatre since March. Being back in a crowded lobby and then a packed, albeit distanced theatre definitely caused some trepidation. I wondered if the rest of the murmuring, mask-fidgeting audience felt the same? Dancer Janice Bieleu and rapper Original Laeti sorted us out – their performances were staggering. At the curtain call, the visibly moved artists received several encores and in the applause, I imagined the audience was happy to be back in the theatre and even happier for the artists that they were back on stage.
Onward on the train to Hamburg to take in a night of Kampnagel’s Sommerfestival. They went all out as far as conditions allowed, with performances inside their venue and a festival garden with market stalls, food, bar, mini-stages and roving headphone theatre, all socially distanced. Inside, the lobby had a real immersive theatre vibe. Heat guns, snaky queues, treasure hunts to scan QR codes as audiences passed from one of the vast venue’s theatres to the next, with the box office team grouping us in pods to eke out more audience capacity. These pods also meant somehow that audiences could unmask while in the theatre, as Germany’s advanced contact tracing meant the bubbles had it covered. Or so the guy beside me stage whispered as we settled in to watch our second performance together that evening. I opted for a ‘nah masks are fine’ approach (communicated with eyebrows and some bad mime) it was all a bit much to get into as the lights dimmed.
Never mind the theatre in the house, let’s get to the theatre onstage. Powerful world premieres from Jaha Koo (Korea) and Marlene Monteiro Freitas (Cape Verde/Portugal), both whose artistic processes might have been challenged by the Covid-19 crisis (they were meant to premiere in May), but who each showed exceptional new works. While neither piece was about coronavirus, the imagery and mood of the past six months imbued both. Take Freitas’ MAL, where the ensemble sat at a tribunal like statuesque busts, assembling paper crowns, their gloved hands moving with a precision and pace that was haunting.
Overall, the German venue’s approach to Covid felt straight out of the future and maybe like a future to aim for? Audiences of all ages were there, enthusiastic about what they were seeing onstage and making a night out of it. Colleagues there told me people had taken the virus in stride, and that the international season ahead was raring to go ahead as planned.
So how are they doing it? The economics are different of course. Theaterspektakel is operated directly by the city of Zurich and has had evergreen support from the Zürcher Kantonalbank. Germany’s response to the coronavirus was €50 billion to save and maintain the cultural sector and it was announced before the end of March. But I also think the clarity of their governments’ approaches to managing and communicating the health crisis gave audiences confidence to be in the theatre. It’s the kind of confidence and enthusiasm I hope we regain here in the UK, but am not sure if we’re seeing it yet.
And what about getting around? It all felt a bit like traveling on borrowed time under an everchanging set of rules. While I was there, Switzerland was added to the UK’s quarantine list. I’d been following the website that tracks when a country hits 20 cases per 100,000 population the way I usually follow ticket sales when I’ve got a festival on. That is to say, every 15 minutes. Luckily, I made it out just in time, and after calling the refreshingly personable UK Home Office corona-travel hotline, I was assured I wouldn’t be re-entering quarantine once home in London. Going abroad now also means tracking every country’s entry requirements because they change at the drop of the hat.
That’s but part of the tricky new calculus all of us working in the field are learning right now; we’re all adjusting to new ways to travel, new ways to present work and new ways to reach audiences. The power of seeing live art, in these times, of seeing the gratification on artists’ faces as they get to present that work and being in the audience to appreciate their efforts makes it all worth doing the extra arithmetic. Without a doubt, this trip gave me new resolve that it was not only possible again for me, but also essential. As we go back to the drawing board this autumn to imagine a festival for 2021 – with all the challenges that will bring – I’ll be drawing upon that resolve in order to set the stage for what’s next.