Thursday, June 12, 2014

International Theater Fest

I am constantly amazed at the number of high caliber events going on in Southwest Florida.  A few months back, I was cruising through Venice Theatre's website and saw a reference to a theater festival that would be held in June.  It sounded intriguing, and I bookmarked it to look at closer to the date.  It turns out that it is going to be quite a big deal, with theater troupes from 16 companies descending upon Venice next week.

I am hoping to get a shot
of Elizabeth doing this!
I wrote an article about the festival for Florida Weekly, which gave me the opportunity to talk with a number of people involved in putting the event together.  I spoke with Murray Chase, Executive Director of Venice Theatre, who worked with his wife to find the talent for the festival. I talked to Kathy Pingel, an adjudicator who will also be giving a workshop geared towards working with young actors.  I talked to a couple who will be hosting some performers for the week and visited Tito Gaona's trapeze school.  (As an aside, my niece Elizabeth is coming over for a few days and a morning at Tito's trapeze camp is on her agenda.  Now THAT should be interesting.)  The icing on the cake was a phone interview with Ben Vereen (which I will post about separately).

With the festival opening on Monday, I wanted to share my article here. As luck would have it, the Russian troupe that sounded so intriguing to me isn't going to make it.  (Visa issues, I think.)  If you're in the area, come join the fun!

International Theater Festival Returns to Venice Theatre
By Nanette Crist, Florida Weekly Correspondent

China -- The Mouse's Daughter's Wedding
In the words of William Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage.” While that may be true, Venice is where the world of community theater will be onstage come June 16 when the curtain rises on aactWorldFest 2014. Over the course of the six day festival, theater troupes from 17 countries will perform shows as varied as Chinese opera to Commedia dell’Arte to puppet theater. The Festival will also offer workshops for theater professionals, administrators and aficionados. It is going to be one action-packed week.

Festival in Paradise

Since the 1980s, the American Association of Community Theater (AACT) has sponsored an international community theater festival every four years. The synergy and excitement that occur when theater companies from around the world interact have made this festival a fixture in AACT’s schedule. 

While AACT “sponsors” the Festival, responsibility for the details and logistics falls to the host theater. Gary Walker, President of AACT, calls the task “gargantuan.” The host theater identifies which theater companies to invite, persuades them to make the journey (at their own expense) and organizes their visas. Festival organizers also arrange housing, meals and transportation for the actors and crew during their stay.

Venice Theatre was home to the Festival in 2010, using the tagline “Festival in Paradise” to entice people to come to Southwest Florida. The event was a great success and so much fun that Murray Chase, Executive/Artistic Director of the VT, volunteered a repeat engagement for 2014 before the sets were struck. AACT jumped on the offer. This will be the first time the same theater has hosted consecutive festivals.   

From Bangladesh to Togo

The first, and most important, responsibility for festival organizers is to find the talent. “The job,” Mr. Chase said, “is to get a week of good and diverse theater that an American audience can relate to with as much global representation as possible.” 

With the 2010 festival experience under their belts, Mr. Chase and wife Lori, who serves as Festival Coordinator, had some ideas on ways to make aactWorldFest 2014 bigger and better.  In 2010, all of the shows were performed on the Main Stage, an auditorium that seats 432 people. Pinkerton Stage, a black box theater that holds only 90 people, was dark. The Chases decided to expand the Festival’s scope to include shows that require the intimacy of Pinkerton Stage’s space. 

The Chases searched far and wide for potential participants, traveling to theater festivals in Monaco and Nova Scotia and Norway. They also reviewed numerous submissions made via YouTube or DVD. 

At the end of the day, theater companies from 17 countries were selected to share their storytelling. The shows will be presented in blocks of two or three productions. (Each show runs approximately one hour.) This format will enable theatergoers who attend only one session to see performances by multiple theater troupes. 

The universal language of theater

Festival organizers want to warn you upfront: Many of the Festival’s offerings will be performed in the actors’ native language. Mr. Chase  is confident that language differences will not prevent the audience from understanding—and enjoying--what’s happening onstage. “Most of the shows are visually-based performances,” he explained.

 “M&W” from Russia is a prime example. For this show, Pinkerton Theater will be divided into two halves by a curtain, with male members of the audience sitting on one side and female members on the other. In effect, two shows (each featuring Russian clowning and burlesque) will occur simultaneously, with audience members comparing notes at the end. 

The German theater company will deliver its version of “Noah & the Flood.” By using a story familiar to everyone (Noah and the ark), audience members not conversant in German will easily follow along.

Canada -- Tower of Babel
Not all of the shows require audience members to be polyglots. The offerings from the American, Canadian, New Zealander and Australian theater companies will be performed in English (or at least a variant thereof). 

So will “POP” from Denmark’s Black Box Pangea. This group, led by returning Festival participant Emilie Bendix, will perform a “theater concert” that incorporates songs popularized by musicians such as Rhianna, Justin Timberlake and Beyonce. 

And some shows contain no language at all. Argentina’s “Our Daily Bread” will be acted in the style of silent movies. Similarly, Latvia’s “Poetry Butterfly” has no words, but it is anything but silent. This performance piece tells its story through dance and painting and includes live music.

Helping the audience along

While Festival organizers believe the stories being told onstage will speak for themselves, they will provide the audience with some tools to assist in their understanding. Just as when you go to the opera, the Festival program will contain a synopsis of each show. (The program will be published in English, Spanish and French to accommodate the various constituencies.)

In addition, a three person panel of adjudicators will be on hand to provide commentary after the first performance of each show. (The judges will also award prizes during the closing ceremonies.)  The Festival schedule specifies which performances are adjudicated. 

Kathy Pingel from the Des Moines Playhouse served as a judge at the 2010 Festival and will be reprising her role. Ms. Pingel explained the differences from an adjudicator’s perspective between aactWorldFest and a more traditional theater festival. Typically, the judges read the scripts in advance and formulate opinions about the challenges that have to be addressed. At aactWorldFest, the judges come into the performance with the same information as any other audience member. “We go in brand new and let it smack up against us,” Ms. Pingel said. 

The adjudicators will share with the audience, actors and directors (with the aid of translators) what they saw and how it affected them. The intention is not for the theater company to alter its performance in response to these comments. Instead, the discussion will provide a reflective tool for the audience to think about what they’ve seen and a learning tool for the theater company to understand how its work is perceived.

Workshop ‘til you drop

The Festival schedule will be rounded out with a wide range of workshops to enhance participants’ theater experience, be it on the stage, as an administrator or as a fan. All audience members with a Festival pass can register for any workshop that piques their interest. The workshops are free, with the exception of a master class on musical performance that will be given by the legendary Ben Vereen. (See separate article on Mr. Vereen and this workshop, which is $50 to attend.)  

The goal of Mr. Chase and his team was to devise a workshop schedule that would be fun and encourage participants to operate a bit beyond their comfort zones. For audience members, “stretching” might mean taking the stage themselves—or to the sky. 

With the increasing incorporation of circus arts in the theater (think the revival of “Pippin”) and Venice’s long circus history, a workshop incorporating a circus-related skill was a “must-include.” Fortuitiously, former trapeze star Tito Gaona lives in Venice where he operates The Sky Academy. His “Basics of Trapeze” workshop is sure to be a hit. 

Puppet making materials
Theatergoers interested in Commedie dell’Arte can join members of the Italian theater company for a session on this theater genre, complete with masks and costumes. People who enjoy physical comedy might sign up for the class on Russian clowning from Russia’s Theatre Mimicrea. And participants who loved “Avenue Q” can attend a session on puppet making and puppetry led by Steve Dawson.  (Mr. Dawson created the puppets for the Golden Apple Theater’s production of “Avenue Q” and has performed in the show.)

Workshops will also be offered for people who operate on the other side of the curtain.   Theater administrators can learn how to adapt programming to reflect area demographics and how to maintain a strong volunteer base.  Producers and directors may be interested in sessions on new technologies for musical rehearsal and production or how to use theater to effect social change. 

The list goes on and on. 

Celebrating the theater

Ultimately, the Festival is a celebration of the power and joy of the theater. Ms. Pingel summarized her reaction to aactWorldFest 2010 by saying, “This Festival is evidence that the theater is a place where you can come together and stand side by side as equals, whether you live in a war torn country or in the midst of opulence.”

Southwest Florida theater lovers are invited to join in this experience. 

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